Feminists and feminisms in museums and art galleries: International knowledge exchange and engagement with common research issues (Lisbon, Portugal)

Motivation for the conference 

Millions of adults each year visit hundreds of public museums (including public art galleries and heritage houses) that dot the landscapes of Europe, USA and Canada. No matter how broadly or narrowly defined, museums and exhibitions “are designed to educate” (Bennett, 2013, p. 4). Testament to this is the array of informal learning (self-directed tours), nonformal education (workshops, seminars, non-credit courses) and/or formal education (university courses in collaboration with museums) aimed to “teach us about art, history, our world, and ourselves” (Marstine, 2006, p. 5). Legacies of paternalism, elitism, racism, and sexism, however, haunt these institutions. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Report (2015) noted specifically how museums “have interpreted the past in ways that have excluded…Aboriginal peoples…Museums [have] told only part of the story” (p. 303). This inability to tell wider stories has led some to question the museum’s ability to provide the types of exhibitions and critical educational programming required to encourage “the intelligent and caring change this troubled world requires” (Janes, 2009, p. 16; see also Hooper-Greenhill, 2007; Philips, 2011; Sandell & Nightingale, 2012). Yet current comprehensive reviews of museums in Europe and North America show that some are working to become what Janes (2009) calls “agents of change” (p. 19). Research shows a rise in adult education workshops that tackle religious intolerance, lectures and seminars that explore the problematic of ‘othering,’ participatory video research projects on the impact of neighbourhood gentrification, popular theatre events that expose racism, and exhibitions that creatively take up questions of Indigenous identity (e.g. Clover & Dogus, 2014; Fitchett, Merriweather & Coffey, 2015; Reeve; 2012; Steedman, 2012).

Frequently omitted from studies of progressive pedagogical and exhibitory activities is attention to women’s issues and gender injustice. But it is more complicated than a lack of focus. Pollock (1988, p. xix) reminded us that museums assume “privileged discourses…and symbolic aesthetic of masculine supremacy.” Yet, somewhat paradoxically, in a seminal text on visual arts in Canada, Whitelaw, Foss and Paikowsky (2012) noted women as being “central to the founding and maintenance of museums for the past 150 years” (p. 76). Levin (2010) adds, “museums appear to be women’s world [as they make up] the majority of visitors…and attend more of the education programs” (p. 17). Ellis (2002), Steedman (2012), Barr (2006) and Ferriera (2016) confirm that nearly all adult educators in museums today are female, as well as the museum professional development trainers. Yet women’s artworks, stories and histories, more than any other single category, have been historically excluded from museums (e.g. Butler, Jones & Reilly, 2010; Levin, 2010). Golding’s (2013) recent review of museum studies literature found little attention to gender and our global analysis of adult education studies of museums came up all but silent on women (Clover, Sanford & de Oliveira Jayme, 2010).

Foundational questions that inspired this Connections grant are: If museums can address other complex socio-cultural issues, then how do we enhance their pedagogical and exhibitory capacities to take up gender injustices? What types of education activities need to be created to uncover the complex storied and visual culture of museums and to explore what they tell and show about women and gender in the past and today? The answers are not simple; the conversation and creation of practices is imperative. A recent United Nations (2013, p. 1) report reminded us that gender “remains one of the most pressing issue of our time.” Sexism is “far from eliminated from contemporary organisation and functioning, or from social and interpersonal relationships” (Ostrouch-Kamińska & Vieira, 2014, p. 4). Despite years of activism, women remain the poorest of the poor. Gender violence is today visible in social media posts, on university campuses, in harassment allegations leveled at the military, and the under-investigated cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women (Suzack, Huhndorf, Perreault, & Barman, 2010; Taber, 2015b). Many feminists now speak of ‘rape culture,’ which Zoratti (2014, p. 1) argues is perpetuated through “silencing” and a “cognitive dissonance” reflected in statements such as“Women have already attained equality so feminism is no longer needed” (Taber, 2015a, p. 9). But the absence of a ‘feminist’ stance leaves unquestioned the politics of power and women’s histories and struggles remain subject to enforced forgetting (e.g. Golding, 2013; Lewis & Clarke, 2016). McRobbie (2009, p. 124) calls for women to come together to orchestrate change, suggesting ‘culture’ and ‘education’ as critical sites and means. Tuyet (2007) calls on all museums to “bear responsibility and exert actions to promote gender equality” (p. 70). This is where our Connections workshop began.

