Gendered Interpretations of the V&A Museum

Having developed a new methodology for gendering objects, we applied it to thirteen museum objects at the V&A (see object case studies). Our aim was to sustainably embed it in the museum’s practice, working alongside the V&A’s LGBTQ Working Group, which has worked for over a decade to surface under-represented LGBTQ histories in the V&A’s collections and programming.

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We introduced the methodology in a work-in-progress seminar for staff, before initiating discussions in mixed groups of staff and volunteers about the potential of this methodology for their own work. Reflections from the workshop addressed wide-ranging issues including the need for greater exposure of female designers and makers in cataloguing and interpretation, gendered assumptions behind mannequins and their poses in displays of costume collections, and desire for new text guidelines which encourage curators to ‘challenge their own preconceptions when interpreting the collection’.

Staff and volunteers who were already engaged in similar work – notably the volunteer guides for the LGBTQ+ and Female Voices tours – commented that the methodology helped them to ‘see my work in a more professional way’, as well as giving clear methodological directions to take it further.

To share the new gendered stories we found as part of our project, we held a series of events throughout the year:

Embroidery workshop

We commissioned textile artist Sarah-Joy Ford to run a workshop stimulated by our research into the embroideries of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, which are known as the ‘Oxburgh Hangings’. Inspired by research showing that early modern women used embroidery as an important form of self-expression and community-building, and by the fact that these small embroidered octagonal panels fit together into a larger wall hanging, Sarah-Joy gave visitors the chance to embroider their name, or the name of a woman who was important to them, on an octagonal panel with a digital print of one of the embroideries from the Oxburgh Hangings. The panels then fit together into a communal panel for a photograph at the end of the workshop.

‘Hidden gendered histories’ tour

Kit (the postdoctoral researcher on the project) led a 45-minute tour of the objects we’d researched, sharing the hidden gendered stories we’d uncovered. The tour also encouraged visitors to think about other objects in the museum from this new perspective – for example, having learned that the early modern English wool and linen trades relied mainly on the labour of poorly paid women, they might look at all woollen or embroidered objects differently.

Rainbow plaques workshop

With the help of LGBTQ volunteer tour guides at the V&A, we ran a workshop drawing on the Rainbow Plaques project: a project that uses temporary cardboard ‘rainbow plaques’, a visibly queer version of the iconic blue plaque, to mark places that are significant to LGBTQ+ history. Visitors made their own plaques to mark objects in the museum that they felt had LGBTQ+ significance, as well as commemorating their own LGBTQ+ histories (from Virginia Woolf’s house to ‘the bench where I first held hands with my partner’).

Cello recital

Working with Jaclyn Rosenfeld, a Royal College of Music student cellist, we discussed how the idea of ‘hidden stories of gender’ could be applied to a programme of music. Jaclyn used our research to select a programme, which she performed at one of the Royal College of Music’s regular student recitals in the V&A. Her programme included female composers who are more well-known for their male pupils than for their own work; gay composers whose sexuality is often dismissed as irrelevant to their music; and music relating to an object we’d researched, a mask of the Italian commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella.