Sisterhood stories - Museums Association

Sisterhood stories

Caroline Gausden reflects on the groundbreaking work of Glasgow Women’s Library
Feminism
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Caroline Gausden
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Badges from the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre
Badges from the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre

In 1990, the year that Glasgow became European City of Culture, a group of artists, including Adele Patrick, co-founder of Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL), the only Accredited museum dedicated to women’s history in the UK (and also a lending library, archive and pioneering art space), were asking questions of the planned cultural showcase offered by the city.

In response to the “stale, pale and male” plans for Glasgow’s cultural year, Patrick and GWL co-founder Kate Henderson hosted a meeting to gather support for a public programme of events that would run alongside the official cultural offerings and address historical and contemporary notions of women’s creativity.

Speaking to artist Katie Davis for the 2014 Generation survey about the resulting Women in Profile (1990) programme, Patrick recalls Castlemilk Womanhouse (1990-92) as its most ambitious element and also the most enduring. In many ways, Castlemilk Womanhouse is still a blueprint for how GWL works and is a small part of an archive that continues to grow through the agency of artists and communities. 

Instigated by Rachel Harris, Julie Roberts and 2008 Turner Prize nominee Cathy Wilkes, Castlemilk Womanhouse was a collaborative project that drew inspiration from Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro’s pivotal Womanhouse (1972) in Los Angeles. The artists were interested
in reassessing the ideas explored in Los Angeles by resituating the practice in the very different context of Castlemilk, an area on the outskirts of Glasgow’s southside.

At the time it was the largest housing estate in Europe having been built during the slum clearances of the 1950s. The artists’ account of Castlemilk recorded a severe lack of facilities and high unemployment. In an interview, Lorraine Sharp, one of the core participants and later organiser at the house, noted that a large number of single mothers were relocated
to the area and suffered significantly from a lack of social resources that catered to anything beyond their status as mothers.

The project created a social space for women in the area to meet and be creative but also to curate exhibitions with other artists in residence.

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In this way GWL grew in response to several absences – the absence of women artists in Glasgow’s cultural narrative as well as the absence of care for the creative and social confidence of women in the city, particularly those facing marginalisation.

What the artists recognised by looking to models of feminist art was that in order to feel empowered and be creative it was important to be in dialogue with others and to be able to locate yourself in a history of practice.

Kate Davis’s return to look at the Castlemilk archive and interview those involved is just one of many instances that signals how GWL continues to speak to that need, inviting artists in to nourish their practice and develop new works. 

A 1990 poster for the Castlemilk Womanhouse project

A second more recent example that illustrates the unique way GWL works is the collaboration with independent curator Freya Monk-McGowan to host artist Ingrid Pollard in the Lesbian Archive, housed by GWL.

With the support of the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, Pollard has been in residence in GWL since 2019. She has been engaging with a fascinating history of which she was a part and is making a new body of work that will be showcased this year at the rescheduled Glasgow International festival.

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A place to call home

The history that drew Pollard’s attention began for GWL in 1995 when the organisation was still entirely volunteer run. When an offer to rehome the
London-based national Lesbian Archive and Information Centre (LAIC) was accepted, GWL became custodian of the only lesbian archive in the UK.

This substantial collection, spanning the 1920s to the present day, now makes up one-third of the whole GWL archive. It includes a wide range of materials, from community group meeting minutes to international publications and letters between published writers.

There are also campaign materials against Section 28, personal papers of lesbian activists, photographs and materials from demonstrations against wars and leaflets about self-care and wellbeing specific to lesbian and bisexual women. When the archive arrived from London, volunteers were moved to tears as they unpacked materials that revealed a close-knit, inclusive and intersectional community.

A 1987 newsletter for Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group, part of the GWL archive

Sue John, a volunteer at the time and now in the GWL senior management team with Patrick, mentioned that although LAIC had received offers from more established institutions, it was important to them that the collection remained within a community of peers so that future users would be able to access and draw strength from its materials without facing many of the barriers that other institutional settings present.

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That early decision also offered a redrawing of what a specialist is, placing value on the lived experience of those represented in the collection and seeing it as a tool for their empowerment.

Hidden histories

More than 25 years later, Monk-McGowan confirms the continuing importance of GWL’s unique focus on hidden histories brought to life through arts practice: “As a queer woman, I understand and have lived the experience of coming out without the representation of my life in either heritage institutions or wider society. I know the damage that this can do to a person’s understanding of their place within society, their self-esteem and, importantly, their health and wellbeing.”

When the archive arrived, volunteers were moved to tears as they unpacked materials that revealed a close-knit community.

This understanding is one that Pollard – an artist and activist in London when LAIC was still active – shares, along with the intuition that also shaped GWL, which is around the relational nature of the objects that we cherish. Behind print works and photographs, as well as the multitude of other things the GWL collection holds, there is a web of stories and relationships.

The archive is witness to those who have come together to combat the alienation that occurs when people are excluded along sexual, class and race lines. Over an impressive career Pollard has proved adept at bringing to light important stories that are otherwise out of view or at the edges
of the frame and doing the detailed work it takes to make connections between things.

Women in Profile was created in response to ‘stale, pale and male’ plans for Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture in 1990

Through a multifaceted photographic and social practice, narratives of representation and difference come into focus in her work. It feels fitting to be reconnecting the artist and the lesbian archive in this project, creating new perspectives on such an important resource.

I have chosen just two pivotal moments in the development of GWL, but the history of the organisation shows that there have been artists involved at every juncture, instigating, investigating and creating new works to be held alongside its important collection of artefacts.

Each commission is a small revolution in an institution that is not simply content to create a collection, but restless to forge new empowering pathways through it.

Caroline Gausden is the development worker for programming and curating at Glasgow Women’s Library

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