Cotton Picking Girls

  One day, Winslow Homer visited Petersburg, Virginia, and decided to study the life of rural African Americans. At a time when the South was still recovering from the Civil War, and the legacy of slavery was fresh in everyone’s minds, Homer sought to portray African Americans as heroic survivors looking forward to a full life of hope and success. Boy, was he wrong. Critics look at this painting and praise it. They hail Homer – a white American painter – as “the first artist to have seen the possibilities of this untapped subject matter.” Even LACMA, where the painting is...

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Apache Doll

  Getting your first period is a big deal for girls. Imagine if your entire community knew about it? Some of us grew up in a world of privacy and shame around menstruation and puberty in general, while others celebrate this life-changing event with friends and family. This relatively simple doll, made of cotton and dressed in buckskin and beads, was used by the Apache to teach girls about the rite of passage to womanhood. This is typically marked by a celebration the summer after a girl’s first period. Called the Na’ii’ees, or the Sunrise Ceremony, girls go through a rigorous four day...

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Geisha Netsuke

  Did you know it takes years of training to be a geisha? And that geisha means artist? Geisha and their world are very mysterious. That is part of the charm. However, it’s complicated and somewhat confused history means that geisha are quite misunderstood. This female dominated industry does provide means for women to achieve great wealth and independence. And in some instances and eras, their role was highly valued. As professional entertainers though, their role was often conflated with courtesans and prostitutes. And part of their training was to be seen and not heard....

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Margaret and the Curious Case of the Doll House Contract

  This has to be one of the most unusual dollhouse artifacts I have ever seen. You read me right. This rather unusual document is about a girl and her dollhouse. Written in 1837, it is a contract between Mr. Thomas Massa Alsager, a journalist from Queen’s Square in London, and his eldest daughter, Margaret, who was then just 12 years old. The contract details the care of Margaret’s doll house, and places it firmly in the family’s parlour – one of the most public rooms of the house. It suggests that not only was Margaret’s dollhouse actively played with, it was displayed for all of...

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Rebekah’s Sampler

  For decades, young girls created a sampler to show their skills and knowledge. This particular sampler features a variety of scenes, decorative elements, and text embroidered onto the fabric. A product like this was equivalent to today’s final exam or essay at the end of a school year. What does this sampler tell us about Rebeckah Munro, and other girls who grew up during the late 18th century? Rebekah was 11 years old when she completed this embroidery project. The verses that Rebekah chose to include on her sampler indicate that she, and likely her parents, valued education. It...

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Qing Girls

  A young girl made of bronze, holding an object we can’t identify, pleading with us to call her by name. That seems to be the story of so many girls in Qing China, the last imperial dynasty of an ancient land. The Qing dynasty lasted from 1644 until 1912, becoming known as a multicultural empire that formed the basis for modern China. Yet it was a rigid society, known for its strict class hierarchy and the oppression of women. Like this nameless girl, many girls in the Qing dynasty were expected to be silent. Though educated, it was only so that they could take their place as teachers...

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Mughal Album Leaf: A Heroine Unnamed

  Look at this girl. What is she doing? Riding away from the wind? Calling it to follow her? This girl, like many in Mughal India, is a heroine. She is calling to quicksilver, a precious metal in the Mughal empire, and using her beauty to draw it out into the world. Her pose and gesture are dynamic and assertive, something we don’t typically associate with women of the 16th and 17th centuries. She is wearing a multicolored sari, known as a chunris. Yet beneath this image are mysteries. Who is she, and why was she so powerful that she could call quicksilver? And why would she be calling...

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The First Day of School

  Many of us have a memory of a first day of school. Whether donning a backpack filled with crayons and glue for preschool, hopping on the bus for the first time as a kindergarten student, or entering the intimidating halls of high school as a 9th grader, the first day of school can be a big deal! How do we hold on to those memories? In my experience, my mom often snapped a photo to commemorate the first day of school – something that we could look back on to see how much I grew from year to year, or to laugh at the 1990s fashion. What was the first day of school like before there...

