We woke up this morning with no plan for the day, but then the VEB reminded me that months ago I had mentioned wanting to go to the New England Quilt Museum. And the next thing I knew, we were driving north on 495 towards Lowell. Field trip!
(I do so love these jaunts with the VEB, and also am grateful that he’s quite willing to go explore places that he’d probably otherwise never step foot in. Such a good sport!)
Truthfully? I had expected room upon room of historic quilts and that wasn’t the case. The museum is actually quite small, with the first floor being retail space and the upstairs containing a few small galleries and the library. In some ways I found this disappointing, but at the same time it gives you the ability to really appreciate each individual quilt, and I didn’t leave feeling overwhelmed as I sometimes do when visiting museums. I also got the sense that this is a museum created BY quilters FOR quilters; it’s entirely possible we missed something, but I found myself explaining a lot of basic stuff to the VEB that I felt like should have been part of the exhibits. I don’t know that someone without a quilting background could have fully appreciated the exhibits – but then again, I don’t know how many non-quilters would be likely to stumble into the museum anyway.
The main exhibit was on modern quilting, a topic on which I have many conflicting points of view. I will say that I was delighted to see the controversial “Bang You’re Dead” quilt made by Jacquie Gering (see here and a longer explanation here), which is a graphic depiction of a gun and blood. (The museum allows non-flash photography but photos cannot be used on blogs, hence no photo of the quilt here.) Ironically, it was the first piece we saw as we entered the exhibit area, and although we looked closely at it, it wasn’t until I later saw a video of Gering describing the genesis of the piece that I realized it was there. I felt like a moron! We were looking SO closely at it that we didn’t even see the gun shape; up close, it just looked like random black, white and red blocks, and I guess we missed the artist statement hanging right next to the quilt (arrrrgh!).
I can’t say whether or not I “liked” the quilt. I have zero issues with using the quilt medium to make political or sociological statements; in fact, I applaud it. And after listening to the Harper High School series that This American Life did earlier this year, which left me completely heartbroken, the quilt had even more meaning for me as it was created in reaction to the insidious youth violence happening in Chicago that was similarly profiled in the Harper High series. From that perspective, I think it’s an important piece of art that needs to be seen and discussed. Would I want the quilt hanging in my living room? Well, no – but that’s hardly the point.
The other temporary exhibit was a delightful series of what I would describe as enchanting mixed-media sculptures by the artist and children’s author Sally Mavor (the museum calls them “fabric relief sculptures”). These were used as artwork for her book Pocketful of Posies, and I just cannot say enough about how freaking CUTE they are. There must have been at least 20 of these pieces on exhibit, all created using felted wool and embellished with all sorts of thread, buttons, and other found objects including acorns. Even the VEB enjoyed these and marveled at the artist’s little details, and both the skill and whimsy evident in each piece. All of the pieces were mounted in shadow boxes, and a few of them were for sale. I would have gladly handed a credit card over if I had thought they would have been remotely within my little budget! The one glitch about this exhibit though? it was in an all-purpose room, crowded together with Christmas quilts and, inexplicably, a train set. The pieces perhaps aren’t quilts in the literal sense, but they do incorporate quilting techniques, and I was baffled that such beautiful works of art were not more “front and center”.
I didn’t buy anything in the museum shop, only because I have sworn to finish up some existing projects before buying any more sewing or knitting supplies. Otherwise, I most certainly would have walked away with some sashiko embroidery kits like these. It’s an eclectic store, and hopefully I will remember to stop in again before next year’s holiday shopping!
After a quick but delicious lunch down the street (Tremonte Pizzeria) we drove down a few blocks to the American Textile History Museum. In retrospect, we should have probably gone to the textile museum first, as it explains how textiles are made, and then the quilt museum shows how textiles can be used – I’d certainly suggest that order to anyone planning a visit. Frankly, I find it weird that the two museums are not co-located, especially since a docent at the textile museum told us that for financial reasons the museum had been forced to condense its footprint in the building it is located in. (There are now newspaper offices as well as condos in addition to the museum space, and the entrance is so confusing that I can only imagine how many times a day the receptionist for the Lowell Sun gets asked how much admission to the museum is.) I can’t help but wonder what role gender plays in the two different museums – the quilt museum run by women, featuring a traditional women’s craft, where the textile industry was pretty dominated by men (sure, women worked in the mills, but they hardly ran them), and the videos demonstrating the machines were all by men (at least, the ones we watched).
Lori’s “Feminist Conspiracy Theories” aside….my take-away from the textile museum was, thank god I didn’t have to work in a mill — those machines are LOUD, for one thing, and for another thing I was spooked by learning that sometimes the vibrations from the looms could make the buildings start to shift, and they’d have to stop the machines to make sure the buildings didn’t topple. Good lord. People complain about unions without remembering what harsh conditions our forebearers toiled in. At the same time, it’s disheartening to realize all that industry is gone now – all those jobs and all that economic activity just…gone. It’s disheartening, certainly, and I wish I knew how to fix it.
It wound up being a pretty thought-provoking day – industrialization, economic growth and decline, handcrafting versus mass production, workers rights, women’s work as art…so much to think about.
And now I want to work on a quilt.