Tom Goehner, M.A. ’93, leads programs for the new George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum.
November 03, 2014
As a museum education curator, Tom Goehner has a philosophy about how to tell stories centered on the arts: Start with an object and work your way back.
Within The Textile Museum’s collection of treasures, there are two 16th-century panels that stick out vividly in Mr. Goehner’s mind. Intricately woven from silk and metallic yarns, the panels once adorned the tent of Ottoman Empire sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, experts believe. A Turkish grand vizier maintained the fabrics until 1683. The pieces later made a transcontinental trek into the hands of Polish Prince Sanguskzi, who repurposed them as a blanket for his family’s sleigh.
By starting with the panels and working his way through their evolution from tent decorations to sleigh blankets, Mr. Goehner explains what he finds so alluring about textiles. In addition to their tremendous versatility, functionality and aesthetic beauty, they boast individual histories and numerous stories.
“They have more than one life—in fact, they have several, and what often saves them is their sheer beauty,” he said.
Now, as the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum prepares to open on March 21, Mr. Goehner is charged with bringing the museum’s myriad stories to the GW community. He’ll lead educational programs centered on the museum’s collection, which includes The Textile Museum's trove of more than 19,000 objects dating from 3000 BCE to the present, and Albert H. Small’s donation of nearly 1,000 historic Washington maps, documents and other ephemera.
GW announced in July 2011 that The Textile Museum would leave its location on S Street Northwest and move to a building constructed on campus. The Textile Museum’s collection joins the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana collection as the foundation of the new museum.
While the university’s Foggy Bottom community may be a change for some museumgoers, Mr. Goehner is well acquainted with it. He completed a master’s in museum education here in 1993. After graduating, he got a purview of the museum world through jobs at Woodrow Wilson House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the American Red Cross before joining The Textile Museum.
Coming from the Red Cross, he jokes, the only textiles he’d been exposed to were bandages and mosquito nets. His learning curve was steep, but he absorbed information quickly. He noted that most people understand how a painting is created, but few can recite the manufacturing techniques behind textiles. Thus, he found it important to include programs focusing on the art of construction—a feltmaker, for example, taught museum guests how to make iPhone cases out of matted wool fibers; a Japanese textile expert demonstrated traditional shibori dyeing techniques.
“You might know that an object is a photograph, but until you press the lever on a camera, you won’t know what it’s like to be a photographer,” he said. “Until you experience using a shed and pulling all the threads, you don’t know the weaving process at a richer level.”
His educational programs are an effective mix of informative and hands-on styles. The new museum will retain that same energy, offering daily programming inspired by its unique mix of art and history-focused objects. Moreover, a university setting represents fertile ground for cultivating more ideas and program approaches, and Mr. Goehner is deftly coordinating new efforts to reel in new audiences through the museum’s glass doors.
Distinguished by its modern, undulating shape, the museum sits on the corner of 21st and G streets NW. The capacious, 46,000-square foot building alone offers a world of programming possibilities. Walking through the beautifully constructed halls, Mr. Goehner envisions the potential, proposing ideas like a textile design class led by students in the expansive galleries, live performances in the Myers multipurpose room featuring music department faculty and the GW student radio station or a series of Ted Talk-like lectures addressing urban development in D.C. today.
His desk is on the fourth floor, draped with pictures from past successful programs—there’s one of Mr. Goehner and his interns organizing a Chinese quilt-making event at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer. Throughout the day, he’ll frequently roll his chair over to discuss possible film screenings, speakers or family art activities with Lauren Shenfeld, B.A. ’13, a second-year museum studies graduate student and Presidential Administrative Fellow who is working with Mr. Goehner and museum Director John Wetenhall to develop audience engagement strategies.
Ms. Shenfeld also has a degree from GW and a deep connection to the university’s culture. Her relationship with the student body and GW initiatives has allowed her and Mr. Goehner to involve key campus groups in program planning before the museum opens. Starting in March, students and faculty will be welcomed to add their own unique arts, history and culture events to the museum’s calendar.
“The new museum will triple the amount of programming that was offered by The Textile Museum at its previous location. Together, we think creatively about how to excite the interests of all groups,” she said.
Mr. Goehner and Ms. Shenfeld work closely with Dr. Wetenhall and Washingtoniana curator Jane Freundel Levey, M.A. ’91, to brainstorm ways to reach the D.C. community and plan programs inspired by the museum’s Washingtoniana collection. Mr. Goehner also has a steady roster of volunteers, docents and interns, many who come from the very program he completed at GW.
Organizing programs for a broad university community might seem a Herculean task, but Mr. Goehner is too enthusiastic about the museum’s future to be concerned.
“I suspect that an arts venue where art is happening, being made, discussed and performed will capture the community’s interest,” he said.
He already has scheduled several events, including a lecture series on contemporary design, which starts Nov. 6. Weeklong programs in March 2015 will coincide with the museum opening and launch of “Unraveling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories,” “The Civil War and the Making of Modern Washington” and “Seat of Empire: Planning Washington, 1790–1801,” the museum’s first three exhibitions. Two of those were designed by GW students and curated by faculty members.
It helps that the university abounds with art and culture experts and history scholars at every turn. Mr. Goehner recently bonded with a chemistry professor who analyzes how color is perceived through light—perfectly applicable to the discourse many textiles makers have about the radiance of dyes. The opportunities for collaboration are endless, and Mr. Goehner is eager to continue forging interdisciplinary relationships.
“There are plenty more partners and friends to make. I’m just starting,” he said.