Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Threads of Feeling" Opening and Update

I was fortunate enough to find some time after work this evening to visit the new "Threads of Feeling" exhibit at the DeWitt Wallace Museum at Colonial Williamsburg, which formally opened today.  As I mentioned in my post from yesterday, we have both been looking forward to seeing these billet books for some time.  Learning all about the London Foundling Hospital over the past year or so has been a fascinating, albeit often sad, exploration into a part of the 18th century that I had not really considered much in the past.  That, combined with the chance to see how these textile tokens offer an unprecedented glimpse at some beautiful period fabrics, make this an extraordinary and very moving exhibit experience.

The exhibit provides some explanation as to how the hospital was founded and how children were chosen and then entered into the care of the hospital.  Connections are also made with several of 18th-century Williamsburg's well-known residents, including Thomas Everard, an orphan from the London Christ's Hospital, who later served as Williamsburg's mayor.  The billet books are laid out beautifully so that visitors can clearly see the text and accompanying textile token on each displayed page.  I was astonished to see how well-preserved the pages are, with the ink still stunningly clear and many of the fabrics so bright and vibrant.

This made it all too easy to imagine the scene as a baby was being brought in and his information documented with his token.  It is a truly special experience to be able to examine these pages so closely.  Gazing at the physical remains of these records only emphasized the reality of what each represents.  Standing in front of these precious pieces of fabric, so lovingly chosen, I couldn't help but tear up as I thought of the mothers and families who gave their children to the hospital.  How desperate they must have been to bring their child to a place where their future was still so uncertain.  Equally difficult was imagining the thoughts of the mothers as they chose which piece of fabric to leave with their baby.  So many pieces seem to have been chosen because they portray a message of where a baby came from, or because they suggest a hope for a better future.  Some have been cut into hearts and others inked with names.  It's heartbreaking to think about how these mothers might have felt as they prepared their babies to be separated from them, perhaps forever.

This exhibit shares a poignant part of history and I hope that many of you have the opportunity to share in this experience as well.  If you are unable to make it to Williamsburg (or while you are waiting!), be sure to visit, where you can view a gorgeous online exhibition.

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