The Textile Museum doles out magnificence and mystery with equal abandon. This time the effect is extreme frustration.
A glorious fragment of velvet appears in an exhibition of centuries-old floral Kashmir shawls. The 16th-century swatch presents an image more astonishing than the rest: A cheetah is riding with a horseman on a galloping steed.
As with so many of the museum's rare textiles, a tantalizing history lesson is captured in vivid dyes and silky texture. But no explanation is given other than a passing phrase: Mastery of the cheetah was one of the impressive feats of ancient Iran.
Indeed. Museums are notoriously terrified of boring visitors with too much to read. But this provocative fragment deserves more.
Unfortunately, that's not the only thread left dangling in "A Garden of Shawls: The Buta and Its Seeds." The show traces a decorative and symbolic motif that flourished in Kashmir during the Mughal era. Buta means bush or shrub in Hindi and Urdu, but embroiderers took liberties, rendering it as a bud, leafing tree, mass of flowers and sprouting fern, sometimes all at once.
Scholars will plunge right into the thematic discussion, while savoring exquisite offerings that range from a bit of fabric from pre-Islamic Egypt to Victorian fashions. Unfortunately, the rest of the museum-going public -- especially the general audience small museums struggle to attract -- will have to muddle through.
The show provides no locator map of Kashmir, no attempt to explain the Mughal era (also known as Mogul and Mongol), no timeline of warring rulers or diagram of trade routes that might have carried the plump and swirly buta from west to east and back again. Westerners know it as paisley, the name of a Scottish weaving city where the exotic form was adopted in the 19th century.
Even more perplexing, given its title, the show contains not a single schematic of a garden. We are told the assembled motifs represent rows of cypress trees and borders of flowers in lush gardens in a mystical land. But visitors will need to conjure their own dreamscape.
If ever an exhibition could benefit from a touch-screen computer station, this is it. Mercifully, in the Internet Age, there are options. After my visit, I went first to Cheetah.org. The Web site of the Cheetah Conservation Fund confirms that the swiftest animal on earth has been tamed and used like a hunting dog from ancient Egypt to modern Asia, where the species is nearly extinct. Another site suggests that Akbar the Great, who ruled India from 1555 to 1600 -- the era of the Textile Museum's swatch -- kept 9,000 cheetahs but could not get them to reproduce in captivity.
I moved on to Mughalgardens.org, a spectacular Smithsonian Institution site set up several years ago. With a few mouse clicks, a bit of the Mughal Empire can be resurrected. (It ruled the Indian subcontinent between 1526 and 1858, in an area now divided among India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir.) A quick tour offers flowers and music along with architecture, history, planning principles and research into 11 gardens. An interactive feature allows exploration of the magnificent terraced Shalamar Garden at Lahore created by Shah Jahan. He took both name and design inspiration from Emperor Jahangir's garden on the shore of Lake Dal, in the center of Kashmir shawl country.
Importantly, Shalamar's upper-terrace design of quadrangles joined at a fountain is just the sort that inspired a radiant 19th-century shawl at the Textile Museum, in which a crimson flower unfolds into four segments on a white square. Vast, glassy pools could have supported the profusion of lotus flowers represented by a stunning cloth in shades of aqua, violet and green.
Other online sources reinforced the essentials of Mughal garden design -- and clarified the design of the shawls -- as a formal composition of space, plantings and architecture. Typically, pathways of water intersected at fountains, and rows of trees were juxtaposed against expanses of blooming flowers. The point was to create a perfect balance of texture, color, light and shade. The gardens were also the tangible celebration of power, wealth and refinement. Against that backdrop, the exhibition gains considerable momentum.
The 60 examples are drawn entirely from the museum's collection of more than 17,000 textiles. Such bounty is a tribute to founding collector George Hewitt Myers. The selections are a tribute to guest curator and art historian Eunice Dauterman Maguire of the John Hopkins University Archaeological Collection. Space limitations forced her to refine her choices from hundreds to dozens.
On my visit, I peered at minute stitching through helpful magnifying glasses tied to walls at key spots. While I admired the multitude of colors and intricate patterns, and grappled with the lack of context, a visitor behind me complained to a companion that there was no explanation of how the treasures were made.
She was right to wonder. The most spectacular work is an oversize pictorial shawl made of embroidered wool and dated about 1840 in Kashmir or Punjab. It is an almost psychedelic display of warriors, women, children, animals, birds, angels and other creatures densely packed into a fantasy jungle. According to the wall text, the cloth presents the glory not of Mughal but Sikh rule.
A digital touch-screen, or maybe another paragraph of text, would have helped there, too. But I will admit I was fully occupied searching the swirls of color for a "snake-eating deer."
I'm sure it's there somewhere, one more magnificent mystery at the Textile Museum.
A Garden of Shawls: The Buta and Its Seeds continues through March 6 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, 202-667-0441, www.textilemuseum.org. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m. Suggested donation: $5.