New book: Feminist Critique and the museum

Jan 21, 2021

Feminist Critique and the Museum - Educating for a Critical Consciousness

Feminist Critique and the Museum – Educating for a Critical Consciousness

Museums are places of entertainment, research, and learning. Museums preserve and tell stories and create identity. But what if one half of humanity does not have an equal say in these institutions? After all, museums are also shaped by their history, which for a long time granted men the right to write history. When Darlene Clover and Kathy Sanford from the University of Victoria, Canada began to look at adult education in museums, they made just this experience. They became interested in women’s museums, visited various women’s museums and the idea for “Feminist Critique and the Museum” was born.

The new book “Feminist Critique and the Museum – Educating for a Critical Consciousness” asks how we can think about museums in a more just way in the future. The book makes the invisible visible and criticizes exhibitions, collection strategies and the presentation of objects in museums. But it also offers concrete tools to do better, to intervene and initiate change. An important book for anyone interested in and working in museums.

Our questions about the book are answered by Darlene Clover and Kathy Sanford, as initiators and editors of the book, Astrid Schönweger, as coordinator of IAWM (International Association of Women’s Museums) and Gaby Franger, as co-founder of the Museum Frauenkultur Regional-International in Fürth.

How did the book come about?

Astrid: There is a group of women working in universities who have been working on feminist critique in museums for some time. The research group was initiated by Canadian university professors Darlene Clover, Kathy Sanford and Nancy Taber. At the last meeting in January 2019 in Lisbon, I was privileged to participate in my role as coordinator of IAWM and to present not only the International Association of Women’s Museums but also the work of women’s museums themselves. Part of the work of this group from the beginning was to write a book on feminist critique of museums and I was invited to co-write a piece on women’s museums and IAWM, which I eventually did together with Darlene Clover.

Darlene and Kathy: The idea for the book began to materialise from studies into mainstream museums. We were interested in the beginning in the adult education practices of these institutions, including their exhibits, displays and major exhibitions as public educators. As our study progressed, we began to realise how these highly visible public representational structures that lent such significance and value to their subject, were in fact silencing, misrepresenting and/or stereotyping women, and often, particular types of women that conformed to ideal ‘feminine’ norms. Displays and exhibitions were playing an active part in the shaping and perpetuating oppression and other forms of gender injustice. In 2015 we designed what we call the Feminist Museum Hack and in 2016 we brought together in Victoria, British Columbia, a group of 25 women’s museum educators, curators and researchers from Canada, Europe and the United States to discuss the problematic gendered nature of museums, engage in the Hack at our local museum and design the idea of this book. We continued this discussion at a conference in Portugal in 2018. Most of the authors in the book are from these two events, although we also sent out a Call for Chapters to include new and other voices. We had also met Astrid Schönweger and through her Gaby Franger, and we wanted to show another side of museums — specifically women’s museums — in the book as spaces of feminist critique and memory.

Who is it for?

Darlene and Kathy: The book is for graduate students, feminist adult education researchers and cultural and museum theorists. But it is also written for museum adult educators, and curators and even, national or international agencies interested in making museums more socially relevant and responsible. The book is grounded in feminist theory and feminist adult education practices and principles. Both of these are accessible because they aim to make change. The book provides for all audiences interesting ways of looking at and thinking about museums.

What can we expect in the book?

Kathy and Darlene: This book is presented in three parts, addressing ways in which ideologies and historical information are often re-presented in unchallenged ways, offering feminist responses to deeply engrained patriarchy embedded in exhibitions, and providing a feminist critique of ways in which the military, a bastion of patriarchy, in particular has been represented in museums. The chapters provide an international overview and include museums from around the world in the discussion, illuminating ways museums have traditionally used a male lens to represent history, and offering creative and critical responses to traditional museum exhibitory practices. The book also demonstrates how we can challenge and critique the problematics of museums, introduces new ways of working in and with museums and introduces readers to women’s museums. Many people do not know the latter even exist.

Visiting the Women’s Museum in Meran in 2018: From left to right: Astrid Schönweger, IAWM; Dr. Kathy Sanford, University of Victoria; Dr. Darlene Clover, University of Victoria; Sissi Prader, Women’s Museum Meran; and Dr. Nancy Taber, University Brock;

Visiting the Women’s Museum in Meran in 2018: From left to right: Astrid Schönweger, IAWM; Dr. Kathy Sanford, University of Victoria; Dr. Darlene Clover, University of Victoria; Sissi Prader, Women’s Museum Meran; and Dr. Nancy Taber, University Brock;

Why do we need a feminist critique of museums?

Darlene and Kathy: In the field of feminist adult education, we talk about the hidden curriculum, and by this we mean what we are able, allowed or made to see and to think about the world, ourselves and others. The hidden curriculum is always tinged with relations of power, and more specifically, with gendered relations of power. Through our process of hacking museums and their exhibitions around the world, we uncovered how both overtly and covertly, visibly yet invisibly, men were being visualised and storied as ‘knowers’ who perform actively, deeply, and intentionally upon the world. But when it came to women, well, it was as though there was nothing to see so kindly just move along.

We need to remember that museums are visited yearly by the millions of people who come to be entertained for sure but more importantly, to learn. For the most part, visitors trust what they are being taught in museums to be a truthful representation of the world. This is problem when the majority of stories are about men.

