What's Work Worth?

Toys: Child’s iron and sewing machine, donor: Laurel Butcher. Cross-stitch sampler, donor: Una and Doug Boerner. Embroidered supper cloth, donor: Telka Williams

The exhibition opened on International Museum Day, May 18 2016. Listen to Elaine Peckham’s acknowledgement of country, exhibition curator Dianna Newham speak of “What’s Work Worth?” and Bev Ellis as she officially opens the exhibition.

How do museums represent women and work?  What do their collections tell us about the work that women (and by implication, men) do? How do museums represent all the recent changes in women’s work which have taken place? Do some objects symbolise women’s work more than others?  Are there “women’s” objects?  If yes, do objects have a gender, or do they help construct gender? Or is gender simply a figment of our socially constructed imaginations?  What is women’s work? How should museums represent it?

These are some of the questions we invented and sought to answer as we created the “What’s Work Worth?” exhibition.  Our aim has been to use feminist theory to rethink traditional museum practices and to use radical curatorial practices to rethink feminism.  We think the way the rope weavings in the exhibition reframe women’s traditional handwork is a great start. 

Detail of twill weave rope weaving.  Maker Anna Satharasinghe

What’s Work Worth?” takes a broad look at Australian women’s experiences of work.  It explores this through the ordinary, everyday objects in the NPWHF collection and with reference to our existing exhibitions.  It poses two sets of questions. First: though women’s work has changed dramatically in the last few decades, has it increased women’s worth?  Was the fight for equality a radical or, as Germaine Greer has argued, a profoundly conservative act[1]?  Second: How do our ideas about gender mediate how we view objects?  How do the objects we like, hate, use, own or don’t own, “gender” us?  If it is true that children are conditioned by the objects they play with, is it possible that adults are also conditioned by the objects they use?

The objects we have chosen and the way we have clustered them are designed to unsettle the notion, implicit in our previous exhibitions, that changes in women’s work necessarily and solely signify progress.  They are designed to provoke curiosity rather than defensiveness, to help us question what society values and what negative attitudes the demand for inclusion may have reinforced.  

Flour: Wangurnu seeds, donor Dianna Newham.  Grinding stone, donor Dianna Newham. Flour bag, donor Patsy Hayes. Scoop, donor Patsy Hayes. Sifter, donor Bill Cavenagh. Bread tin, donor Patsy Hayes. Nail sack oven cloths, donor Betty Thompson

In “unsettling” the notion of progress, we also hope to challenge the idea of a universal “woman”.  Whilst entering the paid workforce certainly changed the lives of many women who previously stayed at home, it barely touched the lives of working class women who, almost by definition, have always done paid work. One woman’s achievement, depending on her class, race, age, marital status, sexuality, physical abilities etc may be another’s demise.  

We also hope to unsettle the idea that an object means the same thing to all people. We want you to think about the relationship between the object and its user, the object and its maker and the different contexts in which objects are valued. A lace handkerchief made by a woman of leisure has a very different set of meanings to a lace handkerchief made by a girl in a children’s home.

Our second theme is to make visible the invisible and find value in the mundanity of lived experience.  We want to reveal and revere what we have been taught to dismiss and ignore.  This means identifying and articulating the contradictions embedded in each object, enabling us to see them in new ways, allowing us to imagine what could also “be”. Thus for example, when we look at bread tins, do we see the bakers or the bread tin makers? If the former, do we see commercial bakers, often men, or domestic bakers, usually women?  Do we see the raw materials that went into their construction? The people who gathered the tin, forged it into steel, transported across the globe. Or do we see the people whose lives such common kitchen items sustained through the food it helped produce? The ordinary people whose existences make the world go around. Should museums encourage us to see everyone who participated in this small testament to human ingenuity and connectedness? Or should they frame our vision and demand that we focus on only one aspect at a time?

Our third theme is to tell a national story with a local perspective.  As Nicholas Gill has argued: “Not recognising how local contexts inform debate beyond the local and how extra-local, often historical contexts constitute the local precludes meaningful dialogue. At the same time, localities and their complexities can show globalising or stereotyping perspectives to be fatally flawed. One possible outcome of the failure to appreciate these entanglements of scale can be entrenched positioning that foreclose the potential for envisioning new outcomes.”[2] As our other exhibitions show, Central Australia’s pioneering women, black and white, often transcended narrow, nationally endorsed stereotypes about women’s work. This new exhibition aims to honour their contribution by recognising the extraordinary in the mundane and the ordinary in the extraordinary.

[1] 2015 “All About Women” Festival, International Women’s Day, Sydney, http://www.theguardian.com/cul…  

[2] Gill, Nicholas. Outback or at Home?: Environment, Social Change and Pastoralism in Central Australia: Australian Defence Force Academy, School of Geography and Oceanography, 2000.