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The Textile Museum

Forester George Hewitt Myers established the Textile Museum in 1925 with the aim of increasing the stature of textiles as art objects and of providing a comprehensive survey of non-Western textiles.

Myers understood the critical difference between a collection and a museum: one is an evolving personal entity and the other is a series of concepts embodied in an institution operating for public benefit.

Carol Bier

George Hewitt Myers was born in Cleveland in 1875. He was an heir to his half-brother's pharmaceutical company, from which he inherited interest.Martha McWilliam, “One Man’s Romance with Fiber Created the Textile Museum,” Smithsonian Institution (March 1987): 109. As a student at Yale, he developed two passions: textiles and forestry. His first acquisitions were rugs for decorating his lodgings. After receiving his master’s degree in forestry from Yale, in 1902, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service and went on to create a company focused on forest management in 1926.Carol Bier, “Legacy of Collector George Hewitt Myers,” Arts of Asia 26, no. 1 (1996): 58. Myers donated thousands of acres to Yale’s School of Forestry, and he was buried, in 1957, in Yale Forest; his tombstone is engraved with the simple line: “This was his forest.”“Ahead of His Time: The Collecting Vision of George Hewitt Myers,” The Textile Museum, 2007, https://www2.gwu.edu/~textile/AheadofHisTime/index.html.

Myers and his wife moved to D.C. in 1913, and their Georgian-style mansion and the adjacent house eventually became the Textile Museum. In the capital, Myers was well connected both to his community and to the arts. He served on local and national boards, including the American Federation of Arts, the National Parks Association, the Smithsonian Fine Arts Commission, and the Washington board of the American Federation of the Arts, and he was the honorary textiles curator at the Yale University Art Gallery.Bier, “Legacy,” 58–59.

George and Louise Myers with their daughters, Watch Hill, RI, ca. 1920. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

In Search of Design Roots

After his first purchases in the 1890s, Myers was bitten by the collector’s bug. In 1910, he added rugs from Ottoman Turkey, Safavid Iran, and Spain to his burgeoning collection.“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum. He began amassing a Chinese rug collection after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.Bier, “Legacy,” 58.

One textile often led to another; Myers noticed similarities between designs and became interested in works from different regions. For example, he was drawn to textiles from Turkey, the Greek Islands, and Algeria in the 1910s and 1920s. Myers also perceived a connection between Spanish and classical Anatolian carpets, and found the technical aspects of Peruvian textiles to be reminiscent of Egyptian textiles.“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum.

After the opening of the Textile Museum in 1925, Myers began collecting more methodically with the aim of providing a “comprehensive overview of non-Western textiles.”“Ahead of His Time.” The Textile Museum. In 1927, he began collecting archaeological textiles from Egypt and, shortly later, from Peru and China.“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum. Between the 1930s and 1950s, Myers built collections that included Islamic, late antique, pre-Hispanic American, Southeast Asian, and sub-Saharan African textiles. In the 1930s, Myers traveled with his wife to Europe and the Middle East, where he purchased Islamic and Coptic textiles.“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum and Bier, “Legacy,” 63.

Carpet, East Caucasus, late 19th century. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1905. The Textile Museum, R36.3.4. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

Chuval (bag) face, Turkmen, Central Asia, late 19th century. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1909. The Textile Museum, R37.5.5. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

Kilim, Iran, Kashan, late 16th–early 17th century. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1926. The Textile Museum, R33.28.1. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

Hat, Peru, South Coast, ca. 850–1100. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1941. The Textile Museum, 91.346. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

Carpet fragment, Mughal, India, Fatehpur Sikri or Agra, 17th century. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1949. The Textile Museum, R63.00.13. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

Wrapped dress, Hausa people, West Africa, Sudan, 1950s. Acquired by George Hewitt Myers in 1957. The Textile Museum, 24.5. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

What Came Before?

Myers took a historical approach to his collecting, driven by curiosity and the question, what came before a piece?Bier, “Legacy,” 59. He was known among dealers as an incredibly smart and knowledgeable collector“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum. He was also savvy in collecting within his financial means, pursuing pieces that were less in demand, or not in perfect condition, but still were important in some way. For example, he avoided the more popular large full-size Persian carpets and instead collected small exquisite Persian carpet fragments that show clearly the history of this art form.Bier, “Legacy,” 62. This did not mean, however, that he would not spend large sums on textiles when necessary, merely that he prized the contribution that a piece, no matter its condition, could make to his collection. Myers once spent $18,000 on a fragment of a Lotto carpet, even though he already owned a complete and intact Lotto carpet, because he believed “the fragment preserves a better quality of drawing than the large carpet.”Bier, “Legacy,” 62. He also purchased a reproduction of a Gördes prayer rug when he was new to collecting, and even after he found out that it was not authentic, he exhibited it next to a real Gördes rug.McWilliam, “One Man’s Romance,” 109. Myers believed that old or unusual pieces in any condition could help inform the public about the history of textiles.“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum.

