Feminism and Museums Live!
Museums need feminism, not just women, in their collections and engagement activities. Displaying lots of Queen Victoria and Mrs T artefacts, then having Teresa May cut that pink ribbon while sporting her ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt simply won’t change the world. Guerilla Girl artist-activists might.
WHN members considering what they might do with their research findings might be interested in this message from Dr Jenna C Ashton. She was speaking at the Feminism and Museums Live! event on Saturday 24 March at the People’s History Museum. It was part of Manchester’s Wonder Women 2018 events programme, https://www.creativetourist.com/event/wonder-women/ .
I was there as a feminist historian. At times I work with museums and so I welcomes exchanges about how they can interface better with the academy and the wider community.
And I was still reeling from an earlier browse round Waterstones. It had such a huge display of new books about women acting with agency that it was (until you looked round and saw the overwhelming other part of the picture) like being back at Sisterwite or Silver Moon at the height of their success. Oh, that this realignment will endure!
Jenna was in conversation with the PHM’s Programme Officer. Helen Antrobus shares the view that museums can and should be daring progressive spaces where a radical and feminist agenda is visible, where history is harnessed for future social improvement.
For example Helen explained that people may come into its June Represent! Voices 100 Years On exhibition expecting to see a biographical panel on Mrs Pankhurst. But they’ll get something much more satisfying, fresh and useful: an empowering understanding of all the activism that has surrounded the struggle for the right to vote.
Jenna, the founder and Creative Director of Digital Women’s Archive North, Manchester, was speaking about the book she’s just edited: Feminism and Museums: Intervention, Disruption, Change, 2017-18, from MuseumsEtc Ltd: https://museumsetc.com/products/feminism-and-museums .
What are museums doing?
The two 600-page volumes reflect the new – and necessary – tendency in museology to make change, to challenge patriarchy, racism, classism and destructive exclusivity. Over 50 case studies record the inspiring and innovative work going on worldwide. So this really is a valuable book you could get your library to order.
Some of the interesting UK ‘museums’ (meaning sites where feminist history is represented, include:
- Glasgow Women’s Library, which is also a museum and archive with an active events programme: https://womenslibrary.org.uk/
- #WOMENSART on Twitter, not least because artists can create representations of evidence that no longer exists, but should be spoken about
- The East End Women’s Museum, which could be open by 2019. It is hoped it will counter the lurid misogyny of the Ripper museum: https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/about-us/
You may also like to check out this rather small list of what are said to be the best feminist museums, libraries and archives in UK: https://www.stylist.co.uk/visible-women/best-feminist-museums-libraries-london-uk-england-scotland/182229 
Some organisations have been proceeding forever. Unfunded, indomitably principled, they recognise that women’s rights cannot just be discussed in relation to a few fin-de-ciecle petroleuses in creamy picture hats.
But – and it does feel odd – there are many 2018-19 initiatives funded by central government and the HLF. Women are now being paid to march, in costume, rather than reviled for doing so as they were on the Women’s March 2017 (and yes, the PHM has harvested their battered banners for posterity).
There’s even historic lady suffragettes bovvering on the parquet in our nation’s stately homes. The National Trust’s 2018 Women and Power initiative is part of a five-year series Challenging Histories, which was controversial last year with its LGTQI exhibitions: Prejudice and Pride. http://advisor.museumsandheritage.com/features/women-power-struggle-womens-suffrage-uk/ 
What are museum staff doing?
In a conservative and cash-strapped climate where directors fear costly hostile comeback, and have no money to innovate, it takes commitment – and possibly some forceful feminist staff – to keep displays from being anodyne and therefore destructive.
For me the most aspect of the afternoon’s discussion was where it was acknowledged that museums’ silences are political. ‘To not talk about something is not be neutral’, insisted Jenna. And ‘being tactful’ can be to collude with the Right, patriarchy and all the ingrained distortions and omissions.
Feminist curators are often also agitators, artists, and a multiplicity of sorts of citizens. ‘Surely our cultural institutions have a role to play in shaping the kind of society we live in, rather than simply responding to it?’ said the event publicity.
Yes, and the staff’s role is as such shapers. But some are getting sacked for it: three feminist curators already this year have been dropped by their boards, says Jenna.
Those who want to do that shaping may well be linked digitally by a number of radical museology websites. For instance, someone whose T-shirt bears the slogan #Museumsarenotneutral Tshirts , https://artmuseumteaching.com/2017/08/31/museums-are-not-neutral/  is likely to be part of the Art Museum Teaching forum that reflects on practice.
Others will have attended the seminal 2016 Space Invaders conference, https://tinyurl.com/museums-women-space , which focused on women leaders’ struggles to confront gender politics in museums.
Still more will be in GEMM. This Gender Equity in Museums Movement began in 2016 and has a very interesting ‘how you can help’ online check list https://www.genderequitymuseums.com/ .
Feminist Curators United, founded in 2014, is also a hub: http://www.feministcurators.org/ . It does not appear to be very active just now. But WHN members might find it worth following on Facebook and twitter.
I’m a WHN member who remembers the useful solidarity of the pressure group Women, Heritage And Museums (WHAM!). So it is puzzling that feminist academic historians and feminist curators today are not linking much, despite the enormous focus now on public engagement and impact. Maybe WHN needs a museums section?
- Jenna and Helen at Feminism and Museums Live!
- Publicity picture used to publicise the event