Women’s History in Museums

In honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I would share a bit more information on my thesis. My research began as a resource evaluation for the local history museum in Wilmington. I was aiming to discover what kind of materials the museum already had in its collection that could be used to improve its interpretation of women’s history. The current exhibit, while inclusive of women in some parts, does not present a balanced interpretation. Women are largely missing from the earliest sections of the permanent exhibition on colonial and Revolutionary era Wilmington and remain marginalized in the interpretation of the 19th century. The only sections of the exhibition that include women in more balanced numbers are those interpreting the 20th century. However, even then women’s roles are not placed in their gendered context. Differences between men’s and women’s lives aren’t explored. Furthermore, the 20th-century exhibit sections focus on women’s public roles rather than also including their domestic roles.

My earliest theory as to why the museum lacked a more balanced or in-depth interpretation of women was that perhaps the collection was lacking in artifacts that could offer insight into women’s lives. This led me to assess the collection. I found instead that the collection was full of possibilities; however, the collection also needs more research and a clearer collecting focus on gender in order to fill in gaps and better understand the materials that are available.

As a small part of my research, I also conducted a visitor survey with 20 visitors to the museum over the months of December 2014 and January 2015, collecting data on about 5 different days in that time span. While this is not a large sample, it does provide some insight into what visitors know about women’s history and what they would like to know more about. The survey revealed that visitors are interested in women’s history and would like to see more of it at the museum. When asked to rate their interest in women’s history on a scale of 1 to 5 with one being not interested and 5 being very interested the overall average interest level was 3.85. Women made up 11 out of the 20 visitors surveyed and their average interest level of 4.45 clearly indicates that seeing the history of people they can relate to is important. The nine men surveyed, however, still came up with an average interest level of 3.1. Those who commented on why they rated their interest level as they did mentioned their female relatives and one explained his daughters’ interests in sports and science. Furthermore, when asked if they would like to see this museum specifically include more information on women’s lives, 15 visitors gave an affirmative answer (ranging from “sure” and “yes” to “absolutely”) with only 2 visitors giving negative responses and 3 visitors being unsure. Of those 15 visitors who wanted to see more about women, 10 were women and five were men. Those who did not want to see more were both men and two out of the 3 who were unsure were men. Only one person described their impression of the museum’s current interpretation as “balanced” while most others were able to name topics they would like to know more about or weren’t included in the museum. When asked to give words or images they associated with women’s history visitors commonly spoke about women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and specific notable women from history. Also noted often were women’s accomplishments and how women’s lives had changed over time. However, when asked to give words or images they associated with the word gender, most visitors felt unsure or simply stated “male/female” or “men/women,” indicating a lack of understanding of the concept of gender. Five visitors gave no associations only stating that they were unsure or could think of nothing. Based on the findings of the survey, it seems that visitors could benefit from exhibits that discuss the daily lives of both men and women and explain how ideas about gender informed these lives and how those ideas changed over time. Overall, museums need to better incorporate women’s experiences in the past but also place those experiences in context of gender. It is no longer enough to just add women to the mix.

In my case study I point out the wealth of resources available and offer specific examples of objects and topics to consider integrating into the exhibits. I also explore past exhibits, collections policies, and collections planning materials in order to try to determine the museum’s institutional relationship with women’s history, finding that the topic of gender has not been explicitly included in planning. Ultimately, I argue that women’s and gender history need to be more explicitly considered in museum collections planning, research, and exhibitions in order to fully consider the impact of gendered expectations on women’s and men’s lived experiences. This case study also offers a road map for other museums, outlining the steps necessary to improving interpretation including assessing the existing collection, critiquing current exhibits, and taking stock of local primary sources. I think most museums will find that more materials are available than they think for interpreting the diversity of women’s history.

My thesis is still undergoing revisions, but ultimately I hope it helps museums to advance their interpretation of women and gender and demonstrate the need for a more balanced representation of women as well as the need for making better use of available resources. And while it’s Women’s History Month, I hope museums will consider making women’s history a priority all throughout the year, integrated throughout their exhibitions.

This coming weekend is the North Carolina Museums Council conference in Durham. I’m looking forward to some great sessions on collections and my classmates and I will be presenting our poster on the Still Standing visitor evaluation about slave dwellings. Wish us luck!

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