Final Report

Final Report
SSHRC Connections Workshop, 2019

Feminists and feminisms in museums and art galleries: International knowledge exchange and engagement with common research issues


The overall aim of this workshop was to bring together feminist museum adult educators, artists, curators, established and emerging scholars, and students from Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States to share current research and creative practices that can build the repertoire of museum activities within diverse contexts. This workshop provided a space to share, theorize, and experience new methodological approaches, interventions, and pedagogies.

Over three days in Lisbon, Portugal, we gathered as 19 individuals from various locations and institutions to discuss our research and collaborate with one another. This included different talks, workshops, artistic explorations, brainstorming, and community building.

January 24th, 2019

Darlene Clover (University of Victoria, CA), Kathy Sanford (University of Victoria, CA), Nancy Taber (Brock University, CA) and Sarah Williamson (University of Huddersfield, UK). The feminist museum hack: Critical, creative and Contextual applications and adaptations.

After arriving in Lisbon and checking in to our hotels, the group gathered at the National Museum of Contemporary Art for an introduction given by workshop organizers Darlene Clover, Kathy Sanford, Nancy Taber and Sarah Williamson. They discussed the Feminist Museum Hack and the importance of a feminist analysis in sites of public pedagogy, such as museums and art galleries. Highlighting the Feminist Museum Hack as a pedagogical and methodological intervention for gender justice, and illustrate creative adaptations, they broke down the basic components and methods involved in such an analysis, and gave examples of the uses and adaptions such as: critiquing exhibits at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Art Activist Barbie as a commentary on women and femininity in art galleries, and applying a feminist anti-militarist lens to war and military museums.

January 25th, 2019

To begin the workshop, we gathered at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Lisbon and were given a tour of the museum and gallery spaces. We discussed the historical context of the museum in Portugal, as well as the NMCA specifically.

Emilia Ferreira (NMCA), Joana Monteiro and Silvia Moreira. The invisibility cloak: Are museums and collections still veiling women artists’ work with disinterest and demeaning words?

Ferreira, Monteiro and Moreira’s research about the representation of women in museum and gallery spaces in Portugal, is guided by the following questions directed to curators, educators and administration staff: How do you approach including more works by women and what choice of words do you use when approaching the subject of gender justice with the space or the artists? When approaching artists, how do you feel about the context with which you are asking questions regarding gender – does gender justice seem relevant to your space? In your classes/workshops, do you debate inclusion/exclusion according to gender? The women found that the contexts necessitated interventions of gender analysis and justice in the curatorial and exhibitory practices; men, on the other hand, typically did not consider these questions or concern themselves with a lack of representation of women.

The researchers’ study highlighted a severe lack of women artists, as well as a drastic age disparity between the women and men whose art was on exhibit. Female artists were much older and had been in the field for a longer time, suggesting difficulty for new women artists to gain recognition. The goal is to compile this research and disseminate it widely, in order to encourage new methods of inclusion and a focus on works by women. doing.

Astrid Schonweger (International Women’s Museum Association, Italy).

Astrid Schonweger, from the International Women’s Museum Association (IWMA), shared some of the upcoming goals of the association as well as some of their successes to date. Schonweger thinks about what is excluded and what is made important in museums, and one of the main purposes of the IWMA is to increase the support for different women’s and gender-oriented museums internationally. For example, Herstory, a virtual art gallery, challenges the narrative of male artistic genius imposed by the hetero-patriarchal system through its focus on feminist guerilla artistic strategy. The Women’s Museum of Merano is another example, as it is a museum space that has been created by women and is meant to include all narratives, highlighting the “other side of the story” with regards to the historical hetero-patriarchal gaze. Amid these examples has been a clear goal of rewriting history from the bottom up and asking: how do we display the various experiences and struggles of women throughout history, without exploiting these narratives further?

Laura Formenti (Milan), Gaia Del Negro (Milan), and Silvia Lursachi (Milan). Every picture tells a story: A pedagogy of com-position.

