A review of HerPlace: Women in the West
Victoria University at Metro West 7-31 March 2017
Certificates, signed photographs, a signed football guernsey, manuscripts, botanical specimens, books, artworks and a typewriter. These were the physical remains of women’s work in HerPlace: Women in the West. This was the second exhibit of HerPlace Women’s Museum Australia which is proposing the creation of a women’s museum in Melbourne.
The exhibit profiled 10 women from the Western suburbs of Melbourne and “celebrates the work, achievements and historical significance of women through moving image, photographs, biographical accounts and personal artefacts”. Video interviews and written biographies were placed around the edge of the exhibit, separated from the objects which were in showcases in the centre or on other walls. This made it difficult to connect the individual voices with the relevant objects. The object labels were mostly depersonalised descriptions of the object. Exceptions were the artworks of Paola Balla which included first-person explanations of the artworks.
The organisers of the exhibit argued that “[t]he lives and experiences of women have been traditionally under-represented in historical narratives, museum collections and the public sphere. Many women from Melbourne’s western suburbs have been additionally marginalised due to issues of race, economic status and access to education.” The intention of the exhibit was to correct that imbalance but in doing so, it created further imbalances.
All of the women featured in the exhibit were defined by their work but only women of colour were defined by their cultural heritage. They were: Alice Pung, a writer of Chinese Cambodian ancestry; Halima Mohamed, a community activist of Somali background; Paola Balla, an artist and curator of Gunditjmarra, Wemba-Wemba, Italian and Chinese heritage; and Melba Marginson, a trainer, mentor and community advocate of Filipino background.
It’s as if being of purely European heritage was considered to be the neutral, normative position. The women whose cultural backgrounds were not mentioned in the exhibit were Ruth Crow, a political and community activist; Susan Alberti, business woman and philanthropist; Peta Searle, an advocate for gender equality in sport; Kerry Greenwood, an author; Joan Kirner, former Premier of Victoria; and Maisie Carr, a botanist. Does the cultural heritage of ‘white’ or European women not inform their work?
It was clear however, that class backgrounds influenced some of these women’s work. For example, Joan Kirner drew upon her working-class roots in her labour activism and politics and Halima Mohamed drew upon her experience working in parliament in Somalia for her relationship building work within the Somali community and in the Western suburbs.
Their lives were framed by a contribution narrative. They “have contributed to Australian society at both national and local levels through their work as artists and activists, writers and scientists, businesswomen, lawyers and community leaders.” Six of the women featured in the exhibit appear on the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. Thus, the type of “women’s contribution” to society this exhibit role-modelled to its audience was very clear.
HerPlace Women’s Museum has received seed funding through the Victorian state government’s Gender Equality Strategy, under its Leadership and participation setting. The Strategy’s vision is that “All Victorians live in a safe and equal society, have access to equal power, resources and opportunities, and are treated with dignity, respect and fairness.” The Strategy outlines “six settings for statewide action in which strategic alliances and partnerships will enable shared progress towards gender equality.” These are: Education and training; Work and economic security, Leadership and participation; Health, safety, and wellbeing; Sport and recreation; and Media, arts and culture. The biographies of the women in the exhibit also reflected the settings of the strategy e.g. Susan Alberti and Peta Searle in sport, Maisie Carr for education and training because the government is encouraging women to study science; Paolo Balla, Alice Pung and Kerry Greenwood for media and arts; as well as Joan Kirner and the Honour Roll under leadership.
The Gender Equality Strategy pays attention to gender inequality throughout the lifecycle from children to the elderly, as well as noting that gender inequality disproportionately affects people of Aboriginal and culturally diverse backgrounds, those located in rural and regional locations, people with disabilities and people who are trans and gender diverse. While Women in the West included a Youth Artworks component and biographies of people from across the lifecycle, as well as people from Aboriginal and culturally diverse backgrounds, it failed to include people with disabilities or people who identified as trans or gender diverse. This omission was noted in audience feedback via Sticky Notes on a wall “Join the conversation! Who or what would you like to see featured in a Women’s Museum?” Indeed, even the HerPlace Women’s Museum of Australia website fails to include LGBTIQ and disabled women in its remit. Their website also fails to articulate how their work understands and deals with the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, age and ability.
The exhibit took a deficit-based approach to improving gender equality through a separate projection of contemporary statistics about gender inequality around the world, including Australia without any contextual information, including markers of change over time. The exhibit, alternatively, could have used a strength-based approach by building on the biographies of the women profiled in the exhibit to demonstrate how organisations and individuals have and continue to challenge discrimination and inequality.
Juxtaposing decontextualised individual stories of achievement with these statistics has the effect of distancing these women from the audience. They were treated as extraordinary for succeeding in spite of significant barriers. Except for Paola Balla, they didn’t speak about how they dealt with their own traumas and barriers. We were told to celebrate and admire them but not to empathise or understand how they became successful or how they deal with challenges they face in the present.
HerPlace, in this exhibit and more broadly, seemed hampered by its proximity to the Leadership aspect of the Gender Equality Strategy. This makes it difficult to represent difficult stories without a tidy or redemptive ending. Theme led exhibits not based on location or the Honour Roll seem unlikely for this organisation in the future without rethinking the current framework. Stories of sex workers, housewives, domestic workers, women who do not fit the conventions of Western leadership styles, or who might be seen as troublemakers will not find a place unless their stories can be sanitised or assimilated. “Honouring Women, Inspiring Girls”, is HerPlace’s motto. Rather than “Inspiring Girls” HerPlace Women’s Museum of Australia may make some of us feel inadequate and excluded.