Katy Ashton is the director of the People’s History Museum, Manchester

Museums must tell society's hidden stories

Katy Ashton, Issue 116/03, p14, 01.03.2016
Our responsibility is to highlight everything that women did throughout history, to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes
As the home of ideas worth fighting for, the People’s History Museum believes in a future where notions of democracy, equality, justice and cooperation are thriving, where everyone (regardless of gender or anything else) is engaged, involved and actively playing their part in society.

But how do we fare in representing women in our exhibitions, collections and programmes? I would like to think that we perform well, particularly against a backdrop of depressing statistics that show men still on top in the arts and women in a minority in wider cultural events and exhibitions.

Some recent examples highlight the problem:

    •    Only 31% of the artists in commercial galleries in London in 2013 were women.
    •    Only 38% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the past decade have been women.

At our museum, women feature throughout, and we have excellent collections about individual women and collective women’s movements.

However, in the first section of our exhibitions (1800-1900), it could be said that females are hard to find. There are key figures, such as writer, philosopher and women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft, and there is information about the oppression of women workers as servants or home-workers. But there are also a lot of men.

If women were not historically represented in politics, however, how can they be better represented in our collections and displays? In the mid-19th century, politicians were men, voters were men and union members were men. So are we excused from the fact that not many women appear in our early displays? Not really.

The reality is that women did play a part in 19th-century politics; they were present at hustings, they turned up for election results, they campaigned and engaged in different ways. These are the challenges of interpreting historic material that comes with all of its stereotypes or omissions of women – when women are often missing or portrayed in negative ways in material of the time.

Our responsibility is to highlight everything that women did throughout history, to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes, to find the hidden stories and unknown women and make them central to our displays. We need to include all women’s lives for our audiences, not just focus on high-profile role models or well-known women. We also need to include and represent women in all areas of our collections and displays, and avoid creating “women’s” sections within our shows.

It becomes easier when our story moves into the 20th century and women’s faces, voices, ideas and opinions are much more visible in our collections and displays. We have a female prime minister, more female MPs, women workers striking, women continuing to campaign for equal pay and other non-gender-related issues. Women are visible on political posters, advertisements and banners. They are everywhere – or almost everywhere; we still have gaps and we still have work to do, even with our contemporary displays.

Women in sport, for example, are not represented, and the political world at the heart of our collection is still dominated by men. So we need to work harder in our museums with the opportunities we have to use our collections, our stories and our people to open doors to new ideas and information, and to challenge the status quo.

In 2018, it will be 100 years since women first won the (partial) right to vote. In Manchester, we are a lead partner of the Wonder Women festival, which in the run-up to the anniversary, is programming women’s events, music, art, tours, culture and film to celebrate achievements and inspire debate.

Wonder Women is a commemoration of the suffragette movement born in our city. It asks how far we’ve come in 100 years, and how far, including at the People’s History Museum, we still have to go.

The Wonder Women festival is taking place from 3-13 March, and features special events on 8 March, which is International Women’s Day.