Who knew Ken Burns was so into quilts? The International Quilt Study Center & Museum did, and it’s exhibited a lot of fine examples of Americana from the famed filmmaker’s never-before-displayed private collection.

We knew famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was fascinated with America and American history. Even a partial list of his impressive filmography bears that out: The Civil War, Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, The Statue of Liberty, The Brooklyn Bridge, Baseball, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Jazz, The Dust Bowl, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, The Vietnam War.

But who knew that Ken Burns was fascinated with American quilts? The folks who put together Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection at The International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, where 28 quilts — about a third of Burns’ private collection — are on view through May 13.

Photography: (Left to Right) Red Cross Raffle: made by Williamsport Grange in Mount Gilead, Ohio in 1918; Sand Dollars, maker unknown, made in the United States, circa 1880-1900.

“As a collector, I’m looking for something that reflects my country back at me,” Burns said in an interview with the museum and NET, the Nebraska public television station, which will air a program on Burns and his quilt collection later this year.

“Quilts rearrange my molecules when I look at them,” Burns explained. “There’s an enormous satisfaction in having them close by. I’m not a materialist. There are too many things in the world, and we know that the best things in life aren’t things. Yet there are a few things that remind me of the bigger picture. We live in a rational world. One and one always equals two. That’s okay, but we actually want — in our faith, in our families, in our friendships, in our love, in our art — for one and one to equal three. And quilts do that for me.”

Photography: (Left to Right) Eight-Point Star, maker unknown, probably made in Pennsylvania, circa 1880-1900; Pinwheel, maker unknown, made in the United States circa 1890-1910.

Quilts excite Burns’ passion for uniquely American storytelling. For him, each quilt represents a moment in time and American history. Though there are rare and important quilts among his collection, it’s not the quilts’ provenance or genealogy that attracts him. Instead, it’s their connection to implicit stories, their visual impact, and their potential for being a reminder of our shared humanity.

“I’ve spent my entire professional life asking this essentially simple question: Who are we? Who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves Americans?” Burns said. “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.”

Photography: (Left to Right) National Recovery Administration, maker unknown, made in the United States in 1933; Feather Plume, made by S. W. Underwood in the United States, 1876.


The International Quilt Study Center & Museum has the world’s largest publicly held quilt collection, dating from the early 1700s to present and representing more than 50 countries. Find out more at quiltstudy.org.

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