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How does one ship a 150+ year old quilt made by Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker?

Staff Report

When visitors walk into a gallery at the Indiana State Museum, they likely don’t notice the subtle changes. The lights are a bit dimmed. Overhead, spotlights highlight objects on the walls and in cases – each light set to the perfect level. There might be a drop in temperature, depending on the artifacts on display. 

All of that – from the lighting to the thermostat setting – is intentional. 

While the Indiana State Museum focuses much of its attention on creating dynamic, engaging experiences for guests, staff must also follow specific guidelines when handling and presenting museum objects. A team is specially trained to do just that.

Take, for example, a quilt made more than 150 years ago by Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker. Simply hanging this treasure on the wall in a hallway will damage the fragile textiles, and bright overhead lights and camera flashes will fade the colors. Over time, this national treasure would be destroyed under those conditions.

The Lincoln in Quilts gallery closed this week, so we ducked in to see our staff from collections management in action deconstructing the gallery. In this slideshow, watch as the team takes painstaking steps (requiring about an hour’s time) to safely remove the quilt from its presentation case and pack it to travel safely back to its home at Kent State University Museum, which generously lent it for the Indiana State Museum’s exhibit. 


First, muslin – a strong cotton fabric – is unrolled behind the displayed quilt. 

The muslin is used to cradle the quilt as it’s brought to a piece of plastic laid on the floor. Carrying the quilt on the muslin ensures the quilt is not pulled on or stretched.

The team uses wooden instruments to carefully arrange any fringe that got misplaced during the transfer to the plastic. Gloves must be worn at all times when handling historic artifacts to prevent any hand oils from transferring to the item.

Another layer of cloth is placed on the top of the quilt to sandwich it in protective material during travel.

The muslin, quilt and cloth is rolled onto a large tube to prevent creases and folds.

The outside cloth layer is pinned to keep it in place, and ties secure the fabrics around the tube.

The plastic layer is wrapped and taped around the travel tube.

The tube is placed into its travel crate.

The travel crate’s lid is screwed closed to protect the quilt during its journey.

Finally, the staff from collections management reviews and signs a condition report, which evaluates the item upon its arrival and departure to document any fading, discoloration or wearing. 

A Bit about this Quilt

This quilt is attributed to Elizabeth Keckley, an African-American dressmaker who clothed Mary Todd Lincoln in Washington D.C., as well as many other Washington D.C. society ladies. Keckley is believed to have made this spectacular silk quilt from offcuts of the silk dresses she created for her customers, including the First Lady during her White House years. 
The quilt was generously loaned by Kent State University Museum, a gift of Ross Trump, in memory of his mother, Helen Watts Trump. The quilt is 94.5” x 92.5”.

Posted by Kelsey Kotnik at 2:09 PM