Nebraska Stories | The Quilts of Ken Burns

(Truck’s reverse signal beeps) (truck doors opening) NARRATOR: The shipment
arriving today at the International Quilt
Study Center and Museum began its long
journey one year ago in a small New England town,
at a place called Quilt Alley. (spritely music) KEN BURNS: Okay, so this,
just put on sunglasses. This is like being at the
first atomic explosion. Where did these come from? Was this the 1960’s. You know, was this a
psychedelic poster or something. No, this is the 1830’s,
an Amish community. Amazing to me, amazing. NARRATOR: In the
lower level of his barn, filmmaker Ken Burns guides two
Quilt Museum staff members, Executive Director Leslie Levy
and Curator Carolyn Ducey, through his private collection. Burns has agreed to
publicly exhibit his quilts for the first time. KEN: I have never displayed
my quilt any other place but in a place where I live. So, it’s been, there’s a few
things that I do in my life that are just for me. NARRATOR: As the tour
weaves through the many rooms. KEN: Here’s another
spectacular applique. NARRATOR: A story of Ken
Burns, the collector, unfolds. CAROLYN DUCEY:
We kinda wanted to get a feel
for why he was collecting. What did quilts mean to him? Here’s this man
who’s a historian that could be
collecting anything, and he’s recognized
quilts and the … The visceral appeal of them. KEN: This might eat you. LESLIE: This is great. KEN: How great is this? The precision and the
beauty of the applique. This is red, white, and
blue, that happened to be colors similar to our flag,
but the blue is not the blue. And I’m a blue guy, who is
very blue about the fact that this isn’t the right blue. (woman laughs) Again, they haven’t quite
figured out the blue. And they’re getting closer
to the correct blue. And this to me, this, I
mean there’s something in me that goes … and then
there’s something incredibly poignant and beautiful
that the flag exists in a sea of crosses. CAROLYN: Literally I was
scrambling notes thinking, “He can speak about quilts
in the most elegant way “and talk about them in
a way that they tie into “his love of history,
his love of America, “his love of just the
ordinary people and “what they created and
what they went through.” You really started to
see how all those quilts reflected those things
that you see in his love of documenting American history. KEN: This is more of
a historical quilt. This is the NRA, meaning the National
Recovery Administration. And its symbol was
the blue eagle. LESLIE:
It’s fabulous, wow. KEN: It’s a beautiful,
beautiful, beautiful quilt. LESLIE LEVY: His quilts are
something that he truly loves and truly lives with. KEN: Okay speaking
of hidden away … (opening drawer) Quilts. More quilts. Not room, quilts. Hidden.
CAROLYN: Love it. KEN: They shouldn’t
be hidden, right? CAROLYN: It was fun to see
how much he loves them and how he wants to have them
out and be surrounded by them. And then to hear
him say, “Oh …” And I do this; anybody who
loves quilts and collects, It’s like, “Oh, this
is my favorite.” “Oh, this is my favorite.” “I can’t decide which
is my favorite.” KEN: Now this is one of
my favorite quilts. It’s one of the earliest
appliques I’ve ever bought. It just yells at me. This is one of my
favorites as well. I guess I would have to say,
if I had to name a favorite and I can’t do that, it would
be this quilt because … CAROLYN: I was not aware that
Ken Burns was a quilt collector. And we discovered that because
of our executive director, Leslie Levy’s former position
at the Cather Foundation where she had gotten to know Ken as one of their board members. And he was excited to hear that
she was moving to the museum and mentioned, “Hey,
yeah, I collect quilts. “And I have for a
number of years.” And she said, “I’m tucking
that away for later, Ken.” LESLIE: He knew the museum
and had respect for the organization
and the program. We’re renowned for our
exhibitions and our collection. So, I think too it
was a matter that the timing was
probably just right. I suspect that Ken is just
at that time in his life when he is willing to share. Oh, look at that log cabin. KEN: The common sharing
of our heritage becomes a way in which
you can continue to have a civil discourse. And that’s really
really important to me. And quilts and films
are ways to do that. And that’s been my
mission in life, so I’m very excited
by the possibility of sharing these and
reminding people that somebody from a tiny
little state in the upper right hand corner
of their country, rather than this gigantic
state in the middle of our country, share
a lot in common. CAROLYN: I have to say what
I’m drawn to most in the collection are the
red, white, and blue quilts. And I think that’s
because I think of Ken as such an American storyteller. NARRATOR: It’s
now eight months later and the museum staff is
reviewing photographs of Ken Burns’ quilts. From these photos, they
will select the ones to display in the exhibit. CAROLYN:
And this piece, oh my god. This is such a rare piece. To have one of these is
just an amazing thing. LESLIE: Temperance.
