Feminist Museum Practice and the Misnomer of ‘Hidden’ Histories
March 2021 will be the 10th year that Women’s History Month has been officially recognised in the UK. Corresponding with International Women’s Day on March 8th, Women’s History Month is dedicated to celebrating the contributions of women to history, culture and society.
As with other declared observances or heritage months, there is some debate around the usefulness of designating a specific month for engaging with women’s history. Kimberly A. Hamlin notes that this practice “unintentionally reinforces” the sidelining of women’s history, allowing public institutions to feel as though they are doing enough to include women without addressing deeper, exclusionary practices (Hamlin, 2020).
Many museums and galleries take March as an opportunity to produce or promote relevant content, often incorrectly framing women’s history as ‘previously unknown’ or ‘hidden’. Using passive language like ‘hidden’ to describe the histories of marginalised people implies that these histories are somehow innately silent or invisible, and fails to recognise the centuries of violent erasure committed by institutions like museums. Museums must move beyond the goal of simply raising awareness of the so-called ‘hidden’ history of women, and move towards a feminist museum practice, inviting interrogation of how the institution itself has been doing the hiding.
Below, I discuss what it means to look at museums from a feminist perspective, and how different people and organisations do feminist museum practice differently. I will also reflect on how these principles and models have influenced my own research on representations of conflict-related sexual violence in museums.
Feminist museum practice and why we need it
Thinking about museums through a feminist lens is certainly not a new idea. In the 1980s, academics studying museums began to think and write about how museums both reflect and participate in social processes, including how they interact with cultural notions of gender. This was very clearly demonstrated by the centering of men and sidelining of women (as a binary category of gender) in public displays and exhibitions (Bergsdóttir, 2016, 128).
The under-representation of women and women’s history in museums and monuments remains the most visible measure of gender inequality in the sector. As of 2016, only 2.7% of public statues in the UK feature historical, non-royal women (Criado-Perez, 2016). Numerous organisations and initiatives, including the East End Women’s Museum (currently the only dedicated women’s museum in England), have made it their mission to record and share stories of the women marginalised in other public history spaces.
The collective conversation around what it means to ‘do’ feminist museum practice is constantly evolving. For many, the #MeToo movement was a clear call to action. Activists from within and outside the sector demanded that museums adequately respond to accusations of sexual harassment and abuse made featured artists (Sayej, 2018; Sandals, 2018), as well as those made against individuals associated with or employed by the institution itself (Pogrebin, 2020).
In recent years, feminists in museums have turned towards a more holistic interpretation of gendered power imbalance in the sector, recognising the interconnectedness between leadership, workplace culture and representation. Despite women holding the majority of museum jobs in the UK, they make up only a third of the National Museum Directors’ Council (Naylor, McLean and Griffiths, 2016, 26; Space Invaders) 2020 saw the Space Invaders campaign launch its Manifesto For Change for women in museums and heritage, demanding equal power, fair conditions and our stories told. There are serious concerns that inequalities of gender, race and class in the museum sector are exacerbated by the devastating financial effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on museums (Kendall Adams, 2020).
Much like feminism itself, feminist museum practice can mean different things to different people and produce different outcomes. Fundamentally, feminist museum practice seeks not only to highlight, but to question and eliminate the systemic, gendered and intersectional power imbalances that exist at the heart of the museum as an institution, and of society at large.
Representing conflict-related sexual violence at IWM
In September 2020, I began an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership with Imperial War Museums (IWM) and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) exploring the representation of conflict-related sexual violence in museum and memorial spaces.
It is important to note that conflict-related sexual violence is experienced by men and boys as well as women and girls, and should not be categorised as only ‘women’s history’. It is, however, an inherently gendered phenomenon, that includes a hugely diverse range of experiences, some of which have been remembered and privileged above others.
A portion of my research looks specifically at how IWM represents the subject of conflict-related sexual violence, an institutional interest spurred by the rediscovery of a particular object, a wooden sign, donated to the museum in the 1980s (pictured below). A few years ago, curators at IWM sought to reinterrogate the ‘brothel sign’ as best they could without access to the donor. Following retranslation by a native speaker, the sign was cross-referenced with a database of known ‘comfort station’ locations compiled by experts in China, and compared to similar signs that had been used at these rape camps. One side of the sign reads ‘closed/temporary rest’, while the other reads ‘sold out’. Although the object’s provenance cannot be known for certain, curators can make educated assumptions about its connection to the Japanese Army’s system of sexual slavery.
In the decades since, extensive historical evidence of the Japanese Army’s system of sexual slavery has emerged. The system was purportedly designed to “curb the unrestrained rape of local women” (Ahn, 2019, p.9) and prevent the spread of venereal diseases where Japanese forces were stationed across Asia. Women and girls from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma and the Netherlands (in addition to other countries and territories) were forced, and in some cases abducted, into sexual slavery by the Japanese army. They are commonly referred to as ‘comfort women’, or as ‘prostitutes’ in contemporary accounts and denialist writings.
A few years ago, curators at IWM sought to reinterrogate the ‘brothel sign’ as best they could without access to the donor. Following retranslation by a native speaker, the sign was cross-referenced with a database of known ‘comfort station’ locations compiled by experts in China, and compared to similar signs that had been used at these rape camps. Although the object’s provenance cannot be known for certain, curators can make educated assumptions about its connection to the Japanese Army’s system of sexual slavery. The sign will be displayed in the new Second World War galleries (set to open at IWM London in 2021).
This example illustrates how the history of the ‘comfort women’ at IWM is not innately silent or invisible, but has been existing in the collection for decades without attention or further research. Moreover, according to the principles of feminist museum practice, the discovery and display of this object cannot be the end of the conversation. Representation is not a binary phenomenon. The issue of conflict-related sexual violence will not move from a category of ‘non-represented history’ to ‘represented history’ when this object and its story becomes part of the permanent galleries at IWM.
We must keep asking questions. Why did it take decades for this object to be afforded deserved attention? What does the object tell us about conflict-related sexual violence, and how is it framed within conflict in general? Whose stories does the object tell? Which voices remain marginalised and how can they be centered?
After centuries of oppression, museums owe it to the people and histories they have marginalised as well as their visitors to provide a more nuanced and sensitive telling of conflict-related sexual violence. I hope that as my thinking and practice develops, my research will be able to help museums to achieve this goal. At this early stage, I certainly have more questions than answers. But keeping in mind the principles of feminist museum practice, that feels like I must be doing at least something right.
The views expressed in this blog post belong to the author and do not reflect the views of IWM.
In December 2022 information was added to this article to reflect additional information learned about the object.
Megan O’Mahony (she/her) is a museum consultant and AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Imperial War Museums. Megan’s doctoral research explores how conflict-related sexual violence is represented in museums and memorial spaces. More broadly, she is interested in the role of museums and memorialisation in shaping collective memory and in the transitional justice process. Previously, Megan worked in the Learning Department of London’s Science Museum, and in Washington, D.C. at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, where she now consults.