LINCOLN, Neb. -- The International Quilt Study Center & Museum is located on the campus of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The center was founded in 1997 with a donation of the Robert and Ardis James Collection of nearly 1,000 quilts and has been called the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the world. Today the museum collection totals about 5,500 quilts. The 37,000-square-foot building housing the quilt collection and study center is known as Quilt House and was built in 2008. The center was accredited by the American Alliance of Museums in 2013.
Ardis James first learned about fabric and quilts from her mother and grandmother. Later she gained more quilting knowledge by being co-owner of Threadneedle House, a fabric and clothing design shop in Chappaqua, New York. Her first attempt at quilt making was Big Blue, a complicated quilt made of hundreds of small pieces.
Bob learned about quilting by watching his mother make quilts growing up in Ord, Nebraska. As a young boy he found a quilt on the floor of an antique store in Ord and bought it for his mother. He still has that quilt.
When the couple decided to pursue quilt collecting they visited museums across the country that had quilt collections and sought help from other collectors and dealers. At first they collected quilts they liked, but then after consulting with experts, they decided to narrow their search to museum quality quilts.
Their amazing collection and many more quilts are now a part of the International Quilt Center. Caring for all those quilts is not an easy task, said Bev, a volunteer tour guide at the center. “Each quilt is taken out of storage and refolded every two years. When quilts are folded, fabric never touches fabric. There’s always a layer of acid-free archival tissue paper layered in between.”
Even the building housing the collection is like a quilt. The glass windows represent the front of a quilt, the galleries are the batting inside, and the offices are the back of the quilt. The reception hall is shaped like the eye of a needle. In 2009 the design received the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver award for its environmentally sustainable building design.
In 2013 the museum received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, which is the highest national recognition a museum can receive.
The International Quilt Study Center added a 13,000-square-foot expansion in June 2015. The expansion doubled the museum’s gallery and storage space and was made possible through a grant by a gift from the Robert and Ardis James Foundation.
Bev said every quilt the center gets receives a through inspection. “Our volunteers vacuum each quilt before it goes on display or in storage.” She said they use a special vacuum and place a soft, flexible screen over it to prevent the vacuum’s suction from pulling on the quilt and damaging it. “The new quilt is then folded and stored in a state-of-the-art climate controlled storage facility.” She said the storage area is kept at a constant 68 degrees and 50 percent humidity. The museum also uses bug traps to prevent insect damage.
The museum has a wide variety of quilts and the displays are changed frequently. One recent collection on display, titled “War and Pieced,” featured quilts made by military members while in a theater of war. All the quilts were made from fabrics used by the military and were made by members of the Armed Forces from around the world. Some were never intended to be a quilt in the traditional sense because they have no batting or back. Many were used as table covers or wall hangings while others were used as game boards. The quilts are part of the Annette Gero collection.
Some of the quilts currently on display include Southern Quilts from the Kathlyn Sullivan Collection that feature 19th century “cheddar” quilts. They were called that because of the distinctive bright, yellow-orange fabric used in making the quilts.
The quilts in the museum have such colorful names as Bowtie, Birds in the Air, Turkey Tracks, Broken Dishes and Log Cabin. The majority of the quilts are displayed on the wall, while several are in table-like display cases.