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The Matter of Silver: Substance, Surface, Shimmer, Trauma

Image © Marina Cotugno

Monday 26 July 2021, 1.30PM to 4.00pm, 28 July

International, inter-disciplinary conference convened by Professor Helen Hills (University of York), supported by the British Academy.

To be held online over three afternoons 26 to 28 July 2021. All are welcome; please book each afternoon separately.

A link will be sent out the day before for each afternoon booked, along with a pdf of the programme and speaker bios.

Register for free

How and why did silver, more widespread than gold, extracted by force from the Andes, marked by trauma, become par excellence marker of and substance of social, political and spiritual refinement in Europe? This conference investigates silver as more than means or measure of empire, more than mere currency of emergent capitalism, more than inert matter from which luxury objects were fashioned, to ask how might these disparate stories, these two sides to the same coin, be brought together. What happens when we think them in relation?

This conference brings together scholars and practitioners from across the Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences, and institutions beyond the academy, including museums and galleries, to explore silver as an extraordinarily productive site of exchange and transformation in the early modern world and beyond.

Diverse expertise, currently siloed in institutional and disciplinary terms, examines silver and its impact politically, socially, ecologically, territorially, technically, artistically, and economically and yet that expertise has not been brought together in cross-fertilization. Economic experts tend to view silver in quantitative terms; Latin Americanists concerned with silver’s role in colonialism on one side of the Atlantic ignore entirely its role in Spanish colonialism in Europe; curators tend to approach individual objects without reference to the new materialism or recent historical research in artisanal knowledge; art historians explore silver high-end objects without reference to silver’s extraction; mining specialists ignore silver’s convulsive impact on the commodity frontier and its ecological and social impact across the world. The time is ripe to bring together disparate expertise and to think about silver outside and across traditional formations.


Monday 26 July 2021

13:30: Introduction: Helen Hills (University of York)

Panel 1: Silver and Power: Questions of values

13:40: Chair: Helen Hills (University of York)

13:45: Allison Bigelow (University of Virginia)

14:15: Thomas B. F. Cummins (Harvard University): ‘The Atocha’s Silver ca.1622: Ingots, aquillas, and the intersection of values’

14:45: Discussion

Panel 2: The Silver Moon

15:55: Chair Kris Lane (Tulane University)

16:00: Timothy Ingold (University of Aberdeen): ‘How the world shines silver in the moonlight’

16:30: Spike Bucklow (University of Cambridge): ‘Silver: The lunar metal’

17:00: Discussion

17:30–18:00: Musical interlude for silvery reflections (Part 1): pianist David Hammond

Tuesday 27 July 2021

14:00: Welcome to Afternoon 2: Helen Hills (University of York)

Panel 3: Deceptive reflections: silver objects and colonialism

14:05: Chair: Timothy Schroder (Goldsmiths' Company)

14:10: Jane Mangan (Davidson College): ‘Reflections on Silver: Colonial identities and material culture in Potosí’

14:40: Sergius Kodera (University of Vienna): ‘Counterfeit Silver: Recipes in 16thC Italian books of secrets’

15:10: Discussion

Panel 4: Scintillating Silver

1600: Chair: Lisa Voigt (The Ohio State University)

16:05: Elena Phipps (UCLA/Metropolitan Museum of Art): ‘Silver Fabric, Thread and Embroidery in Relation to Other Silver Objects’

16:35: Marlen Bidwell-Steiner (University of Vienna): ‘Sparkling Casuistry: Silver, usury and greed in early modern Spanish literature’

17:05: Discussion

17:30–18:00: Musical interlude for silvery reflections (Part 2): pianist David Hammond

Wednesday 28 July

14:00: Welcome to Afternoon 3: Helen Hills (University of York)

Panel 5: Rethinking Artisanal Knowledge

14:05: Chair: Claire Farago (University of Colorado)

14:10: Wim Nys (DIVA Museum, Antwerp): ‘Designing silver in the 18th Century with Focus on the Transfer of Skills and Technical Information’.

14:30: Michele A. Feder-Nadoff: ‘Coppersmithing in Mexico and Silversmithing Amongst Yemeni Jews’

14:50: Brief break

15:00: Margaret Bolton (University of Aberdeen): ‘Colonial Silver Extraction in Bolivia, Memories, Myths and Relics’

15:20: Discussion

15:30: Sparkling Reflections

16:00: Close of conference


Conference tech provided by Simon Malone (Freelance Vision Mixer)

Header image © Marina Cotugno

Location: Online