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15 years ago Smithsonian Reproduced "Bible Quilt"

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Who'd a Thought - 15 years ago quilters protested at the doors of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History ... telephoned and hand-delivered petitions signed by thousands of quilters to their Congressional Representatives... and more! Why?

In 1992 the Spiegel catalog (remember Spiegel?) featured handmade copies of historic 19th century quilts from the Smithsonian collection. The Smithsonian had licensed the reproductions to American Pacific Enterprises Inc. to generate needed revenues. The four quilts licensed were the 1851 Bride's Quilt, the 1830 Great Seal of the United States quilt, the 1850 quilt called Sunburst, and the beloved 1886 Bible Quilt stitched by Harriet Powers. The quilts were to be stitched in China.

Many factors contributed to the uproar. Some quilters felt the reproductions would "compromise their provenance and create confusion about their origins." Others argued that the Smithsonian should have contracted American quilters to stitch the reproductions, not folks overseas. Some feared the quality of the Chinese reproductions might be sub-par and, as a result, negatively affect the market for American-made quilts. Many wanted the quilts to be clearly labeled "Made in China." Others wondered why the Smithsonian would have reproductions made in China when the US was running a $12.7 billion trade deficit at the time with China. Some quilters also wondered if museums which collected their works would license their creations without permission in future.

Organizationally, quilters turned up the heat! The National Quilting Association faxed its official position paper to its member chapters requesting action. Smithsonian officials met with quilters to understand their viewpoints. Some concessions were made. One was that the Smithsonian would ensure its name and the copyright year (1992) were printed on each reproduced quilt.

1992 was the second year that I quilted. While I recall the controversy, I can't say I knew the details then. Looking at newspaper articles from the NY Times and the Washington Post from 1992 - 1993, here's a few tidbits:

  • Each of the quilts took 50 hours of labor by 3 or 4 workers
  • American textiles were used for the applique and Chinese-made cotton for the backing and batting. The quilt was sewn by machine, but quilted by hand.
  • Anticipated royalties during the 3 year contract were between $500,000 - $800,000
  • American Pacific sold more than 23,000 of the four reproductions by March 1993.

One can occasionally find one of the Harriet Powers' reproduction Bible Quilt on eBay, including the 12 page Smithsonian Collection booklet with photos and descriptions of each of the four quilts and numbered Certificate of Registration card.

It's been 15 years. I wonder what insights and reflections those who remember or were involved with the protests have now. I wonder:

  • How many Smithsonian Collection reproduction quilts were finally sold?
  • What did it feel like to protest on the steps of the museum in March 1992?
  • How really did quilters nationally get the word out about the reproduction concerns? Remember there wasn't instant messaging, blogs, websites, 5 cents a min long distance rates, or email news alerts. What were the protest communication channels?
  • What was the final list of agreed upon consessions by the Smithsonian?
  • What value did registering the quilts offer? Is there still a registration record?
  • Where can one (ok, me!) get a copy of the NQA 1992 position protest paper?
  • What's the thoughts of the Smithsonian textile curators today?
  • What's the perspective of American Pacific Enterprises today?
  • Will the remodeled National Museum of American History include an improved quilt display area?
  • Is there an active secondary market for the reproduced Smithsonian quilts?
  • Have the actual reproduced quilts lasted? Were they indeed of good quality?
  • Did the protest have a lasting impact on museum decisions to reproduce other historical quilts in their permanent collections?
  • Have there been any published articles or papers taking a considered look at the 1992 protests and aftermath?