Lauren Padgett, Representations of Victorian Women in Museums

Lauren Padgett is a PhD candidate at Leeds Trinity University investigating representations of Victorian women in museums. She is attached to the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies and coordinates its blogs. She worked for several years in the museum industry. Her wider research interests include physical, intellectual and cultural museum access for traditionally marginalised individuals. She is also interested in Bradford’s local history. She tweets @LaurenPadgett24 and can be contacted at  

The image, a painting called ‘The Curiosity Shop’ by Frederick William Elwell (painted in 1929 and held at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery), eerily echoes Taziker’s description of the numerous museum displays showing a knitting woman, sat near a fire with a cat at their feet. The painting even includes people outside the window as though they are museum visitors peering through the glass to view the reconstructed living room.

Millions of people visit museums, heritage sites and historic homes every year. There are museums to suit every penchant; the Dog Collar Museum in Maidstone, England (unfortunately dogs are prohibited) and the Paris Sewers Museum (not for those with a sensitive nose). But as visitors wander around museums, taking in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes (the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate in Brussels has some tasty samples), what are they actually paying attention to? The dates and facts? The artefacts? The stories and characters behind the objects?

When I visit a museum, I check for women. My PhD research investigates representations of Victorian women in museums and heritage sites in the Yorkshire and the Humber region. Women have traditionally being excluded from museum displays, often playing second fiddle in the presentation of HIS-story. Since the 1980s, those involved in gender and feminist studies have turned their attention to museums to ask; where are all the women? This gained momentum in the 1990s with the New Museology Movement in British museums (which, in theory, saw museums cast off traits of elitism and adopt a more inclusive approach). Much of the research since then has highlighted a lack of women’s history in museums, and, when present, how it is shoehorned into displays as a tokenistic measure.

Gaby Porter was one of the first to investigate this from a research-driven perspective, carving a path for future studies. There have been various small and large scale research projects, and more generalised analyses, exploring the representations of women and the female sex in museums. Porter concluded that representations of women in museums are “haphazard and inconsistent”, “relatively passive, shallow, undeveloped, muted and closed”. Rebecca Machin’s study of bird and mammal specimens in the Natural History galleries at The Manchester Museum revealed a bias towards male specimens. Gender bias has also been found in military and industrial museums, where women are often excluded, or, when present, represented in stereotypical gender roles (care-givers) and as passive observers rather than active participants in history. Similarly, Marie Louise Stig Sørensen has argued museums should go beyond counting women. The quality of the representations not just the quantity must also be considered. Some critics have noted that ‘unique’ women are often desexualised, masculinised or ridiculed. Barbara Clark Smith identified that museum texts can at times be “constructed as a male conversation” by which they sexualise and objectifying women. How many times have you seen a label (maybe for a painting) that defines a woman by her connection to a man? Maybe it said ‘Mrs Joe Bloggs’ or ‘Mrs Jane Bloggs, wife of Joe Bloggs’. Or a costume label that focusses on how the clothing enhances feminine assets (corsets, for example)?

Previous studies have not specifically analysed representations of Victorian women in museums, but some studies and their findings may be applicable. Andrea Taziker’s findings, after an extensive study of eighty-five industrial museums, were published in her article ‘Sitting, Knitting and Serving: The Portrayal of Women in Industrial Museum’. After conducting her fieldwork, she questioned “Where was the portrayal of the harsh realities of [women’s] history?”. The industrial museums she assessed presented inaccurate, “sterile” and “comfortable” representations of life for women, oblivious to the harsh realities of working-class living. Her words painted a brilliant picture of the reoccurring displays of “women sitting by the fire knitting almost without exception accompanied by a stuffed cat” in cottage interiors and how she “looked in vain for the women boiling water to fill the tin bath for the miner returning from the pit, for the endless struggle to bear and keep alive large families in cramped, overcrowded conditions on near starvations rations”. I suspect that Victorian women may be strongly represented in the (comfortable) domestic setting, through reconstructions of living spaces, with less frequent representations in displays of other themes or settings (such as work in t’mill). When I conduct my fieldwork, I will be keeping an eye out for the habitual knitting woman, housemaid, shop assistant and stuffed cat.

Museums may perpetuate or enforce the Victorian separate spheres ideology of women in the domestic/private setting with men in the public setting. Some critics are not against domestic representations but ask that museums attempt to challenge these ideas. Beverley Butler said,

It is not that women necessarily need to come out of the kitchen, be it Georgian, Edwardian or MFI, but that they need to be truthfully represented in this sphere and their role in other spheres recognised, re-evaluated and reaffirmed.

Porter’s study of representations of work in museums indicated that when women are present, women are often represented as “long-suffering assistants to skilled husbands and others”. In some instances their work is “trivialised”. Taziker also commented on depictions of female workers “mostly under the watchful eye of the male supervisor . . . perform[ing] the servile and menial jobs”. This may be the case in Victorian themed displays that represent an industry or trade, or a reconstructed Victorian street showing the history of the business owners and workers. Moreover, representations of work for women are often limited to the domestic service, which is a popular Victorian representation in museums with living spaces (such as a mill manager’s/owner’s house).

In 1994 Robert Sullivan controversially said that “museums are generally racist and sexist institutions”, not in a ‘malicious’ or ‘overt’ manner but thoughtlessly or subconsciously. Some of the studies briefly mentioned in this post have offered reasons for this. Machin referred to historic museum displays that reflect the societal values of the time it was created. For example, Victorian taxidermists who created the Natural History specimens may have put female specimens in submissive positions and male specimens in dominant postures subconsciously reflecting Victorian values of gender attributes and “patriarchal norms”. There is also a lack of women’s history in specific types of museums, such as military museums, that overlook women. A genuine reason may be that the particular focus of the display may not have a connection to women’s history. For instance, an industrial museum may display a particular trade that women did not work in. However, Elizabeth Carnegie has argued that the exclusion of women should be acknowledged. For example, it could explain that women did not work in that trade and then give examples of trades women did work in. Elsewhere, Rosemary Preece looked at the difficulty of representing women involved with the largely male-dominated coalmining industry. She explained how this was overcome by The National Coalmining Museum (in 1992) with a temporary exhibition about women workers to commemorate the introduction and abolition of the law which prevented women from working underground in the pits.

The lack of material evidence about women in some museum collections is also a concern. Women are less likely to donate objects to museums compared to men; therefore there is less opportunity for museums to collect women’s history. There is also a lack of surviving material evidence for women, particular working-class women, due to the perishability of these objects and lack of surviving examples. For example, a Victorian work dress was worn until unwearable, and then recycled for other uses (rags or patches for other clothes).

Furthermore, there are flaws in the classification systems used by museums, which limits the way objects can be categorised on collection databases and object records. One museum professional posed the idea it is not that museums do not have objects relating to women’s history; they are just hidden in the collections due to a lack of research and identification. Housework and out-work (services provided from the home, such as laundry, burling and mending, dressmaking etc.) are categorised as domestic life, rather than working life. Often human error means that key information is omitted off records (for example, the sex of people in photographs). Better classification systems and descriptions on object records would highlight the object’s connection to women’s history clearer.

So the next time you visit a museum, stop for a moment to consider the representations of women. Are they present in displays or are they absent? Are they in the display’s background or forefront? Is the representation vital to the display’s message or it is tokenistic? Is the language used to describe them sexist or misogynistic? And if the museum is Victorian themed and in the Yorkshire and the Humber region, let me know as it might make a great case study for my research!


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