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How Art, Activism and Feminist Agency Shaped a Ground-breaking Museum

The first Glasgow Women’s Library premises, Hill Street, Garnethill , Glasgow 1991. Photo, Glasgow Women’s Library

Adele Patrick on how art, activism and feminist agency has shaped the first quarter century of the ground-breaking Glasgow Women’s Library

About the author: Adele Patrick is Lifelong Learning and Creative Development Manager at Glasgow Women’s Library. Adele has been involved in Glasgow Women’s Library since its launch, first as a volunteer, then as the Lifelong Learning Development Worker. She now manages Lifelong Learning and is also responsible for the Creative Development of the organisation. Adele manages the Learning and development teams at GWL and works with the Strategic Development Manager and the board developing new, enterprising and cultural strands of the Library’s work. Adele is particularly interested in the creative and imaginative development of the Library as a unique; arts influenced provision that (re)defines through environment, learning approaches, programmes and resources what a library, archive and museum can be. Adele spoke at Museum Ideas 2017. 

Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) is the sole Accredited museum of women’s history in the UK. 2016 marked 25 years of development and growth from a grass-roots project into a unique, multi-award winning Recognised Collection of National Significance. This milestone offered the GWL team opportunities through talks, programming and strategic planning for reflection on the history of the organisation. This evaluation process took place in the context of unprecedented public approbation and press interest. During our anniversary year we broke through a glass ceiling with coverage in both the Guardian Women’s Page (Brooks, 2016) and BBC Radio Four’s Women’s Hour for the first time (on 3 March) and in the two years leading up to our anniversary we received sixteen awards recognising our achievements for our learning programmes (including the Women’s History Network Community History prize) and our refurbished premises (including Arts Venue of the Year in Scotland). Alongside an upsurge in interest in our collections there has been a steady historicisation of our work by cultural commentators and researchers (1).

Two years on, with visitor numbers increasing and our profile steadily expanding the survival of our museum against the odds, grown from the grass roots in the most unpromising soil seems all the more remarkable. GWL launched during the white heat of the feminist backlash in Britain, when equalities initiatives in major UK cities were being eroded. The Thatcher regime (no friend to feminist activism) had been displaced only one year before. The haul was a long one; never having had revenue funding or a stock or acquisition budget GWL employed its first Librarian a full decade after launching and its first (part-time) museum professional in 2015. Not being in London (or England) has arguably made recognition of GWL’s small but steady ‘museological revolution’ slow to be registered. For some it is unfathomable why a feminist women’s library, archive and museum sprang up in Glasgow in 1990 and how it has grown despite turbulent political waters (2).

“Embedding equality at the heart of our museum resource has had a critical role to play both in forging the singularity of the organisation and its sustainability”

Feminist thinking and methods have shaped the development of what is now a landmark museum of its kind in the UK and embedding equality at the heart of our museum resource has had a critical role to play both in forging the singularity of the organisation and its sustainability. Risk-taking and being brave, (characteristic of feminist endeavours past and present) are evident across GWL’s strategy and operations, collecting, governance, curatorship and programming.

GWL’s origin story is one of resistance and courage; of ongoing discussion, change and collaborative working that has resulted in a unique women’s museum. This labour was undertaken, at least in its early years in a relatively hostile cultural and political context, unpaid, without funding and with little or no professional support.

Women in Profile (WIP), the grass roots organisation out of which GWL grew, had been activated as an act of resistance to the ‘masculinized’ culture of Glasgow in the mid 1980s. In the lead in to Glasgow becoming European Capital of Culture, 1990 WIP was forged by women who were convinced that unless we acted, the city’s culture, past and present, would be experienced (by local and international audiences) as overwhelmingly represented and created by white men. It was evident that Glasgow’s guardians of culture and the local press at the time were keen to promote and to a degree manufacture a vanguard of visual arts mavericks as standard bearers of the regenerating city. Significantly for us these artists were being dubbed ‘The New Glasgow Boys’ (a school recognised and collected by Glasgow Museums). “Boys” also dominated in the fields of literature, comedy, film, architecture, politics and media.

