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Accessing Museum Collections – A Guide

  1. Finding out what is in museum collections and applying to visit:
    • Use the Museums Association 'Find a Museum' page ( or other museum guides which list general areas of collections and give museum contact details – your local museum or reference library may have copies of these which you can consult.
    • Contacting curators – look online at the Museums Association website to find the details of the correct curator to contact. You can then email or write to ask for more specific details on what is in a collection.
    • Internet searches/databases – some museums have their own online database which can help you identify which items you are likely to want to see (some examples are given at the end of this article).
    • Look at the photo credits in books, old exhibition catalogues, museum guides and pamphlets, ask questions of others – all these routes can help you identify where items of interest for your research might be held.
    • You may need to make a formal written request and might have to provide identification/references – check what is required by the specific institution.
    • If you are writing a paper for BQSG you can ask the BQSG Chair or the Chair of Selectors for a reference.
    • In your formal request to see items always use the accession numbers of the items, if available, to prevent any confusion over what you wish to see.

Facilities available:

  • Is there a research facility at the museum: if so, where is it and when is it open?
  • Charges for study visits – these vary greatly so it is a good idea to find out in advance. Also, if the institution charges an entry fee will this be included in your study visit charge?
  • Some museums may only have a part-time curator or depend on volunteers so build in extra time to your research timetable in case you have to wait a while for an appointment.
  • Time allowed for your visit – appointments might be for a half day or whole day visit. Check the times the study facility is open too – many will close over lunchtime and may have different (shorter) opening times than the museum itself.
  • Is handling allowed – if only with gloves, are gloves provided?
  • No food and drink and the use of pencils only are standard rules in most study facilities – but do check the specific rules before you visit.
  • Is photography allowed? – Check first with the Curator and, if it is, make sure you can turn the flash off on your camera. Don’t forget to carry spare batteries and a memory card.
  • Some institutions produce a leaflet outlining their study facilities and guidelines so do check on their website or request a copy.
  • Make sure you take:
    • Pencils and notebook, possibly graph paper, tracing paper/clear plastic
    • Long tape measure
    • Possibly a Dictaphone or other simple recorder for taking quick verbal notes – if allowed
    • Camera – if allowed
    • Gloves – if handling allowed
  1. Prepare for your visit by:
    • Thinking what kind of questions you need to answer (see section 5). This helps you to use your time well.
    • What are the objects you are going to be looking at and how do they relate to your research? Don’t ask to see too wide a field, because you will be looking at irrelevant things, but if you make the field too narrow you risk missing things you wouldn’t have thought of.
  2. At the museum:
    • Think about roughly how much time you will want to spend on each piece – it’s easy to lose track of time!
    • How to approach looking: I often start with a drawing – just a simple shape which can be annotated with information you notice. You can also mark on it the simple aspects of piecing and/or quilting or note how these relate to each other. You can also mark on measurements.
    • Be aware that ways of tracing/pricking quilt patterns can be seen as invasive by curators so you may only be allowed to draw. Graph paper can help if you are trying to capture a repetitive pattern. You can also draw a part of the item in detail and then indicate which part of the whole this is from and how it repeats.
    • Try to get the accession number for items so you can refer to them correctly in your work.
    • Write up your notes soon afterwards as you will find short words or diagrams will trigger more information, which you might forget later.
    • If you are able to take photos remember to keep a note of what you take so that you can relate photos to your notes. Keep a running list of the shots you take and be systematic in how you record the items you have looked at.
    • If the museum does not allow you to take photos, you can enquire if the museum itself has photos of the items for you to purchase.
  3. Aspects to consider when looking at the items:

    This is not an exhaustive list and the nature of your research will naturally suggest that you give more weight to some physical aspects of the item than others.

    • What type of item is it?
    • Does it have an accession number?
    • Is there any textual information physically part of it (eg an inscription) or attached to it (eg a label)?
    • Does it have any documentation or other supporting evidence? (eg catalogue information)
    • Look at and describe/draw the piecing, quilting and other techniques in detail.
    • Measure it.
    • Consider the stitching: piecing, quilting and surface decoration.
    • How do the pieced and quilted patterns relate?
    • Fabrics? – take photos, give descriptions, describe condition.
    • Wadding?
    • Reverse? Capture as much information about the other side! You may need to ask to have the item turned over for you.
    • Other markings?
    • Wear and tear?
    • Do fabrics help with the dating? Size of pieces might indicate samples or fents or dressmakers’ offcuts.
    • Overall what is your impression of the piece – what makes it unique or is an outstanding feature of the item?
  4. Additional research in order to date items:
    • For dating quilts you will need supplementary information. For example you can look at fabric colours and designs against published examples.
    • If the design is pieced, find other dated examples of the same type or size of pattern.
    • Generally compare the item with examples of other quilts in other collections or private hands which are dated.
    • Compare the items you are studying with quilts in books and other published sources including online databases. (But be aware of the trustworthiness or otherwise of the sources you are using.)
    • Use the Documentation Day data at the Quilt Museum in York and the database of the Quilters’ Guild Collections to help compare the items you are studying with other similar examples. The library at the Quilt Museum is also a good starting point.

This article is just about visiting museums and starting to date the items you see. In addition, you will need to put your specific quilt research into a broader context and I have written a short companion article,Researching Context for Patchwork and Quilting, to help you get started with this.

Websites with Collection Databases (NB some of these links may change)

 ©Rachel Terry
June 2012