By: Judy Elsley
My paper documents the recent Smithsonian Controversy, explaining the debate and explicating the significance of the dispute in terms of the cultural and ideological issues it raises. What seems like a trivial issue to the Smithsonian represents a major concern in the quilting community because, as I will argue in this paper, the controversy speaks to how we perceive quilts, what purpose we think they serve, and what cultural meaning we assign to them.
More specifically, the reproductions enact a cultural dislocation of quilts mat can be formulated in terms of who controls them. The controversy involves a series of dislocations, disturbing shifts in our cultural perception of quilts: from control by those who make them, primarily women, to control by commercial enterprise; from focus on the quiltmaker to emphasis on the quilt; in other words, from quilt as process to quilt as product. There’s also a shift from the quilt embedded in its historical and cultural conditions to the quilt isolated and even alienated from its context; and lastly a shift takes place from quilt as art to quilt as craft. Each of these shifts represents a slippage that undermines the diligent efforts of quilt scholars and enthusiasts to give quilts, and the women’s culture they represent, their rightful place in American society.
I wish to argue, then that the Smithsonian Controversy represents a struggle over women’s history, its place, purpose, and significance.