Exhibiting Quilts at the MSU Museum

The Seamster's Union (Local #500). The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue. 1979. From Michigan State University Museum, Michigan State University Museum Collection. Published in The Quilt Index, http://www.quiltindex.org/basicdisplay.php?kid=1E-3D-8A. Accessed: 07/25/2012

Upon entering the Patterns of Inquiry exhibit, on view at the MSU Museum now through September 23, 2012, you are faced with a choice. If you head to your left, you can learn about the history of quilts as a means of expression. If you go to your right, you can learn about quilts as artifacts, objects with a physical history and connection to a distinctive provenance. Both directions lure you with colorful offerings and seemingly traditional patterned squares. But on closer examination, the featured quilt on the left is not at all ordinary. "The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue" is a tongue-in-cheek expression of a feminist ideology, literally turning the traditional domestic pattern of "Sunbonnet Sue" on her head (or casting her out into space, or feeding her to a shark, depending upon which square you look at first). This surprising take on what might appear to be a tame medium sets the standard for the rest of the exhibition which focuses on the myriad ways in which people can learn from, and with, quilts. 
Detail, "Jaws III" from The Seamster's Union (Local #500). The Sun Sets on Sunbonnet Sue

I've never been to an exhibit quite like this one before.  Most museum exhibits focus on a single historical narrative or on artifacts as art objects, telling aesthetic stories contextualized only by the who, where and when of their creators. Patterns of Inquiry is more about how we look at quilts than the quilts themselves. The exhibit draws on the MSU Museum's broad and deep collection of quilts ranging from the 19th century to the present. It is further bolstered by the digital collections of the Quilt Index, a joint venture with the University's MATRIX Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online.  According to the exhibit's curator, Mary Worrall, "A goal was to highlight the interdisciplinary and partnership work we have been doing with quilts. It was very difficult to make the final selection on what quilts to include." With such a diverse array of quilts to choose from, I can definitely see how this was the case. The quilts that made the cut, though, do a great job of illustrating their respective roles in research and education.

A gorgeous 19th century crazy quilt made by a father-daughter team shows off a new initiative to use visual recognition computer software to classify patterns in large collections of quilts. A quilt with a pattern of tessellations demonstrates the potential for using quilts to teach math, while a neighboring quilt with a more figurative pattern showcases ways in which quilts can be used to study history. A selection of quilts relating to people with Alzheimer's illustrates the way in which quilts have been used to promote awareness about public health issues while it individualizes the experiences of those most directly affected.

In the end, that is the persistent beauty of quilts. Like people themselves, quilts have more in common with each other than not, but it is their greater patterns of similarity, and their striking differences, that make them fascinating objects of inquiry and admiration.  If you're in East Lansing, go see this exhibit!  (Just stay away on hot days, because the galleries are not air conditioned.)