All Rachel Desgrosseilliers was expecting initially from the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, was a little bit of knowledge.
She got that knowledge. But she got so much more than that, she had to rent a couple trucks and make several trips to haul it all back to Lewiston.
“We made four trips down there with big trucks to pick up all kinds of things that we could use,” said Desgrosseilliers, executive director of Museum L-A. “The last trip we took, we got two beautiful, working spinning wheels. One we’ll be able to use to teach people, the other one, we’re going to use when we redo the exhibits in this first quarter of this year that we have upstairs. We got two beautiful working looms that we’ll be able to use – we’re looking to put in a new design department.
“They had a nice exhibit set up for kids to work with. A kids’ innovation station,” Desgrosseilliers continued. “We got that.”
There’s also a display that connects the textile industry to the game of baseball.
“It’s all about the Boston Red Sox,” Desgrosseilliers said. “It’s going to be pretty neat. We’ll be putting that up as part of re-doing the upstairs.”
They also got shelves, tables, chairs, signage and several other things that would have cost Museum L-A thousands upon thousands of dollars to secure on its own.
Across the river, the Androscoggin Historical Society picked up a few items from the American Textile History Museum as well. So did dozens of other museums across the country. On its face, it looks like a wholesale looting of one of the largest textile museums in the world. The the story behind it is a sad one, but for many, it has a happy ending.
‘A RICH HISTORY OF TEXTILES IN AMERICA’
Nobody celebrated when the American Textile History Museum announced in 2016 that it would shut its doors for good.
For more than 50 years, the Lowell museum had sought to tell America’s story through the art, history and science of textiles.
It told the story well. For decades, the museum held the world’s largest collection of tools, spinning wheels, hand looms and early production machines. It was home to more than 5 million pieces of textile prints, fabric samples, rolled textiles coverlets and costumes.
All of this the museum shared with the public through exhibits, workshops and lectures dedicated to the rich history of textiles in America.
When budget woes forced the museum’s closure last year, many mourned its passing. But what has been lost in Lowell, Massachusetts, has proven to be a boon for museums and historical societies across the country.
“Artifacts in the ATHM collection are held on behalf of the public,” museum officials announced, “and as such, are being relocated to other nonprofit or government organizations to ensure future public access and benefit.”
In Lewiston, Desgrosseilliers was plenty familiar with the ATHM even before the group began parceling off its collection.
“I had gone down there several times to talk with them – to try to learn from them,” she said. “When we found out they were going to be closing, I asked the gentleman in charge of closing to come up and speak frankly to our board of directors about issues – about things to do and not do. Then we found out that these things were available. We made an initial trip down there. I went around and said, ‘I’d like to have this. We could really use that.’ We put a wish list together.”
By then, ATHM officials had already put together a list of where specific items would go. Initial plans called for Museum L-A to get just a small handful of assorted items. Ultimately, they did a little better than that.
“We got quite a few of the items that we wanted, but there are a few pieces I wanted that I didn’t get,” Desgrosseilliers said. “Some of the bigger institutions were taking more stuff so they got first dibs. They were trying to keep the collections together as much as possible. Then they called me and said ‘Hey, some of the things you wanted are available.’ Then when the collections were gone, they talked to us about storage pieces – we got a lot of shelving that would have cost us a mint to buy. With that, we’ve been able to redo a big part of our collection, so we can see what we’ve got. It’s been a big boost for us.”
GAINING VALUABLE INFORMATION TOO
The Androscoggin Historical Society meanwhile inherited four museum pieces. “As it happened, I was going to Westford, Massachusetts – which is very near to Lowell – to my granddaughter’s high school graduation,” said Doug Hodgkin, president of the historical society, “so I picked up the items then.”
The items in question are listed in the Historical Society newsletter:
• Sample card containing 21 samples of gingham cloth manufactured by Bates Manufacturing Co.
• Pillow tubing yardage; cotton, white, with Continental Mills labels attached.
• Portrait on silk cloth of George Bean, manager of Androscoggin Mills.
• Blanket sample; Golden Fleece Blankets, Lincoln-Columbia Mills.
“They did not know the identity of the man on the silk cloth,” Hodgkin said, referring to that third item, “but I was able to identify him as George Bean, an agent of the mill.”
The closing of the ATHM, while sad, has proven to be a bonanza for museums and historical societies around the country. But as much as Rachel Desgrosseilliers likes the spinning wheels, displays and storage equipment, her group also gained a lot of fresh knowledge from ATHM Executive Director Todd Smith, who agreed to speak to the Museum L-A board of directors about the issues that ultimately doomed the museum in Lowell.
“It’s not easy out there for museums today,” Desgrosseilliers said. “I wanted our board of directors to hear directly from them. It was a learning moment for us, and we learned a lot.”
According to Denise D. Webb, spokeswoman for the ATHM, all the museum’s collections have now been transferred to new homes. Other Maine locations that received items include the Osher Map Library in Portland and the Waldoboro Historic Society.
The American Textile History Museum is officially gone, it appears. But the story of America as told through textiles? Places like Museum L-A are still telling that story, which is why the ATHM was so generous to begin with.
“They were looking for museums and historical societies that were doing the same kinds of things they were with textiles,” Desgrosseilliers said. “We were that. Textiles are textiles whether it’s in Lowell or here.”
A detail from the display “What do sheep and baseballs have in common?” The entire piece, illustrating the role textiles play in the construction of baseballs, will be eventually displayed at Museum L-A. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Even shelving from the American Textile History Museum has been put to great use in the storerooms of at Museum L-A. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
A World War II parachute pack that was once hanging at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, is already on display at Museum L-A. Rachel Desgrosseilliers, executive director of Museum L-A, had been searching for one of the chutes because Lewiston’s Bates Mill once made parachute materials for paratroopers during the war. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Emma Sieh, Collections and Exhibit coordinator, and Rachel Desgrosseilliers, executive director of Museum L-A, hold a poster from the American Textile History Museum. The Massachusetts museum recently closed and distributed its holdings to other museums, including Museum L-A. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Two adult-sized looms were received by Museum L-A from the American Textile History Museum in Massachusetts and will be used to teach weaving to members of the L/A community. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
A detail from the display “What do sheep and baseballs have in common?” The entire work on baseballs and the role textiles play in their construction will be eventually displayed at Museum L-A. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Archival-quality tubes for rolling textiles were among the items Museum L-A received from the American Textile History Museum. The acid-free cardboard tubes will be used for storing textiles in a manner that minimizes decay. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Mannequins obtained by Museum L-A will be used to display textiles. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
A detail from the display “What do sheep and baseballs have in common?” The entire piece on baseballs and the role textiles play in their construction will be eventually displayed at Museum L-A. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
This mannequin will be dressed as a mill girl in a Museum L-A display that deals with child labor in the mills. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)