Until now I have talked about gender equality in one specific way: Via personal interviews. With this article I want to try out a new writing perspective – I am writing a review.
Since Denmark is so verbal about gender equality, it’s no surprise that there are several women’s museums across the country. During my road trip through Scandinavia, I stopped by the harbour city of Aarhus and visited one of these musea.
From the outside, the Kvindemuseet (Danish for: Women’s Museum) in Aarhus looks just like any old building. The only sign that hints at the exposition about women inside is a big banner hanging on a wall. When I enter the reception hall, there is no feministic content either, and I start to think that maybe this museum is one of those that want to get their message across in a more subtle way.
But I was wrong: Already the first exhibition is very frank in its message. Due to privacy rules, I do not have photos of this first hall but I’ll do my best to describe it. The topic of the first hall is sexuality during childhood and puberty. The exhibition shows objects related to sex education from the 90’ies all the way until today, like magazines with explicit photographs or high school books that taught us about sex. While doing so, it tries to recreate the uneasiness that many of us must have felt during sex education in school. That’s also what I feel like while I am walking through this part. In general, this museum is one of those that collects and displays personal, real-life objects from real-people and not from artists to get their message across. I found this quite interesting because displaying personal, everyday objects related to sexuality – that’s quite intimate!
On to the next hall. On the way to the first floor I am accompanied by videos of women of all ages in which they talk about their own body perceptions. ‘I feel beautiful‘ and ‘Just because I am older that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy my own body‘ are some of the voices I can hear. Upstairs, the first room is like a small movie theater. The first movie that I watch is about how society shapes our sexual identity as a child. Boys have to be strong, never cry and play with dinosaurs and cars. And girls should of course wear pink and play with dolls – this stereotypical difference is called a ‘radical gender split‘. If a child does not follow their stereotype, they quickly get labeled as ‘Sissy’ (for boys) or ‘Tomboy’ (for girls).
This exhibition raises a valid point. In almost every period of our life, our sexual identity is being shaped by the society around us – even when we’re little children. Since recently, there are increasingly more discussions about sexual identity during puberty and adulthood, but it is equally important to discuss sexual identity during childhood. Labelling a child as ‘Sissy’ or ‘Tomboy’ can do a lot of damage to how children looks at themselves – and can lead to low self-esteem and supressed emotions.
We continue to the next hall. This room focuses on the difference in clothing for boys and girls. Here I see a collection of clothes hanging on the wall and from the ceiling, and laying in boxes on the ground. There is not much further explanation to it, so I let the scenery act on me. Because this room comes right after the movie theatre room, I think it tries to show the gender split in clothing: some clothes are percieved as typically female, like skirts, while other clothes ‘should’ be worn by males, like blazers (or at least that’s how it used to be, the clothes do seem to be from another era).
The remaining part of this floor continues to explore childhood. In different glass vitrines, objects from all kinds of situations are shown: toys from Lego, baby dolls, a classroom table, music instruments, religious texts and much more. In my interpretation, these are all objects that shape the way we look at girls vs. boys: Lego is for boys, dolls are for girls, and also religious beliefs and school teachings have an impact on our perceived gender roles. At first glance, the objects shown here are not special at all, just everyday things that can be found anywhere. But to see them all gathered together like this made me think: There are so many things in our everyday life that have an impact on how we view our gender role, and we don’t even realize that. So in a way, even small things like Lego toys or a school teaching reinforce the gender inequality around us.
I go up to the second floor. Now we get to an exhibition called ‘Gender Blender’, which focuses on gender issues on a historical timeline. The exhibition is introduced as follows:
This is by far the most explicit part of the exhibition. The audience is confronted with photos of real-life people, and their stories and statements. Next to that are information boards that show different gender related movements throughout history, like the Law of Free Abortion and the Red Stockings movement in Denmark. Following are some excerpts of ‘Gender Blender’.
The law of free abortion
- starting from the mid 60’s, demonstrations and flyers are organized that inform people how to get an abortion
- also around that time: the new women’s movement, better access to birth control, shift in sexual and social norms
- 1972: 12,000 women apply for an abortion, only 10,500 receive permission. Many abortions happen behind closed doors.
