Being Girl Museum
Ashley E Remer, Founder & Head Girl, Girl Museum http://www.girlmuseum.org/
Girl Museum is a virtual museum for exhibiting, educating and raising awareness about historic and contemporary girlhood. We explore and document the unique experience of growing up female cross-culturally and raise awareness of modern social issues.
Our absolute requirement for an exhibition, a project, a blog, post or tweet is that it is pro-girl. We do not perform as a typical museum in terms of aiming exhibitions at popular or revenue-generating topics or sponsors. We do not compromise for the sake of funding. Our ideas and work comes from the collective: Junior Girls, partners, and contributors around the world. With multiple levels of participation, we provide opportunities for individuals to gain experience, advocate for girls’ rights, and share their stories.
With the whole world as our country, it will take decades for Girl Museum to realize any kind of ‘total’ inclusion in terms of our research and output. In the meantime, we will keep rainstorming, researching, reaching out for collaboration, and promoting girlhood until the narrative becomes representative of all girls in the past and present.
PRESENTATION TEXT IN DETAIL
“As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Embracing these words of Virginia Woolf from an early age, I have let them guide my life. Travelling and living in parts of the world very different from where I grew up has given me a perspective that I could only have imagined as a young girl dreaming of adventure. My feminist and humanist ideals came from those whom I listened to and read. My girlhood heroines were all in one way or another pro girl, demonstrating in a variety of ways that girls are important and have always made valuable contributions to society.
After years of travel, working in theatres and museums, researching art and history, and experiencing life as a girl, I had a convergence of purpose, a hard won epiphany. In 2009, armed with my Virginia Woolf mantra and the power of the Internet, I gave life to Girl Museum. Thanks to the World Wide Web, I did not have to decide where in the world to put a museum dedicated to girlhood and girl culture—no one place seemed more significant or more deserving than another—it could and should be everywhere. And that is our commitment to inclusion.
From the first time I began to talk about Girl Museum, I was immediately asked two questions: “What about the boys?” and “Is it an underwear museum?” So yes, on the first question, we have been exclusively girl-focused from the start. However, this is merely to right the wrongs of the past. Most museums do not highlight women’s contributions. Often their voices are silenced next to their male counterparts. In art museums, male artists showcase women in their works – but often, we don’t know the details of these women – or even their names.
And for the second question, it showed me what I was up against – the expectation of what ‘girl’ means, especially in the context of the Internet Age.
Being grounded, yet wall-free, Girl Museum has a distinctive and inclusive approach to both being a museum and celebrating girlhood. Evolving with and within the Internet, Girl Museum is a virtual museum for exhibiting, educating and raising awareness about historic and contemporary girlhood cross-culturally. We explore and document the unique experience of growing up female and raise awareness of the realities and issues, both nature and nurture, facing girls worldwide. While girlhood is a subset of childhood and womanhood, we feel it is special enough to deserve its own space. So for the purposes of including ourselves into history, museum spaces and social consciousness, we are exclusively about girls and girlhood. However, we are inclusive with our process and content, with our team and our global community.
Our absolute requirement for an exhibition, a project, blog, post or even a tweet is to be pro-girl. How this is defined is negotiated daily, but we walk the pro-girl talk. We acknowledge that terrible things happen to millions of girls everyday, but we do not exploit or re-victimize those girls by capitalizing on their hardship or misfortune with click bait images or pull quotes. We want to lift them up.
In our effort to show that girlhood everywhere is something precious and vital. To that end we have collaborated with other museums, nonprofits, and individuals. For example, Kiwi Chicks: Girl History in New Zealand was produced with Te Papa Tongarewa/The National Museum of New Zealand, Girl for Sale with the American Poetry Museum, Celebrating Girl UP with the United Nations Foundation, and exhibitions such as our Heroine Quilts, Gamer Girl, Surfer Girl and our STEM focused shows were all crowd-sourced content.
While there are many topics we have not yet addressed, such as girls in religion or body image and decoration, they are on our program. With the whole world as our country, it will take decades for Girl Museum to realize any kind of ‘total’ inclusion in terms of our research and output. In the meantime, we will keep collaborating and promoting girlhood by all means possible.
Our exhibitions come from a variety of sources—personal interests, interns, current events, and even random emails. Several shows were sparked by individuals or organizations reaching out and saying, “Hey, it’s cool what you do. This is what we do. Can we do something together?” In this and other ways our exhibitions have naturally been as inclusive as possible.
The first exhibition, Defining Our Terms, was written as a manifesto, to define our scope and purpose. It is deeply personal, as a culmination of my dreams and research interests, and universal, as it gives voice to the voiceless girls of art and social history. I highly recommend visiting this exhibition first to truly ‘get’ what we are about.
