Textiles Close Up: Woven Interiors—Late Antique Textiles in DC Collections

By Sarah Molina

Sarah Molina was the TSA scholarship recipient for this program. She is a Graduate Intern in the Museum Profession at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., where she works in the Gallery’s education department. Previously, Sarah was an Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Friday, April 28th, two of Washington D.C.’s most storied textile collections, The Textile Museum and Dumbarton Oaks, opened their doors to members of the Textile Society of America. The two institutions are collaborating on an upcoming exhibition (scheduled to open in 2019), which will feature furnishing textiles produced in the Eastern Mediterranean region from the fourth through twelfth centuries.

Curator Sumru Belger Krody leads a tour at The Textile Museum’s off-site storage and conservation center.

Furnishing textiles from this period and region have previously been understudied—often overlooked in favor of dress textiles. Thus, this exhibition will provide a critical perspective in developing a richer discourse. For participants of the close-up looking session, including myself, this meant that many questions about these textiles had not yet been answered, making for a day of thoughtful discussion and inquiry.

Our day began at The Textile Museum, now housed at George Washington University. Curator and TSA board member, Lee Talbot, gave us a peek into the diverse permanent collection and special exhibitions of The Textile Museum, ranging from recent acquisitions like contemporary tapestry weaver Jon Eric Riis’ jacket inspired by a 13th or 14th-century Chimú tunic to the special exhibition, Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair.

Textile (Curtain Fragment with Two Horsemen, Late 9th to 10th century, wool and linen, BZ.1943.8) close-up in the storage rooms of Dumbarton Oaks.


We then took a trip to The Textile Museum’s off-site storage center and conservation lab, where we had the opportunity to view some of the earliest extant textiles created in the Eastern Mediterranean. Most of these early textiles survive in fragments, which scholars have attempted to piece together. A particularly stunning 4th-century textile from the Roman period featured a design mimicking architectural elements. Other textiles, from the Byzantine and early Islamic periods, included repeating foliate motifs, human figures, and animals, highlighting the diversity of designs and the cultures that produced and exchanged them. In conversation with curator Sumru Belger Krody, many questions concerning the exact sites of production, the tools and techniques developed independently in various cultures, and other issues of attribution were discussed.

The issue of attribution is particularly complex for these early fragmentary textiles that were often excavated from sites not necessarily connected to their origins of production. During the second half of our day, we continued to encounter this issue at Dumbarton Oaks, where we had the chance to explore the museum’s storage rooms as well as the recently re-opened galleries. Gudrun Bühl, curator and museum director of Dumbarton Oaks, and postdoctoral teaching fellow Elizabeth Williams gave us insight into the practices of early dealers who often cut up and pieced together these fragmentary textiles.

The afternoon allowed us to explore other objects from Dumbarton Oaks’ extensive collection, such as metalwork, jewelry, and manuscripts, which provided other visual insights into this period of intense and diverse artistic production. Although we just glimpsed the beginnings of what will surely be a compelling exhibition, the curators and staff of both The Textile Museum and Dumbarton Oaks provided us with many fascinating insights and thought-provoking questions.

TSA members discussing and closely analyzing textiles from Dumbarton Oaks’ collection.