- May 24, 1973: Parliament passes the Law ‘Termination of Pregnancy’
- gives every Swedish woman the right to terminate her pregnancy before the end of the 12th pregnancy week
- a 1970’s women’s movement in Denmark against the mental and material inequalities between men & women
- got popular through media and self-organized women-groups
- initiated women’s festivals and supported female artists
- supported the creation of women’s studies programmes
This exhibition constantly invites the audience to take part and express their own opinions. To the left, you can see a simulation of a riot. Every sign that you can see has been handwritten by a visitor of the museum. Visitors can pick up blank posters and a pen and write down what they would want to say at such a protest.
‘For me the perception of gender is linked to society’s norms and standards. Unfortunately […], we are taught that our gender is excusively linked to our genitals. I think the world would be a more interesting place to live in, if we could think outside the box.’Anonymous, a floral decorator
Gender Blender offers many interactive stations for its visitors, like the protest stand you just saw. At another station, there is a small booth, the size of a photo booth, with a sign that welcomes you to enter. As I come closer, I read the invitation:
I really liked how the exhibition was trying to engage the audience in many different ways: pick up a pen and write your own protest sign, play around with clothing pieces and change your sex in the locker room, or listen to audio recordings from real-life people on how they experience gender (in-)equality.
I personally think that for a topic like gender, it’s really fitting to explore the topic yourself instead of only reading boards or looking at objects. Gender is a very personal subject: you can feel 100% male or female, you can feel trapped in the wrong physical body, or you can feel a little bit of this sex and a lot of that sex in yourself. Everybody has their own gender, and everybody has their own unique experiences with it.
For this reason, I think this museum approaches gender in the right way. It invites visitors to share their own experiences, and offers them to listen to others’ experiences and opinions. In my view, this is one of the best ways to touch upon this topic.
In the end, going through this museum was quite an emotional rollercoaster for me. For most of my life, I have not been open about my gender role. Walking through this museum, I got reminded of how the environment I grew up in steered me in a certain direction: parenting and religion made me suppress any critical evaluation of my gender role as a child. In other words, more often than not, my surrounding influenced the way I viewed my gender role while growing up. Walking through the first part of the museum with all the stereotypical boy/girl things, I had to think back to my own childhood. When I was little, I only played with Barbie dolls and never even looked at Lego. It was also clear to me back then that I should wear dresses and skirts and that it was important to look pretty. Put differently, I was only following the stereotype of what a girl ‘should’ do and look like, and I never even questioned it.
But the museum made me ask myself: How did I look at my gender role back then, and how do I look at it now? For me personally, it changed a lot. Today, I question almost everything that tries to steer me into a certain direction, and I notice how I am getting interested in things that my Pakistani society would see as stereotypically ‘male’, like playing video games (I have really gotten into World of Warcraft, for example). Comparing my current self with my childhood self was very interesting, and I encourage everyone of you to do it, too. I think that we often try to avoid uncomfortable memories from the past, like how our parents awkwardly talked to us about sex for the first time or how there was an unspoken taboo over the topic. But it can still be interesting or us to revisit these memories years later, and compare how far we have come today.
All in all, I did not know what to expect before coming to Aarhus women’s museum. In retrospect, I can really appreciate how gender and it’s uniqueness to each person was celebrated in this place. And apart from learning more about gender related movements, I gained new insights about myself after my visit.
While I enjoyed the design of the museum a lot, I must admit that I first had to get used to it. I am more used to the classic museum style: art pieces behind glass vitrines with an informative text next to it. So it took me some time to understand why this museum showcased their content in a different way. In the end, I can totally see why they did it like this though. It would have probably been very boring to only read informative texts on boards. By letting the audience engage with the topic themselves, I kept being interested in the exhibitions.
Aarhus Women’s museum: I recommend!
Below you can find a gallery with photos that I took while strolling around. Hopefully it helps you to get a feel for what I have tried to describe to you in this post.