In their Pedagogy of Composition, Formenti, Del Negro and Lursachi asked participants to consider the importance of embodied, dialogical experience in relation to the various ways of knowing in the public sphere. These experiences lead us to answering the question: what is the difference between reaction and response? The presenters problematized the concept of transformation as one that is too easily assumed, when in reality transformation takes quite a bit of work.

Exploring Formenti, Del Negro and Lursachi’s research through an activity, participants were asked to choose one photograph from a collection of photos taken by the photographer Donata Pizzi, and to engage in a dialogue surrounding their chosen picture with those around them. This participatory practice is key their research as they believe that being active changes the context of one’s research: seeing and feeling encourages increased reflection. The presenters challenged the nature of transformative theory as one which limits the messiness and irreverence of working through difficulty as it comes up. Researchers are often creating an environment wherein such transformation is possible, arguing that it is vital to work within and learn through difference.

Darlene Clover (University of Victoria) & Kathy Sanford (University of Victoria). Fashioning women: Defrocking patriarchy.

Clover and Sanford seek to disrupt habitual ways of thinking and knowing through fashion exhibit hacking. Asking questions such as “who is fashion for?” and “what is fashion for?” the researchers conclude that the history of women and fashion are intricately intertwined. The history of the female, which involves political, cultural, and social background, is revealed through female fashion in the museum: fashion can be seen as a political tool to prevent women from participating in a society in which men have the advantage.

Women represented in museums are always attached to the story of their clothing, and it is important to think about how they are “fashioned” and how women and femininity are mobilized in the consumption of fashion. Women are framed as works of art rather than people; it is important to realize that fashion contains women and is meant for the male gaze. For example, men in fashion are framed as genius, and women are framed as successful because of men. One must also bear in mind that it is unfair to condemn the exhibits without admitting to our own complicity in it; we need to recognize the complexity of fashion as we live it and critique it.

Lisa Merriweather (University of North Carolina at Charlotte, US). Racialized gender literacy: A racial realist reading of museum space of the African American Female.

Merriweather espouses the idea that racial realism is a continued struggle grounded in a deep dissatisfaction in Black vulnerability to White interests. There is the illusion of progress, but racism is still very real and active. Addressing questions such as: why should female Blackness matter to adult educators and how do we understand the personhood of others? Merriweather argues that museums are a progenitor of anti- Blackness and misrepresentation of Blackness. Merriweather argues that it is imperative that we ask ourselves who benefits from a non-raced reading of museums, and who is harmed. It is important to ask questions around race.

What would spaces look like if the assumptions surrounding Black women were consciously deconstructed and left to unconsciously guide our re-presentation? Museums often act as a progenitor anti-Blackness in their harmful depictions and/or erasure of Black women, as well as misrepresenting Blackness. Thus it is crucial to develop a racialized and gendered literacy where-in social spaces such as museums and galleries allow Black women to see their ontology mirrored, or where they may seek out such an ontology and accept themselves as whole individuals, not lacking in whiteness.

Sarah Williamson (University of Huddersfield, UK). Positioning Barbie to problematize representations of femininity in the museum.

Williamson introduced the participants to “Art Activist Barbie” which “in art galleries and museums is an aesthetic provocation, a performative, critical and imaginative practice that intervenes and disrupts. Following successful pedagogic practice with students, developed into a playful public pedagogic practice using Twitter” (Williamson, 2019).

Leading participants through the museum with various Barbies, we were encouraged to find art pieces that stood out to us and, with a placard, make an inquisitive or ironic comment regarding the chosen art piece. For example, many of the representations of women in the gallery were nude, so many individuals used their Barbie to make a statement regarding the exploitation and objectification of women’s bodies. This activity engaged participants in a feminist disruptive practice and forced us to think about the ways in which women were included in (or excluded from) the museological setting.