There are of course women in museums. But with frequency, they are dangling naked across tree branches in the company of fully clothed men or sitting quietly in perfect domestic bliss surrounded by children. The other problem is that women are not actually there although they are ‘represented’ in diorama of, for example, an empty boudoir, complete with lacey undergarments.

So as to why a feminist critique is necessary there are a number of reasons. We once took a group of graduate students to hack our local museum, a story we tell in the book. As we progressed, one student became extremely exasperated and exclaimed “there are no women here!”. Another student turned to her and said, “Oh, I saw a woman.” When queried about this, she stated that she had seen a silver tea service and a lacey fan. What she was seeing was what feminists call the female absent presence. There was no woman; she had associated a tea service with women and therefore, believed women were represented. This problematic assumption, the belief that something has been seen when in fact it has not. This not only perpetuates gender stereotypes and blindness, but it is a practice that enables museums to continue to exclude, silence women or simply story and visualise women’s lives for them.

Museums are extremely adept at teaching us to remain gender blind. Gender blindness disallows women from participating equally in the world. It is also behind problems we see worldwide such as increased sexualized violence, stricter controls on women’s movements and clothing, low levels of self-esteem in women and girls, and unhealthy obsessions with beauty and body image.

What possibilities are presented to initiate change?

Kathy and Darlene: Chapters in the book take up the language, discourse, and representations to interrogate the exhibitions and provide ways to critically respond and challenge ways in which history and society have been represented in museum exhibitions.

Critical feminist museum hacking is utilized to examine voice and perspectives that are missing, misrepresented, ignored. Storying and restorying are aspects of ‘hacking’ used to challenge dominant discourses, as well as discourse analysis of curatorial statements, titles, and descriptive labels. Re-presenting of words (found poetry, anecdote) and images are key elements found in the book, used by authors to powerfully present alternative approaches intended to provoke and stimulate change in perspectives, attitudes, and presentation of artifacts and narratives. Feminist exhibits and contributions of women’s museums also offer provocative and important alternatives for changing the way we see and use museum exhibitions. The emphasis of the book is on feminist practices as pedagogies of possibilities, as means toward gender justice and change be that through critique, designing new practices or creating new types of exhibitions and spaces of teaching and learning.

What is the role of women’s museums?

Astrid: The founding of a women’s museum is actually already part of the feminist critique of museums. This is because it points out that women’s history and/or art are not or not sufficiently represented in other museums. However, museums are the institutions in our society that decide what they consider “worth keeping” or not, “worth remembering” or not. They evaluate what is important and what is not, and are thus also the “institutions of forgetting”. All this has happened to women’s history and art over the last centuries, if not millennia. Women’s museums try to uncover these forgotten histories and are also preserving what is happening now for the future.

Darlene and Kathy: Until women are able to represent themselves visually and to tell their own stories publicly, they will remain subject to the disempowering and destructive voyeurism of what feminists call the ‘male gaze’. We will also continue to see a lack of historical memory and gender consciousness of the contributions women have made to evolution of humanity. Women’s museums are places where women tell their own stories, where they represent and imagine themselves from their own perspectives and experiences. Women’s museums are critical because they are so pedagogical. They are where we come to see and to know the other half of humanity, in all its diversity, power, courage, challenge and complicity. Equally importantly, women’s museums are not afraid to be ‘political’ pedagogical spaces. Most women’s museums carry no pretext to neutrality. They offer a challenging critical feminist perspective of the world by making prevailing relations of gendered power visible. Once we can see something that was invisible, we can come to know the world and ourselves as women differently. Once we come to ‘know’ we can think the unthinkable of new possibilities for action and change.

What is your contribution to the book about, Astrid?

Astrid: Of course, Darlene’s and my contribution is about women’s museums – who they are, why they are important, their pedagogical strategies and their role in society. We explain what feminist adult education means and show the need for women’s museums, bring examples of different institutions around the world. We describe adult education in these museums and their other activities and of course I go into more detail about the example of the Merano Women’s Museum in Italy and also about the role of IAWM as a network that strengthens cooperation but also the visibility of women’s museums.

What other contribution would you particularly recommend to us?

Astrid: Apart from ours? 😉 Joking aside. The museum of “Women in One World” in Fürth has probably put up the most widely travelled touring exhibition of a women’s museum on the topic of headscarf cultures. One of the curators of this exhibition, Gaby Franger, who now runs the museum and also sits on the board of IAWM, together with Darlene Clover, has vividly portrayed this exhibition from its creation to its content to its echo. For me, it is an example of what kind of exhibitions women’s museums can put forward to contribute to feminist adult education.

Gaby: The broad spectrum of feminist museum approaches can also be seen at the “Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace” (WAM) in Tokyo, also a member of IAWM. The museum aims to achieve justice for the sex slaves of the Japanese military during World War II, the so-called comfort women, through exhibitions and educational work.
As Sachiyo Tsukamato and Sara C. Motta show in their contribution, that the aim here is to counter the dominant social version of memory culture. The museum reflects critically the history of the war and the treatment of the female victims of the military machine of the time, as well as the current complicity of the Japanese government and deniers of these crimes. WAM creates a place where survivors and members of the society of perpetrators can meet. It is a place of active confrontation not only with unwelcome historical memories, but also of social and political debate for gender justice and peace.

Feminist Critique and the Museum - Educating for a Critical Consciousness

Feminist Critique and the Museum – Educating for a Critical Consciousness

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