Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Legacy of Cuesta Benberry

The Legacy of Quilt Scholar Cuesta Benberry 

Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum

Michigan State University Museum Exhibit Shows Newly Acquired Quilt Collection
(Click here to see the story of the above quilt.)

In a new exhibition opening Dec. 6, the Michigan State University Museum will premiere the textile collections of the late Cuesta Benberry, one of the twentieth-century's pioneers of research on American quiltmaking and the forerunner of research on African American quiltmaking.

"Unpacking Collections: The Legacy of Cuesta Benberry, an African American Quilt Scholar" explores the production and meaning of collections and, for the first time, shows this new collection acquired by the MSU Museum in 2009. The exhibit runs Dec. 6, 2009 - Sept. 5, 2010 after which it will begin its national tour.

"Every collection reflects a point of view, a passion, a mindful purpose of the collector who made it," explains Marsha MacDowell, MSU Museum curator of folk arts and MSU professor of art and art history. "In literally unpacking a scholar's collection, a museum or an archive has a responsibility to care for, research, interpret, and make accessible the contents of the collection. It is when a collection—its parts and its whole—is figuratively unpacked, that we can learn more about the scholar and the subjects they researched."

Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum

Click here to read the story of the Black Families Series #1 by Carolyn Mazloomi.)

The Cuesta Benberry African and African American Quilt and Quilt History Collections contains 52 quilts (including family quilts and the only one Benberry actually made), notebooks, quilt kits and patterns, and scores of notes and clippings related to quiltmakers, quilts, and quilt exhibitions. A founder of the American Quilt Study Group in 1980, Benberry was also the author of several books about quilt history, including "Always There: The African American Presence in American Quilts" and "A Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans." See a "Quilt Treasure" web portrait of Cuesta Benberry here.

Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum

(Click here to see the story of the Shoe Quilt.)

Benberry had a long association with the MSU Museum, the home of the Great Lakes Quilt Center, and when she passed away in 2007, her family gave the Michigan State University Museum her collection of African and African American quilts and her quilt history. Then in 2009, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City transferred its Benberry collections to the MSU Museum so that the bulk of her work could be in one place where it could be more effectively accessed for research and educational uses.

Photo courtesy of Karen Alexander

(The same quilt as it hung at Cuesta's memorial service.)

Over the past year, MSU Museum staff, students, and volunteers have been "unpacking" — sorting through, cataloging, and re-housing Benberry's collection.

"In the process, these workers have been engaging in discussions of their observations about both the collection and the collector and the issues and insights that help make collections available for research, teaching and exhibitions," adds Mary Worrall, co-curator of the exhibition and Assistant Curator, MSU Museum.

The work is not complete with this exhibition, MacDowell says. With an Institute for Museum and Library Services National Leadership grant, the MSU Museum is now working to make selections of Benberry's extensive collections digitally accessible to a worldwide community of researchers and educators. Already the quilts from her collection have been added to the Quilt Index and selections from the rest of her collections will also eventually be available on the Internet.

A series of related educational programming, including lectures, workshops, demonstrations, and a symposium are now in the process of being planned and information on these will be announced in January and will be posted at .

The MSU Museum's Great Lakes Quilt Center has evolved from the sustained and significant quilt-related activities and resources at the Michigan State University Museum and the museum's long-standing interest in and commitment to preserving and presenting traditional arts history. Learn more at:

This exhibition is made possible by a Creating Inclusive Excellence Grant from the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives at Michigan State University with additional support from an anonymous gift.

The MSU Museum is Michigan's natural science and culture museum and the state's first Smithsonian Institution affiliate. The MSU Museum—accredited by the American Association of Museums—collects, preserves, studies and interprets cultural artifacts and natural science specimens, with collections numbering more than 1 million in four buildings on the MSU campus. One of the oldest museums in the Midwest, the MSU Museum is committed to education, exhibitions, research and the building and stewardship of collections that focus on Michigan and its relationship to the Great Lakes and the world beyond.

The MSU Museum features three floors of special collections and changing exhibits and is open seven days a week free of charge (donations are encouraged). Located on West Circle Drive next to Beaumont Tower on the MSU campus, the MSU Museum is accessible to persons with disabilities. Hours are Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. -5 p.m.; and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. Visitor parking is available in front of the building and at metered spaces at the Grand River Ramp, one block away at the corner of Grand River Avenue and Charles Street. For more information, call (517) 355-2370 or see .

Additional links on Cuesta Benberry:

1) Quilt Treausres at Alliance for American Quilts
2) Watch video interview of Cuesta Benberry
3) "Remembering Cuesta" by Karen B. Alexander
4) New York Times article.
5) Washington Post article.

PS: You can read more of my quilt research by clicking here.

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