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Women and museums 1850-1914: Modernity and the Gendering of Knowledge by Dr. Kate Hill

In this blog post, Dr. Kate Hill tells us about her new monograph which sheds light on women as museum workers, donors and visitors.

As a young woman in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Beatrix Potter spent a lot of her time in museums and galleries. She was exasperated by ‘hordes of young ladies’ in the National Gallery and the South Kensington Museum, making what she thought were hideous copies of paintings, and paid frequent visits to what is now the Natural History Museum, possibly for some respite. Here, she found it ‘peaceful amid the fossils’, but was nevertheless frustrated by its overly dry approach to natural history and the misogyny of the director, William Flower.

Her ease and confidence in the environment of the museum tells us that something important had happened there in the course of the century. Earlier, women in museums were a problem, to be tolerated or even actively discouraged. Admitting women to museums would suggest frivolous entertainment was on offer, raise fears about assignations and prostitution, and lead to small children turning up in droves; everyone agreed that small children didn’t belong in museums because they were prone to ‘small accidents,’ as one National Gallery staff member insisted.

By the end of the century women and even children were not only accepted, they formed a large proportion of the museum visiting public. On weekdays museums and galleries were dominated by women visitors, many accompanied by their small children. In other aspects of museum life, too, women were far more prominent than they had been – yet this is not a story of straightforward progress or of women being accepted on equal terms to men.

As Beatrix Potter found, there was a sense within museums that men were serious scientists and curators whilst women were frivolous, fashionable visitors. Women generally failed to achieve parity with men in museums – and instead, were more successful when their work chimed more closely with contemporary ideas about ‘feminine’ characteristics and roles.

During a discussion about employing women in museums at the Museums Association (MA) annual meeting in 1896, it was suggested that they were good at detailed, routine tasks and could write labels neatly. However, Elijah Howarth, the curator of Sheffield museum, declared himself discouraged by his experience employing women at the museum. One female staff member apparently left swiftly to get married, whilst another could ‘paint labels, but could do no other kind of work which was useful in a museum’, as he put it.

What the curators at the MA only briefly touched on, despite being a fundamental factor, was that women were incredibly cheap to employ, compared to men. In 1912 the Museum Committee of the Manchester University Settlement appointed a woman curator, Bertha Hindshaw, at an annual salary of £50 (£5,610 today), because ‘it was impossible to get such a refined and educated man at the salary the settlement could offer’. Half a century earlier, the woman who Howarth thought could only ‘paint labels’, Kathleen Dearden, was employed by Sheffield museum in 1886 for a weekly wage of just 12s (£77 today). Just for comparison, in 1843 Bob Cratchit of A Christmas Carol earned a weekly wage of 15s (£93 today).

Museum curators were therefore torn. On the one hand, they wanted their profession to be taken more seriously; it seemed logical to exclude women because they depressed salaries or worse, worked as volunteers for free. On the other hand, many museums ran on shoestring budgets, could only pay low wages and absolutely depended on an army of largely female volunteers. Women were the answer to many museums’ prayers.

Where women arguably made the greatest impact was in the margins – museums in the slums and suburbs aimed at the urban poor and children. Neither of these groups had been particularly considered in, or by, museums up to this point. The ‘respectable’ working class had been a target audience, but not slum-dwellers. Women, building on their expertise in charity and childcare, carved a niche for themselves, and in so doing, had a transformative effect on museums.

Thus the first woman to be a full, not assistant, curator, in the country, in charge of her own museum, was Kate Hall, portrayed in this charming image. She was curator of the Whitechapel Museum, later Stepney Borough Museum, from 1894 to 1909, and introduced a number of pioneering ideas during her tenure. In one of the poorest areas of the country, Hall turned the museum into a community hub and a welcoming place for children, open till 10pm and, as you can see here, she included plenty of living plants, animals and even a beehive. Working closely with teachers, Hall enabled them to use the museum as an educational resource of their own.

Caption: Miss Kate M. Hall, the curator of the Whitechapel Free Library and Museum, has lately shown to the Board School children of Whitechapel some interesting demonstrations at the museum of working bees. The Graphic, 10 November 1900.

And Kate Hall was not the only woman bringing museums to the poor and to children. Bertha Hindshaw was doing similar things in Ancoats, Manchester. The museum, the Manchester Art Museum, had been set up in 1886 by Thomas Coglan Horsfall to bring beauty and light to the slums, but it wasn’t till women took over running it at the end of the century that its activities really expanded. Interestingly, Horsfall had thought that women would make good staff because he saw them as able to communicate readily with the poor and children. When Bertha Hindshaw took over as a ‘single-minded enthusiast’, she instigated sing-songs, craft classes, and country excursions, and reportedly children ‘flocked’ to the museum on Sundays.

So women had most success in museums doing the things which men weren’t interested in, and doing it for lower wages than men – working in slum areas with very poor communities, and developing museums as educational institutions for all rather than specialist research facilities. But even here their success was limited by the way they were ignored or marginalised by the rest of the profession. If you take a longer view, much of what these women achieved on a small scale is now the norm in museums. Engaging all sorts of visitors and making museums much more ‘child friendly’ worked for Hall and Hindshaw, and it still works today.

This has coincided with what is sometimes described as the feminisation of museums – heritage is an outlier in the cultural industries with 60% female staff. But when jobs and sectors become feminised, we know that wages fall and perceived importance and even perceived skill levels fall. So how do we value the things that women do as well as the things that men do? My book grapples with the ways in which gendered knowledge formed in the late nineteenth century, but it is clear that such formations persist to the present day in many ways.

Dr Kate Hill is currently acting head of school of history and heritage at the University of Lincoln. Her book can be purchased here.
Image credits:
  1. Beatrix Potter, taken from wikimedia commons.
  2. 2. Description: Lessons in elementary science at Whitechapel, Caption: Miss Kate M. Hall, the curator of the Whitechapel Free Library and Museum, giving a demonstration of working bees to Board School children. Credit Line: © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans