An Irishman's Diary

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

Does Ireland need a museum dedicated to women? Well, a group of twentysomething females who recently graduated from Dublin universities think it does, and they’re about to take a big step towards making it a reality.

Early next month, they will stage the first in a series of “pop-up” exhibitions on the theme, starting in Trinity College. After that, the search will begin to find their Irish Women’s Museum a permanent home.

“Home” may be a loaded term, in the circumstances. The exhibition has been taking shape even as the Constitutional Convention wrestles with De Valera’s Article 41.2 and its ideas about a woman’s rightful place. But timely as it seems now, the idea for the museum was in fact sown three years ago. It happened in 2010, when Jean Sutton, a TCD law student, was on holiday in Hanoi and chanced upon a women’s museum there.

Open since 1987, its material ranged from exhibits on the “American war” (as it’s known in Vietnam) to the history of food and craft-making. Fascinated, Jean returned to Ireland thinking this country needed something similar. Since when, she and her co-conspirators have been reading up on other examples of the genre, from Washington to Australia.

The idea evolved that while an Irish women’s museum would naturally include sections on feminism and politics, it should have a much wider base than that. Things like farming and fashion design would have a place too. An element of kitsch might even be allowed. Above all, despite its fundamental seriousness, the museum would have a spirit of fun.

A Facebook debate on the subject weighed in with such suggestions for exhibits as an “Article 41.2 Creche”, comprising kitchenettes. Somebody proposed the museum have a “bold corner” – featuring Kitty O’Shea and other scandal-causing women. One of the wackier ideas was for computer game based on Queen Maeve’s Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Of course, some people – not all of them male – would question the whole point of a women’s museum. One such sceptic might be a US writer called Judith Butler, who had escaped my attention until, by a pithy coincidence, I noticed her inclusion in the Garrison Keillor Writer’s Almanac list of notable literary birthdays this weekend. Based in California, Butler is described as a “post-structuralist philosopher”, whatever that is. More generally, she is also known as “the most famous feminist philosopher in the US”. In which capacity, she has applied her post-structuralist approach to questions of gender.

Basically, she thinks people should be free to choose from the full spectrum of gender-identification traits. Any limitation is bad. Therefore, she argues, feminists have been wrong to brand women as a group sharing a set of traits, because this only reinforces the reductive, “binary” concept.

Mind you, Butler has also written the following sentence (which readers are advised not to attempt on medication or while operating machinery): “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation, brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.” Phew. That won her the 1998 prize in an annual “Bad Writing Competition” run by the journal Philosophy and Literature. So maybe, after all, there is still something to be said for structuralism, in gender and elsewhere.

Either way, Sutton and her colleagues are determined to realise their vision of a women’s museum, the opening instalment of which takes place in Trinity’s Long Room Hub from March 4th to 8th. A website – womensmuseumofireland.ie— will go live simultaneously.

After that, or before it even, they would welcome interest from long-term sponsors. And indeed from anyone with a suitable, empty premises in central Dublin, who would be interested in lending it for a good cause, or even for the tax benefits. For now, the collection remains a work in progress, and those with ideas or exhibits to contribute can still do so via info@

womensmuseumofireland.ie.

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