Why it matters how we talk about rape in museums

This article looks at the way in which sexual violence is discussed and women are framed in museum wall labels and cataloguing.

When I visited the exhibition “Artemisia. Woman & Power” in Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede (NL), I was surprised to find not one, but multiple references to the traumatic experience of Artemisia being raped as a young artist, making her decide to pack her bags and leave her hometown to settle elsewhere. Although the museum staff clearly had the best intentions to honor the great Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593- ca 1654), something didn’t feel quite right for me.

Museums are not neutral

It was after reading an article about a research project of Macushla Robinson, a writer and curator based in New York City, I feel I can finally put my finger on why the exhibition in Rijksmuseum Twenthe makes me feel slightly uncomfortable.

Artemisia Gentileschi | Bernardo Cavallino, Batsheba at her bath, ca. 1638 (Lampronti Gallery London)

When Macushla typed the word “rape” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection database, the search yielded 181 results. She decided to launch a project she calls All the Rapes in the Met Museum,” analyzing each data entry in the museum catalogue to study how institutional cataloguing and wall labels often gloss over or downplay the impact of sexual violence, particularly when it comes to female victims.

Don’t let rape define a person

After reading the article about the project of Macushla in the online art magazine Hyperallergic, I realized why the exhibition Artemisia. Woman & Power makes me uneasy. Rape is used as a leitmotiv in this exhibition to explain why Artemisia decided to leave her home town and became an internationally celebrated artist with famous clients from all over Italy. The shame of being raped and the victim blaming that came with it, was the motivation for Artemisia to settle down elsewhere and start a new life, in a place where this traumatic event wouldn’t hunt her. But by putting the rape story on multiple life size museum wall panels, the museum chose to do the exact opposite. The curators used the rape story to define Artemisia as a woman and as an artist. Artemisia did what ever she could to avoid being defined by the man that raped her. How would she feel when she was still alive, to witness an art exhibition where her traumatic event is out there, on display, for everyone to see and judge?

Objectifying female artists

It doesn’t stop there. The curators set out to tell a story about Artemisia, the artist who excelled. But by framing her continuously as a rape victim, a mother and a daughter (of her famous artist father) the emphasize is not on what she ACHIEVED but on what she IS. Namely, a woman. A daughter. A victim. An object. I don’t think of it as curators deliberately putting Artemisia in an unpleasant position, but I think the point is to look at the ways in which we use language, and how the momentum of the sacred, hallowed halls of museums create a hierarchy and structure that normalizes this and romanticizes it.

How to do better

Is there a way of avoiding this in an exhibition about a female artist? I am convinced there is. Without pointing any fingers, I did notice the curators of the exhibition were all men, accept for one. A female perspective might have changed things for the better. Furthermore, it might have been beneficial to get someone on the team specialized in diversity and inclusion. Most museum employees and curators are educated from a male dominant perspective. We need to get people on the team to ask the uncomfortable questions and take our responsibility to do better. Not just for the next generation of female artists, but also for Artemisia, who was so much more than a rape victim.

The future is now

Truthfully, I have been struggling to decide if I should write this article at all. Talking about women, art and the heteropatriarchical ways museums present art is a metaphorical mine field. But here I am, and here you are. You’ve made it till the end. Let’s change the museum world together.

The exhibition Artimisia. Woman & Power is on show until march 27, 2022 so you need to be quick to see it in real life. There’s an online edition as well, that you can see here.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638–39, Royal Collection

The author (Gemma Boon) is an art historian, writer and museum expert. She advices museums, galleries and artists on various subjects like (but not limited to) strategy, diversity, outreach and innovative museum concepts. Are you interested in her services for your museum or gallery? Don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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