Women and museums

Since it’s International Women’s Day, and Women’s History Month, lots of museums are busily tweeting objects, and organising special tours and talks, focusing on women’s history and works by women in their collections.

I wanted to look at the relationship between women and museums on the other 364 days/11 months of the year.

What I found from the International Association of Women’s Museums, is that there are over 70 museums dedicated to women and gender issues across the world. Not one of those listed is in the UK. Not on the list, but well worth a mention, are the Women’s Library collection, now housed at LSE, and the Glasgow Women’s Library, which intriguingly incorporates the National Museum of Roller Derby. Both of these sites are working on new facilities and currently only offer limited access to their collections. So why isn’t there a dedicated women’s museum in the UK? And do we need one?

It could be argued that such a museum would only marginalise women, and that it is more productive to ensure women’s history, along with that of other historically ignored groups, is incorporated into the interpretation of all kinds of subjects in our existing museums. On the other hand a dedicated museum acknowledges the importance of women’s history and gives visitors the opportunity to consider its absence from mainstream museums.

Girls’ Jemima Kirke touches on some of these issues in this great video which Tate produced in January 2014 (it wasn’t even International Women’s Day!) about the marginalisation of women artists.

In the US there seems to be more of a trend for museums dedicated to one marginalised group, for example the National Museum of the American Indian, the long-planned National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. A National LGBT Museum is also being planned. In the UK however it is hard to think of a major museum dedicated to a single identity or culture. Perhaps this is because UK museums prefer to take a multicultural perspective, and now aim to incorporate different voices into one museum space.

I was hoping in this post to include a quick analysis of the relative percentages of female staff, visitors, and female-produced exhibits in museums. Unfortunately I have struggled to find the relevant data for UK museums. I did find an article in The Guardian quoting Maurice Davies of the Museums Association as saying “The museums sector is notorious for having virtually no statistics.”

Anecdotally then, women dominate the museum workforce. According to the American Alliance of Museums’ 2012 Salary Study, two thirds of the museum professionals in the sample were women. Observations from the sector are also telling: when the Collections Trust announced the intake for their first Collections Management Trainee programme last year, all 19 participants were women.

With visitor numbers it seems even harder to get some cold hard facts about the number of women visiting the major museums. Of the three most recent exhibition evaluation reports on the British Museum’s website, two made no mention at all of the words ‘female’, ‘women’ or ‘gender’; the third featured the criticism that “the exhibition did little to address the female experience of Hajj”, but again made no analysis of the percentage of female visitors. I’d be interested to hear if anyone has good sources for visitor evaluation which takes gender into account.

The last piece of this frustrating puzzle is the number of exhibits relating to women. Most analysis of this, as in the video above, focuses on fine art. It is harder to gauge the number of objects in museums which have been made by, used by, owned by, and shaped by women. Even then there is the consideration of how much the interpretation of these objects highlights women’s contribution. This is where International Women’s Day is useful in encouraging museums to highlight such objects in their collections.