Women’s history – an arena for voices other than those previously heard the most
Museum Director Maria Perstedt, The Museum of Women’s History, Umeå, Sweden, http://www.kvinnohistoriskt.se
The Museum of Women´s History was opened Nov 22 2014 in Umeå, in the north of Sweden. It is owned and funded by the municipality of Umeå. It has no collections of objects. The museum discusses perceptions of history & identity, gender & power. It aims to work norm-critically examining notions of what is female and male; to make visible and challenge the male normativity in museums, and the male interpretive prerogative in historiography; to illustrate women’s activities, experiences and place in the world; to provide people with the tools necessary to identify and understand the norms and structures that limit possibilities and choices in all aspects of life, regardless of gender – and to show that change is possible and encourage action.
The starting point is “traditional historiography”- a chronological account of wars and politics, economics and ideas that, like a well-worn path, is shaped by descriptions of a long series of men´s deeds. A principle of selection which has made women – half of the current and historic population of the world – almost invisible. By recounting the past in a way that provides an arena for voices other than those previously heard the most; the museum is challenging traditional history.
The museum uses the term “women´s history” in a global understanding. Because history is not only a science focusing on past events, it’s also a science of social relations. And the relations between people – on an individual level or a collective level – do not stop at national boundaries.
Starting with reflections on how the role of museums in modernity (1780-ca. 1960) as institutions of power has shaped the conceptual practice of museums, my talk deals with a selection of activities and exhibitions of our museum in its first 1,5 year of activity and discusses visitors´ reactions and experiences from cooperating with partners.
Inclusive Practices on the Global Level, Friday 21 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
The Museum of Women´s History was opened on Nov 22 2014 in Umeå, in the north of Sweden.
It is funded and owned by the municipality of Umeå. The museum (two exhibition-rooms and a reception area) comprises 700 sq metres. It has no collections of objects.
Admission is free. Since the opening the museum has registered more than 70 000 visits.
The museum discusses perceptions of history & identity, gender & power. Our aim is to work norm-critically examining notions of what is female and male; to make visible and challenge the male normativity in museums and the male interpretive prerogative in historiography; to illustrate women’s activities, experiences and place in the world; to provide people with the tools necessary to identify and understand the norms and structures that limit possibilities and choices in all aspects of life, regardless of gender – and to show that change is possible and encourage action.
“Woman/women” includes all human beings who define themselves as women.
The term “women’s history” is used in a global understanding. To us, history is not only a science focusing on past events; it is about patterns of behaviour, values, structures and ideas – a science of social relations. And relations between people – on an individual level or a collective level – do not stop at national boundaries.
First, some reflections about museums in the era of modernity: this is the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden’s first publicly funded museum in the modern sense, established in 1866. Public museums are institutions of power. And they are the outcome of power structures that have evolved over hundreds of years. And as such, starting in the mid 19th cent, public museums were merged with powerful ingredients such as schools and historiography, and became ideological tools with the purpose to: 1: indicate who and what is important to remember, and 2: act as spaces where norms can be made visible and staged.
A successful recipe indeed! This is the “traditional historiography” of today- alive and kicking on the cover of “All About History” from 2013. An image of society as a stage created by men, for men, where men struggle with other men. An account of wars and politics, discoveries, economics and ideas that, like a well-worn path, is shaped by men´s deeds. But not all men. Preferably white, Christian and fairly well-off men. A principle of selection which has made women – half of the current and historic population of the world – almost invisible.
This type of historiography rests upon the assumption that there are two genders, male and female, separated by distinct differences and that the male gender is of greater value. Hetero normativity is strong, man and woman are presupposed to attract each other and live together. Consequently, history books are almost completely devoid of individuals or groups that challenge these norms. The silence grows louder and louder, the farther away from the norms we wander.
This kind of traditional history is being challenged. Time has come to recount the past in a way that provides an arena for voices other than those previously heard the most.
Because history has not merely “happened” to women. The significance of women in developing society is equal to that of men.
But as we all know, often when we search for women in history, we are met with gaps, blank spaces, absence and silence. To find something that was never recorded, collected, acknowledged, but sorted out, “weeded”, and made invisible is very difficult.
Since the 1970s there is academic research, with a point of departure other than the “white-male-middle age-position”. That is 30-40 years of research – of knowledge, the imprint of which is almost non-existent; equally in Swedish school history books and especially in popular history worldwide.
It all boils down to gender and power – which to this day remains one of the biggest democratic problems. Globally. Women have not had the same power and opportunities as men have had in the past. To shape society or their own lives. Nor do we see them having such power and opportunities today. As a consequence the goal “to eradicate all discrimination on the grounds of gender” is found in the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2015-2030 (17 Development Goals), adopted a year ago. All public institutions of the UN member-states must work towards the fulfilment of these goals by 2030.
