The Vagina Museum: a yonic celebration
An educational and celebratory exhibition of female anatomy, sexuality and sex
As a first of its kind, the Vagina Museum has been greeted with, unsurprisingly, a mixed response. The Vagina Museum was set up in 2017, with its founder Florence Schechter noticing a gap in the market. Since then, it featured mainly as a pop-up exhibition in various locations, including Green Man Festival, The Feminist Library and The Freud Museum in London. In 2019, the museum found permanent residence in Camden Market, London. Its grand opening in November 2019 was picked up not only by the UK’s mainstream press but even international publications, including the New York Times.
But why did the Vagina Museum meet initial controversy? And perhaps, more importantly, how is this the first of its kind? Museums have been around since the ancient Greeks created “wonder rooms” in c.530 BC, and their purpose of educating the general public on subject matters that are culturally, historically and scientifically relevant has little changed in over 2000 years. Despite this, no one has ever exhibited or dedicated a “wonder room” to the vagina, until now.
There are couple of sex museums scattered around the world in places including Amsterdam, Prague and New York. These all do a very good job of showcasing erotica and educating visitors on the performative elements of sex, yet do not work to enable the audience to understand the anatomy of sex, break down taboos or challenge social norms. It may come as no surprise that twenty years before the Vagina Museum was born, the world’s first and only penis museum, The Icelandic Phallological Museum, opened its doors in 1997. However, there was no yonic equivalent for two decades. The Icelandic Phallological Museum exhibits not only human penises, but also phallic specimens from a vast collection of species. By displaying scientific objects and artefacts, the museum educates visitors in the ancient science of phallology. However, there are clear limitations to the museum as it doesn’t work to address the cultural and societal aspects of sex and sex education, for instance by exploring attitudes to different sexualities. Comparatively, the Vagina Museum subverts the role of the museum and, rather than predominantly displaying scientific artefacts, the Vagina Museum has focused on using stories and discourses that encourage the visitor to intellectually analyse the history of the vagina, alongside providing a commentary of sex, sexual education and sexual identities. The museum, supported by a few key art works and diagrams, strives to educate and inform its guests of the vulva and challenge taboos and stigmas. A visitor can only come to the museum with the intention to learn and cannot get away with being a passive voyeur.
In case it isn’t bleeding obvious already what this educational gap really exemplifies in our Westernised, postmodern, fourth-wave feminist culture, it’s that sex education to this day has not been adequate enough. Even the term “vagina” isn’t necessarily correct. The vagina is purely the muscular canal leading from the opening to the uterus, and does not refer to the outer part of the genitalia, the vulva, which is so often what is being referred to when people discuss the image of what they call a vagina. When visiting the Vagina Museum, it is quickly clear that the misnomer of “vagina” is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the comedy of errors surrounding the public's knowledge of the genitalia.
The team at the Vagina Museum have very openly disclosed that it has been named as such because the term vagina is more widely known and they strive to be as accessible and inclusive as possible. It also gives them an opportunity to break down the misuse of the term through their exhibitions and free learning resources. On visiting their most recent exhibition, Periods: A Brief History, visitors were met with the fact that a vast amount of people don’t have in-depth knowledge of gynaecological anatomy. 59% of men and 45% of women can’t fully label a diagram of a vulva (you can try for yourself here).
Throughout history, the delivery of sex education and depiction of vulvas have varied vastly between the countries, religions, genders, centuries, languages and communities. As a result, it is now achingly obvious that there is a lack of understanding around the basic anatomy and functions of vulvas and penises, and the conversation around hetronormative sex is substandard, leaving those who participate in non-hetronormative sex even more discriminated against. As a result of this, the Vagina Museum has positioned itself as a forum for feminism, women’s rights and the LGBTQIA+ sector, and it strives to challenge heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions. It also represents an intersectional and trans inclusive position which challenges traditional and stereotypical behaviours. On the website, visitors can find a host of interactive learning resources, links to the podcast and listed events to help support the public’s learning from all angles.
The Vagina Museum’s role in society is vital, yet it recently announced it has been displaced by rent increases. Despite rigorous campaigning, the team have been unable to raise the funds to keep their lease, forcing the museum to go online only. Having signed a two-year lease for their ground floor space, the site was perfect for the museum as it welcomes foot traffic (25% of visitors are just from walking by) and provides visibility that begins the process of breaking down taboos just by having a presence in the busy market. Although the Vagina Museum was offered a space on the top floor of Camden Market, Florence Schechter has spoken out against this option, saying that the Vagina Museum cannot be relegated to the top floor like a “dirty mag”. Luckily for the team, the pandemic gave them a rehearsal in having a strong online presence and the aim is for this to be a temporary transition whilst they continue to look for a physical home again.
The future of the Vagina Museum needs you! This free institution is at risk of going under, yet it holds a vitally important and culturally significant place in feminist history. If you can, please donate now via their website, purchase gifts for your friends and family from their online shop and talk to people. Spread the word about the Vagina Museum so we can save this institution from collapsing under the weight of the hetero- and cisnormative patriarchy as so many radical and progressive organisations have sadly done before.