The role of women on display
by Rebecca Vicary-Smith
Within the World Cultures Gallery there are many different types of craft presented, but the processes behind them are less obvious. Specifically, the role of women in these production processes. Many indigenous cultures are patriarchies (societies in which men hold power) and therefore the prestigious items are generally made and used by men. These also happen to be the items that are on display in most museums, with the RAMM being no exception. This leads to some absence of women and their roles in society in museums and this has also occurred in the older displays within the World Cultures gallery.
One such area is textiles. With examples from all over the world, it would be expected for there to be some discussion of the manufacturing processes to be present. The vertical loom and horizontal loom are often used specifically by the different sexes, with this being termed ‘gender-based production’. The horizontal loom is often used by women, in the production of general materials and those used for everyday clothing within the family. The vertical loom, on the other hand is mainly used by men. These looms produce more privileged articles of clothing or material used for specific events. There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule. For example, in Ijebu, Nigeria, women currently weave prestige cloths on an upright loom which was originally and exclusively conducted by men. Another Nigerian example comes from the Ijo area where narrow loom weaving has been adopted by women, which was introduced by men.
There needs to be some consideration of the different roles that men and women play in the production of textiles as it is a strong aspect in the textiles themselves. This segregation of men and women in textiles is not limited to Africa but is present in many Central and North American groups. Within the gallery there is some mention of this within the North America section but no more than a simple acknowledgement of women and children doing the weaving within the group.
There is something to consider with the collection of these textiles and objects themselves. The objects found within the gallery were typically brought back by men who were often missionaries, traders or in the military. However, this is not the case exclusively. Many textiles from Africa were collected by women, especially the women of missionaries and teachers out in Africa. There is a mention of Sheila Unwin who collected beads whilst she was in Egypt, Tanzania and Kenya, although this is the only mention of female collectors in the gallery. There is a case dedicated to trader Richard E. Dennett and there are panels of collectors throughout the Pacific displays, but not yet in Africa. This should be addressed in the new displays, especially as donors such as Nancy Stanfield, Jane Barbour and Susan Bosence. These women played significant roles in the collecting of various textiles e.g. adire cloth, and in the knowledge of the techniques used to produce them.
Beads and bead-making are also an area which have some strict ‘gender’ roles within their craft production and in their use. There is some mention already within the gallery about their use within society and by whom they are used. For example, in the use of beaded armlets by young women to enhance their beauty. However, there is little to no mention of how these beads produced and the gender roles involved in this production. The production of lantana beads is one area where the production of such beads is one of distinct gender roles. However, the production of beads in general is a male-dominated profession throughout Africa. There are some cases of female involvement in this process but not a huge number.
Within the coming displays on Africa, there are some plans to include masquerades and other ceremonial and performance pieces. There are distinct roles for men and women within masquerades. Men are the only sex to perform within masquerades and often the only people allowed to create the costumes used are men as well. This is because the masquerade is used in many different contexts, but including invoking and representing spirits. This is something that only men are strong enough to endure and present. However, there should be some mention of this lack of involvement even though women and female forms are often expressed during these masquerades e.g. the Yoruba gelede.
The older displays do, to a point, neglect women’s roles within various societies. However, I am confident that the new displays will employ the same ideals as the Discovering Worlds Pacific displays and accentuate women’s roles.