Take one step inside a historical home in the UK and you'll find little female representation. This is exactly why two female artists teamed up to turn the tables and demonstrate to the public how often women have been overlooked in history. They did so at Cragside, a National Trust property in Northumberland. However, the National Trust's tribute to women didn't go as planned thanks to a bunch of — what I'm calling unnecessary — complaints.
Cragside was owned by Lord and Lady Armstrong. Lord William Armstrong became a renowned inventor and engineer, employing thousands in his factory, pioneering hydroelectricity in Britain, and building bridges and the mechanism that is used to operate London's famous Tower Bridge.
Lady Mary Armstrong, on the other hand, was more than just a wealthy man's wife. According to the National Trust, she was known for having just as much of an impact on the local community as her husband. She donated a considerable sum of her own money to a children's hospital and regularly helped charities supporting deaf and blind people as well as women.
Despite this, Armstrong's 19th century home is still dominated by art made by men. So artists Kate Stobbart and Harriet Sutcliffe set out to inform visitors of the discrimination faced by women at the time by flipping the inequality on its head. They set up a powerful exhibition that concealed any artwork or object created by or depicting a man so that guests might get a sense of what it can be like to be a woman in male-dominated spaces.
The Guardian reports that visitors were left "baffled" by the sheet-covered statues and paintings and got to work filling up the property's comments box with complaints. "Ridiculous" was another word used to describe the decidedly feminist display that took place between October 13 and November 4.
Was it really ridiculous to take away male representation or was the exhibition making a valid point about the representation of women in years gone by? If anything, the response seems to further prove the artists' views, showing that even today's public aren't used to seeing the point of view of women depicted so brazenly.
Instead of sticking to its guns, the National Trust has issued a semi-apologetic statement. "We know it is not unusual for some people to dislike or disagree with what they see in contemporary art," it said. "This exhibition was not about censoring art or being politically correct, but to encourage people to look at the collection differently and stimulate debate. Sometimes it doesn't work as we intended and we accept the feedback we have received."
Granted a lot of that feedback involved families who were annoyed at having to pay almost £50 for an exhibition that involved several covered-up artworks. But the National Trust has stated that the exhibition was well publicised beforehand. Clearly, visitors either didn't get the message or aren't onboard with this feminist statement, which tells us something of the validity which with women's concerns are treated by large swathes of the population.
One man told BBC Newcastle: "I fail to see how hiding exhibits deemed as male can do anything to encourage female achievement. I can't help but think that an extra exhibition recognising the achievements of women would be more constructive." Again, this person seems to be missing the point. Despite Lady Armstrong's achievements, there weren't enough artefacts to make up an entirely separate exhibition about her or any of the women that had anything to do with Cragside, and doesn't that say something shocking of its own?
The artists themselves made their intentions clear. "By concealing some of the male objects and artefacts within the house, it might shift the lens slightly so that these women would finally have a space to shine," Sutcliffe commented in a video. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have happened. Instead, all that has occurred is more whining about how equality shouldn't mean stripping men, both historical and current, of their accolades.
Well, no, but it does mean that women are entitled to all the sole attention that men have gotten over the years. It does mean that women are entitled to be at the centre of a much-needed discussion, even if that discussion only lasts for three short weeks.
The exhibition and the subsequent debacle also displays the way we prioritise avoiding discomfort over meaningful progress. The National Trust's focus on property means that the kind of British history it represents is privileged, white, and male. If you've ever wandered round a National Trust property, you'll know that the clientele you encounter there bears an eery resemblance. Covering up the work and representation of men gave the privileged just a tiny taste of what it's like to be invisible in the history of the country you call home. Their unwillingness to experience what it's like for those who aren't white, male and privileged to take in this version of British history is staggering, and proves why true intersectional feminism has a lot of work to do.