Unraveling Identity: GWU Museum and The Textile Museum Exhibit Review
On Monday, I had the opportunity to visit the recently established, since March 21st, George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum. Housed in the same building, the George Washington University Museum recently acquired, as of 2011, the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection which comprises of a rich and extensive historical documentation of the District of Columbia. Albeit, the name is a bit clunky, both entities offer an appreciated addition to D.C.’s museum-scape that tourists and residents alike should put on their itinerary. The Textile Museum, which occupied a majority of the building’s exhibit space, presents “Unraveling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories” (March 21-August 24, 2015) in a 3-floor exhibit of various cultural garments, multimedia, and text.
“Located in the heart of George Washington University’s Foggy Bottom Campus, Washington, D.C.’s newest cultural destination fosters the study and appreciation of art, history, and culture—both within the university and throughout the global community. As a cornerstone of the university’s growing focus on arts and culture, the museum unites:
- The Textile Museum, an institution with a nearly one-hundred year history, an established audience, and a respected collection of textile art representing six continents and five millennia.
- The Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection of historic artifacts that tell the story of the founding and evolution of our nation’s capital.
- Relevant artworks from the university’s collections, which include paintings, prints and drawings, photography, sculpture, and decorative arts.” (museum.gwu.edu)
The experience is left to the visitor as there is no chronological, geographical, or spatial order other than each floor having a unifying theme i.e. political or religious identity. Coming in through the lobby situates you above the basement level exhibition space and below two more floors. I began on the 2nd-floor (level 2), confronted by the open space I snuck off to the side into the Albert H. Small Gallery. Here, detailed maps outlined the history of D.C. as an early urban development project of L’Enfant and as a new political arena. This exhibit arose an interest in the social geography of DC during this period. As a map-lover with a background in cultural Anthropology, I wanted to layer these artifacts with the lived experience. However, what can’t be denied is the quality of this collection so it remains to be seen what possibilities are ahead for these precious objects.
Neighboring this exhibit was a Civil War gallery space acknowledging its impact on “modern” Washington. “Civil War” anything makes me itch. It provokes a certain agitation and fear in me. Often, despite an attempt toward neutrality, exhibits feel like a glorification or a 1-Dimensional portrayal. Two spaces on either side of the hallway lent themselves to aspects of this narrative. This exhibit dealt with race in a succinct manner within moments of entering the space as an historical overview of the issues of prejudice despite freedom. Again, I would have greatly appreciated some nuance understanding here. A lot of interpretation throughout was around “heroes” and monuments, a perfect entry point into who and what gets memorialized both through a gender and racial perspective.
Continuing on between the 3-floors were beautifully showcased fabrics that dealt with identity in a spectrum from what constitutes a uniform to ceremonial fashion as it is expressed culturally. The exhibit spaces were large, and the open access to the artifacts rather than enclosed behind glass allowed for me to appreciate the intricate patterns and layers of the garments.
An example of the ways in which the clothing was interpreted through different aspects of identity.
Each floor utilized multimedia stations that intended for visitors to connect overarching themes. I also think large printed text on the walls would have been a good addition to the space as a reminder to visitors as they move from garment to garment of why these objects are in the same context. For example, I didn’t realize the floors were themed until halfway through. It would also prompt visitors to discuss the value of clothing in these different stages of life despite cultural differences.
Of course, I began to consider the ways in which the museum could engage visitor participation and was pleased to see a classroom situated within the exhibit space. I am not aware of how the space is specifically being used but hope that people of all ages are encouraged to participate. It would be great to see created works by visitors within the exhibit that speaks to how clothing and design signify identity.
A really fascinating way in which to include visitors was this module below. Visitors are able to sit in front of a kiosk that takes a photo and allows visitors to express themselves through racial identification and accompanying adjectives. I clicked through to discover many people, black, white, multiracial, and of different ages came up with creative ways to express themselves whether as a gamer or a feminist. An awesome reminder that a book is much more than its cover.
This cultural institution has been bestowed an opportunity to present a deep historical context for the development of Washington, D.C. that would even offer area natives a valuable experience. The collection is amazing and the attention to cultural identity is fascinating. I look forward to see how the museum rotates its collection to continue to include diverse perspectives within the social fabric that has constituted a complex history of our nation’s capital.
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