by Brigid Taylor
A few months ago I came across the website for the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. I was excited – where is this museum? what’s in it? I started to explore and I slowly realized that this was a virtual museum (so not a family field trip destination –darn it!). I thought the website layout was confusing and I soon left the site out of frustration. Then I kind of forgot about it.
Fast forward to this October when The Atlantic published an article all about the museum and its founder (a man!). Yes Harry Finley, the founder of a museum about menstruation, is a 73 year old man. Surprised? (I was!).
Finley is an artist living in New Carrollton, Maryland. He began collecting old menstrual product advertisements while living in Germany in the 1980s. After his return to the U.S. he continued his menstruation-themed collection, and eventually opened a museum in his basement in 1994. For four years Finley opened the museum nearly every weekend while continuing to work full-time. Since 1998 the museum has existed only as a website.
I was intrigued, so I decided to give the website another look.
I realized that visiting this website is in many ways like visiting a real museum. It’s good to do some planning on what you want to see-which is where the index on the right side of the museum home page comes in handy. You might head off in one direction, get lost, and need to go back to the homepage. But eventually you’ll get the hang of the layout enough so that you see quite a lot of the content. You probably won’t be able to see everything on your first visit so plan multiple trips. There’s lot to see-photographs of the advertisements, menstrual products, and other items that were exhibited in the physical museum. And there’s even more to read-articles by Finley and contributing experts as well as letters from the public. Seriously I can’t do the collection justice with a short description-go check it out for yourself, it’s well worth the time!
I personally think it’s a shame that the museum only exists online today. On his reasons for closing the physical museum Finley says, “I was exhausted and desperate for free time and was worried about someone’s tripping on loose carpet. AND I was worried about a false charge of sexual harassment. Neither cause for worry happened.”
So other than the time commitment, what was so stressful about running this museum? Well for starters, even in today’s society menstruation is a taboo subject. A museum all about menstruation is still just too much female body info for some people to handle. The major issue in this case however seems to be that the museum was run by a man rather than a woman. For many people, a man running a museum about menstruation and women’s health is strange, or even disturbing. Even I felt a little weird telling my partner about the museum. How do you say “This guy used to run a menstruation museum out of his basement!” without it sounding at least a little bit creepy.
So is it creepy? Is the museum itself a good idea, but having a man in charge of it is inappropriate?
This is a complex issue, and I’m not going to pretend to have the answers to these questions. Personally, I appreciate the work that Finley has done to bring menstruation out of the shadows. As much as menstruation is a women’s issue, it is also a human issue. Women around the world suffer from the idea that menstruation is not worthy of male attention. When those in power are primarily men who view menstruation with disrespect, disgust, and ignorance, women pay the price in a variety of physical and psychological ways, including lack of access to menstrual products, ignorance about their cycles, and hatred of their own bodies.
While I believe it is important for men to understand and respect menstruation, I can understand some of the fears surrounding this museum. Because the museum was created and controlled by a man, it instinctively puts us on our guard. Women may perceive male domination of such a museum as threatening because of the many ways in which the female body has been (and still is) dominated by patriarchal society. For many women periods are private and personal, and a male invasion into this space, even theoretically, is disempowering.
So what’s to be done? Well, Finley still dreams of a physical museum for his collection, but with major changes. On his ideas for the future museum Finley states:
“I want you to create a new, larger and permanent museum to teach and entertain the public. I know that many women object to my having created the museum because I’m a male. For that reason I’m relinquishing any role in developing and running a new one but will donate the MUM archives to a suitable replacement, including to an existing museum under certain conditions.”
There seems to be groundwork here for a museum that would better meet the needs of the movement to normalize menstruation. Finley has a lot of useful ideas on the practical aspects of the future museum (location, exhibits, etc.), and also invites the public to share their ideas with him via email. I was scanning the website page with his thoughts on the future museum, and I read something so awesome that I just had to share it as a closing note to this post.
Finley notes that while some people believe his collection should go to a medical school, he doesn’t like this idea. Not only does he believe that this would make the collection relatively inaccessible to the public, he thinks that a menstruation museum doesn’t belong in a medical school. He notes:
“Medicine studies the disorders of the body; menstruation is not a disorder.”
And boom, there it is! Whatever you feel about Harry Finley or his museum, this statement is perfect.