Local Inclusion – Networking
Bettina Bab, Curator, Frauenmuseum Bonn, http://www.frauenmuseum.de/
The establishment of our women’s museum would not have been a success without the inclusion of other (women’s) groups. In the summer of 1981 a group of female artists moved into an empty clothing store. They sort of squatted the big house, renovated it, turned it into a cultural centre and offered a program to the public. In this way the museum and other activities, such as a women’s café and an archive for women’s history of the city of Bonn was opened.
In the beginning the museum was run on a wholly voluntary basis and even today has only three part-time employees. It has always been supported by a group of women, mainly artists. They offer some services, help to organize celebrations and develop ideas to guarantee continuity. At Bonn University the first German professorship of women’s history was established by Prof. Annette Kuhn. During the 1990s we had a close cooperation with her. Her students took part in three historical exhibitions and did research.
For many years the women’s museum has been taking part in an employment program for people with mental problems. These women are employed in the archive of contemporary female artists and in the archive of newspaper-articles about female politicians. Two free-lancers founded the ‘children’s atelier’ in the women’s museum. They cooperate with most primary schools in Bonn; organize art projects for children and an annual competition. Because of their work many children visit the museum – Germans as well as migrants. Last, but not least the women’s museum has established a network of women’s organisations in Bonn.
Inclusive Practices on the Local Level, Thursday 20 October 2016
International Women’s Museums Conference – Women’s Museums: Centre of Social Memory and Place of Inclusion, Istanbul, 20-22 October 2016
PRESENTATION TEXT IN DETAIL
In March 1981 female artists, architects and women involved in urban planning founded the first ever autonomous women’s museum. This, however, would not have been possible without local support. Initially women had started the foundation “Women form their City” and had curated an exhibition about ways of living and urban planning conceived by women. They were subsequently looking for a space to showcase their exhibition. In a northern neighbourhood of Bonn – at that time a rather neglected part of the city mostly home to students and immigrants – a former clothing store was standing empty in a backyard. It belonged to the city council of Bonn and was in a dire condition – even the roof was leaking in parts. The artists asked the city council for permission to use the building and were granted the right of usage for the summer of 1981. But they stayed – forever?!
This was tantamount to squatting, a partly legal, partly illegal s. This occupation, however, was in tune with the spirit of this era, when there was a political squatters’ movement from which the women’s movement developed as an alternative cultural movement. The building of the Women’s Museum is quite large. 3000 m² spread over three floors; there was a lot of space available which needed to be filled with activity. Different cultural projects and women’s groups moved in. In order to pay for the running costs of the building such as heating, electricity, water, telephone and some necessary purchases, they had to pay a rent. The primary goal was to establish the place as a women’s cultural centre and to gain acceptance within the cultural scene. One group opened a women’s café and organised a party for women once a month. All in all, 14 groups were active here: amongst them One-World-Group, Terre des Hommes, music, women’s health, Education Centre for Peace Work, a textile workshop, a drawing school, a women’s press agency, two groups which were publishing a women’s magazine. The cultural centre was self-governing and claimed to make all decisions on the basis of grass-roots democratic participation. This certainly did not work every time and cost a lot of time and nerves.
After most of the project groups had moved for one reason or another, the main focus was directed towards establishing the museum. Since 1984 a regular tenancy agreement was signed and since then the city of Bonn has been paying the rent and heating costs, but there was still no funding for exhibitions forthcoming. From the very beginning the focus lay on art exhibitions and art performances. The initiators wanted to give unknown female artists in Germany an opportunity to showcase their works – at that time there really weren’t any known female artists in Germany, which meant that (almost) all of them were unknown – on the other hand, however, it was their expressed purpose to expand the understanding of the term “art” and to break open traditional artistic norms respectively.
- The Artists
In order to establish the Women’s Museum, the support of many female artists, who would make their paintings, installation or videos available for exhibitions free of charge, was of particular importance. But the efforts of many women went beyond that, because administrative work, box office duties and such like had to be made at the same time as activities were being organised. Even though it was easier to get grants for art projects, a lot of work had to be carried out on a voluntary basis. The “Tuesday Assembly” has existed since these early years: every Tuesday at 2pm an open group which is made up of museum staff meets, artists and interested individuals who want to show their support and are eager to learn about new projects and events. Plenty is discussed here and suggestions are welcome.
In the last couple of years, the questions of whether the city of Bonn will continue to support the Women’s Museum and whether its future is secured have taken centre stage. This is not only a concern for the Women’s Museum, but, due to budgetary constraints many city councils suffer from, effects other cultural institutions, too. One or two years ago the city council has made the decision to sell the museum building. It is now down to the group meeting on Tuesdays to raise public awareness – be it with protest activities or with creative ideas for fundraising – in order put the recently started foundation in support of the Women’s Museum in a position to purchase the building themselves. One artist, Erika Beyhl, has borrowed a genuine post box from Deutsche Post and started a “Briefkastenfirma” (German for an offshore, post-box company). During the opening or closing of exhibitions, there’s a performance informing visitors about it. The post box is positioned at the entrance of the museum and collects donations. After the deadline imitation gold nuggets will be raffled off between the donours.
