The world’s first bricks and mortar Vagina Museum moved into its first fixed location in Camden Market, London in October 2019.
Curator of the Vagina Museum, Sarah Creed, has a background in exhibition management and curatorial research. She has previously worked at the British Museum and the Museum of London. Blooloop caught up with her to hear about the venture.
“The Vagina Museum was founded by our director, Florence Schechter,” says Creed. “In her previous role as a science communicator, Florence wanted to create some content, specifically about animal vaginas. But couldn’t find any accessible content on the gynaecological anatomy anywhere.”
There is a penis museum in Iceland, but gynaecological anatomy did not, until now, have its own museum.
“She thought, ‘Well, why not? Let’s just make one’,” says Creed.
The Vagina Museum opened the first exhibition in its new venue in November 2019 and has been popular with visitors ever since, gaining many positive reviews. However, since we spoke to Creed, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused it to temporarily close its doors, along with museums and attractions across the UK.
Why the Vagina Museum?
But why is it called the Vagina Museum? Why not, say, the vulva museum?
“Everyone asks that,” Creed says. “The word ‘vulva’ doesn’t encompass the entire anatomy, any more than the word ‘vagina.’ And we don’t just talk about the external anatomy; we talk about the internal anatomy as well. Over 65% of the world’s population refers to the entire genitalia as a vagina.
“And although it’s not correct as a word for the entirety of that part of the body, it’s still a biologically correct word.”
In addition to this, it is also the most recognisable word. Many people still don’t know the word vulva. An institution called “The Vulva Museum” might, therefore, miss chances to engage people and to educate more members of the public.
There is, of course, a word that refers to ‘the entirety of that part of the body’. An old word, with a contentious etymology – going back to the Proto-Indo-European ‘cu’ and the Latin ‘cuneus’, or ‘wedge’. It is a word that was already too rude for Chaucer, who had to hint at it with puns, as did Shakespeare, later. It is a word with millennia of misogyny rolled up and shoved into it.
And there is the problem. The world is not ready, may never be ready, for a museum that bears that term in its title.
On the subject of this particular slang word, Creed says, “I talked about this recently with Professor Emma Rees, Director of the University of Chester’s Institute of Gender Studies.
“She feels that word is so far past the point of no return. It is so far integrated into society, that it is doubtful it can ever be reclaimed. The one word for the entirety of gynaecological anatomy is one of the most offensive words in the English language.”
That, she says, is a powerful comment on the patriarchy:
“This word that has evolved to be one of the worst words refers directly to gynaecological anatomy.”
The taboo around the word and the taboo around women’s sexuality reflect misogyny on an incredible and all-pervasive level. This is something the museum will, Creed says, tackle in the future:
Future plans for the Vagina Museum
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vagina Museum is currently reviewing how it will schedule its programming. But it plans to cover several different topics over the coming years, as Creed explains.
“The space is quite small. Currently, what we’re doing is programming two temporary exhibitions a year. We want to cover an array of topics, from contraception, through menstruation and anatomy, sexual history, exploring gender and sexuality, and the difference between gender and sex.
Our first virtual lecture on 14 July explores the history of medicine from a feminist perspective, sexuality & the evolution of obstetrics and gynaecology!
— Vagina Museum (@vagina_museum) July 1, 2020
“As an organisation, we are also an LGBTQ+ ally and an intersex ally. We talk about LGBTQ+ issues and remove the stigma around these individuals.”
The Vagina Museum is often regarded as a ‘women’s’ museum. Creed points out:
“That is not what we are. We align ourselves by saying that we represent everybody. It’s as important for a cis man to know about it as it is anybody who has a vagina.”
There is widespread ignorance about gynaecological anatomy it turns out, even now, in the 21st century.
“I’ve had members of the public tell me about having a partner walking in on them in the bathroom when they’re on their period and being horrified by the blood, thinking there’s something wrong,” says Creed.
At school, boys and girls are still often separated for the ‘puberty talk’. This has the effect of fostering ignorance about relative anatomy.
“Also, boys are being taught about sexuality, sexual desire, wet dreams, masturbation. Girls are not taught about pleasure: they’re taught about menstruation and hormones. While they’re taught about condoms, there’s no conversation about the breadth of contraception and the rights they have around it. There’s no sense of empowerment over their own bodies.”
Education and outreach
“As we move forward as a museum and move into permanent, bigger premises, we plan to have education and outreach programmes to address this,” says Creed. “We’ve already had many requests from schools. Either that we should go into their schools and talk to them, or for them to come to us.
“In a society where there have been cuts to GUM clinics and funding for sex education is being cut, people are looking elsewhere. If that need isn’t met, people will find answers online. And this is where, in many cases, myths and misinformation are perpetuated. It’s a vicious cycle.”
The Vagina Museum is an advocate for sex workers’ rights and by no means porn-negative. However, Creed concedes that a situation where young people are obtaining their sex education from porn is hardly ideal.
“It’s the free, hardcore pornography that’s two or three clicks away that is the problem. It’s not representative, and it perpetuates myths around what is appropriate sexual activity.”
Engaging with a wide audience
Creed advocates passionately for attracting young, cis men into the museum. She explains:
“We’ve had a great uptake. For example, lads walking around town on a day out who come in thinking it will be hilarious. But quite often they will come back and start asking questions – often in what people might deem an inappropriate way: ‘What hole am I looking for?’”
