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The Textile Museum | Out of Southeast Asia: Art that Sustains

While in Washington, I had a chance to visit The Textile Museum in its historical location amid the city’s embassies. I say historical because the museum is now preparing to move to the George Washington University campus.* I had not been to the museum previously (although I follow its work at a distance) and was eager to see it as it has been before it becomes what it will be next. The logic of the move is apparent, but the “old” museum had many charms. It is obvious that the museum’s building–a beautiful and stately old home–has been taken as far as it can be taken as a museum site. It was warm (in the good sense) and comfortable and attractive, but it is surely a challenge to use as a site for research, collections care, and public programs and exhibitions. That said, the facility seemed optimized within the scope of its limitations and I am certain that longtime visitors will miss the old site, as it really was comfortable and nice for small groups of visitors coming and going on a weekend morning. (With the preparations for the move, only the first floor is being used for public visitation, so I cannot comment on the upstairs areas.)

A main first floor exhibition gallery was renovated at some point to make it into a typical art museum gallery, disguising its presence in a large historic home. This space hosted the last temporary exhibition to be staged at the old location–Out of Southeast Asia: Art that Sustains.

Also accessible on the first floor was a welcoming desk and a truly remarkable gift shop where a pair of very kind museum staff members were stationed. Further back on the first floor was a “family room” space where guests were treated to cookies and lemonade. This room led to the back garden–a beautiful green space from which one can see glimpses of the embassies surrounding the museum. (Returning to the subject of the shop, it is a real model of the genre–well stocked, beautifully arranged, well staffed. Sourced globally, the shop offered beautiful and diverse textiles and textile-related objects, along with books at many different price levels. Even a hardened museum professional with little interest in textiles would be impressed by the shop.)

The exhibition focused on Southeast Asian textile traditions as inspiration for contemporary textile design and construction in the work of batik artist Vernal Bogren Swift (whose work draws upon the example of Javanese batiks), weaver Carol Cassidy (whose work draws upon her engagements with Lao weavers and weaving), and a husband and wife team working in batik–Agus Ismoyo and Nia Fliam. Contemporary work by these artists were exhibited alongside historical pieces from the museum’s collection and private collectors.

The work was impressive and the interpretation sound, but I focused my attention on the display strategies used for the display of these attractive works. Textiles are challenging to exhibit and The Textile Museum clearly has cultivated skills needed for first rate display. I filled several pages of my notebook trying to record the techniques used in impressive, conservation-friendly, presentations of these often delicate textiles. Hopefully we can draw upon these inspirations in future textile projects at the MMWC.

The exhibition was accompanied by a gallery guide, which is available online. A family guide was also available, as is a general educational room with adult-level books on world textiles and a range of hands on displays explaining weaving and other textile-related topics to children.

I am glad that I was able to visit the museum in its old location. The current exhibition and the museum as a whole were impressive. This is what I expected on the basis of the museum’s past projects and publications.

*See The Textile Museum’s press release for details on the move and a recent Inside Higher Education story by Kevin Kiley on the subject of U.S. museums being incorporated into colleges and universities.

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