There is a saying, “all good things must come to an end.” On January 13,2020, our Instruments of Faith exhibit on the life and work of folk instrument maker Ed Stilley will close. For me, it was truly a blessing to curate the exhibit, and it will be bittersweet as I take it down.
Early in the exhibit creation process, I was fortunate enough to meet folk musicians Kelly and Donna Mulhollan, friends of the Stilley family. The assistance and support from Kelly and Donna made the exhibit possible, and they made the work enjoyable. Kelly and Donna introduced me to Ed Stilley and his wife, Eliza. Meeting the Stilleys is still an awe-inspiring moment for me. They are some of the nicest people I have ever met as they welcomed me into their home. I have never met anyone like Ed—forceful yet quiet, reserved yet expressive. The fact that I had the chance to spend time with him during the course of the exhibit was the highlight of the entire process.
Museum exhibits frequently cover topics from the past or about individuals that are no longer with us. Telling someone else’s story, especially while they’re still alive, can be daunting. I had some concerns about how the exhibit would be received, especially since at the heart of Ed Stilley’s life story is his response to a vision he said he received from God. It’s a very personal story. I wanted to present it to the public in a meaningful, respectful way. Overall, I could not be happier with how Instruments of Faith turned out and the rave reviews we’ve received from visitors. There might be one or two minor tweaks—things I would have done differently—but all in all, I am happy with it.
While Ed Stilley stopped making instruments a few years ago due to poor health, he and his family joyfully attended the Instruments of Faith exhibit opening on March 30, 2019. Ed sang a hymn for the audience and also signed copies of his biography, True Faith, True Light, written by Kelly Mulhollan and published by the University of Arkansas Press. I think for all those in attendance, being in the same room with Ed Stilley, getting the chance to shake his hand, was a very moving experience. I believe the exhibit reception was Ed’s last public appearance. He passed away on June 12, 2019.
Soon the Ed Stilley instruments will come down, the tools in his replica tool shed will be put away, and the life-size photo of Rose the mule will find a new home. I wish I had words to do justice about what this experience has meant to me, but I am at a loss. It was truly a life changing process to be a part of, and I will carry the memories and experiences for the rest of my life. Thank you once again to all the individuals who loaned their Stilley instruments for the exhibit. Another thank you to all who came to see the exhibit and took time to share their impressions with us. (It is always nice to hear positive comments from the people that the museum serves.) Finally, a special thank you to Kelly and Donna Mulhollan, and to the entire Stilley family for entrusting me with Ed’s story. I hope you feel that I did it justice.
Aaron Loehndorf is the Shiloh Museum’s collections and education specialist.