Daniel Mytens’ pendant portraits of Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, 4th Earl of Surrey and 1st Earl of Norfolk, and Alathea, Countess of Arundel and Surrey (both c. 1618), frame the sitters in their (idealised) sculpture and portrait galleries at Arundel House in the Strand. Both Thomas and Alathea were prominent collectors and patrons of the arts, but Thomas has received the most scholarly attention to date. By kind permission of The National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 5292 and NPG 5293)
Our recent conference, Gendering Museum Histories, held on 7-8 September 2016, addressed the relationship between museums, galleries and gender from the eighteenth century to the present, and was superbly hosted by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. This event attracted almost fifty delegates from around the world, and from a variety of backgrounds, including museum professionals, academics, early career scholars and students. Our sessions and roundtables were accompanied by eight poster presentations, a networking lunch for postgraduate students hosted by our new Postgraduate Officer, Phil Deans, and our Annual General Meeting attended by our members and President, Helen Rees Leahy. What follows is a brief recap of the event, and what stood out for me as both an organiser and a delegate.
Planning for the 2016 conference began in early December 2014, and the issue of gender arose as a subject which spoke immediately to the research interests of our Chair, Kate Hill, and Secretary, Sarah Longair, but which also had many subtle resonances across the wide variety of fields and disciplines pursued by our board members. Our conference would follow such notable events as the Space Invaders: Women Museum Leaders conference at the Imperial War Museum in March 2016 and the Inclusive Museum conference at the National Science Centre, Delhi, India, in August 2016, but would differ significantly from them by analysing the construction of gendered identities in museums and galleries from an historical perspective. We invited proposals which addressed the full spectrum of gender representation, and our speakers addressed issues of gender roles, identities and sexuality and their changing relationships to acts of representation, interpretation, (curatorial) knowledge construction, authorship, collecting, connoisseurship and performance.
I was sorry to miss part of our first panel on women at the Pitt Rivers Museum 1884-1945, in which Alison Petch, Frances Larson and Jaanika Vider, chaired by Elizabeth Hallam, examined the gendered history of this richly-documented collection at a granular level, as well as the careers of a number of women who served as field collectors for the institution, including Beatrice Blackwood (1889-1975), Winifred Blackman (1872-1950) and Maria Czaplicka (1884-1921). I was, however, delighted to welcome our speakers and delegates at the reception desk on Day One, and was amply supplied with coffee by the generous Ashmolean staff. I completed my MA internship at the Ashmolean during its 2009 redevelopment, so it was wonderful to be back and see the displays without dust covers and Tyvek, and the objects I had helped install still in situ.
Particular highlights of the conference for me included Ana Baeza Ruiz’s study of a young female stenographer who worked at the National Gallery between 1949-50 and who was dismissed on the grounds of her so-called emotional ‘invert’ – or, lesbian – nature. Ana’s presentation skilfully illuminated the constructed nature of the archive, an historical artefact in its own right, and how we risk uncritically reproducing the (gendered) logics of the archive in our own work. Similarly, Liz Mitchell’s presentation on Mary Greg’s (1850-1949) collection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ‘bygones’ – objects chosen by Mary to represent traditional crafts, as well as toys, clothing and domestic life – uncovered changing perceptions of value and worth within Manchester City Galleries, as well as the fact that many of the museum’s records pertaining to Mary (in contrast to those relating to her husband Thomas and his pottery collection) had later been ‘weeded’ (disposed of). The choice of wording suggests both an anomaly and an irritant within the institution, something it could not understand and consequently refused – initially – to engage with. While museums have limited resources, this is a powerful reminder that our conditions of worth are subject to a presentism which has the capacity to silence voices in the future as well as in the past.
This emerging theme of institutional memory and self-censorship was complemented by Martina D’Amato’s fascinating study of forgotten female collectors of Renaissance art during the Belle Epoque. By focussing on the careers of women such as Marie-Louise-Jeanne Peyrat, Marquise Arconati-Visconti (1840-1923), a philanthropist and collector of Renaissance art and furniture who engaged in acts of overt cultural performance and identity construction, photographing herself in male Renaissance attire against carefully staged backdrops and in a variety of poetic poses, Martina was able to reconstruct the important role these women played in what is now seen as a primarily male-dominated arena.
As an early modernist, I was strongly reminded of Alathea Howard (née Talbot), Countess of Arundel (c.1590 -1654), a collector, traveller and patron of the arts to whose activities less attention has been paid than those of her husband, Thomas Howard (1585-1646). It also calls to mind Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchesa of Mantua – referenced by Martina as a model for the Marquise – a seminal female collector and patron who was described, astonishingly, by a V&A text panel in 2011 as ‘intellectual and snobbish’; something I have never been able to forget. Moreover, I spent the night in Oxford University’s Wadham College, founded in 1610 by a woman, Dorothy Wadham (1534/5 –1618), albeit in accordance with the wishes of her husband, yet women were not admitted to the college as full members at all levels for another 364 years (Wadham College 2016). Although Wadham was one of the first colleges to admit women, there is something rather poignant about the length of time it took for attitudes and conditions of worth to change, particularly in a building emblazoned and adorned with Dorothy’s image in paint, stone and stained glass.
