Inspired by a study-abroad trip to South Africa, Nora Canty ’15 returned to Willamette last spring with a desire to put her history major to good use.
But instead of cataloguing costumes at the Willamette Heritage Center as she had hoped, she was tasked with guest curating an exhibition on Pendleton blankets.
Several months later, “From the Sheep’s Back to Yours: Pendleton Blankets, an Oregon Tradition,” opened to the general public. The exhibition of 20-plus blankets is showing through Dec. 24.
“They gave me a chance to create a story, which is what I wanted to do with my history major,” Canty says. “As scared as I was, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
When she started the job last January, Canty already had access to the blankets at the museum. What she needed was a narrative to explain their value and significance.
“I wanted to see how I could tell the story of the company and explain why they are still here,” Canty says about Pendleton Woolen Mills, which has been making blankets since 1909.
“I developed a story of adaptation, showing how this company developed an ideal and image of the American West.”
From her research, Canty learned more about the Pendleton brand and how it adjusted its products to the tastes of the times.
When fellow trade blanket companies were dying out after World War II, Pendleton stayed solvent by making military blankets. When the economy rebounded, Pendleton bought more factory space and expanded its apparel sector.
And in more recent years, the company changed course yet again — this time by teaming with major fashion houses to create limited edition clothing lines. The result is apparel that melds Pendleton’s classic patterns with modern fashion trends.
“History is cool because it’s so dynamic,” says Canty, who’s considering working for a museum one day. “I’m proud someone had enough faith in me to allow me to do this.”
Rising to the Challenge
Kylie Pine ’06, collections manager of the Willamette Heritage Center, says Canty’s liberal arts education prepared her for the curating project. Not only did Canty become an expert in the history of the Pendleton company and its products, she translated the information into an idea that worked aesthetically, spatially and financially for the museum.
“I was very impressed with the way she was able to distill big themes and ideas into the key points needed to create the overall structure of the exhibit,” Pine says.
“It talks about displacement of a people, consumerism, changes in national transportation trends and the importance of the textile industry in our local economy.”
History professor Ellen Eisenberg says Canty’s job helped her hone her historical research skills. She studied how to best share her findings in a museum setting, and she learned how to engage museum-goers through the layout and display of artifacts.
“Despite being a little intimidated by the size of the project, she just plowed ahead and did what was necessary to get it done,” Eisenberg says. “She put her research and writing skills to the test and produced something that was of professional quality.”
After spending a semester putting the show together, Canty handed over her materials and waited several months for the exhibition’s arrival. Now that it’s up, she’s hoping its messages will resonate with viewers.
“If I hadn’t been at Willamette, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. Putting together an exhibition would have been so far out of my skill set,” Canty says. “The textiles themselves are very amazing. I want people to see them, read about them, and learn something.”
The Willamette Heritage Center at 1313 Mill St. SE is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors 55 and older, $4 for students with identification and $3 for youths aged 6 to 17. Children 5 and younger get in free. For more information, call 503-585-7012.