The whole point of the Vagina Museum was that it was wide open. Nestled in the London borough of Camden, unassuming tourists and Londoners looking for a vintage dress or fried food would happen upon this well-located museum that promised to dismantle taboos around female genitalia.
But now, it is about to be homeless. Its landlord, the property group LabTech, is not extending the lease for the museum which ends on the 24th of September. This is despite support for the museum from Camden Council, which in 2019 said it was “incredibly excited” to host the museum in the borough. The museum, the council said at the time, would “add immeasurably to our collective understanding of our bodies.”
The Vagina Museum has so far been unable to find a lease anywhere else that is also accessible, affordable and in a commercial or cultural area, though not for want of trying.
“It feels really shitty,” founder Florence Schechter, who launched the museum in 2017 after discovering that there was no gynaecological equivalent to Iceland’s Phallological Museum, told VICE World News over the phone. The museum started life as a series of pop-ups around the UK, before finding a physical home in Stables Market in Camden in October 2019.
A number of property owners around London have considered proposals from the museum, but all were eventually rejected, all offering no reason for their decision. Schechter said she believes that “institutional patriarchy” is at work.
The Vagina Museum has received widespread praise in the few years it has had a physical presence in Camden, including endorsement from stars such as Gillian Anderson. The 2019 exhibition Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How To Fight Them had over 110,000 visitors, and after the recent exhibition, Periods, 89% of visitors said they knew more about the history of menstruation following their visit. Both exhibitions received overwhelmingly positive feedback, according to the museum’s own data.
For Schechter, the museum’s departure from Camden is also another sign of increasing gentrification in the area. “I would have really liked it to be in Camden, I’m a resident and that’s why I got it in the first place. It was a local story. Lots of people are saying how Camden is getting really gentrified. Now with us gone, there’s going to be less that’s living in that rebellious Camden spirit.”
Last month, a spokesperson for Camden Market told London newspaper the Evening Standard that in 2019 they “liaised directly with Camden Council and secured a temporary 24-month planning permission to accommodate [the museum].”
“Unfortunately, this planning permission is due to expire and as a result we have already offered a new, larger location that fits the requirements of this business for a rental fee in line with current expectations. This offer has been declined, however, we are still happy to negotiate with the team should interest change at all,” the spokesperson added.
On the 2nd of August, the museum tweeted that “the one new space Camden Market have shown us is on a top floor, this would effectively relegate the Vagina Museum to the top shelf and out of sight.”
“This simply won’t work for us: ‘vagina’ is not a dirty word. It should be visible within the community, battling the shame attached to the word, not hidden away like a dirty mag.”
LabTech owns 1 million square feet of Camden Market. On its website, it says: “Our vision is to create a unique destination where people can live, work, stay, shop and play – to move effortlessly between daytime and nighttime experiences.” It emphasises Stables Market, where the museum is located, as including food, restaurants, leisure and retail units, as well as a co-working space where businesses engage in technological innovation.
On Twitter, a number of people have been sharing their sadness at the museum’s closure. Fiona Robertson, the Scottish National Party’s Equalities Convener said: “It was revolutionary to see the museum in a prominent space, easily accessible, and without shame. Healing, educational, community-based. It was also the only reason I went to that part of London on my most recent trip, which meant I spent time around other businesses too.”
Another Twitter user wrote: “It was a great place to take my kids to so they know I'm not remotely freaked out by it all. They then dragged their mother there, so that's six visitors to an area of London we kept saying we ought to do but had never got around to. And would repeat with a new location.”
Until the Vagina Museum can find a new lease, Schechter and her team will operate from a storage unit and online. “We’re going to act as though it was the pandemic – it gave us loads of practice on how to operate without a physical space. Doing lots of online stuff, online events.”
The Vagina Museum has an online reach of 4 million people a month, but the loss of a physical space will bear a significant impact on its reach. 25% of visitors post-COVID said that they visited because “they were just walking by.”
LabTech did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.