Creed says that the Vagina Museum uses this as the basis for engagement.
“They are actually genuinely asking questions. And we would infinitely rather that they came in using inappropriate terminology than that they don’t come in at all. We are then able to say, ‘Look: you would use this word instead of this word, and here’s an anatomical diagram.’”
“We will then talk to them. They will quite often stay for an hour or so, and at the end, they will say: ‘You know, I never knew any of this’. Sometimes they will ask us questions like, ‘Would women find it attractive if I knew what all this was?’
“Because they don’t know. And the fear of not knowing, or of being deemed inappropriate for asking is leading to silence. That’s where the anger and aggression, the sexual slurs, calling women and people with vaginas terrible names, comes from. It is ignorance perpetuating toxic masculinity. So we have to engage everybody.
Normalising the conversation
“Since we’ve been open, we’ve had everybody come in,” says Creed. “From parents coming in with their toddlers wanting to normalise these conversations from a young age, right the way through to, people who come in and say, ‘I have had a vagina for 70 years, and I didn’t know half of this stuff.’”
Many of the museum’s advocates are fathers who didn’t have access to similar information when they were ten or eleven but want their own children to do so.
The Vagina Museum has a very important mission and message to impart, yet is doing it in a way that avoids being off-puttingly intense. There also is a lot of humour in the interpretation.
The Vagina Museum engages with humour
Creed says: “We engage with humour because humour diffuses situations.
“There will always be people that walk over the threshold and are petrified. Either they have a vagina and are embarrassed that they know so little about it. Or they will be partners or loved ones or friends who don’t have a vagina. Those people may feel this is not their space, and like it may be inappropriate for them to be here.
We engage with humour because humour diffuses situations…it makes everybody more relaxed
“Engaging with humour diffuses those situations. It might not remove the discomfort completely, but it makes everybody more relaxed.
“We have people disguise their nerves or awkwardness by coming at us with humour, too. For instance, ‘Oh, are you closed each month for a week?’ or, ‘I was going to ring the doorbell, but I couldn’t find it.’
“We’ll laugh and engage with them, then ask, ‘What prompted your visit today?’ Eight times out of ten there will be a genuine question. What they often expect, what they’re even potentially hoping for, is that they’ll be asked to leave. Or given an excuse to leave. But we just groan, say ‘Well, that’s only the 8 millionth time I’ve heard that one,’ and then we can move on because they’re engaged.”
A diverse audience
Camden Market affords a varied, diverse audience.
Creed says: “The Vagina Museum is very lucky to be at a destination point for tourists on their Camden Lock tour of London. We’ve had people from Namibia, South Africa, America, Brazil, China, Taiwan, the whole of Europe.”
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“It’s an incredibly diverse audience. We also get dedicated visits from people from all over the UK. People who have been following our narrative, and are excited. We even had people from America who flew over for our opening weekend.
“But what it has shown is the diversity in sex education around the world,” she says. “We have quite a lot of people coming in and saying, ‘Well, this is great, but why is it so needed? Surely you learn all this in school?’ And we say: ‘No. In the UK, it’s very disparate. Some schools are great; others don’t tell you anything at all.’
Get crafty & join us for a virtual family friendly bunting making workshop with a difference. Learn about this hushed up body part while making bunting! It’s great way to introduce kids to the topic of vulvas and vaginas! Sat 18 July, 11am. Book here: https://t.co/2ldB3HG5ph pic.twitter.com/hZb5sSWxmA
— Vagina Museum (@vagina_museum) July 4, 2020
“I’ve discovered in one-on-one conversations that quite a lot of European countries are much more forward-thinking. Spain, Latvia, Estonia, the Netherlands, of course. And then places like Russia, Poland, certain parts of the US, are less so.
“There is nowhere out there creating a mutual benchmark for learning about gynaecological anatomy and the anatomical rights around it. Hopefully, the Vagina Museum can become that.”
What is next for the Vagina Museum?
In terms of the future, the Vagina Museum intends to move within the next three to five years to a permanent location. Currently, it has a two-year lease in Camden.
“To get a permanent location we have to show our product,” says Creed. “So the idea is to evaluate, evaluate, evaluate, showcase as many different forms of content as we can, and then obtain some capital project funding for a permanent location, probably in London.
“We have already had requests to take exhibitions around the world, and around the UK. So, we will be looking at how we can best facilitate that. We are currently just a team of three, so we are also looking at how we can grow sustainably. Like any start-up business, we need to ensure our longevity.
“But the support and the positive feedback so far has been overwhelming.”
The Vagina Museum and COVID-19
This support will come in handy given the current situation. While restrictions are beginning to be lifted and museums across the UK are preparing to open their doors once more from July, the sector as a whole has been hit hard by COVID-19. Many, including the Vagina Museum, have set up fundraising campaigns in order to generate much-needed revenue during the coronavirus crisis.
We’re now selling face masks!! Better get on them quick because it was only a limited run to test the designs. Check out all the new stock we’ve got here: https://t.co/AwDzpH7a6J pic.twitter.com/zp7E2mg58b
— Vagina Museum (@vagina_museum) June 17, 2020
On the Vagina Museum’s own crowdfunding page, it says, “In a time of great uncertainty, one thing is certain: you can bet your fanny we’re planning on reopening as soon as it is safe to do so.”
All images kind courtesy of the Vagina Museum. Background image credit Angus Young.