- Chair for Women’s Studies at the University
Since the 1990’s the Women’s Museum has been in close cooperation with Prof. Annette Kuhn, who had the first chair for Women’s History in the Department of History and Didactics at Bonn University. Three history exhibitions have been collaboratively organised. The professor would hold a seminar about the theme of the exhibition; the first mutual exhibition in 1991 was concerned with Bonn women under National Socialism: students (mostly women) conducted research on the topic, looked for photos, read documents in the city archives and talked to witnesses. After that they wrote a text on the subject. The Women’s Museum supplied the design and the art work. By combining history or current topics with art, these first history exhibitions produced a new type of exhibition. This is to say that artists would work on a certain aspect of the exhibition and create pertinent pieces of art.
This cooperation was a win-win for all involved. The professor’s standing at the very conservative Bonn University was difficult and she was frequently attacked, through the exhibitions, however, she gained some recognition. The students, on the other hand, were grateful to be involved in an interesting practical research project as opposed to the rest of their studies which were more theory-oriented. The Women’s Museum was thereby able to realise history exhibitions which would have otherwise not seen the light of day. Such a cooperation, of course, required openness and tolerance for the ways other institutions work and a lot of communication. A person had to guide the students, edit the texts, coordinate the setting up of the exhibition and to liaise with everyone involved. The Women’s Museum, however, had no one on staff who could do this and the professor herself did not have the time. Luckily, at that time state-funded project positions were available for suitably qualified, but unemployed workers – that is how I got into this coordinating role.
- The Children‘s Workshop
Since 2004 two self-employed museum educators have been running the Children’s Workshop which offers activities to primary school age children. There are guided tours for whole school classes, activities for and by children, family workshops, children’s birthdays and vacation workshops which, in recent years, have been mainly targeted at German and refugee children. A current project is called “MuseobilBox” which is funded through the state programme “Kultur macht stark” (“Culture gives Strength”) and is targeting children from disadvantaged backgrounds. To this end, the Children’s Workshops is cooperating with a day care centre.
The Children’s Workshop invites primary schools to the museum and organises art projects with them. For years there has been a cooperation project with a close-by school called “Museumsklasse” (“Museum Class”). Once a week one class from that school joins the museum to work on a children’s exhibition which is showcased in a small hut within the Women’s Museum. This has a double-positive impact: a lot of immigrant children live in our neighbourhood and because of this project Turkish and Arab boys come to the museum. Their parents would normally not have the inclination to go to a women’s museum of any kind, but, because their children’s paintings are shown there, sometimes even these parents come for a visit.
One highlight is the annual story-writing competition “Abra Palabra” aimed at children from the Bonn area and, for the last couple of years, children who live abroad. In 2015 43 classes from Bonn schools and 17 classes from German schools abroad took part, including one class from a school in Izmir. The award ceremony takes place in a youth theatre which is filled to capacity. Through this competition all primary schools in the Bonn area know the Women’s Museum and many of them have already cooperated with the Children’s Workshop.
- Work Skills Training
Since the beginning there has been a rather invisible collaboration with several psychiatric associations. These associations find long-term (at least a year) training opportunities for former female psychiatric patients in order for them to be re-introduce to regular work. To start with, they come in for two hours per day; when they feel stable enough, they can increase their working hours. According to their skills and previous experience, these women are employed in different departments – just like an internship. There is an induction phase after which they work pretty much by themselves. They are supervised by these psychiatric associations as this is something the museum cannot do.
More often women work in one of the archives of the Women’s Museum. There is an archive of contemporary female artists with information and flyers about approximately 25.000 female artists as well as an archive of newspaper articles about female politicians. It is thanks to these “interns” that these archives are constantly being updated and are growing. After they got to know the museum, many of them take on other jobs and stay on for years on a voluntary basis.
This collaboration is also a win-win for all involved. The former patients are part of the team and gain self-confidence. The Women’s Museum in turn gets an extra pair of helping hands. The women are certainly not very strong yet and it isn’t clear how much they will be able to do for how long, but in any case: through their help a lot of work gets done that would otherwise not be seen to. Some do their bit behind the curtains, others are fully part of the “Tuesday Assembly”.
A few years ago the Women’s Museum initiated a network of women’s groups in Bonn. Represented are women’s organizations of political parties, social and cultural associations, professional bodies and the German section of female UN staff that are located in Bonn. The purpose is exchange and public relations. Women’s groups organise an International Women’s Day together; there are political activities on the streets and afterwards a cultural event takes place in the museum. This is a way to show our presence and strength together.
In conclusion, I would like to say that on the one hand it strikes me as important to be locally connected as well as being part of working committees and museum associations, but on the other hand not to neglect the international level. Since most women’s museums were born out of grass-roots initiatives and private engagement, local support was and will remain vital. But this shouldn’t be the end of it. And, although I was today focussing on local inclusion and networking, the Women’s Museum Bonn always was and still is looking for international projects and international exchange.