The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Humanity In Cloth
An interview with curator Laura McDowell Hopper on the “Quilts & Human Rights” exhibit, now extended through May, 2018
Quilt block designed and made by NIU undergraduate student Riss Carter.From intricate Whig Rose quilts of the 19th century to the ever-expanding NAMES Project “AIDS Quilt,” and from quilts made from campaign banners during Andrew Garfield’s bid for the presidency to the quilts being made now for the Migrant Quilt Project, these objects we all love so fiercely have long been mediums for (often fierce) political and societal messages.
And this very moment, in DeKalb, Illinois,
at the Pick Museum of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University (NIU), there’s a must-see show of quilts communicating a call for global human rights.
“Quilts and Human Rights” first originated at Michigan State University in 2008 and has been tailored for NIU by Laura McDowell Hopper, the Pick’s curator for the past five years. To say the show has garnered rave reviews is an understatement: Originally set to close in February, “Quilts and Human Rights” has been extended, by popular demand, through May 11, 2018. Trust me—if you can get there, get there.
The Quilt Scout recently sat down with Laura to talk about the blockbuster show, its impact, and why these quilts strike such a chord.
Quilt Scout: Thanks for talking with me, Laura. So, how did “Quilts and Human Rights” get started and how did come to the Pick?
Hopper: “Quilts and Human Rights” was originally curated by some of the finest quilt scholars in the country (Marsha MacDowell, Mary Worrall, Beth Donaldson, and Lynne Swanson) at the Michigan State University Museum. They curated this exhibit after realizing that the Museum had grown a strong thematic collection of human rights and social justice quilts from around the world.
The exhibit, which opened in 2008, centered around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Each quilt responded in some way to that document, which was written by the United Nations after World War II to outline the basic human rights and dignities that everyone should have.
This exhibit challenges our thoughts about human rights, encourages us to reflect on human rights abuses that should never be repeated, and inspires us to think about improving the lives of all people.
Visitors from the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild look at The One for Eric. G.
by Chawne Kimber.
Quilt Scout: How has the show changed over time?
Hopper: When the exhibit ended, the curators turned it into a traveling exhibit which had 28 quilts. Nearly 10 years later, the Pick Museum staff was looking for a traveling exhibit to fill a gap in our schedule. As a proud MSU alum and former student worker at the MSU Museum (and as a quilter myself), I always wanted to rent an exhibit from them. “Quilts and Human Rights” was the perfect fit because of the Pick Museum’s focus on social justice and because of our commitment to preserving and displaying textiles from around the world.
When we decided to rent the traveling exhibit, we knew that 28 quilts wouldn’t fill up our exhibit space, so I added 15 more quilts that have human rights themes. My goal with the expansion was to bring the exhibit’s stories up to the present day, so each added quilt was made between 2008 and today.
Quilt Scout: How old is the oldest quilt in the show? The most recent? Tell me about the timespan.
Hopper: The most recently made quilt in the exhibit is called The Feminist Quilt by Darci Alexis. Darci finished the quilt in January 2017 to carry with her at the Women’s March. After the quilt was shared online, there was a backlash with people saying that politics has no place in quiltmaking.
She Carries Her House by Chris Worland.Quilt Scout: That’s cray-cray! I mean, whatever your politics are, quilts and political views go together. That’s just fact.
Hopper: I know! One of the things that’s incredible about the “Quilts and Human Rights” exhibit is that it shows there’s always been a place for politics in quilts.
As for the oldest quilt in the exhibit, that’s a Hmong story cloth. It dates from the Vietnam-War era and was made in Southeast Asia. Because the exhibit theme is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was written in 1948, the focus is on mostly recent history and current events.
Quilt Scout: You told me when I first talked to you about the show that your audience numbers are just off the charts.
Hopper: We have had our highest single-semester attendance ever recorded. We have had more class field trips to “Quilts and Human Rights” than for any other exhibit.
Quilt Scout: Quilts are hot!! They always, always bring people in. Museums should have a quilt show up at all times. Laura, I'm so impressed by the programming you've done in relation to the exhibit. Could you talk about that?
Hopper: Well, field trips are often a standard docent-led exhibit tour, but for this exhibit
we have had faculty structure class projects around the exhibit and include creative assignments in their classes. Students have learned sewing skills, made quilt blocks,
and participated in re-curation activities where students choose five quilts and interpret them in a new social justice theme. The creativity this exhibit has inspired on our campus
We have also had several quilt guilds (including my own, the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild!) and quilt shops organize field trips to the museum for an exhibit tour and a behind the scenes tour of our collections’ storage to learn about textile preservation.
2012-2013 by The Migrant Quilt Project.Quilt Scout: I think that’s so important, especially these days with ideas around sustainability
and outreach as that applies to museums. It’s like, are you going
to just hang quilts in a room or are you going to engage people with what you’re showing them?
Hopper: We could have hung the quilts on the wall and called it a day, but instead we did a lot of outreach to tell students how they can be a part of the long tradition of activist textile making.
Our hands-on programs helped students understand how much work goes into making quilts and textiles, which is something that folks have forgotten now that quilts, clothes, and other textiles are mass manufactured and sewing machines are no longer a staple in their houses.
So in addition to our big public programs, we also worked really hard internally to provide creative projects for individual classes by helping students make activist quilt blocks for the Social Justice Sewing Academy, working with a class to make a quilt celebrating famous female scientists, and in-depth studies of specific quilts that gave students an opportunity to write their thoughts about the works.
Quilt Scout: Whatever an individual’s personal politics, it’s a testament to quilts and quilters that we’ve long been engaged with translating and communicating big ideas, these big problems, in cloth. I hope we always will. Thank you, Laura, and congratulations on the big hit.
Hopper: One last thing! Admission to the Pick Museum is free, and you don’t have to be a student, faculty, or staff at NIU to see the show. Thanks, Mary
All images courtesy the Pick Museum of Anthropology at Northern Illinois University.