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Hearing America’s Story

 

At the American Textile History Museum, our mission is to tell America’s story through the art, science, and history of textiles. As a visitor, you run across many instances of our mission throughout the Museum. The lunchboxes in the Industrial Revolution display tell you what it was like to work at one of the many local textile mills. Just open a lid and you’ll hear about the long hours, the machinery, and the relationships formed. The video by the Cessna airplane tells us about the important role women in Lowell played to keep soldiers safe in World War II. The signs throughout the exhibit tell us that textiles exist everywhere. Our special exhibitions also tell a new aspect of America’s story, whether it’s an accessory to a stylish outfit, or a reflection on what it’s like coming to America for the first time.

As a staff member, what’s more interesting to me than telling America’s story is hearing it! On occasion, I sit at the front desk to give our receptionist a well-deserved break. When I’m covering the desk, I like to ask our incoming visitors how they heard about us. Many reply that it was through word-of-mouth, but many also mention how they used to work in the mills or knew somebody who did. The outgoing visitors often give excellent reviews of the Museum, and tell me that they will bring their relatives who used to work in the mills. It’s always rewarding to know that our visitors are connecting so personally to the stories we tell.

Outside of the Museum, my ears are still open to America’s story. After my uncle-in-law learned that I work at the Museum, he told me about when he owned a silk mill. Although my side of the family was not directly involved in the textile industry, many relatives tell me what an excellent seamstress my great-grandmother was. Every outfit she made has a different story to tell, and I like hearing each one. These connections to textiles don’t come up in daily conversation, but it’s amazing how much impact they had (and continue to have!) in our lives.

While working at the Museum, I’ve learned that textiles are everywhere. So are their stories. Do you have any textile tales to tell?

Maren Caulfield
Coordinator of Membership & Development

Knowledge is Power

 

I recently attended a New England Museum Association (NEMA) workshop titled Getting Your Show on the Road, which addressed the complexities of creating and managing a traveling exhibition. The timing of the workshop couldn’t have been more perfect as we’ve just begun digging into our own traveling show here at ATHM! In conjunction with ATHM, two guest curators, Madelyn Shaw and Lynne Bassett, are organizing an exhibit called Homefront and Battlefield: The Fabric of Life in the Civil War to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The show is slated to open at ATHM in the spring of 2012 and then travel on to three other venues through 2014.

Although this is an exciting and challenging prospect for me, it is a daunting task! We have been the recipient of a few small traveling exhibits in my short time as registrar, but being the organizing institution responsible for sending 100-200 borrowed objects all over the east coast is a whole new ball game! The first part of the workshop was broken into two speakers. One was an independent curator who has helped many museums plan and implement their own traveling exhibitions. She had great advice on weighing the pros and cons of embarking on such a task and addressed the realities of whether (or not) traveling shows can be financially profitable for a museum. She also talked a lot about the importance of doing your audience research ahead of time and determining whether or not a show is marketable (both to the public and to other museums) before you go ahead with it. In her experience, these were almost always overlooked in the excitement and anticipation of putting together what a museum might think is going to be a blockbuster show! The second speaker, the exhibitions manager from the Norman Rockwell Museum, interested me the most because he talked about the nitty gritty details of how to actually get the objects organized, crated, and shipped, along with all of the accompanying materials that travel with an exhibit. Being very visual, I found his PowerPoint presentation of the lists, spreadsheets, and notebooks that he had compiled extremely helpful. Granted, all of the objects that were traveling around in the show he was speaking of were owned by his museum. He admitted that his logistical load was not nearly as heavy as it would have been if he had to deal with loans. Of course, the Civil War show we are doing is 100% loans, both from other museums and from private collectors!

For the second half of the workshop we went to Artex, a local fine arts crating and shipping company. They had put together a wonderful presentation, complete with handouts, examples of all different types and qualities of crating options, and demonstrations of how art is physically secured in special crates. It was so helpful to have someone describe the materials used in building crates and boxes and differentiate between the various options you can choose from in terms of structural support, hardware, and protective barriers. The highlight for many of us was when they were describing a “strong box” for art that had a plastic “puncture proof” top to it. We were debating on whether it was “puncture proof” or “puncture resistant” when the staff member pulled out a screw driver and slammed it through the lid, easily puncturing the plastic barrier! Apparently, he said, it was meant more for resisting the damage done by a larger, flat object, like a forklift. At any rate, I got to ask my questions that were specific to our project and feel like I have a little better grasp on the whole crating and shipping aspect of the exhibition, a major component of my responsibilities.

I have attended a few different NEMA workshops over the years and have always been pleased with the presenters and the resources/ideas that I come away with. This one was no different and I am looking forward with more confidence and much less trepidation to the challenges that lay ahead!

Stephanie Hebert
Registrar

Patriotic Textiles

 

I’ve always loved the Fourth of July. I mean, really, what’s not to love about picnics, band concerts, and fireworks displays? Growing up, we had the best time going to the fireman’s muster out at the fairgrounds and barbequing with family and friends by the lake.

Since my blog post was technically slated to go up on the holiday, it got me thinking about patriotism and textiles. We have numerous patriotic textiles within the collection, but what better way to celebrate the Fourth than to highlight the Butler flag.

The Butler flag, 2001.154

The Butler flag was designed and created by Civil War General Benjamin Butler right here in Lowell, Massachusetts. (General Butler was the founder of the United States Bunting Company, which later became Ames Textile.) The flag was made in 1865, in response to a law stating that all U.S. flags must be produced with American made fabrics. Worsted bunting was the material of choice for flags, as the long wool fibers and worsted spinning process yielded a cloth that was light, strong, and could withstand severe weather conditions. The Butler flag has a unique arrangement of 37 hand appliquéd white cotton stars. The stars are organized in a diamond shape with vertical rows on either side. Although there were only 36 states in 1865, 37 stars were included on the flag in anticipation of Nebraska’s admission into statehood. On an interesting side note to history, General Butler presented the flag to President Abraham Lincoln for his approval on April 11, 1865, just three days prior to Lincoln’s assassination.

Throughout the years, the flag passed through a series of owners, eventually ending up on sale by Sotheby’s auction house in 2001. At that time, it was acquired for the Museum by the Ames Textile Corporation and the Romill Foundation. Ames Stevens, great-great-great-grandson of General Butler, attended the auction to bid on the flag and return it to Lowell.

For more information on the Butler flag, visit The Chace Catalogue.

Deborah-Ann Giusti
Curatorial Assistant