By Eric Gallippo

MSU Museum shows off quilt scholar’s collection

Visitors to Michigan State University Museum’s “Unpacking Collections” exhibit will get a peek into the vast research and materials accumulated by pioneering quilt scholar Cuesta Benberry, but where the exhibit’s title really seems apt is down in the subterranean storage rooms of MSU’s Central Services Building.

It’s there that rows of acid-free storage boxes are stacked floor-to-ceiling with Benberry’s letters, notes, book collections, patterns and other quilt-related research.

At one end of the room, a makeshift photo studio, where each quilt in Benberry’s collection has been or will be photographed to add to the museum’s Quilt Index, an online library of images and information shared with museums and other groups across the country.

Benberry was an African-American librarian from St. Louis who began studying quilts in the 1950s after a trip to Tennessee. There, she encountered a rich tradition of quilting like she had never seen before, and it spurred her to travel the country studying quilts, primarily those made by African-American women.

In the 1970s she began publishing her findings, leading the way for future quilt scholarship. When Benberry died in 2007, her family donated her collection of African-American and African quilts to MSU Museum’s Great Lakes Quilt Center. Earlier this year, the American Folk Art Museum in New York transferred its Benberry collection to the MSU Museum, so it could be in the same place.

The Cuesta Benberry African and African American Quilt and Quilt History Collections includes 52 quilts, as well as notebooks, quilt kits and patterns and copious notes and quilt-related articles.

For the past year, MSU Museum staff, students and volunteers have been sorting and cataloging the collections. And while some of it is now ready to show to the public, Mary Worrall, assistant curator at MSU Museum, said there are still more boxes to go through.

For the exhibit, a selection of 16 quilts produced between 1860 and 2003 will be on display, accompanied by some of Benberry’s research materials. Among the more notable pieces in the show are a 1987 art-quilt by artist Faith Ringgold and “Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors,” a lively, colorful creation by the women of the Gee’s Bend Freedom Quilting Bee, of Gee’s Bend, Ala.

In November 2002, the Whitney Museum in New York showed a collection of quilts from the small, rural town of Gee’s Bend, which spurred New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman to write, “The most ebullient exhibition of the New York art season has arrived at the Whitney Museum in the unlikely guise of a show of hand-stitched quilts.”

“Unpacking Collections” also features the only quilt ever made by Benberry. An homage to the traditions she studied, the quilt, titled, “Afro-American Women and Quilts,” features 10 panels, each representing a different pattern or quilt that inspired her.

While it’s tempting to ask about characteristics and generalizations in the Benberry collection, Worrall said the scholar’s focus was on doing the opposite. “She was interested in really showing the diversity of types of quilts made by African Americans,” Worrall said.

With just over 600 quilts, Worrall said MSU Museum’s collection is one of the largest in the world.

Worrall said quilts there have been in the museum’s collection since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until Marsha MacDowell, a faculty member and curator with an interest in quilts, came to MSU in the 1970s that anyone started doing much with them.

In the ‘80s, MacDowell, who works as curator of folk arts for the Museum today, began a quilt-documenting program that brought more quilts and quilt-scholars to MSU.

Worrall said her own interest in quilts comes from an interest in women’s history and art history, since historically, most quilts were made by women. “It’s such an intimate piece of art instead of art on the wall,” Worrall said.

As co-curator of the Benberry exhibit, Worrall hopes to share that passion with an audience outside of academia. “I hope if [visitors] don’t already have one, they’ll gain an appreciation for quilts and the stories they can tell,” she said.

‘Unpacking Collections’

The Legacy of Cuesta Benberry, An African- American Quilt Scholar

Dec. 6 – Sept. 5 MSU Museum’s Heritage Gallery Hours:

a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday 1 – 5 p.m.
Sunday FREE, $4 suggested donation for adults (517) 355-7474