“Feminism and Museums” – a complicated subject, I thought. So I did what most people do when facing something unknown – I googled it. The first entry was, however, not the comforting Wikipedia page I had hoped for, but a call for papers for an academic book about the subject – more people trying to figure out what exactly the relationship was between this movement aimed at transforming society and that institution aimed at preserving it. Most other search results were also academic in nature. Only two caught my eye as addressing the wider public: an article by the Huffington Post and a click-baity Bustle list of 11 Feminist Museums Around The World You Need To Visit.
Both celebrate the expanding number of exhibitions centred around the experiences and work of women. The HuffPost hails that “heritage women art stars are a hotter (sic) trend today [than ever]“ in the museums of Los Angeles and Bustle showcases how museums around the globe have made women their focus. These articles have their apparent weaknesses – while the LA article is includes some islamophobic slurs, Bustle assumes that everyone can just jet-set around the world and visit museums as they please. But, for me, there is a deeper issue at stake here: Is feminism really just about creating exhibitions and museums about women?
Here I paused my internet research and turned to scholar Hilde Hein, who is “Looking at Museums from a Feminist Perspective.” Her article is certainly not easily accessible; it bristles with theoretical concepts and ideas of how to implement them. One thing, however, is clear: for Hein, feminism does not limit itself to the mere inclusion of women into existing patriarchal structures. Instead of “simply reversing or replacing old concepts […] feminism aims at expanding the margins of conceivability.” To actually implement that theoretical ideal is tricky, as Hein admits, because the outcome is, necessarily, impossible to know beforehand. Yet museums, with their possibilities of engaging the visitor with narrative and spectacle, can be a place to “reshape the contours of ‘normal’ thinking.” Feminist concepts such as the constructedness of universal truth, the arbitrary division between subject and object and, of course, the artificial nature of the gender binary can be made approachable in the physical space of the museum – the visitor is “there” and, instead of simply learning new ideas, experiences them. The feminist museums allows us to view the exhibition through our own history, to react to it and to start an exchange with it and among ourselves.
So what does that actually mean? In one example, Hein suggests that art museums could provide their visitors with clothing worn by their portraits’ models. This would not only provide a deeper understanding of the circumstances of their creation, but also make the ways in which especially gendered clothing forms and limits the body experienceable. It would erode the division between object and subject – the visitor’s relation to the portrait would itself become part of the artwork. I would also like to add an example of my own: In the Galeria Cosmococa, the visitor can actually enter the picture. Five rooms are transformed, through light and sound, into scenes. Although there are no instructions, the visitor can interact with all the objects present – cushions in weird geometrical shapes, hammocks and even a pool. In this way, not only the own body, but also the other visitors become part of the artwork – any fixed sense of what is displayed to whom gets lost.
So does that mean that museums about women are bad? Of course not, but I feel that Hein is right in saying that there is much more to do than just dedicate some exhibitions to women. A feminist engagement with museums cannot exhaust itself in checking out the museums world-wide that are dedicated to women, nor in doing one exhibition on female artists and then adopt a “been-there-done-that”-stance. In the end, there is one strategy missing both in the web articles and in Hein’s, a strategy that has defined feminism since its beginning: resistance! And so while we support feminist exhibitions and work for long-term transformation, we should not forget that the major museum institutions will probably try to hold on to their old privileges and that taking them away will require a fight – groups like the Guerilla Girls and Occupy Museums have been leading the way. Having written this, I certainly still don’t know the bigger part about feminism and museums. But I know what I can do: support, transform, resist!