Weaving: A response

10 Dec 2021 - 11:30

By Nicola Wells


The Spirals talk “Weaving” by Dr Magdalena Buchczyk explored the historical ethnography of the textile collections at the Museum of European Cultures (MEK) in order to tell a story about the museum throughout the 20th century. The case study which Dr Buchczyk focused on for her presentation was that of the woven carpets (Masurian weaving collection especially) which she uses as an example to explore the following question: what would happen if we took the notion of weaving seriously in our thinking about museums?

Dr Buchczyk began her presentation by speaking about the collections at the MEK, specifically the folklore collection and the nature of rural folk heritage which has often been seen as being outside of history, timeless and remaining unspoiled. She also spoke to how this same heritage has been used in different political projects throughout the 20th century and was seen to exist as a set of representative archetypes. It was from this point that she moved on to speak about how she conducted her research through participant observation of curatorial practice, archival research and fieldwork (although this last aspect was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic which produced challenges with regards to the types of interactions she was able to have). She presented the idea of “patchwork ethnography” as her methodology, which, following her citation to Günel et al, refers to “ethnographic processes and protocols designed around short-term field visits, using fragmentary yet rigorous data, and other innovations that resist the fixity, holism, and certainty demanded in the publication process”.

The double-woven Masurian carpet case study which she speaks to begins with the East Prussian carpets which were acquired in the 1930s by the director of the MEK Konrad Hahm, who also produced a publication on the techniques and designs of the carpets. He argued that the techniques used were Germanic and vastly spread across the Baltic. These ideas would later be used as one of many arguments supporting German occupation of these territories and justified the take-over of Europe as valid. The Masurian collection of carpets originated in the town of Lyck which was once part of Prussia and is now located in Poland. This location becomes important as the weaving practises here thread through time; beginning with the wealthy, local elites who initially owned the carpets in the late 19th century. There was a revival of the practise in the 1930’s following the end of WWI as a means of economic stimulation and particularly in 1939, this revival was seen as a preservation of German nationalism through promoting interest in this craft. 

However, Dr Buchczyk went on to explain that following the end of WWII most of the German population at Lyck fled with the German army and the space was repopulated with displaced people from what would become the USSR. Poland became a socialist nation linked to the USSR and Lyck yet again experienced a revival of weaving to enable economic stimulation with the help of Masurian women who had stayed behind. Weaving then became an industrial output while still making use of the skill and artistry of the original weavers. In 1989 the industrial operations were closed, and weaving declined as the Cold War came to an end but unsurprisingly in the 1990s there was yet another revival of the practice as an initiative by museums who were looking to recreate woven carpet collections. To this day these woven carpets are still being made and weaving continues to act as a form of art as well as history and activism.

Dr Buchczyk concluded here that she hoped this case study showed how it is important to problematize ideas of this timeless, fetishized idea of folklore and that there is so much more to be seen below the surface when one examines history through the lens of weaving as knowledge production. Lebogang Mokwena then spoke on how the presentation gave a fantastic roadmap on how to use this metaphor of weaving to go further into analysis of museums—that it demonstrated the operationalising of theory. She said it allows for contextualisation and the inclusion of historical, economic and political processes to be a part of the discussion which was a point I agree with entirely. 

Dr Buchczyk’s work was inspiring and opened my eyes to the potential of the weaving metaphor as a means of knowledge production in many disciplines and as a form of analysis which will be of great value to museums in the future as they address their own collections and the stories they tell through exhibitions.


View the session, here




Nicci Wells is an Honours in Curatorship student. She completed her Bachelor’s degree in Archaeology and Classical Studies in 2019 and BA Hons Archaeology in 2020 both at the University of Cape Town. With this background she has always had a fascination in objects and artefacts and their histories in the lives of people. She is especially interested in the disconnect between the archaeological discovery process, how it creates an archive and how that archive is then inaccessible to the general public. She wants to bridge this divide in the future making the information gathered by these processes accessible to everyone, especially those whose history is being studied and written about without them even knowing about it.