Museum Project Day: Representing Women at the National Gallery (Suruchika Chawla, ITP 2018, India)

Written by Suruchika Chawla, Young Museum Professional, National Museum, New Delhi (ITP 2018)

Hello ITP group, this is my second blog as a fellow of the ITP 2018. As we are nearing towards the final week of the summer programme, the tasks and projects are becoming much more interesting to share our learnt experience and existing knowledge in a fantastic way.

Thursday was Museum Project Day: a day where fellows split into groups to explore and examine museums around London, and then feed back their findings. This year, the day day focused on evaluating the representation of women in various exhibitions in London museums or allied organisations. 2018 in the UK is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which allowed the first women, and all men, to vote for the first time, and so the ITP team decided to make women the focus for ITP Museum Project Day 2018.

Each group of fellows did their best to weave stories around the women who are epitomized in one or another way to be a significant part of society. Their omnipresent contribution in almost any field of work, education, skill or life itself is an ever-inspiring subject for writers, poets and artists. Some groups visited temporary exhibitions focused on the ‘Vote 100’ centenary (Voice and Vote at Westminster Hall, At Last! Votes for Women at LSE Library Gallery, Votes for Women at Museum of London…). Other groups were asked to look at an institution more generally from a gender perspective: its permanent display, education offer, marketing, merchandise, workforce etc.

As a group, Yohana Frias (National Museum of the Philippines), Hoda El Chayah (Directorate General of Antiquities, Lebanon) and I were assigned to visit the National Gallery, which is adjacent to Trafalgar Square in London. We decided to focus on the collection, interpretation, programming and shop.

Picture 1

Our team: Yohana, Hoda and myself – recently returned from our ITP UK Partner placement with Norfolk Museums Service

Choosing exhibits as per various parameters of display content at the National Gallery was an arduous task, with this institution being a huge building with almost 66 galleries spanning across three floors! Nevertheless, we were an active team who willingly delegated floors and divided galleries, which made our work a bit simpler and more time efficient.

Seeing exhibition galleries keeping in mind the collection and interpretation of women, we found stories that best described the roles of women as represented in this collection.

I was impressed by various representations of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in almost all sections of various displays. The portrayal of a mother, her love for her child, her despair on seeing pain of her child added a flavour of this ideal depiction of motherhood.

The usual roles of being a daughter, wife or mother were portrayed in many stories, like:

A devoted wife waiting for her estranged husband to return from his ordeal…

Picture 4

Pintoricchio, Penelope with the Suitors, c.1509

Another drinking poison mixed with ashes of her dead husband to reunite with him in another world…

Picture 5

Andrea Mantegna, A Woman Drinking, from Two Exemplary Women of Antiquity, 1495-1506

We saw women shown as an object of lust or seduction, and suffering ordeals that test their patience to the best…

Picture 7

Master of the Story of Griselda, The Story of Griselda, Part II: Exile, c.1494

But there were also some unusual displays, like:

An old woman suffering from a bone disease…

Women shown as equally strong as men in a depiction of the Spartans…


Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising, c.1860

It was a very enriching experience, being not much fluent in the field of this era of Western paintings. This project brought me closer to understanding the messages painted by artists in a creative sense.

Finally, to my happiness, a significant workshop for children was going on in Room 30 that added to my zeal to explore more. I saw children weaving patterns based on a picture, that was also depicted in forms of paintings, clay sculptures, craft art and beautiful creations of young artists. I felt extremely touched by seeing so many representations of hidden themes within one painting. The National Gallery has a huge collection and equally magnificent souvenirs that creates a sense of appreciation towards art and added a new fervour to our lives. Simply inspiring!!