About the author
Dr Anthea Taylor is President of the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association (AWGSA) and works in the Department of Gender & Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her current book is on Celebrity Feminism (forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillan)
Volume 29, November 2013
Feminism and the Museum Conference Report
The ‘Feminism and the Museum’ symposium, co-convened by UWA’s Alison Bartlett and UQ’s Margaret Henderson, was held at the National Library of Australia on the 2nd November. The symposium, sponsored by the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies Association, represented a timely attempt to consider the opportunities as well as the challenges of memoralising Australian second-wave feminism through material culture. In total, there were 30 delegates in attendance, with 9 papers from a broad range of feminist artists, activists, and scholars (including one international participant).
The great strength of the symposium was that it brought together speakers and audience members from diverse institutional and disciplinary backgrounds, and included artists, curators, activists, and scholars. Those directly involved in the important cultural work of publicly constructing a feminist past (or, more appropriately, feminist pasts) through various material objects reflected upon their own practice, while academics concerned with the often fraught process of incorporating feminism into the museum likewise interrogated the political as well epistemological implications of that process. The question sessions after the keynote and the two subsequent panels were especially productive, with papers sparking much lively debate and productive dialogue.
Kirsten Wehner’s (Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia) keynote paper was engaging and sought to theorise four specific modes of ‘feminist museology’: ‘speaking, doing, making and being’. Kirsten spoke of her own curating practice at the National Museum, mobilising these four modes to theorise these feminist practices and their effects. Following Kirsten’s thought-provoking paper, subsequent audience discussion foregrounded some important points in relation to a familiar question in women’s and gender studies work around many different forms of cultural production: What actually constitutes a ‘feminist object’? Furthermore, how should such objects be framed in a museum context? What kinds of feminist histories does such framing produce? How might such objects be consumed and interpreted by an audience not otherwise engaged with feminism?
Continuing in this vein, the papers that followed spoke well to one another and covered a wide range of topics including the gendered dimensions of collecting (Sophia Maalsen, USyd); the process (including the challenges) of digitizing a feminist archive (Kate Makowiecka, Murdoch); an attempt to tease out why feminists may choose to keep objects associated with the Australian women’s liberation movement outside the museum environment (Mandy Paul, History SA); and how the military museum might act as an important site for feminism, with feminist curators developing exhibitions that challenge deeply gendered public histories around war (Lindsay V Sharman, U Calgary). Suzanne Bellamy’s reflection on her satirical project, ‘The Lost Culture of Women’s Liberation, the Pre-Dynastic Phase, 1969-74’, which imagines an archaeological dig of a feminist site in 500 years time, was another highlight of the day.
Speaking specifically of material based in Adelaide, Petra Mosmann (Flinders) reflected upon what it means to engage with second-wave memorabilia – including posters, banners, badges – from a specific generational location. As a young woman in the academy, she grappled with how she could approach these objects, without herself being conscious of the kinds of affective investments that their owners, or those who initially donned them, might have made in them – what might it mean to make sense of these objects without herself having, as she put it, any ‘activist memory’?
Brisbane-based artists and academics, Courtney Pedersen and Rachel Hayes (QUT), contemplated the political implications of situating feminism within the museum context – namely, that in doing so ‘feminist art can become a historicizing category’, with multiple feminist practices being unproductively reduced to a singular, homogenised feminist past. They tracked their own attempts (through the feminist artist collective, LEVEL) to stage an alternative intervention that involves presenting feminism ‘as a set of living practices’ as opposed to something relegated to the past.
In the final session, Alison Bartlett (UWA) and Margaret Henderson (UQ) considered some of the questions and challenges raised by their attempt to collect various objects associated with the Australian second-wave for a museum collection, as well as discussing their own edited collection on objects associated with feminist activism, Things that Liberate: An Australian Feminist Wunderkammer. To conclude the symposium, the book – which engages with the Australia women’s movement, material culture, affect and memory – was launched Professor Marian Sawer from ANU.
The symposium resulted in a highly productive public conversation around how Australian feminism is being historicised and memorialised, as well as opening up many questions about feminism and material culture that I’m sure those in attendance will continue to ponder. Congratulations to Alison and Margaret for organising such a fruitful, engaging conference.