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Whether created for insulation, comfort, or decoration, out of utilitarian or luxurious raw materials, textiles represent the iconographic and ornamental expressions of their respective civilizations, as well as the geographic and historical paths by which the techniques and motifs employed in their creation have traveled from one civilization to another. Their portability, in fact, has made them one of the most significant commodities in human history.
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One of the largest, most technically advanced facilities for the study and storage of textiles in any major art museum, the Antonio Ratti Textile Center reflects The Met's longstanding commitment to collecting textiles, beginning with its first textile acquisition in 1879. The Museum's encyclopedic collection of textiles includes examples from all of the world's civilizations—archaeological fragments, tapestries, carpets, quilts, ecclesiastical vestments, silks, embroideries, laces, velvets, and more—dating from 3000 B.C. to the present.
Previously dispersed among the various curatorial departments, most of these pieces are now gathered in the Antonio Ratti Textile Center, which oversees their storage. While each curatorial department retains intellectual responsibility for its own textiles, the center provides the environmental conditions necessary for the long-term preservation of these fragile works of art, as well as study and research facilities for Museum staff and the general public. It includes onsite access to the collection database, study rooms for the examination of the textiles themselves, and a reference library for the historical, technical, and cultural study of textiles.
The center's reference library contains approximately 3,400 books and journals devoted to the historical, technical, and cultural study of textiles. Computer terminals provide access to the collection database, which offers images and descriptive information about the Museum's textiles, maximizing the information available to scholars and the public while minimizing the textiles' exposure to light, dust, and handling. The library is open to the public without an appointment, but use of the computers should be scheduled in advance. All of the library's holdings appear in WATSONLINE, the Museum libraries' online catalog, and most are also accessible to outside researchers through the Thomas J. Watson Library.
Objects from the Museum's 36,000 textile pieces (excluding the holdings of The Costume Institute) are featured throughout the Museum, in galleries overseen by each of the 10 curatorial departments that collect textiles, whose holdings are described below. In addition, selected textiles from the collection are featured, on a rotating basis, in a small gallery at the entrance to the Antonio Ratti Textile Center; others can be examined in the center's study rooms with advance appointments (size or extreme fragility may make it impossible to view certain textiles).
The American Wing
About 1,000 textiles—samplers and other needlework; quilts and coverlets; 19th- and early 20th-century printed textiles; handmade rugs; and fabric commemoratives printed or woven in honor of historic occasions—are housed within the collection of The American Wing. The department also has a significant collection of work by Candace Wheeler (1827–1923), America's first important female textile designer. The Wheeler collection encompasses printed, woven, and embroidered pieces.
Ancient Near Eastern Art
The Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art possesses a small but significant collection of wool, cotton, and silk textiles and fragments of felt cloth from archaeological excavations at Shahr-i Qumis (ancient Hecatompylos) in northeastern Iran. Most of these have simple geometric patterns, but another textile fragment in the department's collection, thought to come from Egypt, is woven with figural patterns in Iranian (Sasanian) style.
Arms and Armor
The textile collection of the Department of Arms and Armor consists of heraldic banners from Europe, the Middle East, and Japan, plus a small number of European and Japanese martial costumes and accessories dating from the 16th through the 19th century.
Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
More than half of the almost 1,600 textiles in the collection of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas are Peruvian and date from the late first millennium B.C.E. to the 16th-century Spanish conquest of South America. Generally representative of ancient Peruvian styles and techniques, the textiles include mantles, tunics, and wall hangings made of cotton and camelid (wool) fiber. Indonesian textiles from the 19th and 20th century range from beaded ritual weavings and mats to embroidered ceremonial skirts. Other African, Oceanic, and North American textiles include woven and embroidered raffia cloths from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and wool wearing blankets of the American Southwest.
Chinese and Japanese textiles predominate in the collection of the Department of Asian Art. Particularly well represented are court robes from China, among the most lavish and visually imposing of all of the textile art forms in Asia, and Noh costumes from Japan. Also notable is the comprehensive collection of Chinese rank badges, worn by civil and military officers of the imperial court. Examples range from the early 15th century—roughly when they were first used—to the end of the imperial era at the beginning of the 20th century. Important aspects of the Japanese collection include Buddhist vestments (kesa) and secular apparel of the Edo period (1615–1868).
The Department of Egyptian Art's approximately 700 pieces encompass the range of Pharaonic-period (ca. 3000–30 B.C.) and Roman-period (30 B.C.–ca. A.D. 300) textile production and use in Egypt. Represented are linen sheets, towels, garments, kerchiefs, and bandages, as well as early examples of dyed linens; linens with inked or worked classification markings; inscribed linens; and painted linens.
European Sculpture and Decorative Arts
European textiles from the Renaissance through the early 20th century are overseen by the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Among its approximately 17,000 pieces are woven, embroidered, painted, and printed textiles; a number of carpets; the largest collection of European lace in the United States; and about 300 tapestries, including rare examples from the Brussels, Paris, Beauvais, and Gobelins workshops. The collection of 16th- and 17th-century velvets is of rare distinction, as is that of 18th-century French silks. The holdings of European embroideries and ecclesiastical vestments are also exceptionally rich. In addition, The Robert Lehman Collection contains about 200 textiles, dating mostly from the Italian and Northern Renaissance, including a large group of ecclesiastical vestments.
The Department of Islamic Art picks up the thread from the Department of Egyptian Art, with approximately 1,500 late antique textiles from Egypt, such as a woven medallion of vivid woolen yarns from the late third or early fourth century and a tunic with Dionysiac ornament from the fifth century. The department's collection also contains approximately 2,000 textiles, from early inscribed (tiraz) and printed examples to dye-patterned cottons, brocades, velvets, and embroideries from the 16th- and 17th-century courts of Safavid Persia, Ottoman Turkey, and Mughal India. In addition, the department owns some 450 Oriental carpets, the largest and most comprehensive group in the United States.
Medieval Art and The Cloisters
The Museum's collection of textiles within the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters ranges from the Carolingian period to the Late Gothic, and from all parts of Europe. Major categories of works include tapestries, among them several rare and important series; embroideries from Germany, Italy, and France, as well as the finest collection of opus anglicanum (English work) outside Europe; woven silks, particularly from Italy and Spain; and many important and rare vestments.
Modern and Contemporary Art
The Museum's collection of modern and contemporary art is particularly rich in textiles from the early 20th century, with fine examples of woven and printed French Art Nouveau pieces, Art Deco designs from the 1920s by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Paul Poiret, and manufactured prints of the 1930s and 1940s by Fortuny, Inc., and Bianchini Ferier. Post–World War II holdings include textiles designed and manufactured by Jack Lenor Larsen, Warner Fabrics of England, the Memphis group, and Gretchen Bellinger. The crafts movement is strongly represented by many fiber artists, including Claire Zeisler, Sheila Hicks, and Françoise Grossen. The department also holds important archives of textile-related material from the Wiener Werkstätte, the Bauhaus Textile Workshop, Anni Albers, and Dorothy Liebes.
The center is made possible by a major grant from the Fondazione Antonio Ratti (Antonio Ratti Foundation) of Como, Italy. Additional support has been provided by the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation, Toyota Motor Corporation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.