Exhibition | Threads of Feeling in Williamsburg

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 27, 2013

This exhibition, organized by The Foundling Museum, was on view in London from October 2010 to March 2011. Through next May, it can be seen in Williamsburg (perfect timing for next year’s ASECS meeting). From the press release (17 May 2013) . . .

Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740–1770
DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, Colonial Williamsburg, 25 May 2013 — 26 May 2014

Curated by John Styles

tumblr_inline_ml5nhqK7qS1qz4rgpEach piece of fabric or token tells a poignant, emotional story from more than 200 years ago. Many of those stories are on view at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg in a traveling exhibition organized by the Foundling Museum of London. Threads of Feeling consists of 59 books of textile tokens on loan from the Thomas Coram Foundation, a British children’s charity.

“These stories pack powerful, emotional punches, sure to resonate with parents,” said Ronald Hurst, Colonial Williamsburg’s chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “We are pleased to have the only mounting of the exhibition in the United States since it closed in London two years ago.”

In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left at London’s Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the Foundling Hospital’s nurses. Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th century. A selection of the textiles and the stories they tell us about individual babies, their mothers and their lives form the focus of the Threads of Feeling exhibition. The exhibition also examines artist William Hogarth’s depictions of the clothes, ribbons, embroidery, and fabrics worn in the 18th century as represented by the textile tokens.

“The process of giving over a baby to the Foundling Hospital was anonymous,” said exhibition curator John Styles, research professor in history at the University of Hertfordshire. “It was a form of adoption. The Foundling Hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was erased.”

The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed, and the pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother. The textiles are beautiful and poignant, embedded in a rich social history. Each swatch reflects the life of a single infant child. The textiles also indicate the types of clothing their mothers wore. Many clothes for babies were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing and the fabrics reveal how working women struggled to be fashionable in the 18th century.

Museum guests also are invited to participate in several programs related to the exhibition:

• Textiles and accessories can be much more than just material objects. Guests create their own memory token during Tokens of Affection. Like those in the Threads of Feeling exhibition, their creations tell their own unique stories. Presented 11 am – noon, Tuesdays and Fridays, June 18 – August 30.

Open Drawers: Treasured Textiles from Colonial Williamsburg. Guests drop in to get a closer look at the new exhibition, Threads of Feeling and then peer into the textile study drawers and examine related clothing and needlework from Colonial Williamsburg’s collections. Presented 2–3 pm, Mondays, June 3 – August 26.

Lives Lost and Found. Guests go behind the scenes of Threads of Feeling on a guided tour, examine the textiles on view and discuss the historical and emotional stories behind these textile tokens from the Foundling Hospital in London and the Colonial Williamsburg collection. Space is limited and a $10 ticket is required in addition to museum admission. Presented 9 – 10:30 am, Tuesdays and Fridays, June 18 – August 30.

The conference symposium, Threads of Feeling Unraveled, takes place 20–22 October 2013.

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