Village Women Engaging in the international Work of a Women‘s Museum = Encouraging the community
Stefania Pitscheider Soraperra, Director, Frauenmuseum Hittisau, Hittisau, Austria http://www.frauenmuseum.at/
The Frauenmuseum Hittisau has set itself the goal to make the lives of women visible. The museum deals with the reality of women’s lives, takes up socially controversial issues and aims at actively contributing to an improvement of living together. This is done on the basis of the conviction that art and culture are not autonomous systems, out of touch with reality, and a museum is not a self-referential parallel world. Therefore Frauenmuseum Hittisau has – from its vey beginnings – focussed on political issues relevant to women, education and society in general.
In its work the role of cultural mediators is of vital importance. Twenty women from the village and the surrounding region – the young- est 16, the oldest 86 – support the museum in theory and practice. To be able to enter into a genuine dialogue with the visitors of the museum they – together with the director of the museum and invited experts – continually deal with different topics.
A museum can meet many different expectations. It can form identities. It can represent power relations. It can satisfy the hunger for knowledge and education. It can be used for leisure time activities. It can serve the art market. It can convey feelings.
But it can also be – and this is a core task especially for women’s museums – a place of discussion, debate, a place where embarrassing questions are raised. And this makes it a place of empowerment for women, a place where power relations are being questioned, participation scenarios realised and political participation processes initiated. In this respect a museum is place for political education. For women, in the first place.
PRESENTATION TEXT IN DETAIL
It strikes me as a question of current interest: Are museums capable of promoting people’s understanding of sociopolitical interrelations? I would like to address this question by taking the example of the Women’s Museum in the Austrian village Hittisau.
Allow me to introduce myself:
My name is Stefania Pitscheider Soraperra. I am managing “Frauenmuseum Hittisau” (FMH) since three and a half years. FMH is the only women’s museum all over Austria.
I trained as an art and architecture historian and I have been working for big Austrian museums such as Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Museum of Fine Arts Vienna), Kunsthalle Wien and Austrian design fair ArtDesign. Besides I ran several freelance projects in the art scene, for instance WochenKlausur. Working with artist group WochenKlausur has been of eminent importance in my career. WochenKlausur realized sociopolitical interventions at the invitation of cultural entities like Vienna Secession (mobile van caring for homeless), Shedhalle Zurich (Boarding house for prostitutes with drug abuse problem), La Biennale di Venezia (language school network for Macedonia and Kosovo).
Again and again I have been wondering whether the two methods of operating, on the one hand institutional labour, divided according to specialization, and the involvement in freelance projects on the other hand, and these two lines of work rarely coinciding. But then I found, in Hittisau these threads become intertwined. Even though we are one of the smaller participants in the cultural sector, we seek to offer an ambitious program, with its form and content on a solid footing. We can only work with divided responsibilities (to a limited extent) due to the museum’s size, calling for that kind of modus operandi, commitment, and flexibility, more likely to be found in free projects.
FMH considers sociopolitical action beyond institutional demands to be essential. We have asked ourselves: Can we impart and enhance tolerance and critical faculty through exhibitions? Is a cultural entity the appropriate location for entrenching the rules of democracy? Shall art and culture be worshipped solely in spaces exclusively designated for this purpose?
At this point I wish to take you on a small detour to explain about the concept of art and culture representative of the women’s museum.
We believe art and culture should be closely related to social and political action. Social and sociopolitical activities are important aspects of cultural work.
Society’s renewal and advancement cannot be imagined without cultural work’s contribution. Art and culture are elementary ways of human expression, meaningful only dialogical and in real temporal and social connection. That’s why creative artists and cultural workers bear great responsibility.
I am convinced culture should not only be worshipped in places designed for this purpose, art should not generate/constitute a self-referential parallel world and should not pretend to exist on its own terms. Apart from aesthetic formalism art is capable of confronting reality, culture is able addressing the political situation, suggesting improvement for human co-existence. Unconventional ideas, innovative spirit and energies taken up by formalistic glass bead games for hundreds of years would be allowed to contribute to solving real issues.
Art and museums can both take over a wide variety of tasks. Numerous functions come to one’s mind: Art representing its commissioners or producers, art establishing identity, cultivating identities, satisfying thirst for education and knowledge or possessiveness, indeed.
Changing our living conditions has always been one of art’s and culture’s main functions. Art and culture challenging taboos and standards and provoking change in social conditions gained momentum in modern age along with the dismissal of religion-based appointing of authorities.
A woman changes when realizing she has her own history.
Gerda Lerner (*1920)
Frauenmuseum Hittisau (in the Bregenz Forest) is Austria’s only women’s museum and worldwide the only of its kind in a rural area. It was founded in 2000 and has staged about thirty exhibitions related to women issues since then.
One of its foremost tasks is the uncovering, visualizing as well as documenting of women’s cultural work(s). The analysis of history and culture from a female/feminist perspective deepens and broadens female identity, triggers processes of reflection and increases women’s and men’s consciousness of gender roles’ historical and social conditionality and their malleability.
