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Connecting Collections to Communities

by on April 23, 2013

This week’s blog post is from Anna Ghublikian and María D. Quintero, Master’s students in Public Humanities at Brown University.

The sense of wonder that begins while driving to the Haffenreffer’s Collections Research Center in Bristol, Rhode Island culminates as you get lost in the rows of objects collected from around the world. Amongst the collections, over a dozen light blue archival boxes are full of recently acquired hand-woven Maya garments. This donation consists of approximately 200 textiles, thousand of images, and several boxes of correspondence. It reflects a lifelong project of Brown alumna, anthropologist, and Maya textile expert Margot Blum Schevill.

As we made our way through this collection of textiles we realized that we wanted to share it with the public. A practice rooted in tradition, Maya weaving remains an essential form of expression to this day. Nearby in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a group of Maya immigrants from Guatemala have formed a collective to continue weaving on the back-strap loom. Building on Maya weaving as a form of storytelling, we were interested in exhibiting these textiles to share the lesser-known history of Guatemalan immigrant groups. According to census data, the population of Guatemalans in New Bedford has exponentially increased over the last decade to 1,532 people in 2010. We created a space for a contemporary community to connect with this collection with the extraordinary assistance of an amazing student team, Haffenreffer staff, New Bedford Whaling Museum staff, and the Brown University Center for Public Humanities.

Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives opening reception on March 1, 2013 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. From left: Co-Curators María Quintero and Anna Ghublikian with NBWM Director James Russell. (All photos courtesy of Brown University’s Center for Public Humanities.)

The colors and motifs of Maya textiles reflect meaning both personal and collective, local and transnational. Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives: Maya Textiles from Guatemala and New Bedford was on exhibit at the New Bedford Whaling Museum from February 18 to April 7. We selected some textiles and images from the Haffenreffer collection and textiles woven by the local collective Oxib’B’atz’ (Three Threads) so that visitors to the exhibit could see their similarities and differences for themselves. We wanted to showcase the impressive craftsmanship of the Maya weaving process. The objects carry with them meanings that are inscribed by the makers. The creative practice approach of our exhibit allowed viewers to both engage with the inscribed meanings and histories and also reflect on their own experiences. The textiles themselves proved an incredibly powerful medium from which to engage and form connections across various communities.

Weaving demonstration by Oxib’B’ats’ weaving collective

The most rewarding result of this exhibit was providing a space where this immigrant community was represented in a positive manner. The textiles on display build pride in the local Guatemalan community’s historic artistry. This exhibition was merely a first step in promoting appreciation and understanding across cultures. The museum welcomed the local Maya community, providing a new place of access. The textiles on loan from the Haffenreffer were connected to that of Oxib’B’atz’ forging a links across time and space: joining the past with the present, and Guatemala with New Bedford. With the vast collections at the Haffenreffer there are endless possibilities to use the artifacts in order to open dialogues across communities.

~ Anna Ghublikian and María D. Quintero, co-curators of Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives

More photos from Weaving Stories, Weaving Lives


Thank you, Anna and Maria! This is a great project, and we’ve enjoyed working on it with you, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and the Center for Public Humanities. You’ve made important contributions to our understandings of the Schevill collection, and connections to other institutions and contributions.

Learn more about Margot Blum Schevill’s work in the Haffenreffer catalogue Costume as Communication.

We welcome guest bloggers! If you are interested in writing about your experience with the Haffenreffer, please contact

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