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D.C.'s Textile Museum Preps for Big Move

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Chelsea Hick is hunched over a table with a hot glue gun in one hand and a rectangle of foam in the other. In front of her are pieces of gray cardboard and a couple strips of cotton webbing. If you didn’t know better, you’d think she was working on some sort of craft project.

But for Hick, a registration technician at the District’s Textile Museum, this isn’t arts and crafts time.

“A lot of the material we have are three-dimensional pieces that need special custom mounts of some form. So we’re just creating a system to basically house them,” she said.

Hick is lovingly preparing the blocks to be packed up and put in boxes, along with the nearly 20,000 other pieces of the museum’s collection. To do that, she creates what are basically little carrying cases for each of the items that will occupy Box #618.

Over the past year, Hick and her colleagues at the Textile Museum have been preparing the collection for a move across town — from its current location on S Street NW to its new home a couple of miles away in Foggy Bottom. In 2012, the museum entered into a partnership with George Washington University that resulted in a brand new exhibition space being built on campus.

That means the entire collection, from Anatolian rugs to Indonesian sarongs to pre-Columbian sashes, has to get boxed up. But this isn’t like when you move house and throw a bunch of stuff in boxes and hope for the best. At the Textile Museum, objects are being packed with the greatest care. Some of the methods might seem a little unconventional.

“We also freeze the collection as part of the move,” said John Wetenhall, the director of the Textile Museum, as well as the George Washington University Museum. “We bring the objects into a refrigerated environment so that we can assure ourselves that no infestation, bugs or other things, might be in the fabric so that when we move everything, they’ll be in 100 percent safe conditions.”

The move to GW’s campus is a big one for the Textile Museum, and not just because of the work involved in packing up. The move symbolizes a new era for the institution.

Since 1925, the nation’s premier museum for textiles has operated from its Kalorama location, somewhat off the beaten tourist path. It’s surrounded by embassies and while it has a loyal visitor base, it’s not in the center of the action. John Wetenhall says the move will change that.

“What the university opportunity presents is a whole new audience that and an academic underpinning that can really support the study of textiles. Not just as objects of art, but as cultural objects as well and entrees to world cultures and ways to understand it,” he said.

Neither Wetenhall nor GW President Steven Knapp knows quite when the museum and the university started talking about a partnership. But what they do know is that it’s tough out there for arts institutions, and a collaboration like this can mean the difference between remaining open and relevant, and balkanizing collections and shutting doors.

By the end of 2014, the Textile Museum will likely be open in its new space. It will share part of the 46,000-square-foot building with the university’s Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection. The affiliation is part of GW’s recent expansion into the arts, Knapp says.

“Something we were looking to do was have a more powerful presence, not just in arts, but arts and culture more broadly,” Knapp said. “We’re thinking about the Textile Museum because of its intellectual connection with a number of our departments, which include anthropology, Middle Eastern studies, Africana studies, not just fine arts and art history, which of course is one of the connections.”

Knapp says the university also has a robust museum studies program, which will directly benefit from having access to a museum with a renowned collection right on campus.

“To have a truly world class example of what you’re studying right there in front of you, that level of engagement is I would think analogous to the way being in a laboratory with a cutting edge scientist is an exciting way to learn a discipline,” Knapp said.

Last week, GW announced another partnership with a legacy art institution in the District. The Corcoran Gallery of Art is being turned over to both the university and the National Gallery of Art in a sort of three-way collaboration. The works of art will go to the National Gallery, while the historic Beaux Arts building on 17th Street NW, as well as the Corcoran College of Art and Design, will go to GW.

At a time when even the President of the United States is taking pot shots at art history majors, it might seem unorthodox for a university to be bolstering arts education. But Steven Knapp doesn’t see it that way. For him, the arts are the cornerstone of creative thinking and innovation.

“There’s a lot of talk about STEM fields for the competitiveness of the American economy,” he said. “But what the American economy really relies on is innovation. And more and more, the boundaries between the arts and technology are dissolving. So we think that with this new presence in the university of a distinguished college of art, if we connect that to the other disciplines, you can start to make the kinds of interdisciplinary connections that will really foster innovation.”

Music: "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" by Peter Nero from Summer of '42


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