Skip to Content

Patterns of Inquiry

Patterns of Inquiry: Quilts in Research and Education
Main Gallery
June 3 - September 23, 2012

From treasured bed coverings, to provocative works of art and political statements, to sophisticated digital learning tools, curators at the Michigan State University Museum are patterning together a whole new understanding of what quilts are.  
 
Opening in the Main Gallery on June 3 is “Patterns of Inquiry: Quilts in Research and Education,” an exhibition which will showcase a number of the museum’s historic and contemporary textiles. Quilting has never been more popular, and “quilt studies” is a fast-growing field of research now as well. Studies indicate there are more than 27 million quilters in the U.S. alone, and the new exhibit explores why quilts are created and some innovative ways they are being used. 
 
“The rise of the feminist art movement in the 1960s and heightened national interest in American history spawned by the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976 paved the way for more scholarly investigation of historical and contemporary American traditions, women’s artistic contributions, crafts in general and quiltmaking in particular,” notes Mary Worrall, assistant curator of folk arts and museum educator. “Investigations into the history and meaning of American quilts have now evolved into extremely sophisticated studies spanning many disciplines,” she adds.
 
More than a safeguard of objects from the past, museums facilitate the use of artifacts and specimens for research and education in sometimes new and surprising ways. The ideas embedded in the quilts, in this case, are as important as the textiles themselves, Worrall says.
 
“Patterns of Inquiry” presents research and educational activities involving Michigan State University Museum’s
long-standing interest in and commitment to quilt studies. At the core of this work is the Quilt Index, a research platform and laboratory built around an international digital library of a massive and continually expanding collection. A key partner in bridging tradition with technology in what is now called “digital humanities,” is another department at MSU, MATRIX, Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online. 
 
The exhibit considers the quilt alongside subjects like math, and relating abstract concepts with concrete patterns and designs; social justice, and the practice of creating statements or tributes stitched in quilts rich with message and meaning; quilts and health, from fundraising quilts, memorials to the intersection of quiltmaking and health. One new frontier, singled out by the National Endowment for the Humanities for a research grant, makes use of digital methods for visual searching and pattern recognition and a test bed for development of algorithms to isolate salient characteristics (such as color, shape, line or patterns) to sort through massive numbers of image objects—in this case, quilts. 
 
“Patterns of Inquiry” is on exhibit through Sept. 23 at the MSU Museum,  home to the Great Lakes Quilt Center and a nationally known collection of more than 500 quilts. In recent years, the museum has led efforts to make its collections accessible, through the Quilt Index, exhibitions, curriculum, behind-the-scenes tours, and other searchable databases. By working with organizations like the Alliance for the American Quilt, the MSU Museum has expanded that access to thousands of public and privately held quilts, with new efforts focusing on international collections. (The Quilt Index and the MSU Museum quilt collection is now accessible through QI to Go applications for Androids, IPads, and IPhones.)