“Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

October 24, 2018 | By Sanya Mittal

The art of weaving textiles to tell stories has been ever-present in history, and a new exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum called “Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time” pushes viewers to see the ways in which we are all connected. The exhibit explores the new forms textiles have taken in the past decade, no longer just being made of threads and cottons, but also of metal and sound. The tapestries and textiles housed in the exhibit are created by a variety of artists, both living and passed, spanning decades of creation. 


Photos by Sanya Mittal

The Tapestry Room of the museum houses a collection of five tapestries from 16th century Belgium which depict the story of the Ancient Persian leader called Cyrus the Great. The museum provides visitors with headsets which play an opera called “True Pearl: an opera, in five tapestries,” (2018) written by David Lang and Sibyl Kempson. The opera tells the story of Cyrus the Great, beginning with his birth and following the story of his succession to the throne and his ultimate demise. Each part of the opera corresponds to one of the five tapestries, helping to convey the meanings behind them.


The Hostetter Gallery on the second floor of the museum houses the rest of the exhibit. The first form of textiles that viewers see are made of wood, linen, cotton, and various other materials. These collections of textiles, titled “Standard Incomparable,” are weaved by participants from around the world who have varying experience levels, aging from nine to 72 years old. The organizer of this project, Helen Mirra, reached out to groups of people from 16 different countries, instructing them use undyed wool from a local store, and weave a textile the length of their arms. The participants were told to weave two textiles, one for the exhibit and one to give to another participant of the project. This first section exemplifies the meaning of the exhibit: textiles have the ability to connect us, despite our country of origin or how many years we’ve lived.


Photos by Sanya Mittal

The rest of the gallery contains textiles of varying materials. “Many Came Back” (2005) is a tapestry made of metals, woven by El Anatsui, a Ghanaian artist living in Nigeria. These metals come from bottle caps, and are woven together with copper. Though the tapestry itself does not display an image or tell a story, the material it is made of does. The metal bottle tops belong to bottles of liquor, reflecting back on the role of rum in the transatlantic slave trade. They also emphasize the use and history of recyclable materials, as well as the trading of textiles within the current African network. “WarCraft,” by Israeli artist Nevet Yitzhak, is the digital installation of the exhibit and allows  visitors to be immersed in the sounds of war. A set of war rugs inspired by African Prayer rugs from the 1980s are projected onto a wall in a dark room, backdropped by the sounds of canons and gunshots. These sounds of war are played on a loop, making it appear as if wars in the world go on forever.


The most interactive part of the exhibit is “The Mending Project.” Visitors may bring an article of clothing or textile which needs to be mended, and have it fixed by a volunteer.  Once the item is fixed, you can take it back home or leave it with the museum. Any textiles left behind are added to a pile on a table in the gallery. When the exhibit closes in January, any textiles that have been left behind by visitors are sent back home to the owners.  


The exhibit is on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum until Jan. 13, 2019.