Inside the winding alleyways of London’s Camden Market, past walls of combat boots, money exchanges and bustling food vendors, a small white sign announces the presence of the complex’s newest tenant: the Vagina Museum.
On Saturday, during its grand opening, the humble brick space — dedicated to understanding and appreciating the vagina, vulva and gynecological anatomy — was packed, mostly with women but from all generations. I heard visitors exchange confessions like “I didn’t know what a period was until I had one” and “I used to think that all vulvas look the same.” Topics of discussion that are often reduced to hushed tones in public spaces, if they are brought up at all, were thrown around with ease and enthusiasm.
“It’s almost like there’s an embargo in society around having very open, frank, honest and educational conversations around vaginas,” said Marissa Conway, 30, who is a founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy and who attended the opening. “I didn’t expect to have a visceral reaction of gratitude, but there’s an element of relief that we can talk about this.”
The museum is the first of its kind, an answer of sorts to Iceland’s Phallological Museum. With nearly 300 penises and penile parts from local animals, the specimen-rich institution ranks among Reykjavik’s top tourist attractions. While this monument to male genitalia is in many ways an orthodox museum that revolves around a permanent collection of “marvels,” the Vagina Museum is not. Like the city’s Migration Museum, which is focused on the country’s immigrants and refugees, and the Museum of Transology, which purports to be the largest collection dedicated to the lives of transgender people, the Vagina Museum is an institution whose mission is driven by social justice and public health initiatives.
Those expecting to see ancient fertility sculptures, medieval chastity belts or Victorian-era vibrators on display should know that the young, crowd-funded venture includes no such artifacts. At the Vagina Museum, visitors will discover informational posters and sculptures, a small shop with vaginally themed products, and an events calendar that includes a dinner for Trans Day of Remembrance and “Cliterature” (book club) meetings.
“It was much smaller than I anticipated, which was disappointing,” said Seren Mehmet, 28, a technical recruiter at Amazon. “I wanted to see more vaginas!”
The museum has secured a two-year lease on its Camden Market lot, but after that, there are plans for expansion. “The ultimate goal is to build a permanent museum, but that takes a lot of time and resources. This is like our starter home,” said the museum’s founder and director, Florence Schechter, in a phone interview before the opening. The debut show, “Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them,” is intentionally general and instructive. “I think it’s especially useful for younger people, because most of the time we have to figure this stuff out ourselves,” said Jade Dagwell Douglas, 22, who is a student in London.
“The anatomy has such complex politics around it, that we found it was best to first engage people through what they know, so we can teach them things they don’t know,” said Sarah Creed, the museum’s curator. “Menstruation, cleanliness, sexual activity and contraception are things that a majority of people have discussed in some format, or experienced in some way.” The exhibit addresses all of those topics.
“We can talk about cold, hard facts all we want, but that’s not going to change people’s minds. It’s all about unpacking social constructs and changing perspective through engagement,” Creed said.
Charlotte Wilcox, who illustrated the posters in the exhibit, said it was her job to “be as inclusive as possible” in bringing these myths to life. Rini Jones, 25, a policy and advocacy adviser in London, was “pleasantly surprised” by the exhibit. “I was really skeptical of the show as an activist, queer woman and woman of color,” she said. “There’s a really pervasive and unhelpful equation of women’s rights with often exclusively pink and, by association, white vaginas, in a way that is really trivializing and exclusionary.”
Despite outraging some trolls, team members say they have been pleasantly surprised by the Vagina Museum’s reception. Their biggest challenges are on the internet, where their content is often censored for violating community guidelines.
“It’s not a human problem as much as it is an issue with algorithms, which are set to assume anything with the world vagina in it is adult content or porn,” said Zoe Williams, the museum’s development and marketing manager. “Our emails go to spam and our online ads get rejected, and it’s all because of stigma,” Schechter added. “We’ve had to rely on organic reach.”
My most pressing memory of the visit is not the information gleaned but rather how comfortable I felt in the space. It’s evident the Vagina Museum is striving to make male, transgender and intersex visitors feel just as welcome and included. The word “woman" is used sparingly in wall text, and “Muff Busters” eagerly states that a vagina does not a woman make. One of its central messages is that dismantling gynecological taboos is not a gendered issue.
“This is everyone’s dialogue,” Creed said. “By segregating the issue, we only perpetuate it.”
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