Is it better to mislabel art that defies typical classification or to hide it away in storage? This is a question with which the Metropolitan Museum of Art has had to struggle as much of its encyclopedic collection has lain dormant for more than 75 years or has never been displayed at all. Its new exhibit on textile trade, however, is able to capitalize on hidden gems by creating a global space in which multiplicity is welcome.
To create the exhibit, “Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800,” curator Amelia Peck collaborated with eight of the museum’s departments, from Asia to Europe to the Americas, over four years. Peck wanted to capitalize on the Met’s extensive but oft-ignored textile collection and a knowledgeable array of specialists to look at the phenomenon of global commerce through the lens of design. To do this required a team effort and a lot of time studying textiles.
“If you look at them from just one perspective, they might not make a lot of sense,” Peck said. For example, one dress was made in the British style with Indian textiles for an American consumer. To understand fully the importance of this dress, different regional specialists had to collaborate and fill out the context on multiple levels. This multi-layered identity applies to all of the exhibit’s pieces, which makes the exhibit an exciting crisscross of cultural influences ready for the viewer to trace and explore.
This strength is also the exhibit’s biggest challenge. The diversity inherent in the design, production, and consumption of each piece sometimes makes it difficult for the viewer to understand a piece’s use or role. It is easy to get lost in the galleries and lose sight of the exhibit’s overarching themes since each piece’s stories are globalized. A tour or audio guide can draw these themes into focus, but without them Interwoven Globe can be somewhat overwhelming. One of the more readable rooms is the Suite of Tapestries Depicting the Four Continents, in which each wall displays a different continent through tapestries and corresponding furniture. This collection may have been a gift from the French government to George Washington in the late 1700s, as the America tapestry depicts the French aiding American revolutionaries against a toppling Britain.
From contraband fees for forbidden dyes to pictorial reimagining of battles by non-involved populations, each piece is as rich in history as in color. Globalization happened far before the World Wide Web, and Interwoven Globe gives a glimpse of an exciting era of artistic exchange.
“Interwoven Globe” runs from Sept. 16, 2013–Jan. 5, 2014 at the Tisch Galleries on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.