Nancy Taber, Darlene Clover, and Kathy Sanford
Detailed description of SSHRC Connections Grant, January 2019 

Overall goal and specific objectives

This workshop built on the work begun in Gender justice, adult education and curatorial dreaming: A workshop on pedagogy and exhibition mobilization, held in Victoria, BC (2017), and funded by a previous Connections grant. This workshop brought together 19 feminist museum scholars, educators, and practitioners, including three MA and two PhD students, from Italy, England, Canada, the US, Portugal, and Germany, to share their studies of gender (in)justice in museums. The outcomes included ideas for future research collaborations, student capacity-building, publications, exhibitions, and subsequent conference presentations. For instance, Clover and Sanford developed an exhibition named Disobedient women: Defiance, Resistance and Creativity Past and Present, which was curated in two sites around Victoria between September 2017 and January 2018. They also presented at conferences with the Canadian Association of the Study of Adult Education (CASAE) and the Canadian Association for the Study of Women in Education (CASWE). Taber (in press) published a peer-reviewed journal article based on her presentation in the International Journal for Lifelong Education. In addition to this, three of the workshop collaborators presented with Clover and Sanford at the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) in Germany. Our intention with this grant is to expand this foundation with a specific focus on exchanging knowledge and discussing common research issues as they relate to feminist museological interventions, methodologies, and pedagogies in museums that can enhance our ability to take up critically, creatively, and engagingly, issues of gender injustice and oppression. We are interested in how we can better ‘curate research’ (O’Neill & Wilson, 2010) as a form of ‘feminist educational praxis’ within and for diverse contexts, sites, and audiences. This knowledge is best co-created and mobilized by bringing together museum professionals with scholars in active discussion informed by a framework that Steedman (2012, p. 29) calls “change-based intentionality”.

The group we brought together combined the scholarly and practical expertise needed to think through new interventions, methodologies, and pedagogies for museum-based work, in the locale of Lisbon, Portugal. This location will allow the primary and co-applicants to mobilize Canadian research on an international level in an international context. All organizing and planning was conducted by both the primary and co-applicants. Dr. Emilia Ferreira, who lectures at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, served as local host. Her position as Museum Director of Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea (National Museum of Contemporary Art, NMCA), as well as her knowledge of the Portuguese historic, artistic, and adult education context of museums, assisted our plans and access to museums and art galleries such as NMCA and Fundação Vieira da Silva (she was a former educator and curator). The European context provided a rich opportunity for new learning, particularly in connection to new methods in curation, exhibition praxis and pop-up museums, which was essential to our knowledge exchange and engagement with common research issues. Fundação Vieira da Silva has served as a foundational example of how these methods can be pedagogically applied. The NMCA has, in addition to an important collection of art (with a large number of female artists) of national and international relevance, robust educationally programming for a variety of learning levels and contexts, with which we engaged. This museum was a central point of engagement and analysis for the group. We also arranged a guest speaker from International Association of Women’s Museums (i.e., coordinator, Astrid Schönweger, Museo delle Donne, Italy).

The workshop participants were feminist museum adult educators and practitioners, curators, established and emerging scholars, and graduate students from Canada, Europe and USA. Some have participated in the previous workshop but there were also new voices who bring expertise in video- based participatory research and pop-up exhibitions. As a group we came together in conversation and experimentation aimed to strengthen gender justice-oriented pedagogical, methodological, and exhibitory practice, and mobilizing research locally and internationally. This combination of people ensured quality in the applied outputs aims of the event (a workshop report, web-site), exhibitions and the scholarly outputs aims (series of edited books and continuing research collaboration).

Exhibits that have been/will be developed from the workshop and will be open to members of the public include: an exhibition of Portugal women artists’ small-dimension works that debate the narrow and deceiving concept of beauty; a forum theatre performance and pop-up exhibition about Canadian military veterans, gender, and trauma; an exhibition on women’s history in STEM fields; a pop-up collage workshop/exhibition based on United Kingdom collagiste Linder; and, a lenses of feminist display workshop/exhibition that will re-tell hidden gender narratives within British and Canadian museum contexts using turn of the last century viewing devices.