Monday, 10 March 2014





Reading about the study of the gender gap in museums this week in the New York Times raised some questions about the role that women have played in museums over the course of their establishment in the Western world. Add to that International Women's Day, which was on Saturday, and my mind was sufficiently occupied with thinking about women in museums.


It mostly led me to thinking about who is remembered in museums, archives and history in general. Often in museums the permanent galleries do not concern themselves with social history. Consider for instance the Royal Ontario Museum's European gallery with the displays of china, armor and rooms set up like those of the middle and upper class. While women are present in this gallery, in some spaces, they are often included in very specific ways.

The People's History Museum in Manchester, it appears, runs programming every year for International Women's Day, this year it is a tour of Wonder Women: Radical Manchester which is apparently a permanent gallery. Last year the museum organized a larger program for the 100 year anniversary of the event that inspired the Wonder Women gallery. In April 1913,  three ordinary Edwardian women turned vigilante, surprising guards at Manchester Art Gallery, smashing glass and causing a commotion in the fight for universal suffrage.The tour explores women's role in politics in England.


The Manchester Gallery in 2013 posted the news report from 1913 on their website:

"Just before nine o’clock in the evening of Thursday April 3, 1913, when Manchester Art Gallery was due to close and few people were about, an attendant heard ‘crackings of glass’ coming from one of the Galleries.

Two attendants ran into the Gallery and found three women, Lilian Forrester, Annie Briggs, Evelyn Manesta, running round, cracking the glass of the biggest and most valuable pictures in the collections. It had been well planned. Nowhere else in the Gallery were hung so many famous pictures, so close together.

The Gallery doors were shut by the doorkeeper and the three women were caught . The Chief Constable and a superintendent took the women to the Town Hall for questioning.

They were charged under the Malicious Damage Act, 1861, and released on bail until the next morning when they appeared before the Stipendiary Magistrate."

According to the Manchester Gallery: "The suffragettes attacked 13 paintings including some of the most famous works in the collection by Pre-Raphaelite and late Victorian artists"


I think it is telling that this is a "people's" museum and that the gallery is permanent. Does this represent a change in museum practice, or common practice for a social history museum?

I also believe this tells us more than just the events at the People's History Museum. It also tells us about women in museums, and the role that museums played. Why did women choose to demonstrate for voting rights in museum? What does this tell us about the power relationship between the two?

At least I thought it was interesting. What are your thoughts?


  1. This would be a great current conflict to discuss about the actuality of lived women's experiences in Canada and museum censorship of the basic human rights therein.

    1. Excellent comment Nicole. I am so disturbed by the CMHR's actions. How can a human rights museum take an action like that and feel secure and justified in doing so?

  2. I think this is a great story from the early times of museums which could add so much to a discussion about gender hierarchies in the museum but also perceptions of these hierarchies by "the wonder women" of the 19th century.

  3. I had to read this post twice before I could formulate a response to your questions: Why did women choose to demonstrate for voting rights in museum? What does this tell us about the power relationship between the two?
    They are excellent questions, and ones I found myself wishing I read more in order to answer them fully!
    I don't think there was one reason, but many that these women chose to protest in the museum by attacking artworks. I think it is telling that in their trial the women identified themselves as political offenders, thus they viewed the museum as a political space, and as such, a point of access to start a dialogue in which they could participate. That is, however, merely one interpretation.
    Also, Irina your comment is very good food for thought. There is an image I wish to share but as there is no option for me to upload a picture I'll describe it instead. It is a piece of american anti-suffrage propaganda from the late 19th, early 20th century. It is a cartoon of a bunch of presidents, kings, and prime-ministers going through a gallery titled A Chamber of Female Horror. Behind the ropes, exalted up on pedestals, are various female leaders including a witch-like Queen Elizabeth I, and a dark-eyed grumpy portrayal of my namesake, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Here museum exhibition methods of display and historical truth are called upon as a way to gain authority in an attempt to diminish these powerful women, and by extension their ideas and supporters. Suffrage in Britain has a slightly different story than the U.S. but when comparing the example of Briggs, Forester, and Manesta breaking the glass, and the cartoon of women leaders grotesquely exhibited for male leaders to horror at, it is evident that the museum was a space where foundational cultural definitions could try to be both affirmed and broken.

    Thanks for the post! I only read it tonight, I'm a bit behind on keeping up with the blog :)
    The image that I mentioned can be found here:
    It is slide 40.