The following is based on the forthcoming “Girls+Museums: A Manifesto” in the FWD:Museums journal, which is available for purchase here. It expands on analysis of a recent Smithsonian Institution exhibition to argue why museums continually fail to represent – and create relevance for – girls.

This article reflects the opinions of its author, Tiffany R. Isselhardt, and may not represent the views of Girl Museum or its team members.

Intro panel from “Girlhood: It’s Complicated” on the virtual exhibition site. The author would like to note that only one of the fully illustrated figures (bottom right), and perhaps the top right, could be considered “girls.” The others appear markedly older than the traditional cutoff of age 21 as the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Original image copyright the Smithsonian Institution.

Girlhood is complicated. Based on age and biological sex, girlhood encounters many demographic factors that create a complex web of experience. Each girl experiences her childhood through these many lenses, making her experience unique while encountering stigmas and stereotypes that hold her back from her dreams and full potential simply because she is a young female.

The forthcoming issue of FWD:Museums will include my manifesto for change. Specifically, it is for museums, historic sites, and cultural venues that too often have showcased girlhood without truly including it. While too many examples exist to critique, the one that stood out was the Girlhood: It’s Complicated exhibition at the National Museum of American History.

I didn’t have to see it in person to know it was not truly inclusive and representative of girls. You might ask how I can judge an exhibition without seeing it. Well, thanks to COVID-19, the exhibition was put online, and the many reviews, visitor photos, and discussions with colleagues led me to know it was an exhibit that I had no pressing need to witness for myself. It was, quite simply, tokenism. As I relate in Girls+Museums: A Manifesto,

What girls do today has profound consequences for tomorrow; yet, connecting their present actions with the past is rarely undertaken. Even in the much-promoted Smithsonian exhibition, Girlhood: It’s Complicated, the engagement with girls as historical actors – capable of creating systemic change – was rarely heard directly from their lived experiences. Instead, the exhibition focused on traditionally girl-associated topics such as school issues, body image, and fashion; and, buried within it are the third-person stories of the girls associated with a singular object. Within these topics were discussions of girls in more traditionally male fields – and comparisons to how boys were treated – but that burial itself signaled that girlhood is still meant to be seen as different to be a topic worthy of conversation.

“Girls+Museums: A Manifesto”, FWD:Museums (Fall 2022)

It took me four clicks to find a first-person story of a girl in the online exhibition. Four. Even then, most of the stories either (1) had been told so much in news coverage and other places that their inclusion involved very little effort, or (2) were clearly put in to checkmark boxes on “including” girls of different backgrounds. Let’s break this down:

The “News and Politics” featured one quote from a girl in the recent past. The slideshow of girls involved in politics in the past was simply historical images and small captions – no paragraphs stating what they had done, or why they were political. This was especially sad considering the first image is of Phillis Wheatley – the first published black girl in American history, whose work was not considered political at the time but only through our modern lens, since Wheatley’s true intentions are not known.

The “Education” section begins, “In school, girls are taught to fit in. But they also talk back.” I’m sorry – WHAT?! Are we seriously still taught that? No. Hell no. And our speaking out is not an act of rebellion. It is us being human beings with our own thoughts and opinions. In fact, schools have been one of the few places that girls felt able to express their opinions and form their own thoughts. (Not to say all schools were like that.) The section then displays desks and awards for good behavior. Which, quite frankly, are not gendered – any child could have used those. Where are the girls? I’d also like to note that while “News and Politics” online is only one page, “Education” has several. Um, why? They use it mainly to show statistics – good statistics, at that – but the experiences linked to them include a graduation dress and a sampler. (Okay, don’t get me started on the sampler…I wrote an entire chapter on one, am curating an exhibition on them for Girl Museum, and this exhibit makes samplers look like the dumbed-down version of watercolor painting for sale. Samplers were so much more complicated and girls actually used them to express their individual identities and desires, not just to learn a skill to make money!

The “Work” section is a blend of good and bad. While the slavery section is important, the emphasis on the photos takes away from the actual experiences of the black girls. Instead, the white narrative dominates, talking about the black girls’ importance to showing off family wealth. Not on what being enslaved as domestic workers actually did to black girls and their families. I think the best I got out of it was, “she carried a heavy baby.” The factory section gets even worse…they don’t talk about the disease, destitution, and rampant violence faced by girl factory workers, even though the photographer showcased – Lewis Hine – was an activist trying to get girls out of exploitative employment conditions by photographing them. Finally, we encounter the “Radium Girls” – who were not always girls. Most were young women (over age 21). Age matters.

Wellness and Fashion continue this trend. In fact, throughout the exhibition, I don’t actually feel like I met a real girl. I met characters – faces in photographs and short quotes on a wall. But I never learn a girl’s full story. I never felt a connection to her, an empathy for her. And isn’t empathy what sparks connection? Isn’t connection what we seek to establish? Connection is, essentially, creating relevance – something the museum field has sought to achieve for over a decade now. (Some may argue since its inception, or at least since the mid-20th century and the work of Freeman Tilden.)

Relevance is sorely lacking. The exhibition is tokenism – a blithe overview with hints of something darker, but bright colors, short quotes, and so many things that just feel like the same old “we’re naming girls and that counts as inclusion, right?” mantra. That is not inclusion. It will never be inclusion. And failing to bring actual girls to the table – to ask what stories are relevant to them, what experiences they want the world to know about, what things they would want to represent them in the museum – is the biggest failing of all.

Where is Phillis’s poetry? Sybil’s midnight ride? Girls who died from gender and racial violence? Voices of girls who protested – loudly – about the working and living conditions they endured? Where are the narratives from enslaved girls? (Yes, we do have some!) Where are the stories from Angel Island? Girls sold into human trafficking? Girls who faced domestic violence because they were born female? Girls who had to disguise their sex to achieve their dreams? Girls who considered themselves female even when born biologically male?

I would also like to note that while the curator is very talented, her specialty is “the cultural history of business and technology in the United States from the 1870s to the 1950s.”

…Seriously? You couldn’t get one girl studies scholar to at least consult on this exhibition? Because I know an entire conference worth that would have loved to be given a platform to tell all the amazing research we’ve been doing for the past 40+ years.

Please, museums, do better.

-Tiffany R. Isselhardt
Program Developer, Girl Museum

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