By Mary A. Dempsey
Question: How do you pack a pre-Columbian apron with a real toucan’s head attached to the front of it? Answer: Very carefully.
Indeed, “very carefully” is how a team at The Textile Museum is packing some 19,000 items as it prepares its internationally known collection, much of it fragile, for relocation. Later this year, The Textile Museum joins university art holdings and the Washingtoniana Collection in one location under the umbrella of The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum.
Although the university has a collection of paintings, decorative arts, prints, and photography at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, it had no museum of its own— until now. In the fall, the new museum will debut in a 46,000-square-foot building under construction at 21st and G streets NW, adjacent to the University Yard. Its galleries and large exhibition space will be complemented by a climate-controlled conservation and study center on GW’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus.
This partnership of an exemplary existing museum and a leading university has been characterized as a “truly unique collaboration” by Ford W. Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums.
“By combining resources, these institutions increase their reach and impact while The Textile Museum maintains the reputation and identity it has established over the last eight decades,” Dr. Bell says.
|Chief conservator Esther Méthé displays a textile from Peru, dept. Ica, Nasca Valley, Coyungo, Monte Grande, Middle Horizon Period (600-900). TM 1964.62.24. Gift of Stanley Selengut. (Photo: William Atkins.)
Under the arrangement creating the new museum, The Textile Museum will continue to manage its preeminent collection, which will be on perpetual loan to the university.
Bruce Baganz, president of The Textile Museum Board of Trustees, says the new museum is ready to embrace its role as an influential world venue for art and cultural understanding.
“Programs and exhibitions at the museum can associate with research, seminars, and lectures as well as widespread interaction with core and expanded audiences outside the university,” Dr. Baganz says.
Doug Evelyn, a museum specialist and consultant on the project, says the Washingtoniana Collection of D.C.-focused historic memorabilia expands the university’s connection to national and local urban history while the textiles, which offer expressions of cultural activities and creativity worldwide, strengthen its international prominence.
Although the new museum will do much more than dovetail with coursework at the university, there will be collaboration opportunities for students and faculty.
GW’s museum studies program at the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the museum education program at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development are a logical starting place for these activities. But John Wetenhall, director of The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum, envisions interaction with a long roster of academic disciplines. He points to the departments of museum studies and history in utilizing the Washingtoniana Collection. He and others also see ways that the scholarship of professors in the departments of history, anthropology, and religion can connect textiles to the times and places where they were created. Art and art history classes, meanwhile, can explore textiles as an art form.
The Department of Chemistry is cited in the context of the analysis of textile dye while scholars in international and cultural studies might complement the museum’s role as a center of learning and discussion. Students may also participate in the long-term goal of digitizing the new museum’s collections.
Professor Kym Rice, the chair of GW’s Department of Museum Studies, says some courses have already identified opportunities. One tackled a social media project for the new museum. Its recommendations for creating an online community for textile enthusiasts will be considered as the museum shapes its long-term web presence. An exhibit design class, meanwhile, has been involved in the Washingtoniana portion of the new museum’s opening show.
“Our classes can work on projects for the museum, and our students will also have a chance to practice their skills and have a real-life learning experience,” Dr. Rice says.
A Most Delicate Move
|Spindles, Peru, central coast. (Photo: William Atkins.)
|Rachel Shabica, registrar at The Textile Museum, shows a mantle from Peru's south coast, Paracas style. TM 91.192. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1940. (Photo: William Atkins.)
At the 89-year-old Textile Museum, currently housed in connected mansions in D.C.’s Kalorama neighborhood, the exhibits are gone. Members of the public are still invited to participate in on-site and off-site programs, including the popular once-a-month “Ask a Curator, Ask a Conservator” sessions for guidance on storage, care, and provenance of rugs and fabrics. But the last exhibit at the museum, “Out of Southeast Asia: Art That Sustains,” closed in mid-October, and a sign on the front door announces that the museum is moving.
That doesn’t mean things are quiet.
On the second floor, museum staff is busy building customized trays for spindles used by weavers in civilizations that flourished more than 1,000 years before the Spanish Conquest. Special acid-free archival board helps support a 12th-century sock, richly detailed in blue and white and unusual for its shaped heel. Care is given a deerskin riding coat, embroidered with silk, from the Kazakh region.
Chief Conservator Esther Méthé says one of the delights in the packing is the opportunity to savor the depth of the collection.
“We have seen some pieces before. And we have seen photos of the textiles. But as we pack, we get to see every piece in the collection,” she says. “Some of the pieces are just so beautiful.”
Intensive planning preceded the actual packing, which itself has been underway for months. As the staff works, it wields the tools of its trade: an iron, measuring tape, tissue paper. Pens are discreetly confiscated at the entry of the packing room to prevent inadvertent damage to the precious items.
“We have about a third of the collection ready to move,” says Rachel Shabica, the registrar at The Textile Museum and the person overseeing the logistics of the move.
|The storage room at the newly built conservation and collections resource center at GW's Virginia Science and Technology Campus. (Photo: William Atkins.)
Items are placed into boxes that are numbered and adorned with color-coded stickers, part of a meticulous inventory process. Later the boxes will be trucked to industrial freezers, where they will be placed in frigid temperatures to prevent insect infestations before they are transported to their new home.
“We are tracking every item every time it moves,” explains Assistant Registrar Tessa Lummis, MA ’10. “We had to redo our entire system with new location codes.”
Ms. Lummis, who interned with The Textile Museum while earning her museum studies degree at GW, says the inventory system devised for the move also will expedite researchers’ access to textiles in the new facility.
University interns have been actively involved in the move. They enter information in the museum database, cut blue board mats to support fragile textiles, seal packages containing rolled objects, and plastic-wrap the boxes. Each box is labeled and the information is added to a computer database before a box goes to a holding shelf in an adjacent room, waiting for the day when moving vans arrive.
On a recent “Student Volunteer Day,” the museum team set up workstations and six GW students and alumni also helped package 300 items.
Ms. Méthé, the Margaret Wing Dodge Chair in Conservation, noted that the cramped working areas she is accustomed to will be a thing of the past after the move. The lab at the Virginia center has a dry room for fabrics, a wet room for cleaning textiles, and a separate dye lab, giving her team far more flexibility in its conservation work. Most of The Textile Museum’s collections, conservation, and exhibition production staff will remain with the collection at its new home.
That 22,000-square-foot facility at the Virginia campus is ready except for the installation of customized storage equipment and unusual special features, including an area where textiles can be hoisted, as well as viewed from above, for photographing.
The new museum is a partnership that encompasses university artworks that have never had a home, a long-established museum with textiles that attract 25,000 visitors annually, and a highly specialized private collection of historic artifacts.
Once the textiles are relocated to the Virginia campus, where they will be housed when not on exhibit, then the Washingtoniana Collection will be prepared for its move from the offices of Albert H. Small, a third-generation Washington resident and president of Southern Engineering Corp. Over the decades, Mr. Small amassed a treasure trove of rare maps, drawings, letters, documents, lithographs, and books relating to the history and growth of the nation’s capital. In 2009, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal. Two years later, the George Washington University awarded him its President’s Medal.
“This is Albert Small’s personal collection. It’s never been publicly presented and studied in the same way as the textile collection. We’ll have to build its staff,” Dr. Wetenhall says, adding that in its new home, the Washingtoniana artifacts will be protected, promoted, and made available to scholars.
Professor Rice says The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum promises to raise the university’s profile.
Dr. Baganz takes it a step farther when he maintains that the potential of the new museum is boundless. “We are only limited by our imaginations,” he says.