WASHINGTON — A new museum in Washington will showcase a wide variety of art, history and culture through ancient textiles and a significant collection on the history of the nation's capital — while also signaling a major expansion in the arts for George Washington University.
The university is opening the $33 million complex Saturday on its downtown campus where two museums will share one facility. The six-story complex becomes the new home for Washington's 90-year-old Textile Museum and its collection of 19,000 artifacts, along with a new museum featuring maps and documents tracing the capital city's history.
The opening comes just months after George Washington University also acquired one of the nation's oldest art museums, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and its art school, demonstrating the school's aspiration to build a much larger profile in the arts.
George Washington University President Steven Knapp said the school is working to become a comprehensive university with broad strengths beyond law, politics and public policy. He wants the school to find innovative ways to bring together visual arts with the performing arts, such as theater and music.
"People often think of Washington, D.C., as a center of politics but don't realize that it's in many ways a center of culture and intellect," he said. "Given our location, which is really between the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center, I think we have an opportunity to become a real hub for the arts and culture here."
The Textile Museum, founded in 1925, moved to the university through an affiliation agreement. Though less visible in the past while housed in a historic mansion, the museum holds one of the world's leading collections of antique, handmade rugs and textiles. The oldest items date back 5,000 years. But the museum wasn't positioned to grow on its own, said Bruce Baganz, president of the museum's board.
Now the gallery space has tripled. The university also built a separate conservation center in northern Virginia. The inaugural exhibition in the new museum, "Unraveling Identity," explores how textiles are used as an expression of identity, from gender and ethnicity to spirituality and political beliefs. It's the largest exhibit in the museum's history.
Curators now have enough space to borrow contemporary textiles from other museums, showing connections between historic pieces and recent fashion icons. Special items on view include actress Mae West's platform shoes from the 1950s and a black cocktail dress decorated with feathers by Hubert de Givenchy for American socialite Betsy Bloomingdale.
Exhibits linking past and present help broaden the museum's relevance, said curator Sumru Belger Krody.
"It's a window or a door to get people interested if they are not interested in the historical pieces," she said.
Young people in particular weren't going to find The Textile Museum at its old location, "so we came to them," Baganz said.
"Now this museum is in a position to be the core, the cornerstone of the university that brings together multiple disciplines," he said.
Neighboring galleries feature new historical exhibits, exploring the planning of the nation's capital and the Civil War's impact on Washington through maps, pictures and manuscripts.
Museum studies students designed the exhibits, which were curated by a professor. History and anthropology students can create public programs and tours.
The new museum will rely on student work and will become a hands-on laboratory for their studies, said Museum Director John Wentenhall.
Admission to the George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum will be free for the university community. There is a suggested donation of $8 for the general public.
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