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The Marriage of Mary Stuart

  The bride shown here is only 9 years old. Her name is Mary Stuart. Born in November of 1631, Mary was the eldest daughter of King Charles I of England, Scotland, and Ireland and his wife, Henrietta Maria of France. At the age of 9, she married William II, Prince of Orange and Stadtholder of the United Provinces. Mary and her mother moved to the Dutch Republic, where she was taught the ways of Dutch court. It’s clear that Mary and Charles did not have a sexual relationship until late in their marriage. Just before William’s death in 1650, they had an infant son. Mary shared...

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A Virginal and a Queen

  Do you play the piano? What about the harpsichord? Have you heard of a virginal before? If you haven’t, you’re not alone, but virginals used to be common household instruments, and anyone who was anyone had one. Virginals are in the same family of instruments as the harpsichord. And though harpsichords look very similar to pianos and are played in the same way, the way they make sounds are different. While pianos produce sound by striking the strings with a hammer, the strings in harpsichords and virginals are plucked. The placement of the keyboard determines where the...

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Sofonisba’s Self-Portrait

  When you think of Renaissance painters, who do you name? Probably Raphael, Michelangelo, da Vinci…all men. Yet women were a huge part of the Renaissance – and traditional art history has yet to do them justice. During the Renaissance, art was a social necessity. It helped to guide a largely illiterate population with spiritual guidance and new ideas. One of the painters who used art to educate was Sofonisba Anguissola – a woman. Sofonisba was born in Cremona, Italy, in 1532. Her father was a minor noble, and encouraged her to develop her talents in the arts....

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Lover’s Cassone

  Made between 1345 and 1354, a cassone, or marriage chest, was an important part of a girl’s bedroom. Telling a story of romance and beautifully decorated, this cassone was a high status symbol for rich merchants and aristocrats in Italy. It was also one of the most important pieces of furniture on display in the home, typically in the bridal suite. A girl was given the cassone during her wedding, as a gift from her parents. Since it was for marriage, the cassoni was decorated with painted panels commemorating marriage or allegorically referring to love. The one shown here was most...

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Mexica Chicomecoatl and the Maiden

  The Aztecs are famous for the human sacrifices…and these included girls. Every autumnal equinox, a young girl was chosen to personify the maize goddess. She was sacrificed by the Mexica priests, who decapitated her, collected her blood, and poured it over a figurine of the goddess. This object is the maize goddess, called Chicomecoatl, and was likely used in such ceremonies. She is the spirit of corn and sustenance, and was the most revered deity in Central Mexico. Chicomecoatl wears a feathered headdress, and her body and clothing are painted red – or, perhaps, stained...

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The Tale of Sumiyoshi

  From rom coms to stacks of romantic paperbacks, we love a good love story. For many, our first experience with a love story may have been the story of Cinderella. But the Cinderella-style story has been around since long before Disney released their famous animated version in 1950. Cinderella stories were very popular in the Heian and Kamakura periods in Japan. This artifact is an example of that – a thirteenth century illustration telling The Tale of Sumiyoshi on a beautifully drawn handscroll. The story was likely created in the tenth century by an anonymous author. The piece...

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The Lewis Chessman…and the Woman who Created Them

  The Lewis Chessmen are one of the most famous sets of chess pieces in the world. Prominently displayed at The British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland, these pieces have been publicized as being made in Norway by men. But that’s probably not the truth. The Lewis Chessmen are 93 gaming pieces found in the vicinity of Uig on the Isle of Lewis around 1831. The pieces include 78 chessmen, 14 tables-men, and a buckle to secure a bag. All are made of elaborately worked walrus ivory and whales’ teeth to form the shapes of kings, queens, bishops, knights on their mounts, standing...

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The Tale of Genji

  What was the first “real” novel? Who wrote it? Many people cite Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the first modern European novel, and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as the first English novel, but were either of these really the first? Though the modern concept of the novel has roots tracing back to Classical Greece and Rome, and has precursors in epic verse, the first novel, as we define it today, appeared in 11th century Japan. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court, The Tale of Genji was definitively completed by 1021, but more likely finished around 1012....

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Harem Girls

  Sex slavery is sanctioned in the Quran. Mohammed had three concubines and made sure his male followers had their share as well. However, the Quran also says that rape is forbidden, so presumably everyone had to consent. Like all religions that privilege males, some things that are allowed are not necessarily encouraged. Or even more ambiguous, it is a “do as I say not as I do” situation. These painting fragments are thought to be slave girls from the harem of Caliph al-Muasim in Samarra. If you think of old wall paintings or murals as ancient television, it would come as no surprise...

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Visit of Manjushri to Vimalakirti

  Did you know gender equality is a principle in Buddhism? I certainly didn’t, until I stumbled across this scene, “The Visit of Manjushri to Vimalakirti,” from the Vimalakirti Sutra. Composed around 100 CE, this Mahayana Buddhist sutra is known for its brash humor – and its advocacy of getting rid of gender norms. In the sutra, Buddha asks his ten disciples to visit Vimalakirti, a layman who is far more advance in Buddha’s retinue than the disciples. Yet, Vimalakirti is ill, so all the disciples refuse to visit him – except Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. In this...

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A Merovingian Ring

  How do you know someone is engaged to be married? Today, we showcase engagement by wearing a ring on the fourth finger of our left hand. It’s a practice that is nearly as old as Western civilization – dating all the way back to the 300s, when Roman author Aulus Gellius wrote in Attic Nights that rings were worn on the fourth finger of the left hand because this finger contained the vein that led straight to the heart. This 1,500-year-old ring was also used to show that a girl was going to be married. It was worn by Betta, and given to her by a warrior named Dromacius. And it...

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Silk Princess Painting

  Princesses are known to follow the rules, wait for the prince, and live happily ever after. Like this votive panel illustrating from the 6th Century however, shows that this isn’t always the case. The votive panel illustration tells the story of smuggling, secret silkworms, and definitely breaking the rules. The votive panel isn’t a beautiful piece of art. Compared to the rest of the British Museum’s collection of works, it certainly wouldn’t stand out. But, it was never intended to be a beautiful art piece. The votive panel was intended to be a storyteller, and the story it tells is...

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The Admonitions Scroll

  We all wish that life came with an instruction book sometimes, right? Something to let us know how to act in various situations, and especially if we were going to be in the presence of royalty. Pictures for quick reference would make such a book even better! The ladies of the imperial harem in the Tang Dynasty period of China had just that: a scroll featuring text and pictures entitled “Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies.” The British Museum is home to this beautiful scroll, which is on display for just eight weeks each year. The Museum acquired the scroll in 1903...

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The Paracas Textile

  Can a cloak tell a story? Yes, and this one tells a story unlike any other. This is an Andean mantle, or cloak, made of cotton and camelid fibers. It was found in Paracas, Peru, for which it was named “The Paracas Textile.” This name often confuses it with other textiles made by the Paracas culture, which show similar styles and techniques. Yet the Paracas artifacts date to nearly 2,500 years old – and this cloak is only about 2,000 years old. That’s because it wasn’t made by the Paracas. The cloak you see here was made by the Nazca (also spelled Nasca), who were the Paracas’s...

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Bronze Strigil with Handle in Form of a Girl

  At just 40 centimeters, this figure is unassuming next to the momentous collections at the British Museum. Surprisingly, this bronze strigil is a symbol of girlhood strength. Long before bath bombs, shower gel, and dry shampoo, girls were using a much different tool to get clean. A strigil is a curved blade used to scrape dirt, oil, and sweat off the body, typically after exercise. The curves in the blade were designed to go along the curves of the body and to be scraped across the skin after a scented oil was applied. It sounds bizarre, but it’s really not too far away from all...

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Playing Ephedrismos

  How long have girls played games? Some of the earliest evidence of games specifically for girls comes from Ancient Greece. This terracotta statuette features two girls, one carrying another, thought to illustrate the game of ephedrismos. In the game, a stone would be placed upright on the ground. Girls would take turns throwing balls or pebbles at the stone from a distance, though we aren’t quite sure who would “win” the game. The loser would have her eyes covered, and had to carry the winner on her back until she found and touched the stone. There were probably many variations of...

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Receipt for Slave Girl, Cuneiform tablet

  This small clay tablet is a receipt written in an ancient text called cuneiform. These wedge-shaped characters were used in the first writing systems in the world. In particular, this one is from the time of Cambyses II, ruler of Babylon. It is a receipt for the sale of a slave girl. Slavery was normal in the Ancient world. While it may have been an accepted system then, this does not make it any more right than it would be today. Girls were bought and sold as slaves by the thousands for several purposes, like domestic workers and concubines. They were also acquired to become the...

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