Successful DAR Museum Quilt Exhibition "Eye on Elegance" Closes Soon

Written by: Alden O'Brien, DAR Museum Curator of Costumes and Textiles
August 14, 2015

DAR Museum’s exhibition “Eye on Elegance: Early Quilts of Maryland and Virginia” closes September 5, 2015. From the beginning, the exhibit has been a success in every way.  Visitation is up 9% compared to the previous year. The online exhibit has had almost 19,000 hits. The symposium “Eye Opening: New Research on Maryland and Virginia Quilts” was packed with 127 participants who came from as far away as Alaska and Australia. Docent-led group tours brought more than 450 visitors October 2014 through July 2015, and more tours are booked through the exhibit’s last days. Finally, our gorgeous exhibit catalog has sold 800-plus copies (out of a run of 1,000: get yours now before they run out!).              

However, the numbers are just part of the story. “Eye on Elegance” has ventured into some new territory for the Museum in several ways. The exhibit’s design brings the quilts away from the walls, hanging from the ceiling at angles which surround visitors and guide them from one section to the next. While installation was something of a challenge for the Museum’s registrars and preparators, the sensory pleasure of being surrounded by a sea of stunning quilts is well worth it. Additional visual effects come from the scenic banners hanging at right angles to the freestanding quilts. They not only serve as barriers to visitors who might be tempted to touch the quilts, but also are printed with period images, such as an early 1800s fabric store or a cotton-printing machine, to illustrate the themes and topics evident in the quilts and discussed in the labels.

Another design innovation was printing the main labels – introducing each section of the exhibit – onto cotton, making them into quilts, and mounting the labels onto cotton banners. Visitors appeared to love the fabric labels, and also repeatedly expressed appreciation for the visitor-friendly design of the objects labels. Mounted on board about 36-inches above the floor and printed in large type, they were easily legible and conveniently placed for any wheelchair-bound visitors.

This was the first time the Museum has published an all-color, hardcover exhibit catalog, and it’s been a big success. The online exhibit, while not our first, is more complete and more elaborately designed than any we’ve done before. Designed by Assemble, the same firm as the exhibit and catalog designer, the online exhibit shares the look of exhibit and catalog, includes all the labels from the exhibit, and adds several short videos. Curator of Costume and Textiles Alden O’Brien, Curator of Education Marilyn Sklar, and Museum Director and Chief Curator Heidi Campbell-Shoaf all appear in the online exhibit, introducing the main themes of the show. A particularly exciting feature of the online exhibit is the ability to zoom in on each quilt, nearly to life-size scale. Quilt fans all over the world can thus get a sense of the beauty of our amazing collection of Maryland and Virginia quilts. Since three of our quilts rotated off view halfway through the exhibit to be replaced by three near-twin quilts, the online exhibit also allows people to see whichever quilts they missed seeing on their visit.

“Eye on Elegance” is also the first exhibit to open since the DAR Museum launched our own social media sites. Several times a week throughout its run, “Eye on Elegance” has been featured on our Facebook page, to build our audience awareness of the exhibit. Quilt posts – ranging from quiltmaker biographical information to quilt design to selected fabrics – have garnered plenty of “likes” and comments.

Our symposium “Eye Opening” held in March, was not a first – we have often had symposia related to topics in current exhibits in the gallery – but it was the largest in the recent history of the Museum. We were able to attract a roster of some of the finest textile and quilt historians in the field, and quilt history enthusiasts filled all available spots. Each lecture focused on a different topic related to the quilts on view. Much of the afternoon devoted to Baltimore Album quilts, that local specialty in 1800s quiltmaking. With nine album quilts on view in the exhibit, Baltimore Album fanatics had their fill both visually and intellectually as our speakers presented ground-breaking new research on these stunning quilts. Participants gave overall rave reviews of the symposium, including the presentations, food, organization, and congenial atmosphere. Participants enjoyed the gift shop, too, as sales for the two-day event were similar to one day during DAR Continental Congress!


Visitors take in the quilts at the “Eye on Elegance” opening October 2014.

Visitors take in the quilts at the “Eye on Elegance” opening October 2014.

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Fabric panels introduced major sections of “Eye on Elegance.”

Fabric panels introduced major sections of “Eye on Elegance.”

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Banners positioned at angles protect quilts and add visual flair. Low object labels in large type provide accessibility for all visitors.

Banners positioned at angles protect quilts and add visual flair. Low object labels in large type provide accessibility for all visitors.

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“Eye on Elegance” catalogs are still available in the Museum Shop and on the DAR Store Online. Get your exhibition souvenir today.

“Eye on Elegance” catalogs are still available in the Museum Shop and on the DAR Store Online. Get your exhibition souvenir today.

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“Eye on Elegance” is online at eyeonelegance.dar.org.

“Eye on Elegance” is online at eyeonelegance.dar.org.

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You can zoom in on the quilts to see high-resolution details. The flower on the right is in the center basket on this 1830s quilt by Anna Garnhart.

You can zoom in on the quilts to see high-resolution details. The flower on the right is in the center basket on this 1830s quilt by Anna Garnhart.

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“Eye on Elegance” Facebook post for National Watermelon Day on August 3.

“Eye on Elegance” Facebook post for National Watermelon Day on August 3.

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Author and quilt historian Bunnie Jordan presented at the "Eye Opening" symposium in March.

Author and quilt historian Bunnie Jordan presented at the "Eye Opening" symposium in March.

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The symposium hosted 127 participants who enjoyed presentations by seven different authorities on quilts.

The symposium hosted 127 participants who enjoyed presentations by seven different authorities on quilts.

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“Eye Opening” symposium participants took a break from scholarly papers to get up close  with other quilts from the DAR Museum collection, one of the largest in the United States.

“Eye Opening” symposium participants took a break from scholarly papers to get up close with other quilts from the DAR Museum collection, one of the largest in the United States.

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In just a few weeks, “Eye on Elegance” comes down, and the gallery prepares for the 125th anniversary exhibit “Remembering the American Revolution, 1776-1890.” “Eye on Elegance” will live on online and in the catalog, after giving pleasure to thousands of visitors who have come from near and far to marvel at the DAR Museum’s stellar collection of early quilts of Maryland and Virginia. 
 

Alden O’Brien is curator of “Eye on Elegance: Early Quilts of Maryland and Virginia.”

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