Why Quilts Matter –
Question & Answer with Marsha MacDowell
As most quilters know, the go-to website for information about quilts is the Quilt Index Website. But did you ever wonder how the Quilt Index got started? You need look no further than the Quilt Alliance (formerly the Alliance for American Quilts) for the scoop:
“In 1993, recognizing the need to centralize information about quilts and quiltmaking, four women joined forces to create Quilt Alliance. This project drew together Shelly Zegart and Eunice Ray of The Kentucky Quilt Project, and Karey Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant, corporate officers of Quilts, Inc. and founders of the non-profit Texas Quilt Search. With the establishment of The Alliance, the founders combined their shared dedication to quilts with their extensive experiences shaping the quilt industry and quilt scholarship in this country.
The Alliance’s founders soon gathered a distinguished group of quilt scholars, artists, experts, and enthusiasts to develop a vision for gathering, disseminating, and facilitating the interpretation of the great body of information about quilts and quiltmakers. The Alliance developed projects that tap into the full potential of quilts and inform the study and understanding of history, the arts, and culture.”
The Quilt Index was then conceived and developed by The Alliance for American Quilts and implemented in collaboration with Michigan State University’s MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online and the Michigan State University Museum. The Quilt Index contains digital images and history on more than 50,000 quilts.
We spoke with Marsha MacDowell, Ph.D., Director of the Quilt Index and Curator at the Great Lakes Quilt Center/Michigan State University about the Quilt Index and its role as a vital resource for quilters and quilt scholars.
We have been examining the many opportunities and uses of “quilts for a cause.” How has the museum’s collection documented this concept?
The Michigan State University Museum has, over the last 30 years, been especially active in leading or co-leading development and implementation of projects pertaining to issues of social justice and to using the museum as a tool for engaging community voices in the documentation and interpretation of cultural heritage. Because textiles have long been used, mainly by women, as a medium to express feelings, values, and experiences that reflect upon and motivate action related to issues and needs in contemporary society, MSU Museum staff constantly look for the possible intersections of quilts, quiltmaking, and quiltmakers in addressing these issues. Therefore, the MSU Museum collection has built a collection of quilts that reflect social justice, political activism, and human rights – and has paid particular attention to acquiring quilts that have strong, documented associated stories. A number of our exhibitions have been focused solely on or include sections of quilts that “speak truth to justice”.
How are online resources important to quilt scholars and people interested in quilts today?
As a freely accessible, searchable online repository of data on quilts, quiltmakers, stories about quilts, and quilt-related journals, ephemera, and other data, the Quilt Index is a remarkable resource for inspiration, research, and education. The Quilt Index is a model for other cross-institutional, public and private collections of data to be preserved and made accessible. Like a public museum or archive, the QI is preserving this cultural heritage on behalf of those who have contributed to and can benefit from it for research and education purposes. The ability to search and compare data from many quilt collections can only be done through the Quilt Index. It is an awesome tool that underpins many types of research inquiry.
How could the quilting community better help the museum community in its collection and care of quilts?
Actually, I believe it is a two-way street of interaction but, to answer the question, I believe that the quilting community – because of its huge numbers and great passion – can lobby museums to collect and exhibit more quilts, can assist in collection care and educational programs, and, most importantly, help fund these activities. At the Great Lakes Quilt Center/Michigan State University Museum (GLQC/MSUM), quiltmakers, collectors, and quilt businesses have contributed to our programs in many ways. From RJR Fashion producing a fabric line based on our collections to quiltmakers sewing sleeves on quilts for our exhibitions to hundreds of quilt owners working with us to document quilts and collect related stories of Michigan quilts to guilds that annually provide funding, the GLQC/MSUM simply could not do its work without these partnerships. And, then, of course, there are all of the individuals, guilds, businesses, and other organizations that are providing financial support to the MSU Museum specifically to underwrite the costs of maintaining and expanding the Quilt Index.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of museums have quilts in their collections and many of these museums would love to strengthen their quilt collections, improve the care of those collections, and engage audiences in using those collections for research, education, and inspiration. Most museums are hampered by the lack of sufficient funding to carry out all of the quilt-related activities they would like to do. It would be wonderful if the individual and collective financial contributions of those in the quilting community could be directed towards museums who have quilt collections for quilt-related collection development and care, research, exhibition, publication, and education activities. At the Great Lakes Quilt Center/Michigan State University Museum we rely heavily on the generosity of donations, large and small, from private individuals, groups (including quilt guilds), and businesses.
What is next for the Quilt Index?
Currently the presentation of information on QI is object-driven; information about the artists and the stories of the quilt are not very visible and sometimes difficult to find. Planning is underway for ways to better showcase artists and stories.
The QI team is looking for new ways of using crowd-sourcing tools to engage others in easily helping correct and expand the data in the Index. We want to tap the knowledge and expertise of many to make the data in the Index be as accurate and complete as possible. Tools to make direct public submission of data by individuals on quilts, quiltmakers, and quilt stories (written, oral, and video) are being developed and tested.
More about the Quilt Index
The Quilt Index is a project of the Michigan State University Museum, Matrix, and Quilt Alliance to preserve images and stories about quilt artists, quilts, and quilting activities and then to make this information searchable and freely accessible for research and education. The Index houses tens of thousands of images and stories of artists and quilts from private and public collections around the world. Navigate this link to the Quilt Index website. Find them on Facebook. Follow the QI Blog. Visit the App Store and download the QI App for IOS, or find lots more on the Quilt Index YouTube Channel.