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Marcie Powell: Unfolding MOA’s Global Textile Collection

Despite the expanse and diversity of the MOA collection, visitors are often surprised to discover the immense magnitude of textiles in MOA’s care.

The history of textiles at MOA stretches back to 1927—the year marking UBC’s acquisition of the Frank Burnett collection that set the groundwork for the Museum. Today, MOA houses over 7,000 textiles—the largest collection in western Canada—but only a small percentage is on display. The precarious material qualities of textiles present many challenges in exhibiting them for the public. “Textiles are so delicate—destroyed by light, air and the normal things around us. They have to be displayed under very restricted conditions,” explains MOA Volunteer Research Associate Marcie Powell.

Marcie Powell works with a textile in MOA’s conservation lab. Photo by Kiel Torres.

For the past 20 years, Marcie volunteered in MOA’s textile collection, contributing invaluable insight and information to pieces from Europe and Asia. At MOA, volunteers have the opportunity to work under the direction of staff on research projects related to public education and collections. When she retired, Marcie reached out to Curator Emerita Elizabeth Johnson, then one of MOA’s curators, who oversaw the textile collection, about becoming involved at the Museum. With a background in art history and anthropology, paired with her lifelong passion for sewing, a volunteer position working with MOA’s textiles was the perfect fit. While Marcie’s research began with the European collection, her areas of expertise expanded to include textiles from northern India and central Asia. Marcie’s commitment to expanding her understanding of global textiles has led her to conduct research around the world. From the Seattle Asian Art Museum to the Victoria and Albert Museum in England, Marcie has connected with specialists at leading institutions to explore their collections and further train her eye.

When new acquisitions arrive at MOA, they are frozen and accessioned before being catalogued. It was Marcie’s task to supplement the data, for certain sets of textiles, with information pertaining to the object’s general history, cultural context and narrative, as well as to check the visual qualities and material condition. This content is then integrated into MOA’s online catalogue, where visitors can learn more about the collection.

“I have worked with some extraordinary pieces and I can’t get over how lucky I am.” —Marcie Powell

Marcie’s expertise led her to be involved with many projects at MOA. In 2016, Marcie generously lent a selection of books from her personal collection that were integral to the development of MOA’s 2016 exhibition Layers of Influence: Unfolding Cloth Across Cultures.

Organized by MOA Curator Jennifer Kramer, Layers of Influence showcased over 130 textiles from the Museum’s global textile collection, giving visitors a rare opportunity to see these pieces up close. “When I started my research for the exhibition, the MOA Collections staff all said that I had to talk to Marcie Powell,” says Jennifer. Having previously catalogued a large collection of Uzbekistan coats with ikat-dyed cloth, Marcie’s knowledge of tie-dye techniques allowed her to provide profound insights on many of the textiles in the exhibition. Marcie’s specialization was also integral to the acquisition of a substantial collection donated by influential textile collectors Barbara Heller and Michael Kartan. Following the run of Layers of Influence, Jennifer invited Marcie to be involved with researching the Heller and Kartan collection to determine which pieces would best complement MOA’s current holdings. With Marcie’s thorough analysis, MOA was able to acquire 90% of the Heller and Kartan collection, which consisted of over 50 pieces from all over the world.

While a large portion of MOA’s textile collection is carefully stored behind the scenes, it is important to acknowledge that these pieces are often activated through research. “I feel very privileged to be able to work with these treasures,” says Marcie. “I have worked with some extraordinary pieces and I can’t get over how lucky I am to have been in the right place at the right time with the right credentials.” With her keen eye and commitment to expanding the public’s knowledge, Marcie has woven together both research and passion to help MOA document an extraordinary collection of textiles from around the globe.