January 26th, 2019

Sarah Williamson (University of Huddersfield, UK). Re-presenting gender representation in galleries through collage-based critique and response.

Williamson discussed collage as an alternative form of reflection and response, and, using the arts-based pedagogy of collage, she took participants through a collage-making activity. It is “a powerful way of jarring people into thinking and seeing” (Leavy, 2015, p. 235). Williamson has expanded on the notion of collage-work, explaining that the thinking and making that takes place in this activity creates multiple readings, openings, and negotiated readings. One can see how things join, and work together (as imagery), and then how separated things can come together. It is a less hierarchical way of thinking and requires one to think in layers and multiple ways. Williamson also pointed out that although the process is both intimate and personal, tensions can exist, and they can be uncomfortable.

Collage is unique in that it is a way out of numbing and deadening: there is a playfulness found in wordplay. Connections can be made through accidents; surprise can come from moving things around, and it is a different way of communicating and can be powerful. With regards to adult education, it can be valuable to have students get together into small groups to explain their collage: reflective conversations through sharing. Juxtaposition can reveal unintended or intended messages/connections. Collage can be used as a metaphorical representation, with the ability to illuminate or avoid hierarchies.

The various collages created for this activity included some focused on reflections from the previous day’s sessions, especially the “Barbie Hack”, as well as different experiences the participants had while engaging with the art in the NMCA.

Nancy Taber (Brock University, CA). Military heritage sites: Women’s war work, castles, and fortresses.

Taber’s interest in this area grew out of her realization that there was a lack of research about gender and adult education in military heritage sites. She applies a feminist anti- militaristic lens in her research, exploring the ways in which gender, militarism, and capitalism are interconnected. Taber found that they are cultural tools of meaning- and memory-making that contain a mainstream, national narrative. In this presentation Taber posited that the main difference between heritage sites and historical sites is in the waythat events are remembered.

Researching four separate sites, Taber concluded that the histories told at these sites are “freeze-dried” (Coutts, 2016, p. 8) in order to preserve the moment as one that commemorates the past in a narrow, nationalistic way. We must ask ourselves whose heritage is revealed in these places, and by whom are the stories being told?

Visits to the four sites conclude that there is a lack of focus on gender, very little focus on the institution of the military, and none that problematize militarism.

Jennifer Thivierge (University of Ottawa, CA). Courage & passion: An Exhibit on women in natural sciences and Canada’s Museum of Nature.

Thinking about place and space, Thivierge explained that the STEM exhibit at the Museum of Nature exists because the rotunda represents an important milestone in (some) women’s history: 2018 marked 100 years in women’s right to vote in the federal elections, and the first vote was held in this space. From her research, Thivierge determined that women’s struggles were glossed over in the exhibit, and that the overarching theme was one of positivity. The main focus was on female achievements rather than struggles, and while the exhibit provided “encouragement and role models as potential answers to the systemic bias and lack of representation” (Thivierge, 2019), the narrative timeline is one of unproblematized progress and hope.

Thivierge also noted that, in addition to a lack of discussion surrounding women’s struggles today, there was a little mention of women of colour, and knowledge was obtained passively, with little challenge in thinking, reflection, or contributions encouraged. Furthermore, the exhibit was both transitory and temporary, in that it was closed for ‘special events”; the displays were packed up and pushed out of the way during these periods, and in essence, silencing women.

Ash Grover (Brock University, CA). Decolonizing the discourse on Niagara Falls: An analysis of feminist praxis in the exhibit ‘1779’.

Grover analyzed the use of feminist pedagogical praxis in Shelley Niro’s multimedia exhibit 1779 which was showcased at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Ontario, Canada during the celebration of Canada’s 150 anniversary. As a Haudenosaunee artist, Grover elucidates how Niro’s curation of a subversive collection of art pieces, which work to re- frame the human and non-human geography in Canada as the country approaches its 150th anniversary, creates possibilities for engaging those visiting the art gallery in a process of critical transformative learning through the methods of disruption noted by Van De Pol (2016) and Simpson (2017).

