Matilda McQuaid talk "Textile Variations" at the BGC

Matilda McQuaid, Deputy Curatorial Director and Head of Textiles at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, gave an engaging talk a few weeks ago at the Bard Graduate Center. Her presentation afforded a unique insider's view on the nature of the Cooper-Hewitt's collection and its intended display upon the museum's 2014 reopening.

The four-year closure has no doubt caused some difficulty and strain, yet it also (by necessity) allows for a certain amount of distance—a rare opportunity to evaluate both collection and institutional approach. It seems that next year may bring New York City a reinvented Cooper-Hewitt, one that embraces a certain amount of innovation while remaining constant to the founders' aims and the museum's history. In fact, in some ways the "new" C-H is poised to align even more closely with these traditions.

McQuaid described the C-H's current aims as being informed by history, both that of the objects and of the institution itself. Her talk began with an overview of the museum's origins, and it struck me to learn that the Hewitt sisters were only sixteen when they initiated the gathering of what was to become the collection's foundation. This narrative will comprise one part of the museum's new installation, but only in so far as it pertains to the collection. We can look forward to a very object-centric presentation, one that focuses on the stories behind each object and emphasizes process and technique. New installations will integrate departments and describe how cultural developments—such as the invention of the printing process—affected the evolution of various artistic media. The goal will be for displays to immediately involve viewers on a visual level, through an unconventional mix of objects. McQuaid suggests that if even just one item attracts the visitor, "others [nearby] will solicit attention, and learning will occur." It will also offer cross-departmental exploration, as McQuaid demonstrated in her talk; her pairings of objects emphasized a range of geographical areas and eras alike.

Image courtesy museum website

Mutually informative examples of historical and contemporary objects permeated McQuaid's presentation. The application of traditional methods of craft to science seems one major way the Cooper-Hewitt (and other institutions) can assert their relevance to the present. For instance she compared early machine-made lace samples with a modern-day bioimplant device. On another slide, knitted stockings from ancient Egypt—fascinatingly among the earliest examples of such wares—complemented a similarly-crafted cardiac arrest support device designed to treat enlarged hearts. Meanwhile, a newly crocheted hyperbolic plane (below) demonstrated how textiles can act as a learning tool "outside the traditional understanding of decorative and applied arts."

Image courtesy of the blog "Hyperbolic Crochet." Author Daina's work will be included in the Cooper-Hewitt's collection; see her post.

This expansive approach to the collection became increasingly clear. Modern artworks based on the collection will inspire us to see these objects anew, while unusual historical examples force us to revise our perspective of familiar forms. A patchworky sampler of darning techniques (below) is a far cry from the conventional representation of alphabets and religious verse. I had never seen such a thing, and as McQuaid commented, it is in appearance "modern its own right." So too was a sampler showcasing only varied methods of creating buttonholes. These are not only examples of traditional modes of craft and design, but also demonstrations of the very process of their creation; as such they are studies in self-reflexivity (itself a "modern" idea).

Darning Sampler, 1735. Silk embroidery on linen. (link to online collection entry).

Methods of making promise to return to the fore in the overhauled Cooper-Hewitt. When it was founded, the concept of "museum as laboratory" prevailed, and was a very modern notion for the time. The focus will now be not only on displaying collections, but also on actively engaging visitors with the goal of generating "informed participants rather than informed viewers." Here is a welcome and significant reminder that an "interactive experience" is not necessarily a digital one. The renovated Cooper-Hewitt will include a process lab, a specified place for hands-on work. However the hope is to have such stations throughout the museum, and not just limited to that one location (NB: one of the knitted hyperbolic planes mentioned above will be available for visitors to touch, according to the creator's blog). In this way the C-H will return to its foundations as a "real working museum," and enhance its emphasis on process and technique through opportunities for firsthand, active exploration.

Conversation about the historical nature of the collection naturally led to interesting questions about whether and how its holdings might be expanded or enhanced. McQuaid responded that parameters differ by department—there are gaps to fill, and there is also a concerted effort to update through the present. History is relevant to now, she pointed out, and collecting contemporary works can likewise illuminate history. As ever, pieces that demonstrate exceptional technique remain the focus, and new acquisitions must relate to existing holdings.

The Museum was housed in the Cooper Union Foundation Building until moving to the Carnegie Mansion in 1970, where it remains today. Image courtesy Smithsonian Digital Library.

The discussion following the talk broached the question "what is a textile," and McQuaid referred to the artist El Anatsui (whose exhibition I saw at the Brooklyn Museum last weekend). While the end product is important, acquisition considerations hone in on structure and technique. Plastics, as a novel and contemporary medium, present a unique circumstance similarly treated: questions center on how an item is crafted and used, and technique supplants the end result.

I expected McQuaid's talk to be of a somewhat different nature, to trace, for example, motifs across genres, cultures, and time periods. Instead it addressed the many concerns informing an expansion and revision of institutional approach, one that will promise innovation while still remaining true to the museum's history and mission. In a way, her talk's evolution from collection overview to museum use and viewer experience mirrors a trend within museums in recent decades: to reorient attention from the collection alone to include a focus on the relationship between collection and audience. This comprised a cornerstone of a recent panel discussion I attended on technology and the future of museums, to which I will soon devote another post. The C-H's new online collection database (screenshot below) demonstrates a concerted effort at transparency ("bugs are being fixed") and accessible language ("this is our stuff, we have lots of it.") Its organization and experimental search features would provide enough fodder for another post entirely.

Explore the alpha release of the collection database here.

But back to the physical museum. The Cooper-Hewitt's collection has been little on display recently, and few are familiar with its rich history and impressive depth. It will be enormously exciting to see how the museum's newly defined institutional identity will integrate its past and present.

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