Museum cuddles up to swastika quilt

Today, the swastika is almost exclusively associated with the Nazi regime. But the icon was once seen as a benign decorative device -- which explains how it turned up on a quilt recently donated to the Greeley Museums. Manager Erin Quinn views it as a gorgeous specimen. But how to display it without angering most visitors -- and prompting "Heil Hitler" salutes from deluded skinheads?

The quilt was donated to the museums last August by a local family. It had been made by a mother and daughter, most likely during the early 1900s. The mother died in 1934, a year prior to the Nazi's adoption of the swastika. The daughter passed away in 1989.

Since then, the quilt has remained in storage. But museums registrar JoAnna Stull, who accepted the original donation, knew it was an unusual item, and wrote about it in an article for the Greeley Tribune, which publishes pieces by museum staffers on a weekly basis.

Shortly thereafter, something unusual happened.

"The articles usually run on Fridays, but Friday came along and no article," Quinn says. "Then, the Tribune called JoAnna and said, 'We aren't printing your story. We want to write an article ourselves.'"

The Tribune column that resulted stirred plenty of interest in the quilt, as well as in the history of the swastika.

"The symbol goes back thousands of years," Quinn notes. "They are Neolithic. Researchers have found cave art with stastikas, and Native Americans have used it for a long time in their art. You can see it in bead work and weaving, especially in the Navajo culture.

"'Swastika' is a Sanskrit word meaning 'well being,'" she continues. "It stands for good fortune and fertility, which may explain why the Nazis embraced it. I'm sure they looked on the symbol of fertility as a way of perpetuating the white race."

Hitler's co-opting of the swastika quickly changed perceptions about pre-Nazi uses of the symbol -- like the decorative inlay that can be seen in this photo of a house in the Highlands neighborhood:

Denver International Airport conspiracy theorists have also noticed that the facility's runways form something of a swastika shape:

Given the public's perception of the swastika, the quilt "would definitely have to be contextualized" if it's to be displayed, Quinn says. "I wouldn't just randomly put it up. It would have to be part of a story we're telling. And right now, we don't have a particular place to put it up. Plus, quilts take up a huge amount of room, and our gallery space is fairly limited."

Still, Quinn says, staffers are brainstorming to come up with a suitable way to present the item. For her, the quilt isn't as disturbing "as some other things in our collection, like a Ku Klux Klan uniform we have. It'd take some really serious thought before we put that up, because it just feels evil when you're in its presence."

In contrast, she goes on, "the quilt is really lovely and very well done. The hand-stitching on it is really nice. I think it's a shame that it got put away, most likely because of the connotations the swastika has now. And I'm sure there are a lot of historical quilts out there with this symbol on it that are really beautiful."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts