Exhibiting Autonomous Women

Toni Church explores how popular understandings of the past can be deepened and transformed by enlivening how colonial women are represented in curatorial language and physical embodiments in Australian museums and galleries. This post is based on an article that appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith, available now on open access here.

In 2017, I was in the beginning stages of my PhD which broadly looks into the representation of colonial women in Australian museums. One morning, while undertaking fieldwork in museums and galleries in eastern Australia, I stumbled across an editorial by Tracey Spicer in The Sydney Morning Herald which resonated with what I had observed during my gallery visits. Amidst conversations about the burgeoning #metoo movement and furore surrounding racist historical statues in Australia, Spicer commented that ‘there are more statues of animals than there are of real Australian women.’ She further reflected that women are severely underrepresented, in their own right, in public memorialisation in Australia’s built landscape.

The meaningful recognition of women’s contributions to history in Australia has not yet been fully (and accurately) translated into public memorialisation and, as an extension, in cultural heritage practice. This ‘statue gap’, a term coined by Nilanjana Roy, is indicative of a lack of accurate representation of women’s contribution to Australian history which informs broader public assumptions that this contribution is insignificant.

Spicer’s words felt pertinent to my fieldwork, particularly as gallery after gallery were scanned in the search for an autonomous female perspective, which was certainly there, but was overwhelmed with what I was beginning to recognise as a pervasive gender gap in both written and physical recognition within museums. Specifically, colonial women existed in the Australian history on display while men acted. This was reiterated by exhibition text that either largely sidelined their achievements, presented women solely within the context of their husbands or male guardians, or through the physical misrepresentation of colonial women’s bodies on display.

A Study of Language: Exhibiting Elizabeth Gould

Curatorial language is used to both reflect and influence visitor-made meaning within the museum and influence public understandings of historical women in Australia. In the case of Elizabeth Gould, a colonial era scientific artist, it is not the objects but the textual interpretation that simultaneously sidelines and highlights her contribution to Australian history. Gould featured in both a permanent natural history display at Melbourne Museum, and a temporary exhibition titled ‘Bird Woman’ at Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts (State Library of Tasmania) in Hobart, on display from September 2017. The objects are the same. The history is the same. However, the methods and manner of interpretation provide the audience with vastly different meanings.

Although Gould was an accomplished artist who produced a large number of lithographs and prints of Australian birds for publication in her husband’s book, Birds of Australia (a definitive nineteenth-century text on native ornithology in this country), choices in exhibition language in Melbourne Museum emphasise her domestic life as a wife, rather than the large number of scientific illustrations she produced. Elizabeth Gould’s existence and her historical significance is defined by her relationship to her husband. Her autonomy is reduced by this narrative of dependency upon him for recognition and reinforces the traditional gender bias in Australian public memory.

In comparison, the Allport Library of Museum’s 2017 exhibition ‘Bird Woman’ consciously framed Elizabeth Gould as a significant contributor to her husband’s publications through careful selection of language and provided a powerful statement on the role of women in colonial-era scientific productions in Australia. Allport Library and Museum directly addressed the gender imbalance in this historical memory, with their curators using direct and unambiguous language to frame Elizabeth Gould as a significant scientific artist in her own right. In doing so, they strongly contributed to redressing the historical imbalance in the Australian collective memory of colonial women.

A Study of the Physical: Mannequin Bodies

Mannequins have become the industry standard design feature that bring to life costume collections, using a constructed bodily form that enables visitors ‘to make tangible, meaningful mental links with the past’.

However, when mannequins take a female form within a museum gallery, they are laden with cultural signposts; their bodies are imbued with cultural significance and interpreted by cultural values. The posing and perfecting of the female form in this way starkly contrasts with a mannequin’s purpose to display costume collections worn by real women, and can produce a clash between the curatorial intent in displaying a costume object, resulting in an unintended visitor perception of these women.

‘Love Is: Australian Wedding Fashion’, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, 2017. Toni Church.

The contradiction between design and historical accuracy was observed through the exhibition design choices that posed colonial women as demure, shy, downward facing mannequins in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences’ (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney) ‘Love Is: Australian Wedding Fashion’ exhibition in 2017. The mannequins had clearly been designed and positioned to adopt a stereotypical female personality of the nineteenth century: small and diminutive in both physicality and behaviour, they projected a gentle demeanour, not taking up a lot of space with their bodies, and certainly not behaving as assertive figures.

‘Love Is: Australian Wedding Fashion’, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, 2017. Toni Church.

The posing of these mannequins did not fully communicate the complexities of the historical figures on display. For example, the display of Australia’s oldest surviving wedding dress, the pictured popular Neoclassical style of gown is provenanced to Ann Marsden who married Reverend Thomas Hassall in Parramatta in 1822. The style and typical pose of mannequin used to display the Marsden wedding dress does little to personify the courageous experiences of the women who wore this dress on the colonial frontier. The absence of these colonial women’s active and autonomous contributions to the processes of colonisation in this space reinforced stereotypical, sociocultural assumptions about nineteenth-century colonial women in Australia, resulting in a continuing lack of recognition of female achievement in Australian collective memory.

Curating Enlivened and Embodied Exhibitions

By embracing pluralism beyond merely tokenistic representations of women within exhibition narratives and curatorial selection, museums have the potential to shift the perspectives and understandings of their audiences.

An appreciation of audience, and the sensory visitor experience is key to targeting all aspects of storytelling available in museums—particularly in communicating complex, often challenging, narratives. Some suggested methods of the reinterpretation of colonial women in Australian museums include the re-evaluation of language used to both describe and represent these women. Similarly, the inclusion of complementary interpretive materials can enliven the character of real-life women out of stock standard mannequin bodies, and place their words, their self-reflection, and their autonomy, into the exhibition space.

What is remembered is important, but it is also the way history is remembered.

How women are represented is just as important as their inclusion in the collective narrative.

Only by more fully representing the diversity of our shared collective memory, can we encourage widespread acceptance of a more diverse and inclusive collective identity.

Toni Church is a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Her creative doctoral thesis combines her professional experience in the museums industry with research that draws out the autonomous voices in the writing of European women who travelled to early colonial Western Australia. She is also the Museum Curator at the Old Court House Law Museum (Law Society of Western Australia).

*Disclaimer: The opinions and research shared here represent the author and not the institutions with which she is affiliated.

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