Q&A with Avenir Curator and Assistant Professor Katie Knowles

Katie Knowles, originally from Montana, began her position with CSU’s Department of Design and Merchandising in July. She is the new curator for the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising and assistant professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising.   Knowles joins the Avenir from  the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on the National Mall in September 2016. This fall, she will be teaching an upper-level class about historic textiles and working to discover what is hidden away in the storage rooms of the Avenir Museum. Learn more about Knowles’ position and research below.Katie Knowles

1. What brought you to the Department of Design and Merchandising at CSU, and the Avenir Museum specifically?
My dual position as an assistant professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising and as curator for the Avenir Museum allows me to combine my love of material culture studies with my research and teaching. It is very unique to have an academic position that combines research, teaching, and curatorial work into one role. On top of this, it is even more special to have such a deep and varied collection of historic textiles and clothing to use in my classroom.
2.      What are your specific interests in textiles, and how did you get into that topic?
I am continuing to research the clothing made and used by enslaved people in the antebellum U.S. South, which was the topic of my dissertation. During graduate school, I actively explored methods of material culture studies. I was drawn naturally to textiles and clothing, having been surrounded by them as a child. My work focuses on the clothing of everyday people, and I strongly believe that the future of design must be informed by knowledge of both the canon of master artists as well as the influences of people typically relegated to the margins.
Future research plans include further examining the development and popularization of a cheap textile called “negro cloth” that was sold in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was intended to be used by enslaved people of African descent in the Americas. I’m planning to explore how this product was developed and refined by suppliers, how it was marketed and sold to buyers, and the ways that enslaved people lived in this uncomfortable, cheap fabric every day. I’m excited to work with colleagues in the department who specialize in merchandising, textile science, and product development, and to use the methods of study in those fields to better understand “negro cloth.”
3.      What’s your teaching philosophy?
I am deeply committed to fostering inclusive and socially conscious spaces in the classroom and in my community through innovative methods of teaching. The opportunity to bring the textile collection into the classroom is really exciting, and I have always tried to incorporate material culture into my courses. I find that it helps students who are strongest in visual and tactile learning to connect to the content. It’s also important for me to find ways that students are directly applying their coursework to the real world.
4.      What classes will you be teaching this coming semester?
This fall I am teaching AM460, Historic Textiles, an upper-level class in the Design and Merchandising department. Students will be seeing collection objects in class that are from all over the world as we travel around the globe together, exploring history and culture through the textiles made by people from pre-historic times to the present. They will also get to research one collection object over the semester, and their work will be kept on file permanently in the Avenir Museum for future exhibitions.
5.      What’s your favorite thing about campus?
Of course I have to say the new Avenir Museum building! I’m really impressed with the combination of beautiful design and functionality throughout the expanded and retrofitted spaces. In many museums, function is often sacrificed for beauty. At the Avenir, we are able to keep the collection safe, and think creatively about exhibitions and programs thanks to our versatile galleries and rooms, all while looking really good. I especially appreciate how the designers used textiles as inspiration for everything from the textured brick exterior to the interior color palette.
6.      What is the most interesting part of working as the Avenir Museum Curator?
The most interesting thing about my curatorial work right now is all the exciting discoveries about what is hiding inside the cabinets and drawers of the storage room. I love old things because they hold the stories of people’s lives. Avenir collections manager Megan Osborne and director Doreen Beard are enthusiastically sharing what they know about the collection, and its history at CSU, as fast as I can gobble it up. I’m so grateful to be working with helpful colleagues like Megan and Doreen, and I am excited to keep learning about and further exploring the thousands of stories we can tell with our collection.

The Department of Design and Merchandising is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Knowles will be speaking at the Avenir on Thursday September, 14.