Flowers and Fabrication at the American Textile History Museum

The mission of the American Textile History Museum (ATHM), located in Lowell, Massachusetts, states that the institution “tells America’s story through the art, history, and science of textiles.” In two recently opened exhibitions, Flowers in the Factory and Inventing Lowell, the museum brings together these threads in unexpected ways, illustrating 19th-century Lowell through both personal and more structural lenses and creating a fascinating conversation in the process. The exhibitions, collectively referred to as MILL WORKS, bring different approaches to Lowell’s history, but as the ATHM’s Director of Interpretation, David Unger, remarks, “the two exhibits are closely related. Both draw from the same pool of visual material in our library, and both are industrial places. It was great to be able to present the two together as distinct, but complementary, exhibits.” Taken together, the exhibitions foster a holistic sense of the evolution of the textile history and the region.

Installation image if MILL WORKS at the American Textile History Museum. Installation image if MILL WORKS at the American Textile History Museum.

Inventing Lowell is a preview of a video series on the founding of Lowell that will compose part of the 2015 Places of Invention exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the ATHM’s exhibition focuses on the invention of the factory town in tandem with the development of textile mills in 19th-century America. Lowell played a central role in this development, given its identity as a community planned around the needs and schedules of the textile industry. The city’s development reflected the rise of “industrial urbanism” as planners built housing for laborers while aiming to maintain living conditions and avoid the failures of earlier industrial urban development in England. In the press release for the exhibition, Unger comments, “Inventing Lowell celebrates the innovation, creativity and human spirit of those urban pioneers as they invented the modern city. Whether Museum visitors are from Lowell or visiting for the first time, they will be transported to a new place, experiencing Lowell through this language and lens of invention.” Interestingly, as Lowell faces an economic era built on ideas, rather than physical infrastructure, the exhibition connects to Lowell’s self-reinvention as a post-industrial city, connecting the early innovation and resourcefulness of the city’s founders to the ways in which Lowell has sought to embrace its history and reposition itself for the 21st century.

Oscar, Emma and the Girls (detail) 2014, Charcoal and pastel on paper, fabric dye on cotton gauze, 4ft x 12ft Oscar, Emma and the Girls (detail) 2014, Charcoal and pastel on paper, fabric dye on cotton gauze, 4ft x 12ft

While Inventing Lowell presents a somewhat structural view of the city’s development, Flowers in the Factory takes a more personal approach, focusing on the workers who powered the city’s textile industry. Uniquely for a history museum, this exhibition is centered on large fabric artworks, using contemporary textile art to convey a history deeply rooted in textile manufacturing. The works, by artist Deborah Baronas, are designed to shift and move as visitors pass them, lending a sense of animation to the building. They act in direct conversation with the museum’s collection; the artist went through the museum’s collection of historic photographs and created the pieces in response to images of individual workers. Unger explains, “The hope is that by transforming elements of the photographs, we can bring them to life, and get people to see them again, as if for the first time.”  He notes that the impulse for the exhibition came from several directions, including the innovative contemporary art interventions that have taken place in several history museums in recent years. To Unger, these projects serve multiple purposes, including “bring[ing] a fresh perspective to old material, appeal[ing] to new audiences, and support[ing] great work.” The exhibition refers to the flowers that were placed in factory windows amid bleak industrial surroundings, providing a poignant reminder that beneath the large-scale advances highlighted in Inventing Lowell, individual workers faced harsh realities in their lives at the mills.

Taken together, Inventing Lowell and Flowers in the Factory illustrate the ways in which various media and methods can interact to illuminate and enliven historical collections. The conversation between the two exhibitions reflects the long conversation in American history between economic development and individual workers, creating a dynamic that allows visitors to consider the roles of Lowell’s workers within the larger context of American history. By linking the region’s history to the present through both conceptual links and visual media, the ATHM provides multiple access points to history for its visitors, inviting them to engage in an ongoing conversation and reflect on the continuing relevance of this conversation.