New England Quilt Museum Celebrates Its Silver Anniversary – by Connie Barlow
Twenty-five years ago this spring the New England Quilt Museum opened its doors to the public. It’s mission: to collect and preserve quilts and to educate the public about quiltmaking. Why? Because in 1983 a group of women decided that people needed to know why quilts matter.
The founding of a regional New England quilt museum really started as a grassroots movement in 1976 with the founding by twenty-six women of the New England Quilt Guild, “an organization to promote quilts and quiltmaking. ” In 1980 a proposal to establish a quilt museum was made to the Guild’s Board. The first major fundraising event for this purpose, The Images Quilt Show, was held in 1983. (The show continues to this day as the centerpiece of the Lowell Quilt Festival.) By this time the New England Quilt Guild (NEQG) had grown to 1,100 members who unanimously endorsed the idea of founding a museum.
Our NEQG founders considered numerous sites throughout New England for the location of the new museum. It became more and more evident, however, that the city of Lowell, Massachusetts, the historic heart of America’s 19th century textile industry, was the ideal location. The museum’s home is an 1845 former bank building in Lowell’s Downtown Historic District, and its old vaults are still pressed into service for our purposes.
Today what began as a small museum has grown in miraculous ways! A predominantly volunteer staff has been replaced by museum professionals – although we couldn’t accomplish all that we do without the ongoing commitment of our loyal volunteer corps. In 1991 a gift of 33 antique quilts from the Binney Family formed the core of the museum’s permanent collection, which over time has grown to more than 400 quilts spanning some 220 years, giving credence to the museum’s tagline Showplace for Antique & Contemporary Quilts. Our mission still reflects a desire to demonstrate, through exhibitions, programs and activities, why quilts matter—historically, socially, and artistically. Local museum enthusiasts have referred to our museum as a “little jewel in Lowell.”
We host four exhibitions a year, keeping a balance between the old and new. This year already we have hosted Campaigns & Commemoratives: Quilts for Presidents, which featured quilts honoring presidents from Washington to Obama. Our current exhibition is Fenway Centennial: Baseball Quilts by Rosemary Bawn & Other Quilt Artists. (You don’t live in New England without becoming passionate about the Red Sox!). The exhibition beautifully illustrates how any topic a quiltmaker feels passionately about can be the starting point for a beautifully crafted quilt.
Celebratory events are planned throughout 2012 to mark our Silver Anniversary. Our special anniversary exhibition, funded in part by the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, is Backstitch: A 25-Year Retrospective of Advances & Milestones in Quiltmaking. This show is a must-see for anyone who finds themself in New England between July 12 and October 14. It will feature pieces from some of the foremost quiltmakers of the last quarter of the 20th century. A panel discussion in September with Robert Shaw, Nancy Halpern and Gerald Roy will look back at where we’ve come from. By contrast, another panel, part of the Lowell Quilt Festival (August 9-11), will feature Marianne and Mary Fons, Martha Sielman of SAQA, and representatives from the Boston Chapter of Modern Quilt Guild. That panel will peer into a figurative crystal ball to envisage the future of this spectacular art form.
We are particularly excited about our next anniversary celebration, coming up on Saturday, May 19th. We plan to transform the museum into a “Garden Party” and our very special guest will be Shelly Zegart – live and in person! Shelly will share with us the adventures she had while directing and filming the Why Quilts Matter documentary series. The event especially honors members of our supporting guilds, but it is free and open to all just by calling in a reservation (978-452-4207). This is too good to miss if you live anywhere within striking distance of Lowell!
If you have never visited our museum, please come by soon. If you are a regular visitor, please tell others about us. We plan to be around for another 25 years—with a little help from our friends!
– Connie Barlow
New England Quilt Museum
Images are courtesy of New England Quilt Museum.
Featured image (top): KALEIDOSOPE XVI by Paula Nadelstern; on display at Backstitch: A 25-Year Retrospective of Advances & Milestones in Quiltmaking exhibit (Jul 12 – Oct 14, 2012).