Putting Women on the Map: Women’s Museums and Gendering the Public Space. Holly Furlong.

Holly Furlong is a board member of the Women’s Museum of Ireland and an Education Assistant at the National Museum of Ireland.

Holly gave a fascinating presentation about the Women’s Museum of Ireland,  a virtual museum which promotes the formal recognition of the role of women in Irish history as well as the role of Irish women abroad.

The Museum was founded in November 2012 by an inspirational group of women in their 20s, including Holly. At the same time as the museum was being founded, issues around abortion rights were coming to the fore in Ireland after 31 year old Savita Halappanavar died from septicaemia at Galway University hospital in October 2012 after being denied an abortion. The Museum board wanted to consider how women’s museums can provide a forum for gender rights, talk about gender rights, and be involved in social justice movements.

In order to try to unpick these questions, Holly researched the roles Women’s Museums can play in terms of gender rights for her Masters dissertation at the University of Leicester. She looked at three women’s museums across the world:

  • Das Verbogene Museum, Berlin, which features artwork that has been created by women, providing a sphere for female artists to display their work and add to research on women artists.
  • Kvindemuseet, Aarhus, which was founded in the late 1970s, and displays women’s history that has often been hidden. One of the first projects undertaken by the museum, prior to having a physical space, was to build up an oral history archive that reveals women’s experiences and stories.
  • The International Museum of Women, which is largely a virtual museum, and merged with the Global Fund for Women in March 2014. The museum plays an activist role; its campaigns, ideas and exhibitions are displayed alongside petitions to sign and calls to action.

The three case studies represented three diverse museums utilising very different methods to agitate the public space. Holly’s research was influenced by Nancy Fraser’s concept of counterpublics, public spheres outside of the dominant public sphere that have been created to agitate. Fraser maintains that such spaces are nearly always temporary.

The Women’s Museum of Ireland is giving a voice to women’s stories and showing how women have helped shape Ireland. The Museum, which is run in a voluntary capacity by the board members, has an online presence, which includes crowdsourced articles an research about about women’s history and the impact and achievements of the women of Ireland, providing a forum to give women a voice. For example, the Museum works closely with Women’s History Association of Ireland whose members suggest research to add to the website. When the Museum launched, one visitor asked ‘Why isn’t there a men’s museum?, which, Holly suggested, demonstrates that the museum had caused agitation.

Holly gave us an inspirational look into current and future activities of the Museum. A pop-up exhibition, Monsters of Creation: Snapshots of women in Higher Education in Ireland, was created to accompany the Museum’s launch event. Other pop-up exhibitions have since been created, and the Museum often partners with other institutions to deliver joint events, such as an event with the Writer’s Centre, in which participants arrived with a book by female author and left with another.

Lots of people ask to visit the Museum. Since this is not possible, the board ambitiously decided to make Dublin their museum and are currently creating a map that features locations around the city that highlight women’s history. The board want the map to be useful, not just a nice piece of artwork; the aim is for people who use the map to understand the significance of the locations featured on it. Suggestions for locations to be featured on the map were crowdsourced through medium such as Twitter using the hashtag #WomenofDublin. (Debate on the hashtag again proved that the Museum has caused agitation when one commenter remarked that most of the suggestions that had been submitted weren’t worthwhile). The hashtag was enormously popular: nearly 700 suggestions were sent to the Museum via Twitter. Other submissions were received by email and letter following media interviews. Contributors have made a wide variety of suggestions, including relatives and women who worked in Dublin institutions. The work has got people talking and encouraged them to look at their local area. The board are currently whittling down the suggestions to decide on a list that will feature on the map, which will be online and in print. Next month, the Museum will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the project. We were lucky enough to be given a sneak-peek at the Museum’s excellent Kickstarter film, in which key women from many spheres of life, including politics, science and business, stress the importance of the map in helping to demonstrate how women have shaped the city of Dublin. Did you know, for example, that almost no streets in Dublin are named after women? The map, and the Museum itself, are ensuring women’s stories and the contributions that they have made to Irish history are not lost.

You can find out more about the Women’s Museum of Ireland on Twitter and on Facebook.

Laura Crossley, PhD Researcher, University of Leicester

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