Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at Textile Society of America 11th Biennial Symposium: Textiles as Cultural Expressions, September 4-7, 2008, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Copyright © 2008 Howard Sutcliffe


In November 2007 the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) will open its doors to the public after several years of renovation and rebuilding. In a radical departure from the traditional chronological and geographical approach to art history the new DIA will provide its visitors with an innovative experience that focuses as much on the stories and connections behind the art as the art itself. Textiles from the DIA’s encyclopedic collection will play a large and integral role in this new vision, from European tapestry to Native American beadwork textiles will feature prominently in almost every new gallery.

This paper will discuss the rationale behind this new approach using textiles from the comprehensive African collection as a paradigm. One culturally complex object in particular – a late 19th century Ashanti warrior’s shirt from Ghana will serve as a nucleus. From its creation by Hausa Koranic Scholars for use by powerful Ashanti warriors to its acquisition by the Museum, recent conservation, display and interpretation, the ‘life’ of the shirt will be explored and used to illustrate just how the DIA intends to share stories that will enable the contemporary museum visitor in the United States to connect with an object from a very different time and place and leave the Museum with a greater understanding not only of that object but of the lives of those who created it, used it and are now invested with its future preservation.