CAROLYN: Temperance, definitely. Love this. LESLIE: I like this.
That really would work well with a lot of our
red, white, and blue. NARRATOR: And the
exhibit team meets to discuss design concepts. MAN: This is just a
mock up of a concept of spanning the corner
of the gallery here. And then we could
suspend these quilts, and they could actually
overlap each other. NARRATOR: Three months
before the exhibit opens, the quilts are packed and
shipped to the museum. On arrival, they’re placed
in isolation for two weeks. While in isolation,
each quilt is examined to note any condition issues. WOMAN: Here’s a little
staining right here. NARRATOR: Finally,
the moment the staff has most looked
forward to has arrived. Object review. It’s here decisions are made
on how to exhibit each quilt. CAROLYN: It’s incredibly
damaged. Can’t hang, but I’d
sure rather see it flat. And it’s really an
extremely important quilt because you just don’t
see temperance quilts. NARRATOR: They
consider size, color, design, and texture. And also, how the quilts
are grouped for the exhibit. In total,
they review 33 quilts. KEN: I spent my entire
professional life asking the essentially simple
question: Who are we? Who are those strange
and complicated people who like to call
themselves Americans. And all of my films
are attempting not so much to
answer that question, but to deepen it. So as an avocation, as a hobby, I have pursued collecting
what I think is the cleanest, simplest, and most
authentic expression of who we are as a people. (whirring) NARRATOR: Two
weeks before the open, the staff begins
building the exhibit. (energetic string music
and construction noise) MAN: Right. The first quilt going up. (energetic string music
and construction noise) MAN: Okay, first quilt. (applause) (energetic string music
and construction noise) MAN: Man, that looks great. (energetic string music) NARRATOR: By opening
day, the museum’s exhibit, Uncovered: The Ken
Burns Collection, has already attracted
national attention. (patriotic march music) VISITOR:
It says, “Sea of Crosses.” That’s … That’s powerful. I can easily see why he
was attracted to that. VIEWER: Interesting
color and texture. WOMAN: I just really
love those colors. I even see why he picks
’em from the heart. LADY: The color, oh my goodness. NARRATOR: Oddly
enough, the man known as America’s storyteller,
who gets into the weeds and doesn’t shy away
from complexity in his
documentaries, doesn’t need to know the
same about his quilts. KEN BURNS: It’s not so much
that I am interested in investing myself
with every bit of minutia about this quilt. More often than not,
the way I’ve gotten it is by stopping along the
roadside at an antiques place and finding buried underneath
a pile of other things some beautiful gem,
and it’s very difficult to track down the precise
provenance of that quilt. So what you’re left
with is the mystery as well as the beauty of it. And that to me is
what it’s about. LESLIE: There’s something
incredibly human and incredibly
authentic about that. And it means that Ken
Burns is just like us. And isn’t that nice. I think, quite frankly,
from my perspective and as the director
of this museum, that’s one of the things
that I love and respect, is that he would say that. That it’s okay, I don’t
need to know the specifics to love it. I just love it for what
it is on the face of it. I just love it.