Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Women's Museum of California: Exhibits and Collections

by Joe Nalven

The Women's Museum of California connects us with memories we've had or should have had. These memories are a kaleidoscopic view of women in California, as reflected in its collection, library and gallery exhibits. It may seem odd that I refer to memories we should have had, but in this whirlwind society our memories often seem less tangible. You can call this the stuff of history and page through a book or see it as a televised special; and yet history becomes more real we walk through an exhibit with treasures memorializing those experiences.

In San Diego, the Women's Museum of California (WMC) has been actively involved in reminding us of the California women's experience. Currently on display is an exhibit about women who were in the glamour industry. Perhaps emphasizing glamour may seem politically incorrect from today's encouragement of women to be scientists, astronauts, doctor, engineers and the like. But there is the history that comes before a changing world and hoped for futures.

Collections manager, Bonnie Domingos, discussing an item from the Glamour Industry exhibit

I spoke at length with Bonnie Domingos, the collections manager for the WMC’s Library, Archive, and Museum collections. Her BA is in Visual Arts and Technology with her Masters in Library Information & Science, emphasizing emerging technologies and special collections.

Behind the Glamour: The Women Who Built the Industry 1920-1940
Open through February 2, 2014
Women's Museum of California Gallery
NTC Liberty Station 2730 Historic Decatur Road, Suite #104
San Diego, CA 92106
Open:  Wednesday to Sunday from 12 pm to 4 pm
Regular admission:  $5; Seniors: $3, and WMC members: Free.
For more information:  (610) 233-7963  

Bonnie Domingos:  Our current exhibit is Behind the Glamour: The Women Who Built the Industry 1920-1940.  Despite the female image construction being produced in Hollywood during the 1920s – 1930s which emphasized what a woman could be, this exhibit documents the lives of pioneering women who directed and managed some of the world’s leading cosmetic and fashion design industries. Women like Madame C.J. Walker, Edith Head, and Helena Rubenstein are documented within the exhibit, as well as a world class collection of over 200 cosmetic compacts and carry-alls from the period, and original Edith Head costume design sketches from Hollywood’s biggest studios of the period.

Edith Head drawings (Courtesy of C. Esquevin)

Joe Nalven:  Can you tell me about the current exhibit and the exhibit coming up shortly?
Bonnie Domingos: Our next exhibit is Beautiful, Brilliant and Brave, A Celebration of Black Women. This exhibit celebrates the diverse beauty, brilliance and bravery of Black women throughout the world and highlights many local women that have made amazing contributions within their communities and professions. This exhibit coincides with Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March.

Beautiful, Brilliant and Brave, A Celebration of Black Women
Curated by Starla Lewis:  "The Beauty of the Black woman birthed in Africa and travelled throughout the Diaspora from continent to continent, island to island, and as a result this beauty is represented throughout the world. The outer beauty is a manifestation of the spirit’s inner beauty. This beauty has polished the soul through generations of joys, sorrows, triumphs and tragedies."
February 7, 2014 to Sunday, March 30, 2014
Women's Museum of California Gallery
NTC Liberty Station 2730 Historic Decatur Road, Suite #104
San Diego, CA 92106
Open:  Wednesday to Sunday from 12 pm to 4 pm
Regular admission:  $5; Seniors: $3, and WMC members: Free.
For more information:  (610) 233-7963  

Joe Nalven:  You have a book collection, yet we live in a digital age. How does this book collection fit in with the overall concept of the Women's Museum ? 

Bonnie Domingos: In many ways our library collection operates both as a reference library and an archive. While its current purpose is to collect and provide resources to the public on a range of issues that concentrate on the female experience, it also documents a very specialized focus; with a collection of rare and out-of-print books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and self-published zines; documenting a crucial period in second wave feminism of the early 1960’s through the mid 1070’s. That, you can’t find online! Not in the profound and united manner this collection provides. Sure the digital age is terrific in its capacity but it can be daunting. The WMC library provides a unique collection, one that has been carefully curated overtime and one that documents not only the museums founding history but its evolution though three decades and the women responsible for that!

Joe Nalven: Would you accept more books for the collection?  What type of theme would fit best? The collection seems to have a feminist direction. Does this stand in contrast to the glamour exhibit or is glamour a different way of expressing feminism?  

