Harry Finley posing next to artifacts in his Museum of Menstruation, circa 1997. All photos courtesy of Harry Finley
There's a story about a couple trying to visit the Museum of Menstruation that Harry Finley likes to tell. They were English, on vacation to Washington, DC, and arranged to visit Finley's museum during their trip, probably sometime between the obligatory stop at the Smithsonian and gawking at the National Mall. But the couple never made it to the Museum of Menstruation. They later told Finley over the phone that they'd taken a taxi to the address he provided in New Carrollton, Maryland, on the fringes of Washington, DC, down the suburban, tree-lined street—but there was no museum, just a house.
Finley assured them they were in the right place: The Museum of Menstruation was his house. But they were too frightened to visit a museum inside a stranger's house, particularly when the stranger was a 50-year-old bachelor and the subject of the museum was menstruation.
Had they mustered the courage to go inside, though, Finley would have led them into his ranch home, down a narrow staircase, into the roughly 400-square-foot basement, which had now transformed into the "only museum in the world devoted exclusively to the culture of menstruation."
The museum itself, which opened in 1994 and closed abruptly in 1998, was filled with all manner of menstrual artifacts: the very first Kotex advertisement from January 1921; a collection of Tampax products dating back to the 1930s; a pink dress made almost entirely out of menstrual cups. There were female mannequin torsos strung from the ceiling, clothed in menstrual underwear and sanitary napkins. Wandering through the exhibit would be Finley's cat, Mack C. Padd.
It was the kind of place that made people squeamish, but also allowed people to open up, to talk about unmentionable things—the kind of place that, were it to reopen, should probably not exist in an old man's basement.
A sanitary apron, displayed in the Museum of Menstruation
Harry Finley is not who you would expect to run a museum about menstruation. He was born in 1942 in Long Branch, New Jersey, to the kind of normal, all-American family where menstruation was simply not a topic of discussion. His father served in the Army; his mother stayed at home to raise him along with two brothers.
While his older brother followed in their father's footsteps by attending West Point, Finley studied philosophy at Johns Hopkins, then moved to Germany to begin a career as an artist. He got a job as the art director for a German magazine, where he got into the habit of flipping through other magazines for design inspiration. It was through this exercise that he happened upon a series of advertisements for a menstrual products, which struck him as different from those in the United States. When he saw an interesting ad for menstrual products, he'd tear the page out and tuck it away somewhere.
By the time he moved back to the United States after more than a decade in Germany, he had collected menstrual products and advertisements from around the world. But it was still just a hobby—something he kept secret from his friends and family, and especially his colleagues at the National Defense University, Washington, DC's institution for high-level national security training, where he was now working as a graphic designer. It was a boring job, one of those punch-in, punch-out, retire-and-collect-your-pension kinds of gigs—which only gave him more time to work on his advertisement collection. He started visiting the Library of Congress to do research on the history of menstruation, and soon enough, his collection had ballooned to include historical information, cross-cultural comparisons, even menstrual products.
Finley didn't mean for it to become anything at first—it was just a hobby, the way some people collect Beanie Babies or Pokémon cards. But eventually, the collection became so large that he thought to himself, I've got all of this stuff. Why shouldn't there be a museum to show it off?
And so he made one. He was 51 years old.
A pair of truncated female mannequins, displaying a variety of menstrual underwear, in the Museum of Menstruation
The grand opening of the Museum of Menstruation was July 31, 1994. It was one of those characteristically hot, muggy summer weekends in Washington, DC, where even clothes feel uncomfortable, and Finley was busy dressing store-bought mannequins in menstrual underwear.
Since Finley was operating out of his own home, you had to make an appointment, and since he was still working a full-time job at the National Defense University, visits were usually restricted to the weekends. On a popular weekend, there might be 15 people down in the basement, all nervously shuffling around and nodding at the mannequins in their menstrual underwear the way people visit the MoMA and nod at art.
There were some big-name visitors (at least, big in the realm of menstrual research): The lab of the Johns Hopkins Department of Biophysics, which developed the Instead menstrual cup, paid him a visit. So did Dr. Iris Prager, the head of American education at Tambrands; Dr. Alice Dan, then president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research; and a group of Smithsonian fellows who stopped by on a Saturday morning excursion (they brought a set of unusual menstrual patents, as a gift). Among the group of fellows was Dr. Katherine Ott, who would later go on to be the curator of the medical division at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, which houses the Smithsonian's own collection of menstrual products.
A collection of Kotex advertisements, on display in the Museum of Menstruation
And then there were the visitors who had no affiliation to menstrual research, but who stopped by anyway, often guardedly, to see what the museum was all about. It was these visitors that Finley liked most: The ones who had never heard of a sanitary apron before, who had never considered how women bled in other parts of the world, who had sometimes never even spoken about their period with anyone.
