In march 2022 the Museum of Recent History Celje in Slovenia opened the exhibition named Be(com)ing a Woman. The exhibition made as a part of a program Women’s TraCEs was the first exhibition on women in the museum and it was on view until the end of August.
The exhibition presented various themes related to women that date back to the second half of the 20th century and they are still relevant today. They were chosen based on their legacy and how they have left their mark on the present, but also on the fact that they have not been dealt with in the museum so far, even though they are an important part of the history of everyday life. The exhibition brought together both personal and collective stories of women. In doing so, we explored where the boundaries and intersections between individual and social experience are. By putting on display themes that women have personal experience with, the exhibition provided a space to reflect intimate feelings, social relations and the representation of women in museums.
The exhibition included various quotations, slogans and inscriptions that encouraged the visitor to read and further explore feminist ideas.
The exhibition first confronted visitors with the question of what it means to be a woman and who is a woman, without limiting itself to legal-formal and biological definitions. A video-story of a woman who changed her gender presented the differences between what it is like to be in a male and a female body, how different genders are seen differently by the public, and how growing up into a certain gender marks us, both physically and socially.
The theme of violence against women was addressed by the slogan of the SOS Phone media campaign from year 1999: “What is it girl, that makes you so sad? One in five beaten, one in seven raped”, which was the first to draw attention to the frequency of violence against women in Slovenia. The history of violence against women is a history of silence, which is why we present it in the exhibition through the few sources and references that spoke about it before the end of the 1980s. In 1989 the feminist movement founded SOS Phone and women volunteers began to offer help to female victims of violence. Visitors can hear about the beginnings of the SOS Phone by picking up a telephone receiver from the 1990s and listening to a short recording.
The right to abortion has been continuously challenged throughout history. In Slovenia, it was threatened in the early 1990s, when the new Slovenian Constitution was being adopted. Although Yugoslavia was the first country in the world to have the right to decide freely on the birth of children, in 1974, they wanted to omit this right from the new Constitution. Only after strong public pressure and protests did they keep it.
In the “Girls’ Corner”, girls were invited to answer six questions and build their own story about what it is like to grow up into a woman today. Over the course of the exhibition, many interesting, honest, and also insightful answers have been collected, which also gives the museum staff a chance to reflect on the relevance of their ideas about how to address young people and what areas are key for them.
Women’s struggle for the legitimacy to decide about their bodies is told through the story of female cycling. Women’s right to the bicycle was after more than hundred years again relevant in 2020, with the publication of a book of biographies of famous Slovene women entitled Unforgettable. The women on the cover should ride bicycles, but since at the time there were protests on bikes against the current government, the publisher changed the cover and cut off the women at the waist. The exhibition therefore included the book, a protest letter from the authors to the publisher and the T-shirt worn by the authors at the book launch.
Visitors to the exhibition were also able to step on a digital scale that no longer works and read a poem by a young author about her experience of struggling with anorexia and the relationship she has built with the electronic scale.
The Celje Museum of Recent History holds in its collections many materials related to domestic work, but we always present them in a different context. They are exhibited as achievements of the Celje industry that produced kitchen utensils or as objects related to the memory of the good old days and the households of our ancestors. In this exhibition, however, the same material was presented through the perspective of what it meant for the women who carried it out. This work was, and still is, overlooked, unpaid, undervalued and still largely done by women.
The exhibition offered the opportunity to step into the shoes worn by women working in »female« occupations in the second half of the 20th century and read their stories. The shoes were called »Borosana« and were worn by cooks, waitresses, nurses, cleaners and educators as part of their working uniform. As these were occupations carried out by women in poor working conditions, many prejudices were attached to these shoes.
A special space in the exhibition was dedicated to two topics that rarely find a place in museum exhibitions, and which are still related to prejudices and are difficult to talk about directly. Menstruation and sexuality, associated with many taboos, were not hidden behind any barriers. By addressing these sensitive topics we wanted to empower women to think about their bodies openly and directly. In the middle of the room stood a red tent, symbolizing the spaces where women can or should retreat to during menstruation. Some cultures have what are known as menstrual huts, where women have to go because they are considered unclean at this time of the month. The red tent also is a name of a feminist spiritual movement that helps women to overcome menstrual taboos and connect to a shared experience of menstruation. Lately it’s getting more and more popular in Slovenia. The menstrual cycle was represented in the exhibition by a huge menstrual calendar, which on one level represented the body’s cycles and on another level represented well-being and the different meanings and symbols we attach to each phase. The circularity of this space was reminiscent of cyclicality, reminding us that for menstruating women, the cycle is something that does not end after bleeding, but continues over and over again, and that society is not attuned to our fluctuations and demands that we are always the same and always fully prepared.
In the last exhibition room there was space for a reflection on the role and position of women in society. In video interviews, 9 women from different generations in Celje provided in-depth answers to two questions: what experiences have shaped them as women, and what they can contribute to society as women. The exhibition featured illustrations by Vesna Bukovec, one of the participating artists alongside Lee Culetto. Visitors were able to make their own origami vulva, and a short story was written on origami paper about the embarrassment we have with the word and the consequences of avoiding the word vulva in our knowledge and understanding of our bodies. There were various literature and brochures on women’s history, gender projects in Slovenia and abroad.
The exhibition was accompanied by the publication of a collection of texts written by different authors, who write in depth on topics that are indirectly and more broadly related to the exhibition. The exhibition was accompanied by a rich programme of events and public guided tours. Part of the programme was organized in cooperation with the Center of Contemporary Arts Celje.
A virtual tour of the exhibition is available at the following link: https://www.muzej-nz-ce.si/virtualne-razstave/postati-zenska/