Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Finding a Museum

One question I am often asked goes something like this: I have a quilt I want to donate to a museum. How do I choose one?

You have to find a good match for the quilt and the museum.
With taxpayers refusing to fund the arts and humanities, museums are taking fewer quilts. You have to sell the quilt (so to speak) to the museum acquisitions committee. (Don't try to actually sell it---they have very little money to spend.)

Different types of museums are interested in different types of quilts. If the quilt has fabulous graphics, like the two above,  you might want to approach an art museum.

Quilt dated 1795---
Any early quilt probably has a good chance of being accepted.
This one is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution---a very good home.

Mid 19th century samplers like this often are signed with place names.  This would be a treasure for any museum, and particularly for one in the area where it was made.

If the quilt is very old, of unique and collectible style or has a fabulous provenance (history of who made it and who owned it) you may want to approach a history museum with a focus on that area.

I've donated two quilts in the last year and I chose both museums based on the quilts' histories.

A whitework  quilt made by the
Mennonite church in Halsted, Kansas, about 1960

The white wholecloth quilt above went to the Kaufman Museum at Bethel College, a Mennonite school. The reason I asked them and the reason they were glad to get it was that it was a Mennonite quilt. More than that it---was made in Halsted, near the school and commissioned by the wife of a former president of the college. I knew all this provenance because it was a family quilt and I thought it would be a good idea to get it all written down and in their hands now.

I photographed the quilt, described its history and made a proposal. I included information about its condition and pointed out a water stain in the center.

Their acquisitions committee met and agreed to take it. I was thrilled because this seemed the perfect home.

The other quilt is the crazy quilt I blogged about a few weeks ago---the tattered piece that I really knew nothing about. I immediately noticed it was from Michigan and had commemorative ribbons from early-20th-century Michigan gatherings. Even though we had no idea who made it I thought it would be a prize for a history museum in Michigan.
See that post here:

My first thought was the Museum at Michigan State University, which not only has a great quilt collection but a focus on the social context of quiltmaking. The quilt was in terrible shape but it is still a social document. Their acquisitions committee also agreed.
Beth in their collections department wrote me a note:

"We’ll be working on getting the individual ribbons photographed so we can add the quilt to the Quilt Index. We will also be stitching netting on the areas that are shattering. This will take quite a bit of time. We here in Michigan are so happy that the unknown lady found you and that you thought of us."

Another good home.

Had they not taken it I'd made a list of other options---e.g. local history museums in counties where the ribbons originated. Maybe a museum interested in Civil War history.

When you are considering a home here are two things you should NOT consider.

Early quilt now in the collection of the Museum at 
Michigan State University with serious damage
 caused by long-term display in another museum
One is whether the quilt will be on permanent display. I cannot tell you how many people write and say this is their major criteria for a good home. It's NOT, NOT, NOT in the best interests of any textile to be on permanent display. See more about this damaged chintz quilt by clicking here:

The other foolish criteria is that the museum must promise that they will NEVER, NEVER, NEVER sell or give the quilt away. This is not in the best interests of the institution. Museums change their focus, their budgets, their bricks and mortar. Donors would like to control the future but that's an illusion. Pick an institution you trust and let the future happen.


  1. good advise on choosing a museum. I have my great grandmothers quilt that was made for my grandmother-then given to my mom and now I have it. I have no heirs so was searching out more of the history of the quilt which I have now, and found a local museum.
    I was so pleased until I asked the question if it could be sold-and her answer was once you donate it to us-it becomes our property and we can then sell it if we choose to.
    everything else about the museum was perfect except for that. I talked with someone else in the same museum and she said she doubted it would be sold since it has local history. however now I am undecided.
    The quilt is mostly indigos and it was tied with bright colored yarns, so it is not an elaborate quilt with hand quilting but depicts that time period.

  2. Museums don't like to commit themselves to permanent decisions. We can't control the future.

  3. All excellent advice! I am an officer of my local historical society and cannot tell you how often we have donors angry that we don't permanently display or deaccession their donated pieces. With limited funding in place for small museums, we have to be certain of the appropriateness of items we keep and display. Do they speak to the focus of the collection? Can we afford to store and properly display them?

  4. I need to go to our local museums and see what types of quilts they might have in the rooms, would be fun to see. I am close enough to go to boston and sturbridge, so will have to do those sometime this summer. I have been there, but not to look for quilts;)


  5. Great post, Barbara!

    I've donated several quilts over the last few years, and one of them went to the International Quilt Study Center Museum in Lincoln. I blogged about that quilt here:


    I agree with all your points, especially what you say about trying to control what happens to the quilt after it is donated. With the IQSC donation, I felt like I didn't have to worry about its future. It's the perfect home and the quilt belongs to them now, so they can do whatever they like...but I have a feeling they'll hold on to it for a while. :)

  6. A wonderful ending to the saga of the stranger's crazy quilt. It's like a straggly stray pet appeared on your doorstep and you found it a loving home!

  7. What great information, Barbara! You've answered just about every question people ask when they are thinking about donating a quilt to the museum's collection. We're going to link to your blog post in this week's eNewsletter.

  8. Really good post, BB. Thanks for it.