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Monday, 29 January 2018

The Jaffer-Humphreys Test: A Bechdel for the Museum World

A guest post by the wonderful Laura Humphreys (@tweetingbogart) 

I recently spent two years working on the Exploration Wing Galleries at Royal Museums Greenwich (Opening later in 2018). Walking back from a meeting, my colleague Aaron (Jaffer, Curator of World History & Cultures) and I were chatting about issues of representation, and particularly, of women. Wandering through the National Maritime Museum’s sprawling Neptune Hall, we were continuing a conversation which had started in the meeting: does Queen Elizabeth I represent women?

On the one hand, of course; she’s an imposing figure in our history, who oversaw a ‘Golden Age’ despite the best efforts of her father and the constraints of her time. But on the other hand, she was operating in a patrilineal structure, and the beneficiary of unimaginable inherited wealth, power, and status.  Does she almost… not count?  

Of course she counts, but she’s not enough. It’s a problem reminiscent of the ‘Strong Female Lead’ in films; there are many great films with an amazing lead female character who dominates the screen. However, sometimes those films don’t feel particularly feminist, or even equal, and the best way to articulate that is the infamous Bechdel Test.

The birth of the Bechdel Test, from Dykes to Watch Out For. © Alison Bechdel, 1985.

Based on a comic from Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel in 1985, the Bechdel Test provides a simple assessment for the level of female participation in a film/ book/ show. It asks these questions:
  1. Are there at least two female characters?
  2. Do two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man?
If the answer to both is yes, you’re in luck: your film has passed the Bechdel Test! It’s a low bar, right?

Not low enough, it seems. Many films don’t fulfil this most basic of requirements. Toy Story doesn’t pass. The Godfather doesn’t pass. Citizen Kane doesn’t pass. 7 out of 8 Harry Potter films don’t pass (interestingly ALL the books do… but that’s another blog entirely). And nowhere in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit films is there a passing conversation. And as for films with that Strong Female Lead? Run Lola Run, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Blind Side all fail. Even Alien only passes if you assume the titular Alien isn’t a bloke.

So, in a brazen act of plagiarism, we decided it was time Museums had their own version, to articulate why cursory nods to Queens and wives are not good enough. Enter the Jaffer-Humphreys Test! When visiting (or preferably, developing) a museum exhibition or gallery, ask yourself these two questions:

1. Are there at least two women ‘on display’ in this gallery?
This doesn’t need to be photographs or paintings of women – it needs to recognise the role of women in the history of a place/ industry/ event/ movement. There are very few legitimate cases where women don’t belong in a gallery narrative – so if they aren’t there, someone isn’t doing their job.

Florence goddamn Nightingale pioneered the use of statistical analysis and visual representation of information to save lives.

The Winton Gallery of Mathematics at the Science Museum is a good example; Florence Nightingale’s pioneering use of statistics and Ada Lovelace’s l33t computer programming skills are central stories, in a gallery which celebrates the sweeping geometrical architecture of the late Zaha Hadid. There aren’t images of any of these women, because there don’t need to be – they have parity with their male counterparts.

2. Are they presented in terms of their relationship to a man?

What we’re looking to avoid here is “Ethel was the wife of Great White Man who takes up 95% of the gallery – here is her glove” in a display case near the exit. Mothers, daughters, wives, and mistresses have long been hastily co-opted into a gallery because someone noticed in the final draft that there weren’t any women. This women-as-historical-footnote approach is tokenistic and reactionary, and it needs to get in the sea.

BUT – these women can, and should, be presented as whole beings in their own right. A good example would be Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity which was on display at the National Maritime Museum 2016-2017.

Emma Hamilton, plotting the downfall of the patriarchy

Hamilton was famously Nelson’s mistress, and has long been maligned as a homewrecker and a distracter of one of our national heroes. This exhibition aimed to portray Hamilton as a political and cultural actor in her own right, a polymath and social influencer long before she ever clapped eyes on Nellyface. The reason the National Maritime Museum collections are rich in her belongings and archives is because she was his girlfriend, sure – but it’s what you DO with that stuff that counts. Even a superficial reading of Emma Hamilton takes you beyond the mistress narrative, and reveals one of the most spectacular humans in European history.

