I have a question I cannot shake from my mind. I recently spent two packed days in my hometown of Oxford, enjoying a stellar conference line-up of historians, activists, museum and heritage professionals on the subject of Women and Power: Redressing the Balance. The conference programme bursts with tales of empowerment, engagement, driving change and uncovering untold stories. Who could resist? From a scan of the packed conference hall in beautiful St Hugh’s College, the answer would appear to be men. There absolutely were men in the room, but in an unusually small minority. Why? This feels fascinating, odd and yes, just a little bit depressing. After all, as Annie Reilly, National Trust’s Head of Public Programmes said in her Keynote address: “Women’s history is not niche – it’s half of our collective memory”.
And what a wonderful dive into our collective memory this conference was. During 2018, the centenary of some (but not all) women winning the right to vote, the National Trust – like many other organisations – put women in the spotlight. Curating on a national scale, their public programme comprised hugely varied activities catalysed around the theme of Women and Power.
Oxford University’s Dr Sophie Duncan was the project’s academic lead, producing a dossier of rigorous, referenced research that could be drawn on by curatorial and programme teams to develop rich content for exhibitions, events and digital outputs, and might equally by consulted by marketing or comms teams to amplify these efforts and furnish the latest tweet: a delicate balancing act. Through this, the National Trust sought to engage with the many ways in which women have shaped and influenced their places, objects and stories.
From Annie Reilly again: “Women have shaped our world in extraordinary ways, both large and public, and small and in private”. But these stories have often been pushed to the edges or gone entirely unrecorded. At Tyne & Weir Archives & Museums, the Women of Tyneside project is redressing the balance with a new co-curated Women’s Collection whose themes include Activism, Body Image and Health & Wellbeing. And my stand out conference moment: meeting the extraordinary band of women delivering the Multaka-Oxford project at the Pitt Rivers Museum and History of Science museums. ‘Multaka’ means meeting point in Arabic and is embodied by the new interpretations of collections, new skills, new confidence and new connections being built by the project within and far beyond Oxford’s vibrant communities of displaced people.
I echo Sophie Duncan’s plea that the important, empowering, collaborative approach taken to find and share women’s stories must not be a fleeting centennial flutter, and pledge to play my part. This redressing of the balance could and should have a transformative legacy. “Forever For Everyone”, as the National Trust likes to say.
Dr Emily Scott-Dearing is a museum and public engagement consultant specialising in content and interpretation. Her recent projects include the ‘Bacterial World’ exhibition at Oxford University Museum of Natural History and ‘Teeth’ at the Wellcome Collection.
Image: Multaka-Oxford volunteers at Pitt Rivers Museum © Pitt Rivers Museum