Rebecca Raven discusses how museums are making menstruation more visible, through both collections and activism
As someone who has had a period for the last 10 years, every month follows a very similar trajectory; I worry my friends all secretly hate me, I cry at things I wouldn’t normally bat an eye lid at, I crave chocolate digestives and ah, finally, my womb lining sheds. But the last couple of years have been a bit different for periods, especially in our museums. Periods do not stop for pandemics, and neither does the work museums have been conducting behind the scenes as well as out in our galleries into reinterpreting, putting on display, and generally TALKING about periods.
As restrictions eased in England, and museums began to open up again, I visited the Vagina Museum’s eagerly awaited exhibition ‘Periods: A Brief History’. The first museum to dedicate an entire exhibition to menstruation, the Vagina Museum only opened its doors in 2019 and have already done a lot more than most nationals in terms of talking about an experience that roughly half the population of the world go through every single month.
While behind the scenes collecting of period products has been going on for a couple of years in museums like the Science Museum and the V&A, the Vagina Museum dusted off its 50-year-old sanitary belts and infamous giant glittery tampons to walk visitors through a chronological account of period activism, advertisements, and actual objects, ending in a direct call to action that other museums have often been shy about asking of their assumed blasé audiences. A donation box for Tricky Period, a charity that provides period products to people experiencing homelessness and poverty, visibly sits on the front desk as soon as you walk into the museum and sets the tone for the exhibition; this exhibition is making an actual impact in the community by supporting charities, educating visitors and providing people with products which they otherwise struggle to afford. Because what is the point of talking about periods in museums if people can’t afford to leave the house to come see it in the first place?
The Vagina Museum isn’t the first to work with the grassroots group Tricky Period. One museum that is fighting period poverty on its own doorstep is Norfolk Museums, which offers free period products across all ten of its sites (Norfolk County Council 2021). Not only does it provide free products through the Tricky Period scheme, but staff and visitors have begun to donate products themselves as well, clearly inspired by this community cohesion to support others who struggle every month.
As well as seeking to make a change in the future through product donations, the Vagina Museum’s exhibition explores periods of the past covering a time period from the Ancient Greeks right up to the 21st century. Mainly compromising text dense display boards with a couple of objects scattered within, this approach would never work in most museums, but every single visitor that I saw clearly visited with this in mind, and each board had a cluster of avid readers gathered around it. Perhaps this is because no other museum has such well researched and developed information about periods on offer that people are willing to stand and read each display. With much more of an emphasis on learning and education rather than on a collection, the Vagina Museum did what it does best, and inspired and engaged visitors with stories of all things gynaecological.
While most museums do not have the budget or the space (or perhaps the impetus) to dedicate a whole exhibition to periods, many other museums are also considering how to represent menstruation in their institutions too.
In 2018, the Science Museum launched their Menstruation Collecting Project in order to bring its obstetrics, gynaecology and contraception collection up to date, and to capture a snapshot of what period products were available to contemporary menstruators. The last time menstruation related objects were collected was the 1980s. Over two years, around 40 period adjacent objects were acquired including products such as numerous applicator and non-applicator tampons, a bottle of Boots Women’s Health Evening Primrose Oil, two menstrual cups and two pairs of period pants. The rationale behind this project was to modernise the Science Museum’s medical collections, as well as coincide with the cultural, political and social movements surrounding menstruation such as the push to abolish the period tax and more charities working to tackle period poverty.
Not just a priority in medical museums, but across the road in South Kensington, the V&A collected a Tampax cup as part of its rapid response collecting project in response to such a large producer of disposable period products releasing a reusable alternative (Power 2019). This emphasises the period product as an item of design as well as medical material. However, like at the Science Museum, emphasis is placed on collecting the medicalised material aspects of periods, which include the commercial products we use to deal with this ‘inconvenient’ and traditionally ‘feminine’ health concern.
Of course, museums have to collect STUFF, otherwise visiting flashy exhibitions and galleries would get boring very quickly. Saying that, with an issue that is so deeply social as well as an actual bodily function, the Vagina Museum made an incredible effort to consider and include many different mediums of periods. One example is a TV screen in the exhibition displaying footage from 2016 of Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui telling a broadcaster that she was tired because of her period (Philips 2016).
Following in the footsteps of the Vagina Museum’s call to action at the end of its exhibition, I’m going to end this article by considering what medical museums should be doing in the future. Firstly, the collection of menstruation culture should not be a sporadic, box-ticking exercise. Museums should continually consider and collect menstruation culture as it develops such as apps like Clue, products like CBD infused tampons and books that teach children about puberty. Secondly, these gynaecological collections should be more inclusive to everybody who experiences periods by including trans and non-binary stories. And finally, to make sure that people can actually come to see our collections, period orientated or otherwise, free period products should be provided in all toilets.
Rebecca Raven is an Assistant Curator at the Science Museum. Her work focuses on engaging audiences with stored collections, as well as a special interest in menstruation. You can find her on Twitter @rebeccalraven.
Norfolk County Council, 2021. “Tricky Period & Toiletries to Go”. Accessed August 5, 2021. https://www.norfolk.gov.uk/libraries-local-history-and-archives/libraries/library-services/health-and-wellbeing/the-tricky-period
Philips, Tom. 2016. “’It’s because I had my period’: swimmer Fu Yuanhui praised for breaking taboo.” The Guardian, August 16 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/aug/16/chinese-swimmer-fu-yuanhui-praised-for-breaking-periods-taboo
Power, Alice. 2019. “Rapid Response Collecting: the Tampax Cup”, V&A Blog, Accessed July 30, 2021. https://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/museum-life/rapid-response-collecting-the-tampax-cup