Catching up with women's history

Long relegated to the footnotes of history, women are now getting museums of their own that honor the past and aim to shape the future.

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Keep one eye on the past and the other on the future. That's the way women's lives come into focus at a new museum here in Dallas.

Even before it opens its exhibit space on Friday, The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future, has begun to expand opportunities. Take the middle-school girls who checked out the technology training offered by the museum last spring.

Suddenly, their regular teachers said they were more engaged in class than they had ever been. They became so enthralled with computers - and with the female mentors who showed them that technology can be fun - that they asked to volunteer to help set up computers at the museum over the summer. When the interactive exhibits fire up this week, the handiwork of this new generation of tech-literate girls will also be on display.

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Gone are the days when first ladies' gowns and suffragists' protest placards were tacked on as a sidebar to history exhibits. With five other major museums on the drawing board in the US, it's clear that spaces for telling women's stories are in demand. "Museums are ritual places where we present what we value. And with the beginning of the third millennium, people are recognizing that it's time that we say that women's contributions are valuable," says Cathy Bonner, founder and board president of The Women's Museum. "With more than 8,000 museums in the United States, there was not one comprehensive women's history museum until now."

What these new museums share is a sense that looking back on women's struggles and accomplishments is only worthwhile if it informs a look forward - a continuing movement toward equality.

The timing coincides with academic work that is reaching critical mass. "In the past 25 to 30 years, there's been incredible scholarship going on in women's studies..., but the fact is that those studies haven't had a broader chance to filter down into the public," says Elizabeth Colton, board president at the International Museum of Women, which is searching for a site in San Francisco.

Politicians and philanthropists are increasingly willing to throw their support behind these endeavors. That's partly because recent years have seen the anniversaries of both the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote, in 1920) and the 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., now home of the National Women's Hall of Fame.

"There is a spirit of exploration ... and an honest desire to say those contributions from the women whose shoulders we're standing on are indeed valuable," says Virginia S. Harris, chairman of the Christian Science Board of Directors. The board is planning new facilities for the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity in Boston which will open in 2002.

A futuristic edge emerges both in the high-tech exhibits the museums are planning and in their educational outreach.

"The technology is driving the future of everything," says Candace O'Keefe, executive director of the Dallas museum. "Women need to acknowledge that ... it's leveling the playing field for us. If you're going to be a successful citizen in the 21st century, you've got to appreciate and be comfortable with technology, whether you're an artist or an astronaut."

Alvanetta Herring and some fellow eighth-graders at the nearby Pearl C. Anderson Middle Learning Center already have the proud glow that comes with beginning to master computer skills. "I learned how to build a roller coaster and how it moves.... It doesn't just fall flat, it has its own inertia," Alvanetta says of the course at the museum's Ronya Kozmetsky Institute for the Future.

Although classes will also be available to women, boys, and men, the girls' programs aim to reach them at an age when studies show they begin to lose enthusiasm for math and science, says education director Robin Windham. Alvanetta says she's always liked math and science, but the atmosphere here is more encouraging: "It makes you kind of nervous if you have all these boys looking at you. You don't want to be too smart or too dumb.... [Here] it's not a book thing. They tell you from experience. It makes you comfortable, and you can discuss things and how it's related to your life."

Ms. Windham also taught the girls in the pilot project how to take computers apart and put them back together, a foundational step that pleased Alvanetta's mom, Cynthia Herring-Flanagan.

"Mostly, things are put together by men, and a lot of things, women aren't exposed to," she says. "I intend to teach my child as much as possible on different things, so that women can have the same pay scale as men." She and her daughter are also participating this fall in a video conference with girls and mothers in Jordan, put together for the museum by a local nonprofit called Global Nomads. And she says others are excited about the institute's role in this low-income area.

The backdrop for all this learning is the museum itself, giving ready access to thousands of inspiring examples. At the "Dream Your Career" interactive exhibit, visitors can learn about the features of different jobs and read comments from women who have held them.

In Alvanetta's favorite section, "Breaking Barriers," the focus is on women's accomplishments in sports and other physically active endeavors. Artifacts include the trophy that Althea Gibson received in 1957 as the first African-American to win the Wimbledon singles tennis title. Alvanetta's classmate Gregorita Hudson especially likes the room where she's surrounded by women's music and poetry.

Before reaching any of these exhibits, visitors find themselves in a large, open gallery, facing an "electronic quilt" more than 30 feet high. It's a 21st-century version of a traditional form of women's expression. Images from the collection flash alongside everyday faces. Visitors who stand in front of it long enough will find their own visages staring back at them, captured by a camera in the wall.

The setting is a restored, early 20th-century building that housed everything from livestock auctions to opera performances. The wooden and metal-truss ceiling arches 55 feet high. Along with other buildings in Fair Park, it has an art deco faade from the1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Only after choosing the site did Ms. Bonner discover it had once been dedicated to the pioneering women of Texas, which explains the statue of a woman rising from a cactus out front.

Funding was helped along by the historic-preservation effort, but the main boost was a $10 million challenge grant from SBC Communications Inc. Bonner says it's the largest corporate donation to a US women's project.

The lobby is flanked by two curved walls. One features quotes by famous women, and the other encases the museum store in glass and copper. Architect Wendy Evans Joseph was also the lead designer of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. She avoided hard corners, Bonner says, "because women's lives aren't linear."

In test groups, the architecture and exhibits appealed to both sexes, Bonner says. "From the beginning, we wanted this to be a place where both men and women, boys and girls had a great experience.... We decided early on ... we would not be victim-oriented.... We tell the stories of inspiration, of overcoming great adversity and obstacles to complete a goal, stories of working together ... to make the world a better place."

The museum does try to reach far back into history, including a timeline that starts in the 1500s. But it concentrates on the past 200 years. Portable "mentor phones" guide visitors through the exhibits, which range from glass-cased objects representing "unforgettable" women to a colorful depiction of gender stereotypes (and rebuttals).

Bonner says she's proud that the museum celebrates women of all races: "For the first time, we've really assembled the diversity of women's experiences." A documentary video about passing down stories from one generation to the next, for example, includes a Mohawk woman discussing midwifery and a Japanese-American who was sent to a US internment camp in World War II. The exhibits also reflect religious, economic, and political diversity.

The museum has received many of its artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution (as one of 50 Smithsonian affiliates). But objects will find their way into women's museums from more-humble settings, too. "Some of it will be literally retrieved from attics," says Joan Wages, director of development for the National Women's History Museum, to be built in Washington.

Some of the material will even be collected on the spot. The Dallas museum has set up computers where visitors can document their own lives and provide comments to be placed in a database or on the Web site. By keeping an eye on today's stories, the museum seems to be saying, it's laying the groundwork for tomorrow's history.

* Email comments to teichers@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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