Behind-the-Scenes at a Quilt Museum

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Log cabin quilts on January 28, opening night.

It can be easy to take a display at a museum for granted. The goal of a beautiful exhibition, after all, is to astound visitors with carefully curated and artfully hung textiles. Museum staff want viewers to think “Oh, my gosh, these are the most beautiful quilts I’ve ever seen,” and not “I wonder how they change the light bulbs on that 20-foot ceiling?”

But changing those light bulbs, creating accurate and informative labels, and hanging huge and heavy quilts all has to happen in order to provide visitors with that “Wow” moment. I recently had the chance to get a first-hand look at what goes on in a quilt museum and thought I’d share a bit of what I learned.

The Iowa Quilt Museum (IQM) in Winterset, Iowa, is a newish museum—it opened in May, 2016. Planning for exhibitions starts far ahead of time and museum co-founder Marianne Fons and I talked more than a year ago about an exhibition based on Art Quilts of the Midwest, a book I wrote in 2015. I was delighted and so were the 20 artists included in the book.

On Dec. 2, Megan (left) and Marianne plan where to hang pieces from the next show. Star quilts from the previous show hang behind them.
On Dec. 2, Megan (left) and Marianne plan where to hang pieces from the next show. Star quilts from the previous show hang behind them.

This past fall, communications kicked into high gear, as IQM director Megan Barrett led me through the process of obtaining permissions from the artists, inquiring about their insurance, and informing them about when their pieces should arrive at the museum. Emails flew back and forth as artists asked me for details and I, in turn, asked Megan. In December I drove to Winterset  to help plan where the pieces would hang. Unlike the traditional quilts in the museum’s first two exhibits, the art quilts varied significantly in size and shape (one even hangs from the ceiling) and thinking about how to hang them was a challenge. Megan printed photos of each of the pieces, Marianne penned the piece’s dimensions on the photo, and the three of us considered where each piece would fit. We also talked about details regarding publicity, an opening event, and pieces that hadn’t yet arrived. Then I drove home.IMG_7518 (1)

More emails flew around after the holidays as we rounded up the remaining pieces. In the meantime, pieces that arrived were carefully inspected and their condition noted. Photographs of the way each piece was packed were taken so that they could be appropriately packed at the end of the show.

In late January I returned to Winterset to help hang the show. With two exhibitions under their belts, Megan and Marianne had grown accustomed to the system of hanging rods and connectors and we carried a ladder around the museum, attaching rods to ensure the pieces would hang at appropriate heights. After several hours we’d hung nearly all the pieces, including the tricky, three-dimensional Leaf Fragments by Barbara Schneider, Diane Nunez’s Dimensions 3×3 that hung from the ceiling, and two enormous pieces by Bonnie Peterson and Erick Wolfmeyer.

On Jan. 25, Marianne and Megan sorted the hanging rods in preparation for the new show.
On Jan. 25, Marianne and Megan sorted the hanging rods in preparation for the new show.
The first pieces go up. The "lines" on the right-hand wall are the hanging rods that will support the art quilts.
The first pieces go up. The “lines” on the right-hand wall are the hanging rods that will support the art quilts.

We’d followed our initial plan carefully, but weren’t happy with the placement—some pieces didn’t complement those on either side of them, others faded into the color of the wall behind them. So we started shuffling, moving pieces hither and yon until we were satisfied. Then I worked on label copy and Megan and Marianne hung the second portion of show—gorgeous log cabin quilts. They were still hanging them when I left, hoping to escape the sleet on my 2.5 hour drive.

Quilts ready for hanging in the foreground.
Quilts ready for hanging in the foreground. The white paper on the wall is a template for a piece that is velcroed to the wall.
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The gallery after some rearranging.
Megan adjusts pieces on the other side of the gallery.
Megan adjusts pieces on the other side of the gallery.

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Three days later, I headed back to Winterset. Miraculously, signage was in place, no ladders were visible, and Megan had cooked up some fabulous food for the opening event. I wondered how many people would show up on a cold January night, but the crowd was fantastic. Live piano music wafted from the second floor as visitors mingled and discussed the exhibition. The support for the IQM in Winterset is outstanding and it was inspiring to watch board members and other supporters—many of them non-quilters—work together to enrich their small but lively community.

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Opening night crowds examining art quilts.

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Details of a few of the gorgeous log cabin quilts also on display.

I’ll be heading back near the end of April to help take down the pieces, re-check their conditions, and pack them in their boxes and crates. I’ve always been a fan of museums, but now have a far greater appreciation for the amount of work that goes into creating an exhibition and respect for those who do that work. And I’ve learned how rewarding it can be to hear visitors ooh and aah as they enter the gallery. Creating inspiration is a highly satisfying experience!

Art Quilts of the Midwest and Log Cabins will be on display at the Iowa Quilt Museum until April 30, 2017.

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22 thoughts on “Behind-the-Scenes at a Quilt Museum

  1. Linzee, thanks for being guest curator for this fantastic show and for giving others a peek behind the scenes at the Iowa Quilt Museum!

  2. I LOVE this article!

    Having worked behind-the-scenes at quilt shows, I knew there was a whole lot of work involved in planning, work that nobody is aware of unless they’ve done it. This takes it to a whole different level. I like that while explaining the process, you made a whole lot of hard work sound like fun.

    With museum funding declining and some museums closing, this is important work. Thank you!

  3. Thank you so much for this informative article. It is clear you must have an eye for detail and be very organized! It will make me appreciate museums all the more when I visit. I wish I lived close enough to visit.

  4. I visited the museum in August. I so enjoyed the exhibit and the people were all so friendly and helpful. Would love to visit again but we live in CA so that probably will not happen. But thanks for sharing the photos and commentary – I almost felt like I was there.

    Charlotte

  5. We have a wonderful quilt museum close by (San Jose, CA). It always amazes me how wonderful and thoughtful the exhibits are. Love the peek behind the scenes.

  6. What a wonderful peek behind the scenes! Lots of work goes on that the majority never see. This work is much appreciated! Thank you for sharing.

  7. That was fun and informative. I will have a lot more appreciation for the museums I visit in the future. Now I want to see more museums have quilt displays too!!

  8. It’s a beautiful exhibition and the opening reception was just right. Kudos to Megan, Marianne, and Linzee.

  9. Thanks, Linzee, for this view of the exhibition and all the behind the scenes work that these things take. I would have loved to attend the opening but could not due to another opening on the same day. So, your post is all the more appreciated! And thanks to all of the staff and board of the Iowa Quilt Museum.

  10. Thanks for sharing the behind the scenes photos. I visited the museum in October when the star quilts were on display. I enjoyed the bed turning immensely.
    Donna

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