From the marginalized place of the girl, our exhibitions are sites to examine the images that exist and how these representations coalesce on the body and mind of the girl, young and old. Whether a specific personality, a body of projected neuroses, an allegory, a symbol or an esoteric ideal, we acknowledge her presence as both necessary and important.
At the 2010 American Museums Association conference, Elaine Heumann Gurian put my hand in the hand of Jon West-Bey, then director of the American Poetry Museum in Washington DC, saying, “You two should work together.” And by the end of lunch, we had a project plan for Girl for Sale, a collaborative exhibition that interrogates and responds to the issues of girl trafficking through poetry, art and education. I believe being open to spontaneous creation of projects makes for the best outcomes.
The Heroines Quilts 1, 2 and 3 were very important for us, to create a show based on user contributions. Not only did we want to share the great girls and women of our collective childhoods with others, but also we were curious about who our community looked up to when they were young and if they would be willing to share them. For each year, we analyze how many were famous people, literary figures or movie characters, or family members or friends. It was always reassuring that at least some girls had women in their lives, and not just celebrities, to look up to as role models.
Gamer Girl was the first exhibition that I had VERY little to do with. The subject and the approach came from our Junior Girls. It was my program developer, Tiffany Rhoades’, first lead curatorial exhibition. It is one of our best and most successful shows. She had this to say about the process:
I’ve aimed to tell stories straight from their source whenever possible, and to provide numerous resources for girls to get involved in the gaming community and become active participants in shaping its future. The voices in this exhibition are primarily female, but that doesn’t mean we want gaming to become dominated by women. We merely want equality: equal opportunity, respect, and acknowledgement of our passion for and participation in gaming. And the way to do that is by inspiring current and future gamers with positive stories from the gaming community.
I do not game, but that this show had such a wide appeal and impact helped open my own mind to its potential.
We do not perform as a typical museum in terms of aiming exhibitions at popular or revenue-generating topics or sponsors. We do not compromise for the sake of funding. Our ideas and work come from our collective, those that have chosen to be a part of our global team of Junior Girls and partners. With multiple levels of participation, we have provided opportunities to girls worldwide to gain experience with us and to help share their voices. And this is as, if not more, important that our thousands of faceless virtual visitors.
Being online, our practice has been shaped by the development of the web itself. Our capacity has grown because the resources have multiplied exponentially since we began. I could not have imagined six years ago we would ever get to use images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art or British Museum for free. Now there are hundreds of thousands of images available for our research and exhibitions.
The Internet demands we do more, faster. I first envisioned us producing two exhibitions per year. But now we typically do three or four plus many other ongoing projects. We write less than we would for wall text and to a ‘web’ audience. This has been a great learning curve for myself and my interns who are typically museologists or academics who rejoice in a well-crafted footnote. But these things are out the door for our final draft. Actually we do still start very traditionally, with plenty of references and citations and pare it down towards the end. I believe in having too much and cutting back. It is the only way people will read what we have written.
I started out with the intention that we would not collect, thus this was a MAJOR difference between us and a traditional physical museum. However, this quickly changed. Artists have created works for us, and while we do not physically own the object, the image is ours. We have acquired images (primarily photographs) from private individuals that are a part of our collection.
But we have found that donors and the funding institutions in the USA have not caught up with the concept of a virtual museum. For the most part, you still have to have a physical space that is open to the public to get a grant. Several friends who run alternative museums have been brought down by this trap of acquiring a space to get the funding, then the funds run out and they still have the bills to pay.
So my team and myself are all volunteers at Girl Museum. Some senior staff have been with me for six years—very dedicated and passionate individuals. They came up from our internship program, which is also an embodiment of our inclusive approach. The Junior Girls (as we call them) really put their heart and soul into their research for exhibitions, writing blogs and promoting our work. We encourage contributions and creativity and welcome the Junior Girls to bring their interests to the table and we will help them develop a project or show. I should note here that we have had two Junior Boys work with us, however their stays were short lived. We also hope to have more in the future—to bring them along with us is vital to this process of having girls’ histories recognized.
Our community is made up of individuals who have participated in our projects. This has been hard won. We are not viral and our visitors are difficult to define. While we have metrics on who actually visits the site, thousands of hits per month, those who spend time are fewer and farther between. We know more people read our site than engage with it. When we go to conferences, we find that people are using us in their classrooms. We don’t get many comments, although people send us emails. There are advantages and drawbacks to being virtual. We cannot get the visceral satisfaction of seeing people gathered, absorbed and enjoying our exhibitions. But we can provide our shows to anyone with an Internet connection.
Our living definition of inclusion is about being wide open to collaboration and to provide opportunities where there weren’t any before; be it research, discussion, expression, participation or just observation. This is being Girl Museum.
I would like to thank Meral and the other organizers for putting this conference together and for giving me this opportunity to share and discuss with you all the work that we do at Girl Museum.