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New Threads: Quilts and Costumes

Start Date 09 November 2007
End Date 01 March 2008
Venue DAR Museum
Location Washington D.C., USA
Curator Alden O’Brien

Being a museum curator isn’t just about picking old or pretty objects for a collection – so what does make an object “museum-worthy”? The DAR Museum exhibition “New Threads: Quilts and Costumes,” invites patrons into the mind of a curator by showcasing recently acquired quilts and costumes and explaining why and how each piece was accepted into the museum’s collection.

Since the founding of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution in 1890, the DAR Museum collection has grown to more than 30,000 objects. Of these about 23 percent are clothing and textiles, including about 300 quilts. Most of the museum’s acquisitions are donated, primarily by DAR members or their families, but sometimes by others who know the collection by reputation. The DAR Museum accepts donations, or occasionally purchases objects at auction, when a piece helps to fill in a gap or expand the collection, when it tells a compelling story of early-America, or when it provides comparison and contemplation of styles or society over time.

One of the strengths of the DAR Museum collection is that, because the DAR is a genealogical based organization, many of the objects are accompanied by their family histories and provenance which adds even more depth and significance to the collection.

Among the quilts on display are two rare early-Virginia quilts made by the same expert quilter (the third identical quilt belongs to Colonial Williamsburg). Amelia Lauck, a master quilter from Winchester, Virginia, created identical quilts for three of her six children which are today considered masterpieces of American folk art. Adding excitement to the already significant new acquisitions of the Lauck quilts is that over the years, 33 women have joined the DAR as descendents of Amelia’s husband, Peter, who was a Revolutionary War hero. Through the outreach of DAR Museum Curator of Costumes and Textiles Alden O’Brien, several of the Lauck family descendents (some of whom have never met each other) are expected to attend the exhibition opening featuring their ancestor’s masterpieces.

In addition to displaying quilts that retain family history, the exhibit also showcases quilts that were recently added to the collection based on their commemoration of early America, such as the 1876 Centennial Quilt. Other quilts on display also explain why the DAR Museum sometimes makes exceptions to its quilt collecting policy. A cotton “Blackbirds” quilt from 1940 is from later than most of the museum’s collection (most date prior to 1900); however, acquiring it provided the DAR Museum the opportunity to expand its scope to include an African American made quilt. Throughout the collection, DAR Museum curators are eager to acquire objects from a diverse cross-section of regions, ethnicities, and distinct styles in American history.

The exhibit also displays other recently acquired “threads” – an assortment of early-American clothing. A pair of girl’s dress from 1790 and 1860 shows how children’s clothing had both progressed and regressed. Vintage paper dolls from 1830 and 1910 show the clothing styles at the peak of fashion at those times.

Additionally, a hands-on section makes the exhibit extra enjoyable for both children and adults. Magnetic boards allow patrons to choose different outfits for replica paper dolls and create their own quilt patterns with different shapes and colors. Visitors can feel different types of quilt fibers and even try weaving with a hand held loom.

With beautiful examples of early-American quilts and costumes and a glimpse inside the mind of a curator, the “New Threads” exhibition challenges visitors to think differently about antique items their family may own. And while many museums such as the DAR Museum unfortunately have to turn down more objects than they can accept, who is to say that your object isn’t a piece that a museum is anxiously waiting to acquire?