Say it after me: vagina. Va-gi-na. If you feel an uncomfortable tingle saying the v-word, you’re not alone. The Eve Appeal recently found that 65 percent of young women have a problem using the words vagina and vulva, and nearly 40 percent of 16-25 year olds favour using the kind of code names – “lady bits,” “womanly parts” – your nan uses. Never mind the ins and outs of gynaecological health, turns out we’ve got a long way to go to even saying the word vagina.
Here to help with getting us talking about all things gynaecological is The Vagina Museum, the first of its kind in the world. Created by Florence Schechter (director) alongside Sarah Creed (curator) and Zoe Williams (development and marketing), The Vagina Museum started as a successful touring exhibition three years ago, powered primarily by crowdfunding. Now, it’s finally settling down in a permanent space in London.
Despite being bundled up in a scarf due to a badly-timed cold, Florence is nothing but enthusiastic as she takes a breather from putting the final touches to the museum’s first exhibition. Standing next to a freshly painted white wall in a patch of rare November sun, she talks us through the origins, goals and values of the museum.
VICE: What was the inspiration behind starting The Vagina Museum?
Florence Schechter: It all started around two and a half years ago when I discovered there was a penis museum in Iceland but there’s no vagina equivalent anywhere in the world. I thought that was pretty unfair so I just decided to make one!
It’s quite a big step to go from thinking about starting a museum to actually starting one.
First of all, it sounded like loads of fun so I was like, “how would I do it,” before I decided to do it. At the time, I was working as a science communicator so I spoke to some people in industry and did some research about what new museums are out there and how they’ve been set up. I found out about the Migration Museum Project. I liked their model of doing pop-ups before expanding into what would be their main space.
Was it the popularity of your initial pop-ups that snowballed into a permanent Vagina Museum or was that always the plan from the start?
A concrete premises was always the plan but obviously you can’t go from nothing to that, certainly because I’m not a person of independent wealth – and most museums are started by some old rich guy in the 1800s being bored. So, we started with pop-ups and the response was so positive that it kind of ran away with me. The museum sector is like, “you’re insane, how did you manage to open a museum in under three years?” The secret is to make a museum about vaginas and people will love it!
It’s what the people want! Did you expect that public response?
I’ve been doing it for two and a half years now so by the time we started the fundraiser, I kind of knew what people would think but I had no idea how much we could raise. The last time we did a fundraiser we struggled to raise £2000. But then again, this time it was for the thing that we’ve been saying we wanted to do and the thing people wanted. So we were optimistic going in and we raised nearly 50K out of that so that says something.
Why was 'Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them' chosen as the first exhibition?
So, the first exhibition is all about vagina myths, like if you have loads of sex your vagina will get really loose, or you can’t pregnant if it’s girl on top. The reason we wanted to go with that first is because we’ve got to start with the basics. I would love to go into the history of pubic hair aesthetics or something but we need to start right on the ground, like the difference between a vagina and a vulva. It also makes a case for us because a lot of people ask us why there’s a need for a vagina museum. By having this first exhibition, we’re basically saying here’s why we’re needed because there are literally people douching with coca-cola because they don’t have access to proper contraception.
I was really happy to see how upfront the museum is about being intersectional, especially trans-inclusive. Why is it important for you to be that up front?
Firstly, for personal reasons – I’m bi so gotta help the fam. But also when it comes to trans-inclusivity, if you don’t say it upfront everyone makes assumptions one way or another. It’s not like we’re making a science museum where it could be a case of maybe they haven’t thought about it yet. With a vagina museum, you have to have an opinion one way or another, you just can’t not. If you aren’t upfront, people who are trans or trans allies are going to assume you’re being exclusionary and people who are trans exclusionary will assume you’re trying to trick them or something. There was only one choice for where we were going to go and of course we’re going to be trans-inclusive.
Is it important to have an intersectional team behind the museum?
Absolutely. We’ve got trans and non-binary people on our board and volunteering with us. We’ve had cases of people first hearing about us and being like, “oh no, this could go either way,” and then they go on our website and see how upfront we are and have tweeted us saying they literally cried, they were so happy we weren’t some horrible organisation.
Women of colour also make up one third of our trustee board and it’s important for us to work with groups who will support us on that kind of thing. We’re good friends with Decolonising Contraception and we also have people on our advisory board, so, for example, there’s someone to advise us on East Asian issues and someone on FGM issues.
What does the dream-future look like for the museum?
The ultimate dream is to build a permanent museum to be public and a holistic exploration of the vagina, socially, culturally, scientifically, medically, historically. That’s a humongous dream that’s going to be like ten or fifteen years in the making. We’re actually hoping to open it in 2030. So watch this space!
Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How To Fight Them opens on November 16. You can visit the museum here for more info.