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Ken Burns' quilt collection threads together history and tradition at Peoria Riverfront Museum

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Tim Alexander
/
WCBU
A visitor to the Peoria Riverfront Museum checks out the "Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection" exhibit.

The extraordinary private quilt collection of award-winning documentarian Ken Burns, on exhibit at the Peoria Riverfront Museum through June 5, offers visitors 26 mostly-handsewn examples of American history, tradition and craftsmanship that have literally stood the test of time.

Crafted between the 1850s and 1940s, the colorful quilts were attracting quite a crowd in the gallery of the museum, which is located at 222 SW Washington Street, when WCBU visited on April 26.

Looking around the exhibit, an initial question many viewers of the collection may be compelled to ask could be: why does Ken Burns own so many quilts?

“He loves history,” explains Elizabeth Day, assistant curator and collections manager at the Peoria Riverfront Museum. “If you hear him talk about quilts and then look at the quilts in the exhibit, you can see such a connection between quilts and American history.”

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Tim Alexander
/
WCBU
Elizabeth Day, assistant curator and collections manager at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, is pictured in front of "String Star," a machine pieced, hand quilted blanket that is part of the "Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection" of quilts on exhibit through June 5. String Star is also featured on the cover of the current museum brochure.

Or, in Burns’ own words, which are included in the form of placards interwoven throughout the exhibit, “Quilts are the art form that really excites me. The calculus in all art is that the effect of something is more than the individual materials that have gone into making it.”

Among the dozens of groups and individuals to visit the exhibit that day was Pat Wys, a quilt expert and author from Bluffton, South Carolina. “I’ve been quilting for about 35 years,” said Wys, “and I’m very excited to see the exhibit. Peoria has a real treat here.”

Wys, who has published four books on quilting and is considered an expert in the field by peers, attempted to put into words the centuries-old, endearing appeal of quilts, which, like a good friend, can be a source of treasure and comfort.

“Quilts are visually beautiful, to begin with. And they all kind of tell a story of the maker, for sure. I think the fact that when you are continuing this historic legacy of hand work-- or mostly machine work, nowadays-- you feel like you are a link in the chain, as the maker, because they last over time,” she said. “But when you give a quilt to a person, that is the most special part. There’s a magic that happens with newer quilts. Once they’re washed, they turn what I call ‘quilty.’ The more they are washed, the softer they get.”

Far from showing signs of unraveling, Wys describes a resurgent modern quilting industry spooled by interest from younger artisans who are gaining a foothold in the business.

“It’s a four billion dollar industry that’s growing,” she said. “There are young people now who are starting to get into quilting. Many are working and don’t have as much time to quilt, so their quilts tend to be a little more modern and a little faster on the construction end of things. Now that I’m retired, I’m making legacy quilts that take a year or more to make.”

Though each piece of work is distinct in its own right, certain commonalities may be found among the examples included in the Burns quilt exhibit, according to Day.

“When you look at the quilts many of them are red, white and blue, and that connects to Ken Burns and his love of America,” she said. “There are so many stories these quilts tell. We have an NRA quilt, which stands for the National Recovery Administration, which FDR (President Franklin D. Roosevelt) signed into effect to try and lift America out of the Great Depression.

Additionally, we have a Red Cross quilt. Those were made during World War I to help the war effort and aid the Red Cross.

“One of these quilts is made using feedsacks, and dates to the Depression Era. I think the longer that you spend time with these quilts and the longer that you notice the quilting patterns and designs, the more they will continue to talk to you.”

The Peoria Riverfront Museum is the third and last stop on the “Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection” quilt exhibit tour, which was organized by the International Quilt Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. There are only a few more weeks left to see the exhibit, which is composed of key quilts from Burns’ collection that were selected by museum experts at the behest of the 68 year-old filmmaker.

“I pick quilts from my gut, from my heart,” Burns is quoted as saying. “You fall in love with people. You fall in love with quilts.”

The Peoria Riverfront Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For more information visit www.RiverfrontMuseum.org.

WCBU’s local newsroom is expanding, and we’re doing more to tell the stories of Greater Peoria. When you support, we report. Contribute during the Spring Fund Drive.