Nothing Like the Real Thing

April 6, 2012

students look at textile while professor points at material

By Laura Donnelly-Smith

It’s chilly and dimly lit in a basement storage room of the Textile Museum, where an air-circulation system hums without fail in the background, keeping the room’s temperature and humidity at the proper levels to protect the room’s precious contents. On a large display table, a museum staffer carefully unfurls a piece: a maroon velvet textile woven with white botanical patterns. Vibrantly colored and exquisite, it belies its age—the piece is perhaps 400 years old.

Sumru Belger Krody, a senior curator at the museum and a GW professorial lecturer of art history, asks the six students in her seminar class, Textiles and Politics, to step closer and begin describing the piece.

“Start with the basics,” she encourages them. “It’s a floral design, on a red background. Probably from the shininess, it’s silk, although you cannot know until the analysis of it. This area looks like metallic thread. And it’s velvet, because it has this fuzz. If you look closely there’s a difference between the white area and what’s sticking up.”

Upstairs in a classroom, the students had been discussing displays of wealth, power and authority via textile gift-giving in the imperial societies of Safavid Iran, Ottoman Turkey, Mughal India and various European courts. Now that they’re looking at the real thing—an actual 17th-century textile—Ms. Krody pushes them to apply what they’ve discussed and try to determine the piece’s origins.

“We’ve looked at Mughals, Safavids and Ottomans. Any guesses?” she asks. “Look at the imagery. The imagery will tell you.”

This course, taught at the Textile Museum in conjunction with GW’s Department of Fine Arts and Art History, provides graduate students with the unique opportunity to get first-hand experience examining and analyzing centuries-old textiles. Each week, the students spend approximately the first two hours of the once-weekly class in a lecture, and then head into the Textile Museum’s storage areas for the last 30 minutes to put what they’ve learned into immediate use.

Having the collections accessible is vital, Ms. Krody said.

“I want [students] to have experience in object-based research, rather than only theoretical research. I want them to appreciate the beauty and power of art by having close encounters with it in more intimate surroundings, not through a slide. And I want students to take away skills from the course that will help them in other classes, in their chosen careers and in life: appreciating art, observing, thinking and reading critically about an art object, writing and presenting their thoughts lucidly,” she said.

In 2014, the Textile Museum’s entire collection will move to a new home when the museum becomes affiliated with the George Washington University Museum. The new GW museum will be housed in a custom-built, approximately 35,000-square-foot building at G and 21st streets, putting the Textile Museum’s exhibits even closer to GW faculty, students and researchers. The museum’s collection—more than 19,000 objects—will be stored in a specially designed conservation center on GW’s Virginia Science and Technology Campus in Loudoun County, Va.

“When the museum opens on the Foggy Bottom campus, students across GW will have the opportunity to experience exhibitions of textile art from around the world,” said Lee Talbot, a Textile Museum curator of Eastern Hemisphere Collections who co-teaches the Textiles and Politics course. “And while we are teaching this course with the Department of Fine Arts and Art History, textiles are also relevant to disciplines ranging from anthropology to the applied sciences.”

Lauren McDonald, a second-year art history master’s student, is a member of the Textiles and Politics class. For her, the decision to take the course was easy, even though it met off GW’s Foggy Bottom campus.

“I’m really interested in how ideas are transmitted through portable objects like textiles,” she said. “With this course, we go [into the collection] every single week. That’s really essential to understanding how the textiles are made. You have to look at them very closely.”

And examining the objects up close is vastly superior to seeing slides or computer images, she said.

“In art history, objects are the primary sources; they’re what drive our research and the work that we do,” she said. “Today we were looking at velvet….you really can’t get that from a screen.”

Although Ms. McDonald will have graduated by the time the George Washington University Museum opens in two years, she plans to visit as an alumna. Her professor, meanwhile, is looking forward to the new partnership for many reasons.

“From the perspective of a curator, I think the affiliation presents many opportunities,” Ms. Krody said. “I believe curatorial staff will have a chance to engage their colleagues in academia for discussions or collaborative research, thus bringing the theoretical and the object-based research sides of art history closer together. This will result in more in-depth study of art and art objects. And from the audience perspective, this type of engagement will lead to more original and thought-provoking subject matter.”

And while not everyone has the chance to peek inside the collections storerooms, the velvet textile the students viewed (an Ottoman cushion cover, as it turned out) will be on view in the upcoming exhibition “The Sultan’s Garden: The Blossoming of Ottoman Art,” opening at the Textile Museum on September 21, 2012.