Marilyn Lysohir, Good Girls, 1968. Installation detail, ceramic sculptures. Missoula Art Museum
Wednesday 18 May marked International Museums Day for 2011. While this is a day to celebrate the important role that museums play in our global community it is also an opportunity for us to question the direction in which museums today are heading and the approach they are taking to representing girls.
Walk into any museum and the imbalance between male and female representation is immediately apparent. In major art museums few women’s names are listed against the works that hang on the walls; science museums rarely pay homage to female scientists or inventors and more often than not the significant historical figures who feature in the stories museums tell are men.
To say that the representation of females in museums is a primary cause of any of the major issues affecting women and girls today would be overstating the problem. However, just as the media’s representations of the girl sends subconscious messages to both male and female viewers, so does the material contained within the walls of our educational institutions. A further complication of this issue is the potential for mixed messages that such representations may send on account of the subjective nature of viewing them.
One such example is the plethora of female nudes in Renaissance painting compared against the absence of naked men during the same period. This could be viewed either as a celebration of the feminine form or, conversely, reinforcement of the notion that a woman’s true value lies in her physical attributes and sexuality rather than her intellect or actual abilities – a message which may be internalised negatively by young viewers of either gender.
So how can parents, caregivers, other visitors to museums, museum educators or curators respond to or predict the subconscious gender views that may be forming when visiting museums with girls? Accepting that we cannot change the past is an important first step. Understanding how the portrayal of women and girls throughout the ages has evolved is essential in understanding current trends. So engaging girls in conversations about why the females in art works are presented in certain ways could be beneficial. Or discussing modern women making their mark in world history or scientific advancements today could help show girls how society has progressed and may differ from the world they encounter within the museum walls. The search for gender equality is still a major problem facing society today, but by recognising and responding to these issues positive steps forward can be achieved.
Girl Museum Inc.