His love of textiles also stemmed from the fact that they are typically judged on their individual merits, not on the fame of an artist. He believed anonymous non-Western artists had “an unexplained genius for color” that was unmatched by the “‘stuff’ produced by European cultures.”“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum. Myers was equally fascinated by the long, uninterrupted history of textile and rug-making.

Myers focused on collecting handwoven objects made to be used by their creators. He expressed concern that the best textiles were products of a bygone era and that inferior textiles were being produced in the machine age, although he thought some new textiles were “worthy of note.” Myers felt industrial products could be improved upon to achieve better quality in technique and design. He believed his collection, if studied by industrial designers and technicians, would help the industry to achieve that goal. He also sought to inspire modern artists with his historical collection.Bier, “Legacy,” 63–64.

Fragment of a Lotto carpet. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

Reproduction of a Gördes prayer rug. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

The Textile Museum

The Textile Museum opened its doors as a small museum in 1925, out of what used to be Myers’s home. The collection included 275 rugs and sixty textiles.Bier, “Legacy,” 58. In 1952, Myers created the United States’ first textile conservation laboratory at his museum.McWilliam, “One Man’s Romance,” 109. By the time Myers died, in 1957, the collection had expanded to almost twice as many rugs and thirty-five hundred textiles.Bier, “Legacy,” 58. During Myers’s lifetime, the museum was open by appointment only, and attracted several hundred visitors a year.“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum.

Exterior of The Textile Museum. Photograph courtesy of the Textile Museum and the George Washington University Museum.

Myers founded the Textile Museum at a time when the D.C. arts world was expanding. The Corcoran Gallery was well-established, and the Freer Gallery and the Phillips Collection had recently opened. In this context, he sought to make textiles an accepted art form and a part of art history at a time when they were considered at afterthought.“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum. To this end, he was dedicated to educating the public, taking carpet fragments with him on tour to classrooms around the country, or lending them to be displayed in lectures or in gallery exhibitions, both in the United States and abroad.Bier, “Legacy,” 63.

Myers served as both director and chairman of the board of trustees at the Textile Museum.Bier, “Legacy,” 59. He created the museum with two trustees: Eugene E. Thompson and Russell G. Rankin.“Ahead of His Time,” The Textile Museum. After Myers’s death in 1957, his wife, Louise Stoddard Chase, took on his responsibilities as president of the board of trustees. She served through 1958 and was succeeded by Alan Sawyer.Louise W. Mackie and Anne P. Rowe, “Masterpieces in The Textile Museum,” The Textile Museum (1976).

The Impact of Myers’s Vision

The Textile Museum has made a major contribution to the analysis and conservation of textiles.McWilliam, “One Man’s Romance,” 112. The museum’s publications, such as Workshop Notes and the Textile Museum Journal, have educated those interested in the preservation of textiles. Likewise, many workers trained at the Textile Museum have gone on to work at other museums, thereby spreading the knowledge. For example, Nobuko Kajitani worked at the Textile Museum and went on to head the Textile Conservation Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition, Milton Sonday became the curator at Cooper Hewitt and Florence Day became a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Myers opened the museum out of his home due to his desire to spread knowledge. In the words of former Textile Museum curator Carol Bier, “Myers understood the critical difference between a collection and a museum: one is an evolving personal entity and the other is a series of concepts embodied in an institution operating for public benefit.”Bier, “Legacy,” 62.

His emphasis on history has also remained at the forefront of the museum’s modern-day functioning. Andrew Oliver Jr., who was director of the museum in the late 1970s, reflected this understanding: “Each piece comes to us with a history and a record of its former existence, however elusive that may be.”Mackie and Rowe, “Masterpieces,” 5.

The Museum Today

In 2011, the Textile Museum and the George Washington University announced plans to join together to establish a new museum on GW’s main campus in Foggy Bottom. The George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum opened in 2015. The 53,000-square-foot museum showcases the collections of the Textile Museum, as well as the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection of artifacts that tell the story of our nation’s capital. In its new home, The Textile Museum offers four times as many educational programs.Kristen Page-Kirby, “The Textile Museum’s New George Washington University Home Unites Historic Fabric and D.C. History,” Washington Post, March 19, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/wp/2015/03/19/the-textile-museums-new-george-washington-university-home-unites-historic-fabric-and-d-c-history/?utm_term=.cf6e8d7ce19e. In an interview with the Washington Post, museum director John Wetenhall said, “The core mission of the Textile Museum continues. But it’s become wider and more generous. The galleries are more than twice as large as they were, and we have included far more context and interactivity.”Page-Kirby, “Historic Fabric and D.C. History.”

Profile by Melda Gurakar, Melissa Rodman, Joy Wang, and Leah Yared, 2016 summer interns.