In 2014, my colleagues at the Cairo-based Women and Memory Forum (WMF) and I decided to establish a women’s museum in Egypt. I was motivated by two things. The first was the absence of feminist narratives in museums in Egypt and across the Arab region. While Egypt hosts more than seventy museums, not a single one is dedicated to women’s history and only a handful of these museums are specialized biographical museums on famous women figures. The second was the expanding collections of archives and objects of material culture housed at WMF.
At that time, as WMF was approaching its twentieth anniversary, the rooms of our office in a residential neighbourhood in Cairo were not only filled with rare books and copies of old women’s magazines, but also with women’s photographs, news clippings, personal notes, and memorabilia. Having functioned as a feminist library and archive, WMF has engaged with established, as well as D.I.Y. archival practices to produce multifaceted and intergenerational historical narratives.1 In addition to archiving, since 2014, WMF has also engaged with several curatorial projects, including temporary exhibitions and the publication of a photo-book.
From this starting point, in 2017, the exhibition ‘Doing Well, Don’t Worry’: Short Tales of Women’s Work and Mobility opened in Cairo. It was conceptualized as a stepping stone towards establishing a women’s museum. The exhibition addressed the life stories of more than twenty women from countries across the Arab Region by showcasing women’s oral histories, archives, photos, personal memorabilia and artwork. While working on this exhibition, we asked ourselves questions such as: what is a feminist exhibition? And what would a feminist exhibition in Cairo look like? One of the recurring questions in the literature on feminist curatorial discourses and museological practices centres on how terms like ‘feminist exhibition,’ ‘feminist object,’ and ‘women’s museum’ should be defined.2 When defining a ‘feminist exhibition,’ the most significant features include an engagement with feminist theory, reflecting the sensibility of women’s movements becoming ‘the subject of History’, and a focus on the rewards of feminism and its impact on women’s lives.3 In addition, curatorial studies scholar Dorothee Richter argues that a feminist curatorial project not only contests contemporary and historical gendered power dynamics, but it also troubles the traditional power dynamics between the curator and the visitor.4
Informed by feminist theory and praxis, our archival exhibition aimed at presenting women’s lives via a thought-provoking as well as an emotionally-engaging exhibition narrative. Museum studies scholar Andrea Witcomb coined the term ‘a pedagogy of feeling’, which denotes ‘the ways in which some forms of contemporary exhibition practices stage affective encounters between viewer and viewed through the use of a range of devices to promote sensorial experiences that encourage introspective reflection on the part of visitors’.5 By advancing emotionally-engaging narratives of women’s history, ‘Doing Well, Don’t Worry’ is an example of a feminist exhibition employing a pedagogy of feelings. Most importantly, through this exhibition, WMF activist-archival practices, combined with feminist-informed curatorial practices, allowed visitors access to different stories of women’s empowerment.
As co-curator of this exhibition, I became aware of the extent to which emotionally-engaging narratives in feminist exhibitions have the potential to usher in alternative perspectives on women’s lives in the Arab region; perspectives that may otherwise remain unnoticed. Interestingly, employing a feminist-informed pedagogy of feeling enabled us to present stories that would not only be silenced in national archives, but also in alternative activist archives. Not only are women’s lives largely marginalized in collecting practices in Egypt, but they are also heavily influenced by dominant collection management practices, which tend to be blind to feminist praxis and women’s experiences.6 As a result, women’s belongings, if collected, are usually archived in light of a rigid private/public dichotomy. For example, items like postcards are perceived as objects that belong to women’s private sphere and are, therefore, often deemed too personal and unworthy of preservation. It is paramount to emphasize that WMF feminist activist-archivist practices have provided space for these seemingly mundane objects to be preserved in our archive, making them pathways to memory narratives about women’s empowerment. Furthermore, in practice, using a pedagogy of feeling helped challenge traditional archiving structures by allowing for multiple nuanced narratives instead of presenting a singular linear historical narrative.
In the case of ‘Doing Well, Don’t Worry’ a pedagogy of feeling was employed to unsettle the assumed authoritative position of the exhibition curator. This is evident in one exhibition assemblage (Fig. 1), through which visitors were presented with documents and images that are displayed in three rectangular wooden frames. In this assemblage, the stories of several women gradually unfold. On the top left, the visitor sees several postcards sent by students to Wedad Mitri (1927–2007), a teacher in marginalized rural areas. The postcards, which are part of Mitri’s personal collection housed at the WMF, provide insights into her legacy as a mentor and a unionist. Her legacy is often absent from dominant state-sponsored historical narratives in the country. Though significant, the assemblage is not dedicated to Mitri’s political activism, but rather to its impact on personal and social relationships in Mitri’s milieu. Here, a woman’s political activism is not presented as a heroic act of one individual, but rather as a way through which women collectively fostered intergenerational relations.
