Now that the term has come to an end, I’m ready to trade my to-do list for a to-see list and to catch up on exhibitions, films and other cultural activities whose pursuit had eluded me in the course of the academic year.
At the top of my list was the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. Although its title left something to be desired, the exhibition’s contents promised an eye-opening and possibly even an unsettling experience, or so I was led to believe by Edward Rothstein’s rave review in the New York Times. This display of Civil War textiles, of quilts and children’s clothing, military uniforms and mosquito netting, he wrote, “turns Americana back into history.” With such a strong endorsement, who could resist?
That GW is just about to open a museum devoted in large measure to textiles also fueled my interest in this particular exhibition. I was eager to learn more about the most current museological practices of display and interpretation and how to make textiles sing -- or, at the very least, tell a story.
As it happens, stories abound in Homefront & Batttlefield: of soldiers who ditched their uniforms because they were too heavy to wear in the hot Southern climate; of slaves who were uniformly dressed in the cheapest kind of fabric known as “plantation cloth”; of Quakers from Vermont who, refusing to purchase anything at all that was the product of slave labor, opened “free labor” stores; of how the word ‘shoddy,’ a textile term denoting recycled wool, entered our cultural vocabulary as a synonym for sub-par.
A stunning array of artifacts -- quilts, sample books, clothing, photographs, signage -- gives shape and structure to these stories. But, and it’s a big one, the exhibition’s design, from its deployment of chat labels to its lighting, makes it rather difficult to align artifact and interpretation. I expended a lot of energy angling my body this way and that so that I could be in a better position to read the small print. A telescope would have come in handy.
In an exhibition where the items on display stand on their own and don’t require a helping hand, this flaw may not constitute too much of a problem. In an exhibition like this one where, with the exception of the glorious quilts which were effectively displayed, so much is either unfamiliar or small scaled, the disunion between artifact and interpretation posed a real obstacle.
What should have been an encounter with history turned out to be an exercise in frustration, and an expensive one, at that. I ended up purchasing the catalogue and reading about, rather than experiencing, the past.