First Look: DC’s Textile Museum Returns

It opens Saturday in a swanky new location.
First Look: DC’s Textile Museum Returns
This intricate Daoist priest's robe dates as far back as late 18th-century China. Image courtesy of the Textile Museum.

The Textile Museum’s vibrant collection—including centuries-old carpets, antique kimonos and sarongs, Egyptian mummy wraps, and even a black feather dress designed in the 1960s by Givenchy for socialite Betsy Bloomingdale—have been out of sight since the museum, formerly in Kalorama, closed in October 2013.

On Saturday, March 21, you can see part of the collection again, when the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum opens, in a new 53,000-square-foot LEED Gold-certified complex in Foggy Bottom.

With bigger spaces and higher ceilings than in its old roost, the 90-year-old Textile Museum can unfurl more of its collection—all told, 19,000 objects. The inaugural exhibit of 100 pieces—”Unraveling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories”—illustrates how the colors, materials, and patterns of everything from an intricately woven Peruvian wrap dating from the third century B.C., to a 20th-century Buddhist pilgrim’s jacket, help to identify the wearer’s status and story. Don’t miss an early 19th-century Japanese fireman’s coat emblazoned with a hawk, two side-by-side Japanese wedding gowns made 60 years apart that show the change in bridal modesty, a gorgeous Daoist priest’s robe designed with celestial images and dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, and a pair of eight-inch-high gold platform heels made for a petite Mae West.

The Textile Museum is just part of the new museum, which also houses the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection of 1,000 artifacts documenting the history of our capital city.

An interesting one-room exhibit, “Seat of Empire: Planning Washington, 1790-1801,” tells the story of the evolution of the “Federal City”—originally conceived as bigger than New York, Philadelphia, and Boston combined. Letters, maps, photographs, and documents trace the heated debate and the eventual plan by Peter L’Enfant (not Pierre, you learn—the Frenchman preferred being called Peter after he moved to America).

Another, three-room exhibit focuses on “The Civil War and the Making of Modern Washington,” and it, too, holds some fascinating reveals about how the capital changed during and after the war. By the end of 1862, Washington was home to nearly 60 hospitals to care for Civil War soldiers—the city would become a center of medical research on the treatment of gunshot wounds and war-related disease. Don’t miss a rare map that plotted all of the city’s forts in 1862 (much to the government’s consternation), and a surprising map showing how evenly distributed residents of various races were in the 1880s city.

While the museum touts the housing of textile art and DC artifacts in one place as a marriage of art, history, and culture, there is a bit of a disconnect. Still, too much of any one thing—say, room after room of history or art—can be overwhelming. The new museum is a nice, manageable size. A few rooms filled with compelling but text-heavy DC maps and documents might be a good way to start a visit, followed by an easier-on-the-eyes stroll through the magnificent textiles.

Another highlight is the small but well-curated gift shop, with—naturally—lots of woven, embroidered, and textile-themed gifts.

The opening day—Saturday, March 21—will feature a handful of special events, including children’s activities such as origami-making, kimono- and Victorian-era dress-up stations, and dance and music performances.

The museum’s hours are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m,; Saturday 10 to 5; Sunday 1 to 5. Admission is free for museum members, children, and current GW students, faculty, and staff. The suggested donation for all others is $8.

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Executive Editor

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986. She is the editor in charge of such consumer topics as travel, fitness, health, finance, and beauty, as well as the editor who handles such cover stories as Great Places to Work, Best of Washington, Day Trips, Hidden Gems, Bikes and Hikes, Fairs and Festivals, Great Small Towns, and the Washington Bucket List. She lives in Arlington.