So, to pass the Jaffer-Humphreys Test you need at least two women, presented in their own right, in any gallery or exhibition. As with the Bechdel itself, the stark truth of the current situation lies in the reverse test. Can you think of a single film where two men DON’T talk about something other than a woman?! Almost unheard of.

And so – can you think of a museum gallery where there AREN’T two men, represented in their own right? Me neither.

Bout time we changed that, I reckon.

Another absolute belter from 1985. Not enough has changed.

The Jaffer-Humphreys Test: FAQs

OH CRAP. The exhibition I’m working on doesn’t pass the test! What do I DO?!
Calm down and take a breath, friend. It’s pretty bad that your exhibition doesn’t pass and you should really examine why that is, but you have realised in time and we are here to help! Firstly; women are 51% of the population, currently and historically, so numbers are on your side. Secondly, women are everywhere! You may have to look a bit harder, because we’re working with 2,000 years + of systemic sexism, but women are fierce and have left their mark on history.

For example: Are you struggling with 16th & 17th century maritime history, which women were nothing to do with? You’re in luck! That’s a lie – how about pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read? Or, the archaeological evidence from the HMS London disaster, which Samuel Pepys wrote about in his diary that shows women and children were on board? Or take a different approach to your sources, like the excellent Hannah Worthen, who is researching the petitions of women in the Civil War to the admiralty for aid to build a better picture of their lives as naval wives.

Archives, objects, and history itself are all deeply political. As boss scholars like Antoinette Burton, Jacques Derrida, and Miles Ogborn have all argued, archives and museums are political actors in their own right, and sometimes their silences speak louder than anything else. What is kept and what is binned is never an accident – and nor are the stories and voices you amplify.   

But, isn’t this a low bar still?
YUP. Supes low. Painfully low. But when the Jaffer-Humphreys Test was first presented, we asked a room of about 30 people – largely museum professionals – to think of a gallery they know well or have worked on, and apply the test. We asked everyone to raise their hands at the end if their gallery passed the test… and, nothing.

This is a tool to push people to recognise that representing women isn’t optional/ too hard/ irrelevant to their topic – it should be integral. Use this test as an indicator of the bare minimum – the job is far from finished at two women, but at least it has begun.

I work at a Natural History/ Geology/ obscure hand tools museum. We have no people, so we have no problem, right?
WRONG, my dude. Rebecca Machin has written about staggering gender bias in Natural History Displays, and there’s a whole book about women in Geology – if you’re just showing people rocks, you have a-whole-nother problem. And hey, did you know that the circular saw was invented by Tabitha Babbitt in 1815? No excuses – humans are an integral part of all museums; our relationship with objects and their history is what makes museums museums, not cupboards.

Does this test account for intersectional representations of women?
Nope – and that’s another reason it should be used with great care. This is one simple test for one facet of representation, but there are almost endless issues with how museums interpret histories and geographies of race, sexuality, health, wealth, and gender, to name but a few. We need to keep looking long and hard at what we say and display; and again, I point you in the direction of far smarter dudes than I, who have written extensively on this subject. And I invite you to mess with the test and come up with a better version!

Does this work for Art Galleries?
Errrr… not always. It does in some cases, and depends on how you apply it. Women are often artists, depicted in art, and generally a major part of the world. However, that doesn’t always translate to representation, so we should definitely be turning the eye of scrutiny towards art galleries. But it’s tricky; art doesn’t have to be figurative, so a Jackson Pollack or a Mondrian exhibition would mess with this test, for example.

I am a confirmed art idiot despite my best efforts, so I would encourage you to seek out the wonderful art historians, curators, and artists who write brilliant stuff about  this subject. They will have a much better plan!

Why does the man’s name come first in the test name?
Aaron & I first presented the Jaffer-Humphreys Test as part of a seminar we gave on developing permanent galleries (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galleries), which was delivered in an A-Z format. We had about 17 ideas for H, and not a sausage for J. So, not patriarchy, but pragmatism! You should go see the #SeaSem seminars by the way: they’re GREAT.

Do Ships Count?
No mate, they don’t. And if you’re still referring to ships (or any other inanimate object) as “she”, you’re more out of date than Lloyds of London. Try harder.

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