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Who knew documentary filmmaker Ken Burns collected quilts?

Leslie Levy did.

The executive director of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum brought 28 of Burns' quilts for a show that’s generating attention around the country.

“Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection” opened at the museum at 33rd and Holdrege streets on Friday. 

The collection came together after Levy and Carolyn Ducey, curator of collections, paid a visit to Walpole, New Hampshire.

That's where Burns lives. He has a refurbished barn where many of his quilts hang in a "quilt alley" near screening rooms and office space.

The show — which includes about a third of the 75 or so quilts Burns has collected over 40 years — is a surprise, even for those in the quilt world.

“It’s something he doesn’t tell a lot of people and doesn’t mention often,” Ducey said. “It’s something he does for himself.”

Burns confirmed that in a Nebraska Educational Telecommunications interview during the museum's staff New Hampshire visit: “I make films for other people; I collect for myself.”

Thus, Burns isn’t concerned with the provenance of the quilts, most of which come from the 19th century, with a few of early 20th century vintage.

He keeps labels simple: “Pinwheel,” “Sunburst” and “Eight Pointed Star."

Ducey said Burns began quilt collecting like many others do, at thrift stores and antique malls. These days, dealers brings quilts to him. 

"He’s really looking for something in a quilt that grabs him. That’s why he selects what he collects,” Ducey said. 

He knows instantly whether or not he wants a quilt, he told The New York Times recently. 

“It’s completely visceral,” he said. “I can tell in a nanosecond whether I want to put it into the maybe pile or the yes pile or the no pile, and then the maybes, it takes me only a few seconds of reconsideration to say yes or no to them.”

Ducey says some patterns emerge within Burns’ collection.

“You see a lot of graphic quilts, as well as a lot of red, white and blue, what you’d expect from Ken Burns — American quilts,” Ducey said.

Among the “American quilts” are a trio of topical quilts that are displayed next to each other in the museum’s large, feature gallery.

There's one emblazoned with the symbol of the National Recovery Act, with the initials FDR at the top, dated 1933 at the bottom. And there’s an “American Flag Red Cross Quilt” from World War I and a “Star Temperance Quilt.” 

“Those are very rare,” Ducey said. “We have few temperance quilts that survive. This one is very important.”

All of the quilts, Burns told NET, reflect his interest and love for America.

“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?' As an avocation, as a hobby, I have pursued collecting what I think is the cleanest, simplest and most authentic expressions of who we are as a people,” he said.

Burns told the Times that he already misses the quilts that will be on view in Lincoln through May 13. Perhaps, Ducey said, that will lead him to journey back to Nebraska.

“There are no plans for him to visit," Ducey said. "But he might want to sneak out and see them.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.


Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott is an entertainment reporter and columnist.

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