More than once, Finley says a woman would tell him, "This is the first time I've ever talked to anyone else about menstruation." That, to him, was both moving and astonishing. He thought women talked about their periods all the time—I mean, what else filled the conversation during all those women's-only brunches or teenage girls' sleepovers? And to think that he—Harry Finley, this clueless guy, who didn't even have a sister or a wife or really any experience with real, live, bleeding woman in the flesh, let alone an advanced degree—was provoking that conversation? It blew his mind.
Elissa Stein, who would later go on to write Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, remembers visiting the museum with her husband. When they realized the museum was inside Finley's house, she told her husband, "I don't know if I feel comfortable about this." But before they could turn around, there was Finley, standing outside of the house and ushering them inside. So Stein and her husband parked the car and followed Harry through a door near the side of the house, down the stairs, and into the basement.
It was dark, and Stein remembers the female torsos hanging like a scene from a horror film. "I will never forget walking down the stairs and thinking, Oh my god, I'm going to die here."
When she got closer, though, Stein watched the museum unfold. The display was a little like a high school project, with sheets of paper tacked to the walls and the plastic mannequins, but the collection itself was incredible: Tambrands, the company that made Tampax, had donated over 1,000 different items from their archives, which included the most world's expansive collection of Tampax products, ranging from 1936 to the present day. A guy in Holland, who had been collecting relics from World War II, mailed Finley copies of 1940s government-produced booklets about menstruation, in Dutch and in German. A costume designer for the Folger Shakespeare Theater had created a replica menstrual apron for the museum. A man in the Midwest, who had a fetish for watching his girlfriend dress up in menstrual underwear, donated about 30 pairs when he married someone else (she didn't share his fetish, and needed to get rid of them).
"It was a treasure trove of menstrual memorabilia," Stein remembers. "He knew the chronology and the history, and he had such a wealth of material. But it was curious, because he's a man, and why is it that a man is hosting a museum of menstruation?"
The first-ever Kotex advertisement, from January 1921
Finley, of course, was no stranger to this question. For all the attention the museum got, plenty of it questioned his role in the operation. The now-defunctSassy magazine wrote a blurb about the museum, advising Finley to "stick to jock itch products, buddy." He was called a pervert on the radio, during a segment about his museum. A woman wrote him a letter which said, "May God close your horable [sic] museum."
His colleagues mostly took it in stride, though his boss asked him to please not discuss his interest in menstruation in the office, and to please not reveal his place of work during media interviews about the museum. Once, he mentioned the museum to one of his female colleagues at the National Defense University. "Yeah, I started a museum of menstruation in my house," he told her casually. She looked at him as if he had just told her Russia had declared war on the United States.
But his family did not take it well. When he told his stepmother, with whom he had been quite close, she said he was sick and a disgrace to the family. To this day, he can't talk about the museum with his brother or his sister-in-law; his step-siblings have refused to speak to him since he told them about the museum 20 years ago.
Still, it was the backlash from people who actually studied this stuff—that bothered Finley the most. He invited all sorts of people from the menstrual products industry to visit the museum; they all declined. He had attended one or two meetings at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, and "felt the hostility" from the women in the room. It was as if he was a kid who collected Monopoly money trying to hang out on Wall Street.
An except from one of Harry Finley's cartoons, responding to criticisms from women. View the full cartoon strip here
"It's a little weird to say that he actually had a museum, although that's what he calls it," says David Linton, who teaches courses about menstruation at Marymount Manhattan College and serves on the board for the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. Linton says Finley was a nice guy, but how could you take someone seriously who had never studied this stuff in a truly academic way? "He's really quite thorough in gathering all of this stuff, but he doesn't have any formal qualifications. He's an amateur collector."
Ott, the curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, shared that opinion. She recalls that "he definitely put a lot of care, research, and time into his museum," but it was also a mishmash of objects, without a real narrative to connect them—and, of course, in a space that was unconventional at best, downright creepy at worst. "He knew a lot about his objects but the larger context was missing—the kind of bigger, framing narratives that museums use to explain how collections fit into history," says Ott.
Linton, who studies representations of menstruation in society, admits that there are challenges in becoming a menstruation scholar when you are a man. But the way he sees it, Finley didn't even try.
"Look, I don't claim to be a menstruation expert. I claim to know something about the social construction of the topic," Linton explains. "I think Harry is just about Harry. He wants it to be about him."
"He's very proprietary about his stuff," says Stein. When she started putting together Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, she immediately thought of him and his collection. "I talked to Harry and I said, 'I would love to feature your collection [in my book].' He said he wasn't interested."
This floored her. Finley had always talked about how he wanted more people to see his collection, and here she was offering him a chance for the world to see it—and he said no?
"I got the sense that he was almost offended that I had the opportunity to talk about menstruation and not him," she says. "It was like it had to be all about him."