One of these relations is the subject of the two other frames in the assemblage. On the bottom left, there is a photo of Reem Saad, Mitri’s daughter, and Shahenda Maklad (1938-2016), Mitri’s mentee and an outspoken political activist herself. Reem Saad and Shahenda Maklad’s relationship is central to the letter displayed on the right side of the assemblage. On the occasion of Reem’s birthday in 1978, Maklad sent her a letter from prison, where she was held as a political prisoner for her opposition to the ruling regime at the time. In prison, Maklad did not have access to paper and instead wrote the letter on a long sheet of pink toilet paper. At the left side of the letter, vertically, Maklad reassured her friend and other readers of her letter by writing ‘Doing well, don’t worry’ (Fig. 2).
While the letter could be considered – and rightly so – a testament to the dire conditions of imprisonment in Egypt at the time, it was not displayed as such. Instead, it was placed in an exhibition assemblage about the complex and deep relationships women foster throughout their lives. Additionally, the interconnectedness of women’s lives in this assemblage was not clearly stated in the accompanying text labels. Therefore, the meaning of the assemblage was not dictated by the curator, which is a way to engage visitors in the process of meaning-making. Most importantly, these insights into Mitri’s life would have remained silenced in the archive if not for this exhibition.
While the postcards were already part of Widad Mitri’s collection housed at WMF, neither the photo nor the letter were at the time. After all, Mitri’s life is not the main subject of either document. As a matter of fact, both items were added to the collection during the process of making the exhibition. Anthropologist Reem Saad, Mitri’s daughter and a member of the curatorial team of the exhibition, directed our attention to both items, which she later donated to WMF. Therefore, one could argue that the process of making an exhibition that aspires to stir emotions about women’s lives via visual sources led us to those documents and objects that tell stories which, though significant, might only be construed as secondary anecdotes in a typical biographical one-woman centred personal archive.
In our exhibition, as exemplified by this assemblage, archival documents, oral histories and objects were not utilized as material evidence of a singular narrative about women’s empowerment in the Arab region. Instead, they were exhibited with the intention of evoking emotions via a process of meaning making that is dependent on visitors’ interactions with the artefacts on display. It is an example of the use of juxtaposition, which as Witcomb argued, is an exhibition strategy that avoids the suggestion that a particular artefact is necessarily a reflection of a broader narrative.7 However, not constructing a singular linear historical narrative about women’s lives, in this case in Egypt and the Arab region, is not to be understood as a strategy to depoliticize women’s history. On the contrary, an emotionally-evoking narrative about women’s lives is meant to instigate empathy that, as Witcomb suggested, would motivate political action.8 As such, ‘Doing Well, Don’t Worry’ and the archives it displays became ‘tool[s] of resistance’ to the hegemonic linear narratives about women in Egypt.9
Photographs courtesy of Maissan Hassan.
- It should be noted that the WMF’s D.I.Y. archival practices are primarily responses to the constraints of normative institutional archival traditions, which are incompatible with many of the WMF’s collections of women’s oral history and the personal collections of feminist activists, and to the practical limitations facing non-governmental, small-scale archival collections in Egypt, such as limited access to high-grade acid-free preserving materials.
- Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (Cambridge [MA], 2012), 49; Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry, ‘How to Be Seen: An Introduction to Feminist Politics, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions’, in ead. (eds.), Politics in a Glass Case: Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions (Liverpool, 2013), 1–21, at 12.
- Hilary Robinson, ‘Feminism Meets the Big Exhibition: Museum Survey Shows since 2005’, Anglo Saxonica, 3.6 (2013), 129–52, at 129; Susan Best, ‘What is a feminist exhibition? Considering Contemporary Australia: Women’, Journal of Australian Studies, 40.2 (2016), 190–202, at 190–1.
- Dorothee Richter, ‘Feminist Perspectives on Curating’, On Curating, 29 (2016), 64–75, at 64–6.
- Andrea Witcomb, ‘Toward a Pedagogy of Feeling: Understanding How Museums Create a Space for Cross-cultural Encounters’, in Sharon Macdonald and Helen Rees Leahy (eds.), The International Handbooks of Museum Studies (New Jersey, 2013), 321–44, at 322.
- For more on collecting women’s archives in Egypt, see Stephen Urgola and Maissan Hassan, ‘Women’s Collections in Egypt: Insights into the American University in Cairo’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library and the Women and Memory Forum’s Archives’, Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, 14.3 (2018), 315–29.
- Witcomb, ‘Toward a Pedagogy’, 321.
- Ibid., 340.
- Shereen Abouelnaga, ‘Feminist Artivism: Curating Women’s Memory’, Studi Maġrebini, 18.2 (2020), 164–79, at 170, 174.