Hurrah, it’s International Women’s Day tomorrow. I feel like a lot of things have changed, or at least started to maybe edge towards the slightest bit of change, since last year. One massive change has been at the wonderful Museo dei Balzi Rossi, a great museum that I first encountered designing a tour for my previous employers, and which I recently returned to digitally while putting together the proposal for book number 3.
The caves and rock shelters of the “Red Cliffs” the museum is named for contained a number of Palaeolithic human remains, mostly discovered in the 19th and early 20th century. One of the most famous, excavated in 1872, was the remains of what was thought to be a man, wearing a beautiful headpiece made of shells and deer teeth, and covered in red ochre, dated to around 30-24,000 years BP. As it turns out, the 19th century assumption that this burial was male was incorrect. In a special event for International Women’s Day, the Museum has revealed the results of new analysis which demonstrates that “Mentone Man” was actually a woman. Entry is free for women tomorrow, and you can explore all the fabulous finds from these caves and rejoice at an androcentric interpretation being proved wrong.
Or, you could go further south, where you don’t have to challenge any assumptions about women in the past, and women’s lives in the present…
I feel horrible writing this as I love this museum and used their collections extensively in my PhD thesis, but the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Chiusi has got it terribly wrong in its IWD celebrations. They are hosting a special event called “L’arte della seduzione nel Mondo Antico,” a title which made me worry: Valentine’s Day was a few weeks back team. The event is focused on perfume use and that’s great: there is important work to be done on perfume: its actual contents, the trade in it, how its ingredients travelled and moved around, its role in gender interaction, structuring masculinity and femininity and the role of scent in curating identity. I’ve done bits and bobs with this myself, drawn from the bodies we see on perfume vessels, and need to sort my act out and write it out properly. But oh, the language used to promote this event. Oh.
First off, the “Art of Seduction.” Is this really all that Etruscan women were interested in and for? The follow up is “Etruscan women remember…” remember what? Remember the same endless being objectified and reduced to a body for sex that is so familiar from the present day, and that IWD is supposed to be fighting against?
Then we have a more detailed promo text, including:
“La donna etrusca è celebrata dalle fonti antiche per la sua straordinaria bellezza, esaltata grazie all’uso sapiente di profumi…”
“Etruscan women are renowned in the ancient sources for their extraordinary beauty, heightened thanks to their knowledgeable use of perfumes…” (my translation).
Hmmm… that’s not quite my understanding. The texts cited are Galen writing about perfume in general and our old chum Theopompus of Chios’ massively problematic fantasy piece about Etruscan women being naked at banquets, sexually available and therefore all Etruscans being illegitimate (so decent Greek colonists can totally steal their trade routes and generally look down their noses at them). Putting these two texts together this way is creative, sure, but it doesn’t tell us anything about the actual perfumes Etruscan women might have used, and why they might have used them, unless your answer is TO BE SEXY, BECAUSE THAT’S ALL THAT MATTERS. This essentialist sexist interpretation is inappropriate any day of the year, but on International Women’s Day? Ouch.
I’m hoping this is just a misjudged bit of PR, but it really does matter, because this is engaging the public with the past. Entry to the event is free for women, so if you’re around and you fancy seeing whether this is just a messy attempt to get bums on seats (“I know- wimmin like smellies! Let’s do smellies!”) or whether the objectification continues through the talk, it won’t cost you anything. You could even ask about the promo, if you felt like it.
Again, I feel horrible saying this. Chiusi is a small regional museum that is fighting for funding, visitors and local attention, and it deserves support. I also feel hypocritical for criticising Italian museums for their events when actually my local museums are doing naff all for IWD and even some of the big national museums in the UK are rather lukewarm about doing more than some token social media stuff. I suppose the point I want to make is that when it comes to special events for International Women’s Day, it really “ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results.”
**Special thanks to Christopher Smith for his great tweets about Balzi Rossi earlier and flagging up with me that it’s for IWD. **