The National Quilt Collection had its beginnings in the 1890s when three quilts were included in a donation of 18th and 19th century household and costume items from one New England family. Since then, the collection has expanded to more than 400 items that cover three centuries of American history. These quilts represent a wide range of style, content, history, and even personality. But few are on exhibition at any given time. Now you can take a virtual behind-the-scenes tour on the museum’s website and see where the collection resides when not on public view.
The quilts, unfinished quilt tops, and related pieces dating from the 1700s through the 1900s are part of the Division of Home and Community Life’s Textile Collection. They are preserved in special cabinets in a room with monitored temperature and humidity levels. In that room, curators and volunteers perform detailed examinations for the purposes of identification, verification, and preservation. The clues and leads offered by the quilts launch them on research that reveals interesting, surprising, and sometimes amusing perspectives on the nation’s history and its people. For example, one 1860s quilt made for a young married woman records for posterity the name of a suitor whom she rejected or “gave the mitten,” on a block with a tiny pair of embroidered red mittens. Another bears the image of the maker in 1897 when she began the work, and in 1929 when it was finished; each image is in the appropriate style of dress for the period.
What are the precautionary measures taken by the caretakers in storing and preserving the quilts? How does microscopic analysis play a part in better understanding a quilt’s historical context? Most importantly, how do these quilts serve as crucial indices of the makers’ political sentiments, artistic expression, or family concerns, and as mirrors—if even obliquely—of the cultural, economic, or technological developments of a moment in American history?
Preservation, storage, research, and even the staff’s personal connections to objects are facets of museum work that may not manifest in exhibitions. These videos, through the specific lens of our quilt collection, shed light on the inner-workings of research-based collections at the museum.
Visit the National Quilt Collection, an online virtual tour made possible by a grant from Patty Stonesifer and Michael Kinsley through the Seattle Foundation, in honor of Mrs. Frances Quigley.
Doris Bowman is an Associate Curator in the Division of Home and Community Life of the National Museum of American History.