by Terah Walkup, Fine Art Curator

As part of our preparations for moving our collections to The Box, we’re doing a bit of ‘housecleaning’.

File Sorting - February 2019

We have documents and archival material dating back to the founding of Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery that tell important stories of the institution and the collections in its care. This is a chance for us to get things in order.

During our sorting we came across a letter written in 1975 from a university student asking about the women represented in our art collection that we’d like to highlight for International Women’s Day.

1975 letter - IWD 2019

‘As a radical feminist I don’t expect to see a great deal of women’s art on gallery walls but would like to find out what might be in the cellars.’

The curator at the time was pleased to write back that two works by Sylvia Gosse were on view in the newly built 20th century gallery ‘rather than languishing in the reserve art collection!’ The curator also sent along a list of the women artists held by the Museum.

1975 artist list - IWD 2019

We found with some further research that the enquirer was a political activist – an organiser of women’s activist groups with a forte for making protest banners, a tradition that goes back to the Suffragettes.

The letter was sent a few years after art historian Linda Nochlin published her ground-breaking essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ The essay answered this tongue-in-cheek question by highlighting the fact that women artists had been systematically barred from the educational structures and institutions that officiated the art market. For example, despite the Royal Academy counting Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser among its founding members, they were excluded from attending certain meetings and dinners. It wasn’t until 1936 that another woman, Dame Laura Knight, was admitted to the Academy.

Since 1975, we have a few more names to add to the list. Shortly after this letter was written we acquired important works by Beryl Cook, Dorothy Ward and Rose Hilton, works by whom will be on display when The Box opens next year.

In 1985 the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous collective of feminist artists, produced radical posters highlighting the lack of women artists represented in museum collections, exhibitions and galleries. At the time only 5% of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (Met) collection were female artists. It’s not just about the numbers. Identifying gaps in collections helps us tell a greater story and take steps to represent those who have been excluded.

As you might guess, this letter is one thing we’ll definitely be keeping! It’s an important record of the changing narrative around public collections, and a marker of audiences asking challenging questions. Questions like this weren’t just being asked of big institutions like the Met but also of regional museums whose collections also play a critical role in telling important histories.

Curious about what else we found? How about this exhibition poster from 1983, which also seems very appropriate for International Women’s Day!

Wild Women Don't Worry Poster - IWD 2019