George Washington University

Revamped Textile Museum in WASHINGTON, DC

GMT 12:19 2015 Friday ,17 April

Sriyadithatextile - Revamped Textile Museum in WASHINGTON, DC

Our Stories’ at the Textile Museum
Courtesy Google

WASHINGTON, DC - When you think of textiles in museums, you inevitably imagine old things: musty rooms, faded colors, grandiose tapestries or thread-bare fragments, and fussy, protective installations. I have two degrees in textiles and that is my assumption when seeking out the usually small, hidden-away textile department in most museums. Because everyday textiles — bedding, garments, wearable accessories, home furnishing fabrics, utilitarian sundries, and fine art — are rarely staring back at us from the textile collection walls and pedestals, visitors rarely make the leap from old to new, from anachronistic decorative forms to the T-shirts and jeans they’re wearing or contemporary artists like Yinka Shonibare MBE. Even though we wake up every morning underneath cloth, tread upon carpets, don various fabrics as markers of self, and perennially celebrate rites of passage with specific vestments, this vast ubiquity of textiles has a way of obscuring historical lineage and making static their cultural importance. For these reasons, textiles don’t register in the public mind as a dynamic, contemporary field of study and collection.

The newly opened Textile Museum, now part of George Washington University (GWU), is here to upend these assumptions and make textiles newly vital. The only institution of its kind in the country, it is now embedded in the footprint of a large urban university campus, has expanded its facilities to an impressive 46,000 square feet, and is now more easily accessible. Originally located in two 19th-century mansions in Kalorama Heights, it was a pilgrimage for the initiated. Those intimate house interiors hosted some of the best textile exhibitions I have seen, including 2011’s Colors of the Oasis: Central Asian Ikats and 2012’s Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa. Despite this, it was a stuffy place ensconced in Western architectural styles that starkly contrasted with the vibrant, non-Western textiles often on display, and forever reminded me of the colonial-era cultural hoarding upon which the collection was built.

Like many in my textile tribe, I have anxiously awaited this museum’s reopening. The intimacy of the old museum would be hard to recreate in a large space; one needs to be   extremely close to textiles to appreciate their intensity and complexity. I worried that the curators, emboldened by so much more space, would first showcase only their primary (albeit impressive) holdings of Ottoman carpets and Middle Eastern textiles at the expense of a global cross section of textile traditions. I became more worried about the visibility of contemporary practices after reading the digital catalogue essays, which focus solely on specific historic traditions. But I can report that my preliminary worries were mostly unfounded.

In the Textile Museum’s new incarnation, gone are the imposing historic home interiors. The space is an open, modernist-lite construction with a Guggenheim-esque stairwell connecting five floors: large exhibition spaces on the second, third, and basement levels, a 100-seat lecture hall and museum shop on the ground floor, and the Arthur D. Jenkins Library on the fourth floor. While larger rooms will allow for more comprehensive exhibitions, the museum’s architecture manages to retain elements of the old location, notably a balcony overlooking the 30-foot walls and open floor plan of the second level — a great space for viewing extraordinarily large textiles like rugs, tapestries, and yardage. And while some of the intimacy is lost, there is now space to move about freely, and the curators can create different arrangements of “rooms” within the open layout. On a recent visit I was thrilled to find a decent crowd of visitors from a broad range of demographics: women and men, people of diverse ethnicities, student groups, young families, old couples, teenagers, and fellow textile devotees.

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