There are two to three exhibitions every year. They concentrate on issues of importance to women from the fields of history, art, architecture, social history, ethnology, craft etc.
The museum seeks to balance regional and international topics, presented in a reflective and gender sensitive way. Presentation design is reduced and minimalistic rather than technically elaborate or emphasizing objects’ suggestibility.
Exhibitions are accompanied by various events, special tours, lectures, concerts, readings, workshops and screenings. The education programme offers events for grown-ups and children.
Collecting, preserving, researching and raising awareness
Collected are knowledge and objects related to material and immaterial female cultures (primarily regional) in an image databank (objects) or audio databank (interviews). The scope of the collection is limited. It focuses on art and everyday culture relevant to the region. Awareness-raising and documentation have top priority. Preference is given to loans, which will be recorded in our image database and then returned, having been “enriched” by further knowledge, remembrance and appreciation (in an exhibition). Research projects reveal information on the background. The local population will be involved when regional issues are handled. Supra-regional or international issues may be developed through cooperation.
From pioneering to permanent institution
Women’s Museum Hittisau is 11 years old. The times of “spadework” are over. Meanwhile the main concerns are day-to-day business, consolidation and differentiation. Budgeting continues to be a challenge. At present there is one full-time job for the director and one part-time job for a museologist/assistant. Seventeen cultural mediators work only on an hourly basis.
Inclusion at Women’s Museum Hittisau
A particular feature of Frauenmuseum Hittisau is the way its cultural mediatresses work. Apart from the museum’s director as the only permanent employee the staff is constituted of local women of every age (18 to 80) and very heterogeneous social background. On the occasion of new exhibitions these women will meet with experts and engage themselves in the respective topic, crafting their very own approach towards the subject. This allows for a most authentic style of communicating with visitors. The authenticity of these companions (mostly volunteers) of those visiting is part of the exhibition concept: You not just visit a museum, but an encounter takes place.
The strategy and its implementation are equally attractive to an international audience as to the locals.
The Women’s Museum Hittisau is firmly established in the village and the region while at the same time having an appeal beyond the borders of the region. It does outstanding work in a rural area despite the small budget. Vorarlberg’s cultural landscape can no longer be imagined without this museum.
In light of demographic change and a society in transition museums are confronted with new challenges. They have to lay foundations for lifelong, cross-generational learning and need to provide access to culture for everybody regardless of gender, age, achievement, ethnic background or special needs.
As I said, the team’s structure reflects s the implementation of inclusion. Nineteen female cultural mediators, all from the area around Hittisau, ages 17 to 86 have a highly diverse educational, professional and social matrix:
one graduate of gender studies,
one hiking guide,
one logistics manager,
one nursery school teacher,
one geriatric nurse,
one prepress technician,
one Hittisau-born graphic designer,
one Syrian-born (refugee) graphic designer,
one expert in theatre arts.
On a frequent basis these cultural mediators gather to focus on certain issues presented by specially invited experts enhancing their ability to enter into dialogue with the visitors.
Since its formation sixteen years ago the women team of mediators has become the spiritual and active pillars of Frauenmuseum Hittisau. They ensure the museum never loses touch with its environment.
The concept of inclusion is a powerful tool of self-empowerment and political education. A considerable number of cultural mediators are politically active by now, claiming participation in public life.
Since the early days of Frauenmuseum Hittisau inclusion has been a central issue, especially in relation to gender equality. Mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, participating in or being excluded from social life, as well as the topics of participation and cooperation in general are focused in all our exhibitions and projects. We want to make people understand, what it means to have access or be excluded, being allowed to participate or not.
I wonder, what issues should a museum address, what is there to draw on?
Women’s Museum Hittisau set itself the task to make women’s living conditions clearly visible. We discuss reality, address controversial social issues and try to make difference in social coexistence, because we believe in a museum that is not acting as if a disconnected autonomous unity. The engagement with reality needs to go beyond aesthetic formalism, political conditions have to be questioned and ideas for improving cohabitation developed. Since its beginnings Frauenmuseum Hittisau turned its attention to topics related to women, social policies, education.
- Raising of awareness and female empowerment
- Enhances equality of opportunities in rural environment
- Documentation and communication of women’s history and culture.
- Institution practicing gender sensitivity as to cultural assets
- Low-threshold approach in communication of women’s history to highly heterogeneous target groups. Working with children creates early engagement with gender-neutral thinking.
- Gender sensitivity in a tourist environment
- The minimalist presentation concept shows consideration for sustainability and responsible use of resources.
Museums answer to highly diverse expectations and can even be identity-establishing. They still people’s hunger for knowledge and education. They are recreational. They serve the art market. They communicate emotions and last not least provide a forum for discussion. This is exactly what Frauenmuseum Hittisau is about, women are afforded the chance of empowerment, and power structures are being challenged. Here participation is put into practice and political involvement initiated. In this sense the museum becomes a space of political education.