Eye Opening: New Research on Maryland and Virginia Quilts Symposium

Written by: Heidi Campbell-Shoaf, DAR Museum Director and Chief Curator
March 26, 2015

Broderie perse, night-blooming cereus and watermelons share a completely reasonable relationship when you are talking about quilts. Particularly the ones on exhibit in Eye on Elegance: Early Quilts of Maryland and Virginia, featuring dozens of masterpiece quilts from DAR Museum’s collection. In support of the exhibition, museum staff organized a two-day symposium, Eye Opening: New Research on Maryland and Virginia Quilts that drew an international gathering of quilt scholars and enthusiasts to DAR Headquarters on March 13 and 14, 2015.

A Friday evening reception kicked off the sold-out event and Curator Alden O’Brien gave a behind-the- scenes tour of the exhibition. Alden shared how the design of the exhibition, which uses colorful scrims, complements the quilts and helps place them into historical context. She discussed how the quilt is a doorway to the history of the maker, her home life, education and even the economic and trade relationships present at the time it was made.

Then, on Saturday, 127 attendees navigated closed streets (a week before the symposium we learned of a marathon stepping off mere blocks from NSDAR Headquarters) and rain to gather for a full day of lectures and activities. Opening the day, quilt historian Bunnie Jordan discussed regional characteristics of Maryland and Virginia quilts, and fabric designer, author and blogger, Barbara Brackman examined how quilters got the patterns and fabrics they needed prior to the Civil War.  After a short break author Ronda Harrell McAllen shared with the group her research on quilter Achsah Goodwin Wilkins, whose life of wealth and privilege enabled her to create the quilt in our exhibition and many others.

Lunch time wasn’t just for eating. Attendees had the opportunity to view up-close four quilts recently rotated out of the exhibit. To ensure the preservation of fragile textiles, we must limit the time they are on display. Before the quilts were put back in storage, the museum’s collections staff laid them out on tables in the Banquet Hall in Memorial Continental Hall for participants to examine.

The group reconvened in the NOC Assembly Room, where curator Alden O’Brien, who served as moderator for the day, presented a short examination of gentility, a goal for up and coming middle and working class people in the 19th century, and something you can see reflected in quilt design and fabric choice. Deb Kraak, museum consultant, looked at the printed flora and fauna that repeatedly found their way into early quilts, such as those in Eye on Elegance.

Baltimore Album quilts capped off the day of lectures. Presenter Virginia Vis and co-presenters Deborah Cooney and Ronda Harrell McAllen analyzed the design and makers of these quilts. Virginia, quilt conservator and research volunteer with DAR Museum, presented an examination of the various repeated motifs found among Baltimore Album quilts and how they were interpreted by different makers. Deborah, quilt historian and another of our volunteers, along with Ronda, discussed commercial production of the Album squares and presented new research on some of the genre’s masterworks.

Finally, at the end of an enlightening day, everyone retired to the O’Byrne Gallery for a closing reception and book signing, the speakers inscribing their various publications. We are happy the event successfully met our goals of sharing DAR Museum’s collections and providing a meaningful and enjoyable educational experience. 

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