While part of the museum continues its presentation of fabrics from around the world, another part is engaged in wholly different work. In July 2011, officials announced the 88-year-old Textile Museum would be vacating its historic home near Dupont Circle to help anchor the new 35,000-square-foot George Washington University Museum. The move, to take place in the fall of 2014, was seen as a way to increase exhibition space, allow museum students to study the textiles, and provide more exposure for the collection.
These days, that overarching vision is subsumed in the nitty-gritty of museum-moving logistics.
The S Street location has two historic buildings and a conservation lab. A couch surrounded by cardboard boxes sits on the third floor landing of the Pope building, named for architect John Russell Pope. The second floor of the Gallery Building, in what used to be the textile learning center, is now temporary storage full of steel shelving.
Assistant Registrar Tessa Sabol is helping to oversee the wholesale relocation process, which involves a team of 12, and hyper-focus on the storage, maintenance, traveling and future storage of artifacts for the next 18 months. “That’s my job, to make sure we don’t lose stuff,” Sabol says. By stuff she means the museum’s 19,000 objects, some of them thousands of years old, located in 24 storage rooms. She’s built a custom database to help, along with an at-a-glance color code: red for pre-Columbian items, green for Southeast Asia.
A few feet from Sabol are the labeled boxes ready to go. It’s early in the moving process, Sabol explains. Staff just finished surveying the collection a week and a half ago. Nearby, an intern is ironing muslins for the precision packing that must be done; acid-free, archival-grade cardboard forms a “passive” mat, then there’s the sheet of muslin, a layer of tissue, an artifact, a second layer of tissue, then the hinges to close the mat before it’s ready to be packed in a box.
Much of the time and planning has gone into the creation of systems. Matting for flat objects had to be standardized into certain base configurations so fragments of textiles would shift during the trip to a new 22,000-square-foot, climate-controlled facility in Ashburn, site of a satellite GW campus, where much of the collection will be housed beginning in January 2014.
Drawer 8 in Room 30, which had been a bathroom before the house was converted into a museum, contains fragmented pieces of a more-than-2,000-year-old Peruvian textile. Room 40 has 1,500 to 1,700 rolled textiles — rugs and carpets that will ideally be suspended on rods.
They haven’t lost anything, the prospect of which is nightmarish, but Sabol says they’ve found a few things that had been improperly labeled.
In addition to preparing for the move, officials announced Wednesday that John Wetenhall, an art historian and former president of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and vice chairman and treasurer of the American Alliance of Museums, would be director of the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum.
Wetenhall, who will begin June 1, takes over from interim director Rick West, who became president of Los Angeles’s Autry National Center of the American West in January.
Out of Southeast Asia: Art That Sustains
runs through Oct. 13 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW. the museum shop will be open through Dec. 31. The Textile Museum will reopen on the George Washington University campus, 21st and G Streets, NW, in the fall of 2014.