Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Textile Society of America 2014 Biennial Symposium Proceedings: New Directions: Examining the Past, Creating the Future, Los Angeles, California, September 10–14, 2014,


Copyright 2014 by the author(s).


The paper discusses changing attitudes towards textiles and their displays in museum collections. As a curator of textiles who has worked in two major university museums, at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Yale University Art Gallery, over a stretch of more than twenty years, I document a change in attitude to textile history and collections. Much of it is positive, as textiles have moved from a Cinderella role into a position where they are taken seriously both in art and social history.

The two museums mentioned above were recently the subjects of dramatic building projects, and I was involved in both renovations. At the Ashmolean I curated a new Textile Gallery that for the first time ever had displayed a selection of the Museum’s significant textile collection. At Yale my brief as the inaugural curator of a new Department of Indo-Pacific Art meant that the important collection of Indonesian textiles had to be given a prominent place in the new gallery space.

The paper follows two strands of analysis and interpretation. One is chronological, presenting the shift in attitude towards textile displays over the years, both in the choice of context and the suggested ranking of textiles in the overall museum display. The second one looks at the role of textiles in museums that do not primarily focus on the history or ethnographic context of objects, but want to see them first of all as art, as objects with a strong aesthetic value. This can create a tension between factual and perceived interpretation, which should be of concern especially for university museums where teaching from the collections is a declared goal. As this addresses the issue of how to cross cultural barriers of understanding, I consider this to be of particular relevance.