WIP organised a festival of women’s culture, an attempt to unearth women’s historic contributions and spotlight contemporary women creatives, problematising the canon of Boys and attempting a more plural representation of Glasgow. In the process WIP struck a wellspring of support, galvanizing artists and writers, participants and audiences interested in claiming space for women. Its organising efforts culminated in exhibitions, film screenings, an international arts conference and a landmark public art project, Castlemilk Womanhouse. The materials generated and gathered in the process became the first records and artefacts collected by GWL, launched from the crucible of WIP in September 1991.

GWL’s origins statements were polemical and unequivocally feminist. A month after the launch I had appeared in the local newspaper declaring:

“We are trying to embarrass the politicians into recognising that whilst millions are spent every year maintaining and encouraging a culture which has always been dominated by masculine values the female side of our culture is still side-lined or ignored altogether.” (Ann Coltart, Glasgow Herald, 29 October, 1991)

As a lone resource of its kind in Scotland, links to European sister organisations were critical to us. Many international sister organisations were charting radical pathways in response to the exclusionary approaches of the mainstream museum, archive and library sectors (3). The discovery of these idiosyncratic, welcoming European arts-focused and artist-run initiatives (and the Lesbian Herstories Archive in New York) crystallized our desire to create a women’s resource in Glasgow. Seeing collections being grown in flats, warehouses, brownstones and shop fronts was illuminating and made our ambitions seem achievable.

“Building a resource from scratch helped to define and root values of collective working and responsibility, diversity and enterprise”

On reflection, building a resource from scratch (generating community ownership and independence, with a sense of feminist entrepreneurship and having a radically “open” access) helped to define and root values of collective working and responsibility, diversity and enterprise from the outset. GWL grew, and grows through accretions of ideas and iterations of a vision of what a women’s cultural and collections resource might be (as well as resistance to the inequalities still perceived to be reflected in mainstream museum culture) from thousands of volunteers, users, donors and (from 2000) paid staff and Board members.

In 1998 at the Know How conference, Amsterdam, we met women’s libraries, archives and museums from around the world. Inspired in particular by Akshara, women’s library in Mumbai and the European Women’s Thesaurus collective, we took the bold step of developing a feminist classification system for our reference and lending library. Feminist critiques of Dewey and the Library of Congress had been published since the early 1970s and we felt there were compelling reasons to develop an accessible feminist approach to the scheme notwithstanding pressures on us from library professionals and academics to take the more conventional route. The effectiveness of the resulting ‘activist’ system for users and its value in opening up discussion and debate about collections and access and has been revelatory leading us to explore the ways we might synergise our museum, archive and library catalogues for users and volunteers’ benefit, weighing the caution of external colleagues with, again how best to enable engagement.

“These artefacts and publications may have had little value to the mainstream museum sector of the time but for some its contents clearly had a mythic, talismanic status”

Another bold watershed move was the decision to offer a home (following threats of closure) to the London based national Lesbian Archive and Information Centre (LAIC) in 1995. The huge volume of the collection (it still represents around a third of our entire holdings) was daunting for an organisation without any archive or museum resources (we had an attic floor in a rented building). The move also necessitated a kind of institutional coming out. Making visible women’s hidden histories was a mainstreamed activity in GWL but the political context was febrile. Debates raged over Section 28 (repealed first in Scotland but not until 2000) generating much public and press hostility. Local authorities were exercised about potential legal action arising from the “promotion of homosexuality” in any expressions of support and we faced challenges from other quarters. Some of the guardians of LAIC in London were wary of its move from the capital (“were there enough or indeed any lesbians in Scotland?”) Bravery was required from both parties. My first appreciation of the potential and necessity for community curatorship dates from the arrival of the Pantechnicon lorry delivering the LAIC. I witnessed older lesbian volunteers moved to tears as they unpacked books, badges and T-shirts. These artefacts and publications may have had little value to the mainstream museum sector of the time but for some its contents clearly had a mythic, talismanic status. This palpable demonstration of the significance of the collection contributed a freight of meaning and responsibility that we have tried to honour. Notwithstanding concerns about widespread publicly expressed homophobia, the first funded project GWL connecting our collections with users was a young lesbian peer education and support project LiPS (Lesbians in Peer Support) launched in 2000 that used the room where the LAIC collection was housed as the hub for a six year programme of activities.

