Lola Page, BA/MA History, Researches the Unknown Engravers of Artifacts in The Met’s Arms and Armor Department
For someone considering a career as a museum curator, New York City, with its wealth of museums and cultural institutions, is an excellent place to be. Lola Page, BA/MA History, with a minor in Museum and Curatorial Studies, brought her love for art and history to bear in an internship in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Arms and Armor department. She has undertaken a research project to identify the engravers of the decorations on ten 19-century Colt revolvers in the museum’s collection. The project has led to the attribution of engravings to several craftsmen who left the firearms unsigned, as was typical in the 19th century. Because of her work, the museum will now be able to add attributions to several pieces in its collection.
“So many of these revolvers and firearms, which were engraved by a small group of mostly German immigrants, are unsigned. These craftsmen were extremely influential for this style of decoration, and they’ve just remained nameless or uncredited. These men brought a piece of their culture to America and made a living from it. It’s so important to give them names,” says Page.
She was entrusted with this research project by John Byck, associate curator of Arms and Armor. As the youngest person in the internship program, Page was initially somewhat nervous, thinking she had to make conclusive attributions of the work. “One of the most valuable things John taught me was that it doesn’t have to be definitive.”
Firearms have always had a significant place in American culture. “There’s not an object you can pin down as more influential to American history than a firearm. Firearms are still prevalent in our culture today. They’re integrated into American culture to the point that people can’t part with them.”
Page’s focus is on the decoration of 19th-century firearms. “This is a whole other aspect of American culture. Not only were they making weapons, but they were also making them beautiful. They were making something practical more than just a piece to carry for protection. Their creations transcend that and become works of art. Engraved firearms were so intimately tied to American culture that one—a Colt revolver—could be given to Czar Nicholas I as a gift, and it would be a strictly American gift. I find it fascinating because it was not only a revolver but a decorative object, with gold inlay depicting animals. That’s a very American idea.”
These pistols and revolvers are both weapons and objects of beauty. “The Colt is ‘the gun that won the West,’ but it was used to enforce disenfranchisement, slavery, the relocation of Indigenous populations. The revolvers Samuel Colt made could fire at a distance no other gun before could do, which scared a lot of people, and yet craftsmen still took the time to engrave them and make them beautiful. That doesn’t affect how they work, but the people who owned them loved them and valued them enough to pay money to make them pieces of art. When you look at a Colt pistol, you see an object that inspires fear, but also beauty and art. Those two things can coexist.”
A childhood spent antiquing with her parents in southeastern North Carolina taught Page to appreciate the beauty of practical objects. “My parents were very bohemian, especially for the place where we lived, and I grew up collecting antiques. I was interested in authentic furniture, and I started teaching myself how to work on and take care of furniture. As I got older, this felt very natural, and it is what I understood. I realized that what truly made me happy was to be able to find things I thought were of value and to keep and organize them in a curated way,” she says.
A brief stint at art school also taught Page a new way to appreciate craftsmanship. “I went to art school planning to become a visual artist, which didn’t work out, but I developed an appreciation for art as elevated above everything else. At that point, I decided that I didn’t need to have a career making art; I’m much better at appreciating it, caring for it, and acting as a custodian to it.”
Working in Arms and Armor was not something she considered when she applied for the internship, but she’s found meaning in honoring the engravers’ legacy. “This work is a testament to their craftsmanship and savviness. There’s a level of care you are entrusted with, not just because you are working for The Met, but because of the delicate issue of legacy—the way legacy is perceived, recognized, and credited, which is a debate that still happens in our culture.”