The Declaration of Human Rights states that human capabilities cannot be essentialized in terms of gender, ethnicity, class etc. Nevertheless we nurture notions about history that differentiate between human beings. We are all accustomed to consuming history that is gender-discriminatory, sexist and gender-stereotyped. I often ask myself, where does the urge to use history as a means to stage slavery, violence and sexual oppression as entertainment come from?
The absence of a gender perspective in history corresponds to the absence of women’s experiences, memories, perspectives, knowledge and skills. An absence that reinforces structures of gender inequality, and is in essence a substantial democratic problem. We cannot continue accumulating deficiencies. It has to change. In that sense my museum is feministic.
So, the Museum of Women’s History is to walk beside the beaten path of “traditional historiography”. Offer new perspectives. Here are some examples of how we work – our first exhibitions: We started out with a series of three exhibitions called A Clamoring Silence – about age, women and history. About ideas, norms and ideals concerning women’s ageing, a good example of individuals or groups that don’t meet with the norms of traditional historiography. It was about what being an ageing woman is like in our society, which is characterized by norms regarding gender, age and sexuality. The first exhibition presented different voices that spoke about ageing, silence and withdrawal, about resisting norms and finding independent alternatives. It included a sculpture group, an 18-woman-strong army of old ladies, entitled Auntiness, extracts from academic research, reflections, lyric poetry, a video piece and a sound-art work especially composed for the exhibition.
A Clamoring Silence Transformed. After some months we transformed the exhibition, bringing in new perspectives and experiences – those of transgenderism. About what happens when gender norms are challenged by an older person. To that a professional photographer contributed with a portrait-series of transpersons.
We rounded off the series with A Clamouring Silence – A Democratic Problem adding knowledge gained from research about older lesbian women’s experiences with aging.
So, after the first 1,5 years of activity, what are my thoughts about the challenging mission, our curatorial practices and experiences so far?
As a publicly funded museum we are a part of society – the desired effect upon which is formulated in our mission statement. Politics is what we do. Not party politics. But social politics, education politics, gender equality politics etc. The museum itself is a political space, to which we invite our visitors – a space where they can be political – to discuss how to organize society, how to live together, while allowing room for differences and differences of opinion.
This is about the museum NOT knowing the answers. We are not the experts; we invite experts to be the experts they are. We give them access to our open stage, in the middle of the exhibition-room. We share their expertise. Our job is to start discussions, point at dilemmas, and to facilitate formation of opinion. The museum is much more than our exhibitions. On our stage we have met authors, academics, actors and film directors, social workers, advocates for human rights, photographers and discussed themes like: young women’s experiences of everyday racism, transgenderism, women and Wikipedia, female missionaries. We have arranged lesbian breakfasts, art- and theatre performances, concerts and much more.
Acting in an area of tension between politics – museology – activism – academia is challenging. Since the museum discusses issues of gender, we often touch upon the field of identity politics. Concepts of identity: of colour, national or ethnic origin, linguistic or religious affiliation, functional disability, sexual orientation and age – and feminism; constitute an arena that harbours tensions – an arena where many people claim interpretative prerogative, the debate is polarised. There are many rights and wrongs. Gender-equality is by many people in Sweden considered as accomplished, contrary to facts and statistics. The absence of women in history-books is not considered as a matter of importance, most people have never even given it thought – so what’s the point of a museum like ours? Time and again we are mocked, met with bewilderment and even disdain – being named an advocacy group for “propaganda”. Some claim that the museum imposes a burden on the municipality’s budget, and that tax-payers money should be spent on other, more important things.
But mostly, we receive positive feedback from our visitors (mostly women) – which is heart-warming and encouraging. The museum-sector, nationally and internationally, show great interest and many want to be involved.
To summarize: We don’t think essensialistically. Or biologistically. There is no”right way” to be a woman, but many different ways. Here and now, as in the past. Nor is there ”a right way” of living as a woman. The circumstances and terms of women worldwide is varied and complex. Just as there are many ways of doing gender equality or feminism. There is a need for many different women’s museums.
The Museum of Women’s History embodies the ongoing negotiation and re-negotiation of norms – and strives to be an active part in society’s never ending development. We are committed to pushing ahead on the agenda of equal dignity and rights of all human beings.
Let’s unite to rid ourselves of the kind of historiography that reproduces stereotypes, inequality and merely reflects the lack of gender equality in our own time! – a vision that transgresses national boundaries. It is high time to mirror society as a whole. To explore new perspectives, and gain new insights and knowledge. And make a change. Nationally, internationally, globally.