Foyer, Glasgow Women’s Library, visitor participation during ‘Sex in the Women’s Library’ season, 2015

Throughout the years we have continued to actively collect, share and foreground “difficult” topics from sex, sexuality and sectarianism to racism and hate crime. We have encouraged the widest range of engagement with our fascinating, complex and sometimes contentious collections: from being a crucible for activism (we were the proud founding home for the Glasgow cohort of the Lesbian Avengers in 1995) to fostering new works by artists and writers on domestic abuse, shame and rape.

As we have gained more knowledge of the library, archive and museums sectors we have come to appreciate the rarity of the hybridity of GWL’s users. Unlike many institutions with a different origin story, from the outset our space was invested in, visited by and claimed by people from all backgrounds (like ourselves) who for very different reasons articulated a need for or wanted a women’s library, archive and, or museum resource. In essence, we were the community, the hard to reach, the ‘easy to ignore’. GWL developed reflecting in its collections and in its physical ambience this heterogeneous user base.

The heterogeneity of the collection (we had no collecting policy for our first two decades) has in fact become one of its strengths enabling a multitude of pathways to access it and begin undertaking research and for making the museum meaningful to the widest range of users.

“It has taken considerable nerve to maintain the collection in precarious premises and to be confident that our space will survive, improve and grow”

It has taken considerable nerve to maintain the collection in precarious premises and to be confident that our space will survive, improve and grow. In anticipation of the more active use of the collection in our new home in Bridgeton (the first that offered us exhibition resources) we launched the Badges of Honour project in 2014. It can be seen a typically participatory model of working at GWL. Badges are one of the strengths of our collection; we have thousands that map the equalities and feminist campaigning histories of women and their involvement in popular music, fandom, leisure activities, political parties and trade unions. This project was also one of the first at GWL to use social media and create digital resources. Badges have become catalysts for people, including those not confident in literacy or who do not have English as first language, to talk about their lives and the issues that are important to them and consequently we regularly use them in learning programmes.

Many of our donors, including those featured in our Badges of Honour exhibition, are not regular visitors to the national or mainstream museums. They may not be aware of the historical value of their collections, or are aware but want to ensure that the items they give us are continually used, are accessible and, or add to the multifaceted picture of women’s histories and lives that we are building. The visibility of women, their lives, histories and contributions to culture are of the utmost importance to us in terms of collections and learning. It is critical to us as we build the resource, that as many women are involved in the process as possible.

In linked work that foregrounds women’s hidden voices, GWL has developed innovative projects involving partnership working with artists and writers, young pop-up film programmers and graphic designers, we have published books, pamphlets and online resources, such us Sex in the Women’s Library, (2014), Mixing the Colours (2015) and In Her Shoes, Glasgow Women’s Library, (2016) highlighting the collections and women’s memories and experiences to ensure silenced voices are brought into the discussions around sex, sectarianism and hate crime respectively.

21 Revolutions, exhibition (detail of works by Claire Barclay, Ruth Barker and Helen de Main) Glasgow Women’s Library, at The Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh 2013

WIP and GWL had and still have creatives at the helm of the organisation. Somewhat unusually for museum managers, both Sue John and I, the strategic leads for the organisation, are art school trained. Our Board currently includes an architect and a published writer and the whole team is encouraged and committed to work innovatively and imaginatively and to continually consciously work to expand the cultural capital of those that use our resource as well as the creative horizons of our own staff team and Board. We have collaborated with and commissioned hundreds of artists, filmmakers, musicians, visual communicators and writers since our inception. We have benefitted from the agency of creatives working with and bringing their perspectives to bear on the organisation and its collections. An example of this, 21 Revolutions is an award-winning project involving exhibitions, a publication (2014) podcasts, an events programme and a collection of prints (a significant income generator, the prints have been acquired for private and public collections). 21 Revolutions involved the commissioning of 21 new artworks and 21 new works created by writers inspired by our collections to mark our 21st birthday. Artists included three Turner Prize nominees and amongst the participating writers, Jackie Kay, AL Kennedy, Muriel Gray, Louise Welsh and Janice Galloway as well as a raft of emerging talent.

