Models of a pair of menstrual cups and a tampon are on display during the press preview of the Vagina Museum. Picture Credit: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images

A controversial opening

I love the idea of the Vagina Museum, I just don’t love this vagina museum

Artillery Row

The Vagina Museum and I did not get off the best start. First, it was as difficult to find as the proverbially elusive clitoris. Citymapper took me to Camden instead of the new premises in Bethnal Green. Fortunately, I did not miss my timed entry for this controversial re-opening. But did I travel across London, or back in time? The Vagina Museum must be the last venue in London to claim we are “in the middle of a global pandemic” and insists on masks, temperature checks and hand sanitiser. Never mind, I was not here to look at people’s faces…

The Vagina Museum is the world’s first bricks and mortar museum “dedicated to the gynaecological anatomy”. And, it’s about time. If you struggle with any of the words or concepts in this review, you prove the necessity of a museum dedicated to education and celebration of female anatomy.

The connection between female anatomy and females is broken

I sympathise with the decision to settle on the name, “The Vagina Museum”. You see, the vulva is my terrain. I am not merely in possession of one, but wrote the book Womanhood: The Bare Reality comprising 100 photographs and stories about vulvas. The problem is that not enough people are familiar with the word “vulva”, so while you want them to learn it, you also want them to come, as it were. Hence, Channel 4 insisted upon naming the accompanying documentary 100 Vaginas, dooming me to explain that decision to disgruntled female journalists over and over again. (Anatomy lesson for those at the back: the vulva is the external genitalia, and the vagina is the internal muscular tube, also known as the birth canal.)

The permanent exhibit occupies a small room, while the bulk of the museum is taken up with the temporary exhibition, currently “Periods — A brief history”. Visiting the museum and reading all the information took me about one hour. 

The period exhibition is disappointingly low on scientific and medical information but excels in obscure and interesting vignettes. There are illustrations of prehistoric art depicting menstruation, although I wonder whether those early humans also thought of their subjects as “people with vulvas”. (More on that in a moment…) I was captivated by the gruesome story of the Jiajing Emperor who tried to prolong his life using concoctions made from the menstrual blood of enslaved virgins. I learnt about Mary Kenner, the Black American inventor of the adjustable sanitary belt. 

One of the strengths of the museum is the demystification of the vulva and vagina for younger and less comfortable visitors. One of the best exhibits is a panel of photographs from Gynodiversity which is very similar to my Womanhood artwork, consisting of close-up and non-sexualised photographs of vulvas. It reveals the spectrum of “normal” for a body part which is mysterious and the cause of such shame.

The Vagina Museum is resolute in its mission to use “inclusive language, except in the cases of quotes from figures in history”. This creates an unfortunate juxtaposition, whereby girls and women can touch vulvas crafted from felt, look at technicolour photographs of vulvas, interact with various displays designed to bust myths and educate, but a key truth is absent — that the vulva and vagina are part of a woman’s body. The connection between female anatomy and females is broken.

The museum has struggled with online algorithms that censor the word “vagina”. While actual pornography thrives unchecked online, medical and artistic representations of female anatomy are deemed obscene and closed down. My own work has suffered from the same puritanical censorship from sexist silicon valley geeks. In an ironic dichotomy, the Vagina Museum suffers from censorship yet needs to think about its own “policy algorithm” which censors the words “woman”, “girl” and “female”. In its determination to be inclusive to “marginalised genders” it presents our ownership of sexed body parts as a mere coincidence.

The museum explores the transformation which occurs through gender identity but very little on the transformation which occurs through puberty, childbirth and menopause. There is a sense that the museum is psychologically stunted and yet to grow past its own political puberty.

Gender identification and transition involve physical, emotional, psychological and social changes which merit education and understanding, and they belong in the museum. But the politically-orientated ideology and obedience to inclusivity ignore nuance. 

Vaginas are not body parts that exist on their own

And much more is ignored. Where is the science of female arousal, pleasure and orgasms? Or the impact of female desire on identity, and the intersection of female sexuality and reproduction on cultural history? Women’s bodies are highly politicised but the political focus here is trained almost solely on transgender issues and, due to the current temporary exhibition, periods. Why does “queerphobia” merit an information board, but not sexism?

If pleasure is neglected, so is pain. Conditions like vulvodynia, polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis and more, undoubtedly have a more profound effect on more women’s lives than “fatphobia”, which did have an information board. 

Sexual violence and rape are skated over. Prostitution is framed as sex worker rights, which is but one dimension. Most troubling of all, we are informed that “there are over 200 million people around the world living with FGM”. I must take special exception to this. FGM is a brutal violence inflicted upon girls and women. The “F” stands for female. It is wrong not to say so.

There is information on abortion, miscarriage and stillbirth, but not birth, which is odd. (Did I miss it?) Regarding menopause, we are told that some “people” don’t enjoy the menopause but “some also feel freed from gendered expectations, almost like having the freedom of being a child again.” I am perimenopausal and would venture that no one who has been through the menopause was involved in writing this. I could spend an entire article decoding the ageism and sexism of the menopause board but I don’t like indulging in oppression hierarchies.

The first mission of the Vagina Museum is to “spread knowledge and raise awareness of the gynaecological anatomy and health”. The first part is a success, but the second part has been neglected.

Vaginas are not body parts that exist on their own. They are attached to our bodies. They are ours. We own these experiences. And we are nearly all women. Would mentioning us outside of historical quotes really be so terrible? Consulting women of different ages, experiences and from different chapters of our broad feminist church would help the curation.

If you want to understand the politics of London’s newly re-opened Vagina Museum, you need look no further than its toilets. The first door in the corridor threw me. It had a picture of a toilet on it and an old fashioned vacant/engaged sign which was stopped in the halfway position. Was someone in there or not? Was it the ladies loo, or not? I found another door. I was just as confused about the unlabelled picture but went in. Afterwards I realised the picture had denoted a toilet and a urinal. Oops. Rather than “Ladies” and “Gents” we are reduced to toilets and urinals. 

I love the idea of the Vagina Museum, I just don’t love this vagina museum.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover