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//There Is Nothing for Me Here: Why Are Women’s Museums Created?// Elzbieta Sala

There Is Nothing for Me Here: Why Are Women’s Museums Created? Elzbieta Sala

One of Jadwiga Sawicka’s works is composed of two cubes. From our perspective, we can see five walls, each displaying a different Polish word. These words function in separate dimensions, but if we look at them together, they form a sentence that says, in English, ‘There is nothing for me’. Sawicka participated in a session organised by MOCAK to discuss whether ‘Female artists need a Women’s Museum?’. Her work can be interpreted as an interesting metaphor of the public sphere. If we only look at things in their one dimension, they may seem meaningless, or sometimes trivial. We are indifferent to words such as those used by Sawicka unless we put them together and provide them with our own meaning. The same pattern applies to all types of information acquired when studying other dimensions of reality.

Are women well represented in art institutions? The average proportion of female and male artists in several Polish private galleries examined by MOCAK Collection Department equals 3 to 7. And what about the world? Just one look at international competitions will prove that the situation is hardly any better than in Poland. So how do we explain such a disproportion? Should this problem be raised by female artists, male artists or maybe the audience? In MOCAK Club, we decided to initiate a discussion devoted the idea of the Women’s Museum. The project consists of several stages. So far, we have organised two meetings with female researchers and artists, where we tried to answer the question of whether Poland needed such an institution and what it could look like.


Women’s museums around the world

There are over fifty institutions around the world that define themselves as ‘women’s museums’. There is also at least a dozen initiatives in various countries which work on establishing such organisation. So far, three international congresses have been devoted to the idea. The first one was held in 2008 in Merano, Italy, where the participants established the Network of Women’s Museums, an international, web-based organisation that groups women’s museums and looks to raise the social awareness and acceptance of this concept. To achieve this goal, congress participants issued a manifest, writing that ‘Women’s Museums are diverse; they reflect political, cultural, artistic, economic, and social roles and situations of women in the past and present. They preserve and generate women’s cultures, remove prejudices and contribute to the respect of women and human rights. They are a mirror of society and also of the changing of the world’[1].

The other two congresses were held in 2009 and 2010, creating a global committee with representatives from each continent. They come from institutions such as: National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame (USA), Women’s Museum (Sudan), Musée de la Femme (Central Africa), Women’s History Exhibition Hall (Sudan), Museo de la Mujer (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Frauenmuseum (Bonn, Germany), Women’s History Exhibition Hall (Seoul, Korea). The fourth congress was announced for 2012.


A politically engaged institution

There are many museums around the world devoted to particular women (Poland has for instance the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum and the Maria Dabrowska Manor). However, women’s museums seem to be a bit different. What distinguishes them is their political involvement. The trend that promotes women’s museums is closely connected with political change: on one hand, it was brought about by the ongoing transformation, while on the other its aim is to actually reproduce similar shifts. For the most part, women’s museums are visionary in their nature; they explicitly state that it is their intention to transform human relationships and politics. The Musée de la Femme in Québec, for instance, takes as its objective to reinforce women’s participation in public, economic and social life through projects that will make their involvement more visible. The goal is to help women recognise their skills and promote equal opportunities in all domains. It is the first such museum in Canada and the eighteenth in the world[2]. In the same vein, the Women’s History Museum, opened in 1996 in the Unites States, strives to motivate both men and women to participate in a democratic dialogue about our future.

Some museums introduce metaphors that organise the political thought of their communities. The website of the American Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future says that ‘In 1996, Bonner literally dreamed of a place that would present the achievements of women and their contribution to the life and history of America. Bonner, the long-term president of the Foundation for Women’s Resources did not need to think twice about the dream. She made it happen’[3]. According to Joanna Piotrowska, the founder and president of the Feminoteka Foundation, exhibitions and special displays organised by the International Museum of Women are ‘a source of knowledge about women’s affairs and their role in culture and history. They make viewers question the status quo, also on the basis of their own experience, and to analyse cultural structures and social order’[4].


Women’s museums, art museums

Usually women’s museums are established, designed and created by women. Apart from several exceptions (for instance the Musée de la Femme in Dakar set up in 1936), most of them came into being in the second half of the 20th century. The idea is still very much alive, with various museums founded after 2000. They are mostly created as private institutions, although sometimes they do become public after a while. It would be difficult, however, to judge their programme or activity without considering their financial background.

Women’s museums choose various forms of activity; some become ‘museums without walls’ and gear their actions towards the ‘global society’ (like the International Museum of Women), other operate on a local scale only. Some are art museums, with the most famous one, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, located in Washington. Its permanent display features over three thousand works created by women[5].

The international Network of Women’s Museums is co-created by the Frauenmuseum in Bonn, whose objective is to ‘advance women's art, to carve a space for it and ground it in art history. ... Bit by bit we reclaim all aspects of women's history and showcase it in a variety of changing projects, often involving experimental, contemporary art. At the same time we want to rid ourselves of traditional norms and create new definitions of aesthetic quality as well as a female perspective of the past – and the future’[6]. A large proportion of these institutions adopt an interdisciplinary character: they combine research and educational aims with the promotion of women’s art. The Danish Kvindemuseet is a ‘specialist museum with the purpose of researching, building collections and presenting knowledge of women’s lives and work in Danish culture-history. Over the years the Women’s Museum has produced a long line of special exhibitions dealing with both historical and topical themes – culture-historical exhibitions and art exhibitions’[7].

