Exhibits at the National American Indian Museum will astound any beader. If you bead, and get a chance to be in Washington D.C. - This is the place to be!
One of their current exhibits is Identity by Design. It focuses on beaded dresses, and has samples from 1800's up to contemporary times. Be ready to spend at least an hour or more of time with just this one exhibit, which fills an entire gallery. The dresses are displayed, so you can see both the fronts and backs of every piece. Often the work on the back is every bit as elaborate and gorgeous as on the front. The number one thing which stood out to me on this exhibit, as well all the other samples of bead work through out the museum, was the tremendous quality of handwork.
More often than not, the size seed bead used in the older pieces would be equivalent to a size 13 Charlotte cuts, 15s, and even quite a few 18s and 20's. You see a lot of average size elevens and also "E" beads, but the majority uses very tiny beads with tons of intricate detail.
Another thing which struck me, was the sweeping rhythms of the stitches. Every row of stitching had a a regularity to it, and marched one after the other in very precise rows - but there was nothing mechanical in the effect - the rows flow across the garments like water. Often the rows help mimic the design in some form - especially the works that were floral. The rows of beads would follow the curves of nature.
The museum has beaded baby boards, hats, bibs (A decorative piece which was worn similar to a collar, but with more to it than a collar), capes, ceremonial items, purses, moccasins -- The amount of beaded work is a feast for anyone who loves bead artistry.
The Museum has published a book about the exhibit called Identity by Design, and the book is well worth the 24.95 I paid for it. It has photography of the dresses on exhibit, as well as historical information about the dresses. When possible it gives biographical information about the person(s) who made each dress. Especially if you cannot go to the exhibit, this is a book to have in your beading library. The lady at the museum store told me you can order it from their website, and I have included a link in the title of this article. Just click on the title and it will take you to the N.A.I.M. website about the exhibit Identity by Design.
Their online version of the exhibit is - http://www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/identity_by_design/IdentityByDesign.html
The main website for the N.A.I.M. is http://www.nmai.si.edu/index.cfm