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Inspiration in Washington D.C.

All I wanted was dinosaurs and quilts.

My husband Chris and I went to Washington D.C. last month on vacation. We'd both been before, and visited all of the various monuments, so this trip was all about the museums. Specifically, I wanted to spend all of our time in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of American History.

So with all of this walking around museums planned, I suppose it was inevitable that I should sprain my ankle the very first day, gawking as we passed the Supreme Court Building.

No matter, there is plenty in D.C. to distract one from such mundane concerns.

One of the first stops was the American History Museum. After a strangely fascinating trip through the history of computers, which I heartily recommend, we headed for the textiles exhibit on the third floor.

On first sight, it was smaller than I expected. The museum has a wonderful website, with an extensive online textiles exhibit ( http://www.si.edu/nmah/ve/quilts/quilt.html ). From the number of items exhibited online, I'm afraid I expected a larger physical exhibit.

Upon reflection, though, I decided this was a pretty smart way to arrange things. Many more people get to see the quilts on the website than could ever visit the museum. The items on display in the museum can then be rotated from the entire collection, so that no one piece is exposed the damaging lights (and camera flashes) for too long of a time.

The museum exhibit made up in quality anything it was missing in quantity, anyway. The very first piece I saw was the "Pocahontas Quilt", an album quilt done by Pocahontas Virginia Gay, a 7th generation descendant of the Native American princess Pocahontas. Each block is appliqued and embroidered. Many feature historical figures such as president Andrew Jackson or the original Pocahontas. Other show farm animals, or puppies and kittens or birds. Some are simple, others have a scrappy, crazy quality. One is a signature block, with a large cursive embroidered "P. V. Gay". Altogether, it showcases a slice of American life at the time.

There were also several more traditional quilts and other needlework items on display. If you are in the D.C. area, you owe it to yourself to pay the National Museum of American History a visit. You may find specific inspiration for a project, or, like me, you may simply be reminded of the historical context of whatever you're working on now. If one of your quilts is on display in a museum one hundred years from now, what will people see in it?

It turns out, though, that the exhibit in the Museum of American History is only the beginning of what Washington D.C. has to offer the visiting quilter. I recommend the Museum of Natural History as a second stop.

So many of us draw on the natural world around us for quilting inspiration. It is next to impossible for a quilter to walk away from the diversity of nature gathered at the Smithsonian without a new idea or several.

I headed first to the Hall of Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are an odd obsession of mine. I have to admit, I wasn't thinking of quilts at all when we arrived at the Museum of Natural History.

After you explore the Hall of Dinosaurs, though, if you walk upstairs, you find youself suddenly at the Hope Diamond and the Hall of Gems. I guess I knew, intellectually, that gemstones come in every color of the rainbow and every conceivable shape. The Hall of Gems exhibit brings this point home in a new way.

I found one idea there I think is pretty cool. There was a display case highlighting the range of color in gemstones, and they had nearly everything, from the brightest yellow sulfur to the deepest red ruby, arranged according to color. So I said, "Wouldn't that make a great quilt?" Whereupon my husband declared me a hopeless fanatic.

Seriously, though, wouldn't it? It could be an album quilt, with a different mineral in each square, arranged by color as they were in the museum. Or maybe it should be a more abstract design, pulling in the full range of both color and shape.

There were many moments like that on this trip. If you ever feel the need for new inspiration, a trip to the Smithsonian will probably cure your ills.

At the moment, the Smithsonian is also hosting a special exhibit at the Museum of Natural History: "The Spirit of the Ainu". The Ainu are a Japanese people from the far north, and the exhibit is full of fascinating information about their history and culture.

There are also accomplished fabric artists among the Ainu. To begin with, I was intrigued by the delicate ceremonial clothing. Then, I found Noriko Kawamura's work. As the exhibit director, Kitty Dubreuil, says of Kawamura, "she takes Ainu subject matter, already abstract, and pushes it to the next dimension of abstraction and makes these incredibly stunning and exciting wall hangings." If you like, you can read more of the director's comments about the exhibit in "Ainu: The Anatomy of an Exhibit" at http://www.mnh.si.edu/arctic/html/ainu.htm .

The Kawamura pieces caught my eye at once. The first is a dramatic work in blues and reds. The effect is of a wave or an ocean wrapping around a swirling ball of dancing fire. The other is displayed among the carved wood pieces. It is itself reminiscent of carved wooden columns, done in rougher fabrics in muted browns and blues. Both pieces made me want to know more about the Ainu people. In addition, both provided inspiration for what amazing things can be done with a wide range of fabric types and colors.

Eventually, I thought I had reached the limit of quilting in D.C. museums. I was worng, of course. I went with Chris to the Library of Congress and to the Folger Library of Shakespeare. Then we found our way to the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. In that museum's gift shop I found a small holiday ornament. It's a cube, and on each face is a reverse appliqued star. A small slip of paper with it informed me that these ornaments are made by the Hmong hilltribes residing in tree top villages in northern Thailand and in Laotian refugee camps. Evidently they are renowned for their reverse applique and cross-stitch. That's another thing I'm going to have to find out more about now.

The ornaments were lovely, and of course I had to buy one. Chris and I had a rule on this trip, to cut down on baggage: only buy items in gift shops that you can't find anywhere back home. So naturally, as we sat down to rest outside the Sackler, I discovered that the distributor of these ornaments is in St. Pete Beach, Florida - all of about 10 miles from our home. Oh well, at least I know where to buy more!

All in all, our trip to Washington D.C. was fascinating and fun. I found quilting all around me, and inspiration was around every corner. I'm already looking for an excuse to go up there again soon.

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