Residencies such as the Artist in Residence for the Women of Glasgow in 2014 (an art activist residency that involved Mandy Mackintosh mining and creating new public artworks inspired by the Zero Tolerance archive at GWL), and our current exhibition Our Red Aunt by Auckland based artist Fiona Jack synthesise three key components, that have become a regular productive blueprint for collaborations: GWL collections + public engagement + artists agency.

March of Women performance, Glasgow Green, 2015, a project by Glasgow Women’s Library and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Photo by Chris James

Following relocation to Bridgeton, an area figuring in the worst 5% of areas experiencing deprivation in Scotland, into our first permanent home, we again chose to mark this milestone through work with creative. The March of Women project (2015) became a triumphant declaration of survival and our arrival in a new neighbourhood. This collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) involved complex processes of engagement leading to a large-scale public performance/artwork. March of Women enabled us to forge a connection between the collection, participants (in par¬ticular local women and their families) choreographers, professional actors, filmmakers, photographers and composers and our collections and learning teams working over the course of a year with over 100 women in the adaption and re-enactment of Cicely Hamilton’s suffragette play, A Pageant of Great Women. The agency of creatives ensured our first major project in our new home, sent a visually arresting and unequivocal message about GWL and our work, rooted in the campaigning histories of women (in Glasgow and globally) participatory, active within and beyond our building, (re)claiming the space and streets around it. This was an act of bravery on a range of registers not least as banners and sashes paraded in the streets were freighted with significance in a neighbourhood still closely associated with sectarian division.

In the period since GWL’s inception, academic institutions (such as RCS) and galleries and museums, have been increasingly moving from a focus on object care and preservation of a canon to widening access and dialogue with non-academic partners. Conversely GWL has grown from an inherent embodying of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI, an aspect of our work that has developed and strengthened) to addressing the challenges of collections management, conservation and professionalization.

Since 2016 Our Equality in Progress programme has been active supporting radical transformations in services and resources to enable thoroughgoing institutional and attitudinal change, championing of the widest engagement and for equalities to be embedded in sustainable ways. We confidently and passionately make the case for the value of equality in areas as including governance, communications and programming. The sometimes painful but profound learning that has taken place at GWL over the past 27 years is now impacting on the wider cultural landscape at strategic and operational levels.

At this milestone, Women’s archives and museum collections in the UK can be summarised as being either hosted by academic institutions (where they are relatively safe but may be subject to access restrictions, lack of community ownership or regime change) or are run as community resources by volunteers with limited or insecure funding (and where collections are relatively at risk). In contrast, GWL offers a distinct model of sustained and steady growth, independence and resilience with radically accessible collections and with its activist agency still foregrounded.

Mandy McIntosh, Abuse is Ancient/Sedna, billboard project, part of the Artist in Residence for the Women of Glasgow project for Glasgow Women’s Library, 2015. Photo Alan Dimmick

As I write, the political, financial and cultural landscape looks increasingly uncertain. In Scotland and the UK, as in Europe and in wider global contexts, there has been a period of volatility and threats to equalities. Unlike some sister organisations in London, Manchester and other British cities that were to thrive during the Second Wave of feminism, GWL did not spring from revenue support from a council Equalities Budget. GWL has had to survive and thrive through the kind of feminist entrepreneurship typified by the First Wave, fusing campaigning nous with creative flair, developing enterprising ways to get the message of women’s history and equality to the widest range of people with the aim of affecting change. In its 25th year, GWL is experiencing a paradoxical golden period at a time of challenges to feminism in the wider world. This most recent feminist backlash coincides with/ is fuelled by a huge ratcheting up of interest in feminism amongst young women. GWL has become an important valued resource for them and for the wider communities of young people in Glasgow and beyond whilst we ben¬efit from the fresh perspectives and energy they bring.