Grover analyzed the methods employed by Niro, in working to decolonize the discourses surrounding Niagara Falls, a popular tourist attraction, through a disruption of traditional and harmful narratives that subsume the traumatic processes of colonization in the historical and cultural memory of many Canadians. Grover calls for a radical reframing of the museum and gallery space through connecting the history of the land and its people in Canada, to a global network of Indigenous resurgence through cultural reclamation. In this way participants are encouraged to explore the voices that have been lost throughout history, along with challenging the celebration of colonial violence.

Alexis Johnson (UK). Beneath the invisibility cloak.

Johnson’s research was based on the responses and reactions she has heard from people working in the culture industry and guided by the question: why do so many women in the arts sector feel invisible? Through highlighting and unpacking aspects of different women’s stories with working through the invisibility cloak, Johnson found that their experiences had the following things in common: they were considered “little red hens” who did more work than they were technically responsible for, while maintaining little control or decision making power; they were over achievers and perfectionists, and perceived themselves as working harder than those around them; and, each one of the individuals was positioned as a trusting giver, seed-planter and co-creator.

Johnson presented a call for work culture to take off the invisibility cloak and to embrace both the masculine and feminine strengths present in collaboration, through breaking down barriers between control and trust, individual power and collective power. In celebrating experiential knowledge and taking a pedagogic approach to work culture in arts spaces, Johnson argues that there will be increased potential for a space where individuals will be encouraged to co-create, combining aspects of traditionally feminine and masculine roles, and finally remove the invisibility cloak.

Micki Voelkel (University of Arkansas, US) & Shelli Henehan (University of Arkansas, US). Infinitely obscure lives: Invisibility of women in U.S. historical sites.

Researchers Voelkel and Henehan, on a visit to Fort Smith National Historic Site, asked the question “How does the ‘Old West’ heritage site depict the lives of women and marginalized cultures through their curated exhibits?” Their research was conducted via photo elicitation in order to critique the site both visually and textually. Voelkel and Henehan drew out four main themes in their research: women were often invisible, women were often viewed as reflections of their men, women were mostly unnamed, and marginalized communities were celebrated but separate from white communities.

Voelkel and Henehan then used their research as a way to guide students through a study of the site using a Feminist Learning Hack. Students were asked to take photos at the site and think about how women were framed and talked about, including non-white women and men. They took two groups of students through this learning process and concluded that students from the first group tended to excuse the absence of women, rather than critique and respond to it. Given these results, Voelkel and Henehan made the instructions clearer; and the responses from the second group of students were more critical about the absence of women.

January 27th, 2019

Participants conducted their own museum visits; sites visited included the Gulbenkian. Following the museum visits we gathered for one last session at the NMCA where we brainstormed further collaboration and dissemination of our research findings.

All participants. Mapping Further Research: Knowledge Mobilization

Specifically, the three outcomes which were planned and are currently in progress were knowledge co-creation regarding common research issues of gender justice, feminist thinking, research and diverse pedagogical strategies across different contexts, as well as enhanced research collaboration through an edited volume on feminist adult education and exhibitory practices in national and international contexts. This includes a creative text (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, photo essay) centered on feminism in museums and art galleries, as well as a book about gender justice and adult education in museums. The research website will be developed so the general public can access information about the workshop (presentations, video interviews, photographs, resources). The goal is to assemble publications that academics, practitioners, and the general public would read, as well as to work on exhibitions, creative practices, and so forth.

Ideas for future knowledge mobilization:

International Women’s Museum Day (international)
Exhibition on art and beauty (Lisbon)
Exhibition about the uprising in Manchester during the Industrial Revolution (Manchester)
Exhibition about Canadian Women in STEM within the Canadian Women in Science archive (Ottawa)
Future workshops, conferences, and grants