Believe it or not, globalization once carried with it an experience of astonishment and delight. Imagine an eighteenth century samurai seeing this surcoat (jinbaori) for the first time: feeling the soft imported European wool, marveling at its vivid red hue, created with a dye from Mexico, and admiring the fine silk lapels woven in China. Everything about this garment communicates privilege, sophistication, and wealth. Picture this garment, worn over a leather suit of armor, flowing with the samurai as he strode forth. Could there be any doubt of his status as a man of power and might?
The surcoat is just one example of how the discovery of maritime trade routes forever changed the way textiles were designed and fabricated around the globe. Interwoven Globe, The Worldwide Textile Trade,1500–1800, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is filled with examples of cultural mash-ups that are gorgeous to view and fascinating to learn about. I left the show dazzled by the breadth of content, and inspired by the curatorial expertise that streamlined 300 years of global history into seven succinct and lively galleries.
Trade textiles – textiles produced by one culture to be sold to another – are displayed by theme and geography. These goods created a global market for “exotic” wares, and the patterns, materials and techniques exchanged around the world soon became part of a common visual language. The Portuguese, one of the earliest maritime powers, capitalized on the opportunity to introduce western imagery to the skilled textile workers of China and India. It is the local interpretation of this foreign imagery that makes these textiles so charming to view today. For example, the spiraling vine and animal rinceaux pattern of this bedcover is European, but many of the animals existed only in India at the time.
Here, the double-headed crowned eagles symbolizing the Hapsburg rulers of Spain and Portugal mingle with Chinese phoenixes.
In turn, European-made textiles began to reflect the influence of the East; the three-masted ship in this quilts central medallion celebrates dominion over the seas while its overall design scheme is based on Bengali bedcovers made for the European market.
This co-mingling of local interpretation with imported subjects never disappears; instead it flourishes, creating fantastical visions of exotic locales. The show excels at demonstrating the fluidity with which design elements and technique crossed borders and cultures, never fixed but instead shifting as needed to respond to the tastes of the target market.
This Mexican rebozo (shawl), a clothing form adopted from Spain, illustrates how European-style interiors and clothing spread along the trade routes too. The vignettes across the four registers include boating and picnicking in Xochimilco, a popular park in Mexico City, as well as European furniture and dress. I love the detail in the upper left of a woman displaying her own rebozo.
Design influences traveled from one culture to another, and eventually round-trip. This French dress is sewn from a Chinese textile that imitates a European “bizarre silk” pattern. What’s so wonderful about this is that bizarre silks are thought to have been influenced originally by Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, and Persian motifs found on imported decorative art objects. Attesting to the enduring value of Chinese silks, the textile itself dates to the 1710’s although the dress was not made until the 1770’s.
The show also includes exceptional examples of trade textiles based on earlier existing routes, in this case between India and Indonesia. Here a patolu shows a royal parade with elephants. Patola are silk textiles with designs “produced by a skillful, time-consuming process of pre-dyeing the patterns into both the warp and the weft threads so that the intended composition is revealed only after the two are woven together.”
Chintzes – Indian printed and painted textiles – were popular everywhere. This Indian fabric of this soldier’s jacket was tailored in (present-day) Thailand for the uniforms of the Royal Guard of the King of Siam. The menacing face repeats on the front, back and sleeves, conveying strength from all sides. The fabric was practical because Indian dyes held fast, therefore could be cleaned without risk of the dyes running. Nearby there is an excellent video that walks through the 10 step process that goes into producing a chintz textile.
The palimpore below is an accomplished example of the type of popular bed covering textile that was produced in India for the European market. The tree of life motif and the white background were typical motifs.
It wasn’t long before Europeans and Americans were eager to compete in the global market. John D. Hewson of Philadelphia and English George Ormerod both produced their own versions.
These exotic prints also made their way into home furnishings; this English printed calico curtain is one eleven surviving pieces, which include bed hangings and chair slipcovers. The en suite treatment of a room’s décor with this chinoiserie pattern would have signaled the owner’s sophistication and wealth to all who entered.
Overseas trade routes expanded discovery and knowledge to such an extent, that the continents themselves came to be routinely personified in human form. Louis XVI of France commissioned this set of Beauvais tapestries and matching settees and armchairs for Versailles. Here is Asia, surrounded by spices, pearls and silks.
The textile trade was robust, and it was lucrative. So much so that England and France put protectionist measures in place in order to promote a native textile trade, and banned the use of imported Indian cottons. America did not restrict trade, but the North American demand for imported cotton and muslin was short-lived. Once cotton was successfully cultivated in the South following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and mechanized mills were built in the North, the demand was met with a local product.
Still, textiles of all kinds remained a consumer staple and an important driver of local economies. Savvy merchants sourced them all side-by-side, the tempting displays acting as invitations to fantasy, new discoveries, and an elevated sense of connection with the world at large.
The visitor experience: compliments
Content: The range of objects and presentation is terrific. I think this show would be an interesting for both a casual browser and an information seeking visitor alike.
Audio guide: The audio guide is well scripted and the multiple curator/narrators share a complimentary pitch and pacing with one another. I was really impressed by this production since I’ve found that multiple narrators often compromise an otherwise successful narrative experience.
Website/digital images: Leaving aside the overall navigation of the museum’s website, the pages devoted to this show include photography of every object in the exhibition and in some cases there are alternate shots available. Each is accompanied by a contextual description. Well done Met!
The visitor experience: suggestions
Signage: There’s a sign for this show in the central lobby, and at the top of the stairway. The final sign is missing, the one that should be Gallery 800 (European Paintings) pointing to the right. I’ve experienced this at the Met before and it’s annoying. Either commit to installing a complete system of wayfinding aids (ie: signs) or don’t do it all.
Photography: Let visitors know that photography of every object in the exhibit is available for free on the museum’s website. Let them know via a sign (emerging theme?) at the start of the show. And then let them know again. And again. Maybe when the guards say “no photography please” they could also say “photography is available online).
Seating: The standard reading/rest room has been eliminated in this installation. It’s a really big show and more seating throughout the galleries should be available.
Technology: The video on how chintz is created is excellent. It should be more obviously placed, and run on a larger screen. I would have enjoyed a few more of these technique videos. As for the video itself, I had to scroll backwards from Step 10 in order to reach the start page. The addition of “start over” button would resolve this problem.
Definitely go see this show and if you have a deeper interest in textiles, the catalog is excellent too. Allow plenty of time, take advantage of the audio guide, and try to imagine the many moments of delight these textiles originally delivered to the merchants, rulers, warriors and fashionable ladies they adorned. Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade, 1500–1800 is on view at the Metropolitan Museum through January 5, 2014.
This post is part of a series on the visitor experience in museums, read about it here.