One of our delegates, Hadwig Kraeutler, who also contributed an intriguing poster, In A Rough Voice. Alma S. Wittlin (1899-1992). A Case Study, noted the larger presence of women than men at the conference, and introduced us to the German concept of Leidensdruck – which loosely translates as the burden, or pressure, of suffering, which implies that it is only when this pressure becomes severe that we give it consideration and engage with it. Could this, she asked, be why more women than men attended the event, bearing in mind the same was true of Space Invaders?
Mark Carnall also raised the thorny question of male-female ratios in the museum workforce, and in museum studies programmes. However, as the recent Incluseum blog post notes, we need to distinguish between equality and equity. The mere profusion of one gender in a single field of practice does not amount to equity. Moreover, ‘the field needs to stop using “gender” as a synonym for “women” and “gender equality” as a synonym for “equality between men and women.”’ As Sonya O. Rose observes in her 2010 book What is Gender History?, ‘Often […] gender has been interpreted as meaning “women”, as if “men” were not gendered beings’. The social construction of gender throughout history has been one of the core means by which power relations have been represented, and justified (Scott 1999; Cott and Faust 2005). As such, gender can be understood as a fluid process as well as a state or category of being, which is performed in a cultural setting (Wharton 2012: 9).
Museums and galleries play a critical role in negotiating power relations and the construction of identities. Fiona McGovern’s examination of the display of art by lesbian, gay and transsexual artists from the 1970s to the present highlighted the challenges of curating art shows which aim to engage with and showcase the work of minority groups. For many artists, this has meant a public coming out, and the risk of being placed into a curatorial black box, rather than allowing their work to speak for itself. Furthermore, McGovern asks whether such shows are truly representative of minority groups within these minority populations, which has implications for the practice of gender mainstreaming – the assessment of the implications of a policy action or programme upon different gender groups.
Our keynote speaker, Merete Ispen, Director of the Women’s Museum in Denmark, delivered a truly powerful presentation on the challenges of presenting exhibitions on challenging and traumatic subjects such as rape, but also dispelled the myth that boys and men are not welcome or represented in the Museum. Rather, as Ipsen argues, their presence is essential, for how can we talk about girls without boys, or women without men? I would argue that one of the reasons for this museum’s continued success is its ability to define the nuances of gender in broad terms which supports both its core mission and inclusive ethos.
At the 31st General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in Milan in 2016, a second resolution was adopted pertaining to ‘Inclusion, Intersectionality and Gender Mainstreaming in Museums’. In the light of recent developments in the museum sector, in particular a number of calls to arms to tackle gender equality (Khan 2016), as well as political events around the world, our understanding of the social construction of gender and how museums have engaged with this issue in past eras and in the present would seem to be more relevant than ever, with Guardian journalist Paul Mason citing the outcome of the US presidential election as a triumph for sexism as well as racism. It is clear there is more work to be done, and it’s not just about battling discrimination against women. It’s about how we represent ourselves to ourselves, who we choose to give a voice to, what we choose to censor and recognising how the mechanisms by which we achieve all this – consciously or unconsciously – always privilege one set of values over another. In this struggle we must become more aware of our history than ever, so let’s keep this important conversation (and its historical mythbusting) going!
With many thanks to Kate Hill, Sarah Longair and the entire MGHG conference team, all our wonderful speakers and delegates, and the staff of the Ashmolean Museum for making this event such a success.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
Cott, Nancy F, and Faust, Drew Gilpin, ‘Recent Directions in Gender and Women’s History’, in OAH Magazine of History 19.2, (2005), 4-5
ICOM, ‘Resolutions adopted by ICOM’s General Assemblies, 1946 - to date’, Milan 2016, http://icom.museum/the-governance/general-assembly/resolutions-adopted-by-icoms-general-assemblies-1946-to-date/milan-2016/ [accessed 10 November 2016]
Khan, Yasmin, ‘Museums must dust off old ways and address gender equality in leadership’, The Guardian, 1 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/2016/apr/01/museums-gender-equality-leadership [accessed 11 November 2016]
Mason, Paul, ‘Globalisation is dead, and white supremacy has triumphed’, The Guardian, 9 November 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/globalisation-dead-white-supremacy-trump-neoliberal [accessed 10 November 2016]
Rose, Sonya O., What is Gender History? (Cambridge: Polity, 2010)
Scott, Joan Wallach, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia, ‘Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists...”’, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392 [accessed 11 November 2016]
University of Oxford, Wadham College, History, https://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/about-wadham/history-and-archives [accessed 9 November 2016]
Wharton, Amy S., The Sociology of Gender: An Introduction to Theory and Research, 2nd edn (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
Wittman, Aletheia, Middleton, Margaret, Trivedi, Nikhil and Bailey-Sun, Erin, The Incluseum, ‘Gender Equity and Museums’, https://incluseum.com/2016/02/08/gender-equity-and-museums/ [accessed 9 November 2016]