Bonnie Domingos: We accept donations for the Library, Archive, and Museum Collection but we have a very rigorous acquisition policy. Materials have to meet all the marks since we are so very limited in resources. I want to be clear that the direction of our collecting efforts are not feminist in nature. We collect materials that document meaningful feminine experiences, from the pervasive to the more radical. It’s not one thing that defines this collection, it’s an expedition. Feminism is just one journey.

Joe Nalven:  One of the objects in the collection, up on the top shelf, is a doll in a chair.
Bonnie Domingos: Within our folk art collection, we have a series of dolls that were created by fiber artist Muriel Fisher, who was the founder of the oldest artist cooperative in San Diego, Many Hands Craft Gallery and was a member for thirty years. As an artist working with found objects, her crowning achievement Exceptional Women in the Arts was a series of twelve dolls depicting leading women such as; Georgia O’keefe, Gertrude Stein, Barbara McDonald, Anias Nin, Martha Graham, Toni Morrison, Virginia Wolf, and Frida Kahlo which is the one documented in your photograph.  This grant funded project was made in part due to assistance from the ‘Thanks Be to Grandmother Winifred Foundation’ which was a foundation encouraging creativity to women over the age of 54 to implement projects that empowered and enriched adult women’s well-being. Her artistic process was also documented in  PBS series.

Frida Kahlo doll / Muriel Fisher

Joe Nalven: You have boxes and boxes of things. I am curious about what's in them and would love to spend the day — or maybe the week — sorting through them. Do you ever display these objects?

Bonnie Domingos: Yes, it is a treasure trove! For nearly 30 years the museum has been collecting but no real collection development has shaped the collection. I am the first person to undertake this, so it is at times overwhelming. But tremendous progress has been done since I came on board a year and a half ago, joining Ashley Gardner, Executive Director
Duane McGregor, Exhibition Designer and Tina Clarke, Operations manager. I think the WMC has a much clearer vision of its identify and stewardship for the future.

Inside the WMC collection / What can you add to the history of California women?
Joe Nalven: How do you work your collecton into the WMC's programming?

Bonnie Domingos:  We try to develop programming that can incorporate our collections as much as possible but that is not always the case. I can give you a general idea of what the collection contains within our museum and archive collections that include a women’s clothing collection of more than 400 items of historic and period clothing dating from as early as 1870. We also house a small art collection, objets de art collection, daguerreotype and tintype photograph collection, and an empherma collection of objects from the Alice Park archive that includes original propaganda regarding the 19th amendment and women winning that vote in California in 1911. We have a number of archives from leading women in San Diego including, Nancy Reeves, Lucy Killea, the Women’s International League, U.N. Conferences on Women, California Women for Agriculture, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and many others.
Joe Nalven:  The objects on display invite one to remember what those days were like - even if our memories are from movies and books.  The pink and black gown has a subtle imperial feel to it just as the furs and make-up cases have.  Why did you select these items of glamour? 

Bonnie Domingos: For the purpose of the show, we wanted to display some of the best pieces we had in the collection but also to document the process a fashion designer like Edith Head would have conducted; from the sketch art to the actual fabrication of the garment. This dress was an exceptional piece, highlighting the importance of haute couture in Hollywood as well as showcase its exceptional garment construction, detail, and exclusivity.

Joe Nalven:  I know I can google this question, but it might be of interest about women in California. When did the women get the vote in California compared to the U.S. constitutional amendment?

Bonnie Domingos:  Woman’s suffrage was making headway in the West. While most eastern politicians were dead set against woman suffrage, politicians and voters in several western states enfranchised women and, at times, battled Congress for the right to do so. In 1869 Wyoming led the nation in the adoption of woman suffrage while still a territory; in 1890, when it appeared that Congress would not approve its application for statehood as long as the state allowed woman suffrage, the legislature declared "we will remain out of the Union a hundred years rather than come in without the women." Even the Mormon stronghold of Utah enacted woman suffrage as a territory in 1870 and came into the union with woman suffrage in 1896. Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1896) were the other pioneering suffrage states. The next round of state victories did not come until 1910, and these were also in the West (Washington, 1910; California, 1911; Oregon, 1912; Kansas, 1912; and Arizona, (1912). 

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