You may have heard that the state of Alabama will be celebrating the bicentennial of statehood for the next three years. Beginning this month and extending through December of 2019, state institutions will feature projects that focus on Alabama’s rich social and cultural heritage. The MMFA’s first exhibition honoring the bicentennial opens this month, and the project reflects a cooperative spirit, ingenuity, and respect for our material culture that is surely worth commemorating.
Sewn Together: Two Hundred Years of Alabama Quilts, now on view at the MMFA until April 16, had its inception at an MMFA staff ‘”pre-opening” visit to the newly completed Alabama Voices installation at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. After our introductory tour, Archives curator Ryan Blocker (pictured to the right) took us to see some special treasures in her care—storage cabinets with rolls of amazing textiles. These examples of linens, costumes, and clothing, some of them centuries old, were part of the Archives’ collections that began back in 1901; it’s the oldest state archives in the United States.
It was natural that Ryan and I began looking at and talking about Alabama quilts. The MMFA has a collection of 82 quilts primarily made in West Alabama from the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. These quilts are a mixture of examples made for practical use in the home and those made consciously as art objects for display. Some of those in the Archives’ storeroom were created over 150 years ago; they reflect the origins of the quilt as a both a necessary utilitarian object and one that routinely demonstrated the needlecraft and creativity of the maker. The more we looked and talked, the more we discovered fascinating parallels in these quilts that were made in our state from its earliest days until the end of the twentieth century. We were excited to discover patterns, quilting techniques, themes, and methods of construction that reflected the continuity in both our extraordinary collections.
We joined forces to select and interpret 14 exemplary pairs of quilts, composed of one example from each collection, which are now on display on the walls of the MMFA. Many of the older examples from the Archives’ collections have never been formally exhibited. Historic textiles are, by their nature, very fragile objects, and thus are rarely hung on walls or seen under exhibition lighting. We are honored that the Archives chose to share these distinctive and historically significant quilts with us in order to make them accessible to the public.
The two staffs (pictured to the right) joined forces to tell the story of the exhibition through not only text panels but also a printed brochure and an interactive website dedicated to Alabama and its quilt history. The website was largely the creation of Archive staff members Raven Christopher and Georgia Ann Hudson, with timely and creative contributions from our own curatorial digital assets manager, Sarah Graves. The site, sewntogetheralabama.org, will give this collaboration a “second life” on the internet, long past the period of the physical exhibition. It is accessible to quilt lovers the world over, as well as to local collectors and families who treasure their family heirlooms. Among the valuable resources you’ll find on the website are two videos that explain how best to care for your quilts and how to safely store them. It also contains photographs of the quilts paired with their comparative texts explaining the continuity of the quilting tradition in our state and “sneak peeks” at quilts that were too fragile for display in the galleries.
I hope that you will take time before April 16 to come to the Museum to see these extraordinary historic textiles. It may be your only opportunity to see them before they return to their safe storage for future generations. We appreciate all of the staff members of each institution who participated in making the larger project a reality. We are very grateful for the financial support of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, as well as the sponsorship of our long-time patrons and supporters, Laura and Michael Luckett. And be sure to make a virtual visit through the website sewntogetheralabama.org to learn even more about the art of quilt making in Alabama, a tradition two hundred years in the making.
Margaret Lynne Ausfeld
Fig 1.: Ryan Blocker, curator at ADAH
Fig 2.: (left to right) Margaret Lynne Ausfeld, MMFA curator; Sarah Graves, MMFA digital asset manager; Ryan Blocker, ADAH curator; Georgia Ann Hudson, ADAH PR; and Raven Christopher, ADAH archaeology curator
Fig 3.: (left to right) Staff from ADAH, Georgia Ann Hudson, Ryan Blocker, and Raven Christopher