Since our first connection with European sister organisations we have continued to benefit from links with women’s libraries, archives and museums internationally and see this as increasingly important in combatting the threats to our shared aims to ensure women can gain access to the information they require to make positive life choices. We take inspiration from sister organisations such as Kvindemuseet, Aarhus and models of working such as the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project, Massachusetts, that illustrate the ways sister organizations “integrate knowledge of women’s past into campaigns for change today.” (Smith College Libraries, Smith College Libraries, Sophia Smith Collection)

“We aim to keep the collections as accessible as possible, for our stores to be increasingly seen by communities as depositaries for them to contribute to and be active in as interpreters and curators”

As an independent institution constructed through the trust and investment of diverse women we are not complacent around a possible resurgence of “Boy” culture, we aim to be sustainable, keep the collections as accessible as possible, for our stores to be increasingly seen by communities as depositaries for them to contribute to and use and be active in as interpreters and curators.

The Third/Fourth Waves of feminism have engendered academic and critical attention for GWL and have brought increasing numbers of people of all back-grounds to our door to research, volunteer, use and support the Library. This reflects the widespread and growing interest in the records of activism. There is an allure for some in the objects and artefacts of past struggles but as Eichhorn asserts,

“Rather than approach the archive as a site of preservation (a place to house traces of the past) feminist scholars, cultural workers, librarians, and archivists born during and after the rise of the second wave feminist movement are seizing the archive as an apparatus to legitimize new forms of knowledge and cultural production in an economically and politically precarious present.” (Kate Eichhorn, The Archival Turn in Feminism: outrage in order. (2013) Philadelphia, Temple University Press. (p4)

GWL is not an anachronism, we are personally and professionally cognoscent of the current waves of political unrest, mass demonstrations and political debates articulated around gender. If the heightened politicisation, prevalence and importance of equalities debates across the world are to be heeded, women’s museums, archives and libraries are critically important resources. We acknowledge the responsibility we have to provide free resources for women who may be surviving discrimination, need a safe space to connect with others, gain knowledge and build alliances. The collections themselves are ballast to our work and to the turbulence experienced in the wider communities with whom we work. They provide evidence of hard won battles to gain freedom and equality and are an antidote to ‘post truth’ rhetoric.

Notwithstanding the uncharted waters that lay ahead, we are looking forward with undiminished commitment to the next quarter decade noting that our claimed space is being seen as a new model of what a (feminist) museum could be (Elizabeth Mills, Museums Journal, November 2016). We are buoyed by the support of our users, sister organisations and acknowledge that in the wider community of museums we find ourselves working in a context where there is evidence of increased openness to learn from intersectional feminist approaches and a will to embrace equality beyond the tick box.

Adele Patrick
Lifelong Learning and Creative Development Manager
Glasgow Women’s Library

  1. Sarah Lowndes was amongst the first to contextualize GWL and its precursor Women in Profile (WIP)’s role in both a trajectory of feminist art history and our place within the context of a regenerating Glasgow Sarah Lowndes, Social Sculpture, Art, Performance and Music in Glasgow, A Social History of Independent Practice, Exhibitions and Events since 1971, (Glasgow, Stopstop, 2003).
  2. For example, in the online thread following the Guardian Women’s Page article one comment states, “Wonderful! But why Glasgow?”(Brooks, ibid., online version).
  3. We were influenced in particular by Kunstlerinnen Archiv, Nurnberg and Bildwechsel, Hamburg (the former is now incorporated into the latter). Frauen-Museum in Bonn, Das Verborgene Museum and Spinnboden, the Lesbian Archive in Berlin.

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