(For his part, Finley denies this. "As I recall, Elissa did not ask if I wanted to be co-author or 'feature the collection.' She asked if she could rummage—her word—through the archives to look for illustrations for her book. That turned me off.")
A self-portrait by Harry Finley, shown holding a menstrual cup and with artifacts from his museum in the background
In August of 1998, the Museum of Menstruation closed. The visits every weekend had become overwhelming; Finley suffered a coronary angioplasty and had to have a stent implanted. His family had practically disowned him because of this, and the very people who appreciated menstruation from an academic lens had rejected him. It all just became too much, and so finally, he said Enough. When people asked him if they could visit, he politely declined.
The collection remained down there for four years, mostly untouched. But then his basement started to leak, and many of the advertisements and photographs grew soggy, and he was forced to put all of them into boxes and into a storage locker.
"It broke my heart when I did it," Finley says. "I spent I don't know how many hours and how much money doing this. I took everything and I destroyed it."
On The Creators Project: An Artists Explore the Raw Beauty of Menstrual Blood
It's difficult to understand why the collection meant so much to Finley, especially because he can't quite articulate it himself. He was fascinated by the topic, sure, and he devoted many years to collecting these things—but it's clear that the museum represented something beyond a pure academic interest. On the website, he justifies his passion by saying he wanted "to do something worthwhile" and that he liked the subject. But that doesn't feel like the whole story.
To this day, he still occasionally updates the website, but even that is presented in a way that doesn't seem entirely aware of the viewer. It's a labyrinth of 3,000 some pages, each with an incomprehensible number of links per page. Some of the pages can only be accessed by clicking on a series of other pages in a specific sequence, and it's easy to find something fascinating buried in the website, and then never be able to find it again.
Some parts of the website are deeply, uncomfortably personal. On one page, called "Cutting to the chase: Another reason I started the museum," Finley describes his younger brother, Jim, who tragically died at age 21 from muscular dystrophy (his mother died five years later, "from grief"). He details his own adolescent depression, including photos of the criss-crossed scars on his arms from cutting himself. He writes about being detained in a psychiatric ward; about the time when someone poisoned and killed his cat; his own suspicion that he might have borderline personality disorder; his deep, extreme loneliness.
The page has nothing to do with menstruation. And yet it's there, almost casually, as part of the package. When he was interviewed by the Washington Post in 1995, a year after the museum opened, Finley told a reporter that his mother and brother's deaths made him "wary of marrying or having children." And so maybe, in the absence of those intimate life experiences, Finley instead turned to this deeply intimate subject, and poured his whole heart into it as a way to keep it from shattering from loneliness.
An except from one of Harry Finley's cartoons, describing the future of the museum. If he can't find a permanent space for his collection before he dies, he has willed the collection to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. View the full cartoon strip here
If Finley could, he would reopen the museum. He knows that he's still up against the menstrual taboo, but a lot has changed since 1994. People want to talk about toxic shock syndrome and free bleeding and Barbies who have periods and portraits of Donald Trump painted in menstrual blood. A congresswoman is trying to change the tampon industry. This is practically the era of the period.
And so what if the museum makes people a little uncomfortable? Finley likes to compare it to the Holocaust Museum in DC, where visitors can walk through the box cars that carried Jews to their deaths in concentration camps. There's nothing comfortable about that. Finley went there once and said he would never go back again—it was too harrowing—but he's glad he visited. It was important for him to go, just like it's important for people to learn about menstruation.
He doesn't want to give the collection to just anyone. He has requirements: The exhibit has to be permanent. It can't be a temporary collection, or a traveling collection, or something stored in archival drawers that visitors can view "on request." It should be public—a place where men, women, and children can come, free of charge, to see the collection. Preferably, it should be a freestanding building with its own café and gift shop, and ideally, there should be space for a menstrual hut in the backyard. It's not that there haven't been offers. Harvard University's Schlesinger Library asked Harry for his collection; so did The Smithsonian. Finley said thanks, but no thanks. "I know where it's going to wind up," he says. "I know the room where their stuff sits. It's all in a drawer."
In his heart, Finley—who is now 73—knows that if the Museum of Menstruation will rise again, it'll be after he's gone. He's too old, and doesn't have the money, to spearhead a project like this on his own. Someone younger has to do it. But he prays that someone does, and that his legacy will live on, and that it all will have meant something in the end.
Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.
Topics: Museum of Menstruation, MUM, Harry Finley, museums, Washington DC, menstruation, periods, menstrual cycle, menstrual blood, free bleeding, toxic shock syndrome, tampons, pads, menstrual cups, sanitary apron, Kotex, Tampax, Mack C. Pad, menstrual technology, advertisements, Germany, collections, The Smithsonian, culture, taboo, lady stuff, women's health, women's issues, getting your period, on the rag, menstrual underwear, fetishes, Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, mum's the word, the 90s, longreads, menstruation museum