‘Artificial and unscientific’: representations of female animals in museums criticised by experts

In museums across the world, female specimens have either been displayed in submissive poses or omitted altogether – but now, several curators and experts are trying to change the status quo.
By Angela Heathcote September 6, 2018 Reading Time: 4 Minutes

IN 2008, RESEARCHER and museum curator Rebecca Machin staged what she called an ‘intervention’ into gender bias at Manchester Museum in England, where she worked. The experiment was provoked after Rebecca had conducted an in-depth study into male and female specimens displayed in the natural history museum.

In her monumental paper, published in Museum and Society that year, Rebecca revealed that, just as anthropological displays show different cultures from a colonial perspective, natural history displays a gender bias that she describes as “patriarchal stories masquerading as biological truths”. In response to the findings, the museum covered male specimens in different display cases so only the very small number of female specimens remained, bringing to light the scale of the issue.

“Our cultural institutions are really grappling with these issues, they are debating questions of diversity and inclusion in terms of staff and audience” said Chiara O’Reilly, the Director of Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Sydney. “But under the banner of science perhaps we aren’t as overtly critical of their displays. Art historians like Griselda Pollock and Linda Nochlin have long raised feminist debates in the arts, but I don’t think there has been the same level of discussions in the sciences around display content.”

The displays

Manager of the Museum of Zoology at Cambridge University, Jack Ashby, explained that there are two ways gender bias plays out in natural history museums: the female specimens either don’t exist or are displayed in submissive poses.

He says that the under-representation of female animals is obvious once you look for it. While having formal discussions at the museum about sexually dimorphic animals – males and females that look different – he found that, often, there were no females to make an example of.

“To some extent this can be explained by the fact that hunters and collectors were and are probably more inclined to acquire animals with big horns, antlers, tusks or showy plumage, which typically is the male of the species. But it is a misrepresentation of nature.”

Jack’s more “sinister realisation” came during the research for his book Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects, when he realised that females were displayed in submissive poses or lower on the shelf.

“While one might argue that the mating rituals of certain species involves the male adopting a puffed-up posture at some point, it seems unlikely that recreating this specific instance is the intention of the taxidermist, at least most of the time,” he said.

“This is because often the species on display don’t actually make those poses, or because even if they do they don’t form a particularly representative or noticeable element of their natural history, so the taxidermist is unlikely to pick it out.”

Jack added that, rather than attempting to represent an instance of the animals’ true behaviour, it’s more likely that the taxidermist is “reflecting human societal gender stereotypes,” and that this is “entirely subconscious”.

In Rebecca’s paper, she also found that the display text that accompanied the dioramas often referred to the female specimens as mothers, even in text recently added. “The roles of males as the hunter, fighter and protector, and of females as the bearer of offspring are emphasised throughout the mammal gallery… the text is written as if it is authoritative fact, rather than the partial story it surely is,” she wrote.

Chiara said that, because Australian museums have adopted the European model, the same issues raised by Rebecca and Jack are likely to be  prevalent in our own country. “In Australia you often see that satin bowerbirds are displayed with their elaborate courtship structures, but I can’t remember seeing a female satin bowerbird and I think that’s quite telling.

“Perhaps we need to critically unpack what is on display in science museums more actively, discussing bias in institutions is an important part of understanding their history and the collections they have as well as bias in our knowledge systems. It’s not about displaying male and female specimens for every animal but reflecting and revealing this history and opening it up for discussion.”

An easy fix?

Rebecca’s temporary intervention that saw male specimens covered in their display cases is something Chiara said is an effective way for Australian museums – often cash-strapped and time poor – to highlight the issue of gender bias. There are also subtle ways to go about it, she added, like displaying alternative text on the outside of dioramas to acknowledge the bias.

Jack agreed, arguing that writing less male-centric labels would be easy. “Myself and others have been chatting about it for a while now and it’s gaining some traction, but I don’t know if museums are altering their displays as a result. However, rectifying the lack of female specimens on display is where it gets tricky, he added.

“There are more male specimens because historically these were considered more attractive than the females. This is understandable. When we put a peacock on display, for example, most visitors would be more awed by the absurdly adorned male than the drab female,” said Jack.

“It’s even more interesting if we put male and female specimens on display, but often that means halving the number of species we can include. I’m not sure visitors would prefer that. Likewise the taxidermy is historic and fixed in position.”

The impact

Museums are notably more child-friendly than other cultural institutions such as galleries, Chiara said, and have always played an important educational role. “Seeing those differences can be helpful and it means children can better understand the diversity of nature.”

Jack said that omitting female specimens or displaying them in these poses is an “artificial, unscientific” way of implying that female animals are submissive, and doesn’t take into account whether or not that is true for different species.

“What’s more insidious is the link that visitors that may easily subconsciously make with human society. Implying that male societal dominance is just part of nature feeds the concept of biological determinism.

“I’ve been accused of looking for a problem where there isn’t one, but if you put yourself in the shoes of a kid walking around a museum and they keep seeing females portrayed as naturally inferior, it’s not too much of a leap to suggest that it’s going to affect their understanding of gender roles in humans.

“Museums are considered scientific, trustworthy institutions, but their displays are not always objective.”

Making these subtle changes, Chiara said, will take strong leadership, which she thinks is the strength of museums across Australia. “There are female directors and CEOs taking the helm at the Australian Museum, Museums Victoria and many others, and that’s making a difference.”