What do diversity and inclusivity mean in a museum-based digital interactive installation? This question was central to the design of our Women’s Voices exhibit, a wall of touchscreens that allow visitors to explore individuals, groups, and events spanning New York State and City women’s history. Our goal was to balance the appeal of biographies while avoiding an elitist “hall of fame,” so we decided to share stories about how women’s words and actions have driven social change. Some of the individuals in the exhibit are familiar faces, while many are less well known—but all contribute to a network that shows visitors that all history is women’s history.
The touchscreens invite museum-goers to learn about individuals, groups, and events through background stories, images, and video, but the most exciting component involves connections between these stories. Traveling through these points of intersection helps us portray women’s history as a network of movements, individuals, work, and ideas. Choosing these connections took thought and care. One decision was to avoid familiar labels of race, religion, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, focusing instead on fields of endeavor, accomplishment, and experience without obscuring an individual’s identity. As a result, the emphasis is on effort and impact. Visitors travel through themes such as “protest,” “The Bronx,” or “performance,” but not “black,” “Catholic,” or “lesbian.”
In the spirit of Black History Month, we invite you to see how Women’s Voices shows that women’s history is also black history. You might encounter a wonderful photograph of the “mother of rhythm and blues,” “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe, and then travel through the shared connection of faith to Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a church organist who helped desegregate the New York City streetcar system in the 1850s—long before Rosa Parks. From Graham you could navigate through pioneer to “warrior poet” Audre Lorde, and then through Harlem to psychologist Mamie Phipps Clark, whose research on internalized racism was used as evidence in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling on desegregation, or to anthropologist and Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston.
Another visitor might be intrigued by Black Panther and Young Lord Denise Oliver-Velez, who helped improve social services for Puerto Rican families. They might travel from her through children back to 1620s New Amsterdam, where they could read about Dorothy Angola, one of the first enslaved Africans brought to the colony, and see her petition for freedom in 1661. He or she could then move forward in time through slavery to the 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention, the first time American women—black and white—met formally to discuss human rights.
Exploring Individual Lives
While the connections intentionally stay away from categories of race and ethnicity, individual identities are explored in depth through biographies, interviews, images, and video. For example, the story of Harriet Jacobs explains how she escaped enslavement and published an autobiography. Women’s Voices invites museum-goers to see the title page of Jacobs’ autobiography, read the advertisement circulated when she ran away, and listen to historian Thavolia Glymph discuss the meaning of freedom and emancipation.
Likewise, they can watch dancer Katherine Dunham perform her signature blend of Haitian and modern dance, look at abolitionist woodcuts, and be transfixed by Shirley Chisholm delivering a campaign speech.
We invite you to explore how Women’s Voices highlights groups, movements, and events along with individuals, heeding Audre Lorde’s insight that “without community there is no liberation.”
– Sarah Gordon, Center for Women’s History
This post is part of our new series, “Women at the Center,” written and edited by the staff of the Center for Women’s History. Look for new posts every Tuesday! #womenatthecenter
Top Photo Credits: Audre Lorde and Sister Rosetta Tharpe as featured in Women’s Voices, New-York Historical Society.