History – a corrected version

The trend of establishing institutions that present women’s cultural output can also be noticed in Poland, although it is mostly limited to history-related initiatives. The online Museum of Women’s History set up by the Feminoteka Foundation concentrates on ‘preserving the memory of Polish women who contributed to the development of both local and global history’[8]. The virtual space commemorates women who ‘possess such qualities as independent thinking and the courage to challenge the existing patterns. Unfortunately, they also share the quality of being easily forgotten and largely absent from history records’[9].

In March 2011, a group of women created the Museum of National Remembrance of Polish Women in Szczecin. One of the founders of the institutions, Agnieszka Chlebowska, Ph. D., from the Institute of History and International Relations at the University in Szczecin said that ‘Polish historiography does not devote enough attention to female history. There is a group of people who conduct such research, but many historians representing the traditional approach treat them with a certain reserve. ... We want to rescue their story from oblivion and draw attention to their deeds. We want to complete our general knowledge with the female half of the story’.


The Women’s Museum project in MOCAK

Last year MOCAK initiated its own Women’s Museum project. So far we have organised a series of discussion meetings with female historians, social activists, sociologists, artists and museologists in order to confront various opinions, ideas and visions. The meetings are open to the general public and we invite the audience to join the discussion. The number of perspectives presented by participants helps to outline a wider context of the issue in question, just like in Jadwiga Sawicka’s multi-dimensional work. Perhaps women’s museums are created because we believe that without such institutions we would not be able to objectivise, discuss and study a certain fragment of reality. MOCAK will develop the project to include educational and artistic actions.

To discuss the phenomenon of Women’s Museums we need to think about the idea of museums as such, their functions and the social goals they serve or may serve. Should museums be public institutions, have their own building, claim neutrality? What factors determine their profile, programme, management and financing systems? An analysis of the Women’s Museums may offer a convenient point of departure for such considerations. The positive qualities of such institutions, such as political involvement and appreciation of the role of women in the public sphere, are often quoted as their fundamental flaws. However, such establishments force us to redefine not only oppositions such as male–female, public–private, but also local–global. On one hand, they reflect a trend that goes beyond the borders of any particular state, i.e. the increasing participation of women in public life, while on the other they operate in specific, sometimes quite variegated communities.

During the first meeting that opened MOCAK’s project, we asked whether ‘Krakow needed a Women’s Museum’, a question that combines all of these issues. It does not concentrate however on what should be but focuses on exploring the needs of people living in Krakow. It asks to what extent the existing public institutions meet such needs. Although there are a lot of museums in Krakow, it seems that people do not know much about the history of women, their work and their life. This lack is in part remedied by non-governmental organisations such as Women’s Space (Przestrzen Kobiet), which publishes Krakow ‘female guides’ and organises guided tours of various areas connected with women’s history.

In order to tackle this problem, we first of all need to think about what a Women’s Museum is or could be, and also what we can gain from tackling this issue. What is at stake in this project is the creation of a space that will enable creative women to get together and talk about what is currently being offered to them by the public sphere and how this offer affects their lives. The place in which we ask whether creating such a museum makes any sense is also of no small consequence. In a way, the sheer fact that there is a space in which women can debate the public sphere is a realisation of the idea of a Women’s Museum, regardless of the actual attitudes expressed by the participants. The Museum of Contemporary Art becomes a socially-engaged space which contributes to the recognition of social problems and helps create the energy that is necessary to confront them.

It seems that female and male artists may contribute a lot to our understanding of this topic. We need to reflect not only upon the gist of the problem, i.e. the underrepresentation of women’s work in various institutions, but also the form in which it manifests itself. This aspect is reflected in Monika Drozynska’s work Does Krakow need a Women’s Museum? The artists embroidered this sentence on a tambour, since needlework is traditionally associated with women. It helps us explore the ways in which the question of women’s presence in the public sphere is approached and also draws our attention to the official policy: not so much in terms of its object but rather with regard to its masculinised form. I cannot remember any other question about Krakow’s cultural strategy that would have been expressed by embroidery.


[1] http://www.womeninmuseum.net/blog/?page_id=178 [retrieved: 23rd Nov 2012].

[2] http://www.museedelafemme.qc.ca/ [retrieved: 23rd Nov 2012].

[4] J. Piotrowska, Muzea Kobiet, http://www.feminoteka.pl/readarticle.php?article_id=302 [retrieved: 12th Feb 2012].

[5] http://www.nmwa.org [retrieved: 12th Feb 2012].

[7] http://kvindemuseet.dk/uk [retrieved: 26th Nov 2012].

[8] http://www.feminoteka.pl/muzeum [retrieved 8th Feb 2012].

[9] http://www.feminoteka.pl/muzeum [retrieved 8th Feb 2012].

Elzbieta Sala see bio page 76