NASHVILLE — Like many girls of my generation in the rural South, I learned every form of handwork my grandmother or great-grandmother could teach me: sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting. I even learned to tat, a kind of handwork done with a tiny shuttle that turns thread into lace. Some of my happiest memories are of sitting on the edge of my great-grandmother’s bed, our heads bent together over a difficult project, as she pulled out my mangled stitches and patiently demonstrated the proper way to do them.
But by the time I’d mastered those skills, I had also lost the heart for them. Why bother to knit when the stores were full of warm sweaters? Why take months to make a quilt when the house had central heat? Of what possible use is tatting, which my great-grandmother sewed to the edges of handmade handkerchiefs, when Kleenex comes in those little purse-size packages?
But my abandonment of the domestic arts wasn’t just pragmatic. By the time I got to college, I had come to the conclusion that handwork was incompatible with my own budding feminism. Wasn’t such work just a form of subjugation? A way to keep women too busy in the home to assert any influence in the larger world? Without even realizing it, I had internalized the message that work traditionally done by men is inherently more valuable than work traditionally done by women.
I came to this unconscious conclusion almost inevitably. When every history class I ever took featured an endless list of battles won and lost by men, of political contests won and lost by men, of technological advances achieved by men, it’s not surprising that the measure of significance seemed to be the yardstick established by men — almost exclusively white men.
Public history has the power to affect our very understanding of reality. It tells us what we should value most about the past and how we should understand our own place within that context. Just as art museums today must wrestle with an earlier aesthetic that excluded women and artists of color, local-history museums are working to recalibrate the way they present the past.
Here in Nashville, the new Tennessee State Museum, which opened last October, addresses the history of the state in a new building whose very design reinforces the idea that history is the story of everyone, of all the people. Andrew Jackson has his space, of course, but so do the Native Americans whom Jackson sent on the Trail of Tears, a genocidal march out of their homeland. All the relevant wars are here, along with all the relevant weaponry, but so are the pottery shards and the bedsteads and the whiskey jugs and the children’s toys. It’s all arranged in a timeline that unfolds at a human pace and on a human scale, equally beautiful and inviting, equally informative and embracing. My people are from Alabama, not Tennessee, but this space feels as though it belongs as much to me as to any Tennessean because it tells the kinds of stories that could be the story of my people, the kinds of stories that earlier versions of public history had always deemed unworthy of celebration or scholarly attention.
As it happens, the museum’s first temporary exhibition, which opened in February and runs through July 7, is a gallery full of gorgeous quilts. That was the exhibition I most wanted to see, and it did not disappoint. The quilts were made by familiar patterns — star and flower garden and log cabin and wedding ring — if not by familiar hands. Some of my own family quilts are gorgeously complex, but others are barely more than plain rectangles sewn in a row. I once asked my mother about those serviceable but hardly beautiful quilts, and she said impatiently: “People were cold, Margaret. They were trying to stay warm.”
The quilts in the exhibition at the Tennessee State Museum would keep people warm, but they are also absolute showpieces, with carefully coordinated colors and tiny stitches so perfectly close together and so perfectly uniform that it seems impossible for them to have been made by human hands. These women were nothing less than artists, and the gallery’s informational placards elevate them to that status and place them within that context. I studied the stitches and thought again and again of the women who had taught me to sit before a table frame and push a needle through all three quilt layers, taking stitches small enough to keep the batting from wadding up in the wash.