Patchwork artwork

  •  “Fabric of Time,” which opened at Memorial Hall on Aug. 1 features a number of quilts dating as far back as the 1800s and as recently as 2019. The quilt shown here, named “President’s Quilt,” was stiched during the Great Depression by Martha Mielke, a German immigrant who lived first in Holyoke and later in Easthampton. Staff photo/MARY BYRNE

  • “Fabric of Time,” a quilt exhibit featuring historic and contemporary quilts, is currently hanging in Memorial Hall in Deerfield. Staff photo/MARY BYRNE

  • A quilt hangs in Memorial Hall’s gallery in Deerfield. Staff photo/MARY BYRNE

  • A historical quilt that’s on display at Memorial Hall in Deerfield. Staff photo/MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/13/2020 9:00:48 AM

One of Ray Radigan’s goals as the curator of Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield is to shift the museum’s focus from physical objects to the people and stories behind them.

“I want it to be less about ‘things’ and more about the individuals who either created and then used them, or were impacted by them, so we can learn about the past en route to learning about the present,” Radigan said. 

That’s something he hopes visitors will take away from the museum’s new exhibit, “Fabric of Time,” which opened to visitors on Aug. 1.

The exhibit, which features a number of quilts dating as far back as the 1800s and as recently as 2019, aims to tell the story of quilting in New England — from the early days of hand stitching to the more modern work made possible by the advancement of technology — and the stories of the people, primarily women, who used quilting as “an avenue to express their opinions, beliefs, values and hopes for the future.”

Radigan said the museum has long had a quilt gallery, but not one organized in any particular fashion. The conversation began earlier this year, he said, while addressing the need to rotate the quilts regularly for conservation purposes. 

“As we started to have that conversation, we took a hard look at what story we were trying to tell as a whole,” he said. 

Research began into the quilts themselves, but also into the process of quilting from both a technical standpoint and an artistic one. 

“We’re trying to tell a unified story about the history of quilting, specifically in New England,” Radigan said.  

One of the quilts on display, which has been named “President’s Quilt,” was created by a woman named Martha Mielke, a German immigrant who lived first in Holyoke and later in Easthampton.

“I find it fascinating that it came from …  an immigrant who worked in a factory and definitely lived through modest means,” Radigan said. “And it was also made during the height of the Great Depression, a time I don't think there was a lot of patriotism going on around throughout the country. We still had someone who saw an opportunity in their adopted home.”

The most recent in the collection is a quilt called “Roots,” which was loaned to the museum by the Sisters in Stitches Joined by the Cloth, a sewing group based in eastern Massachusetts that aims to celebrate quilting traditions from the African American perspective. 

“We’ve been collecting for 150 years, and due to the values and collecting practices in the past, we don’t have any quilts made by African American women,” Radigan said. “All of the quilts we have, to the best of our knowledge, are made by white women.”

Assistant Curator Mikael Fox said part of the reason today’s historical quilts were created by white women was the expense and time required to complete them, but that in itself doesn’t tell the whole story. 

“Quilting techniques weren’t necessarily reserved for the wealthy throughout American history, but what was reserved was the treatment of quilts as a sort of decorative item,” he said. “For instance, even during times of slavery, slaves would use fabric scraps to make quilts using a technique called applique quilting. But a lot of those received very heavy use ... so those weren’t necessarily preserved.”

Radigan said without including the African American perspective, they felt they would be telling an “insufficient story.”

“By having it in the exhibit, it allows us to include the African American contribution to quilting,” he said. “We’re very fortunate and very grateful to be able to have it on loan.”

Echoing the sentiments of Radigan, Fox said he hopes visitors of the exhibit gain a better understanding of the significance of quilting and the lives of those behind the quilts.

“I hope they get an insight into how people whose voices were … silenced in traditional political and social spheres looked to other ways of speaking in the arts,” he said, “including the creation of textiles.”

The museum, which opened on July 18, is requiring all visitors wear masks and practice social distancing. Additionally, museum staff are regularly sanitizing and asking that all guests sign in upon entry for contact tracing purposes. 

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263. Twitter: @MaryEByrne




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