International Women’s Day
In fact, today is the centenary of International Women’s Day, which is going to make my day all day, even though most people won’t even know about it. In celebration of this I thought I’d talk a bit about the excellent exhibitions I saw in the UK about the suffragette movement.
First let me say that I’ve never, in my whole life of going to museums, ever, seen an exhibition about women’s fight for the vote. Not here in Australia and not overseas. It doesn’t surprise me, however, to see these exhibitions in the UK. Women there had to fight all the harder and longer, their fight more dramatic. Still, it is disappointing that there is little, if any, exhibition space given over to women and the democratic process in Australia (I’m willing to be proven wrong by the Museum of Australian Democracy but I’m not holding my breath).
The two exhibitions I saw were at the Museum of London and the Museum of People’s History (in Manchester). In both museums the exhibitions were part of the story being told rather than an extra special moment in history. Both where also interesting, informative and good.
The stories these exhibitions tell are so important and incredible. Important because women’s lives were altered so dramatically when we were considered responsible and intelligent enough to vote. Incredible because these days it is hard to believe the way society thought then. That they are seriously under-exhibited tells us more about our contemporary society than I like to consider.
The Museum of London exhibition was part of the area devoted to the city of London as a site of protest. It included a lot of ephemera as well as video of suffragette marches (and arrests) and a haunting slideshow of the the photos the police took of the women they’d arrested and who were well into their hunger strikes. These photos were distributed to galleries and museums so the women could be spotted and removed before they attacked and damaged paintings and objects. The irony of learning about this through thick museum glass was not lost on me.
The People’s History Museum (up for the Art Fund Prize, which is pretty cool!) is…well, I’m going to gush about it in a post all of its own. Suffice to say it is excellent. The suffragette part of the exhibition was pitch-perfect. Set in a mock kitchen the message was about how women were both trying to be different and remained the same – the daily struggle between arguing they deserved the vote and the making sure dinner was on the table was beautifully executed. Plus, they have re-created the ‘Pank-a-Squith Game’ on the kitchen table for all to play!
When I was working on the Smirk’s Cottage exhibition I included a copy of the electoral roll that listed the women of the family who had enrolled to vote. I wrote a label that explained that it was impossible to tell whether they voted or not, but that if they did there were among the first in the world to do so. I think this is well-worth mentioning in a house museum of this time but I’ve never seen it before.
I would really like to see the history of women included in this way in exhibitions. The suffragette movement deserves its own exhibition but there is so much of women’s history that is just the history of ordinary people. I want to see more of it.
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Oh, and Happy International Women’s Day!