September 21st, 2009 14:45 EST
Aarhus Denmark is Showcasing Wemen's Lives
Enter the Women`s Museum in the quaint town of Aarhus, Denmark, and you will be swept away by the history of Danish women. The museum, one of the few of its kind in the world, is packed with all the things associated with the life of a woman. From needles and combs; to utensils and baby clothes; to books and typewriters - everything that has been a part and parcel of the experience of being a woman in Denmark has been preserved for posterity.
"The museum is in possession of 30,000 items related to women`s history in Denmark," informs Lene Mork, the curator, adding, "Most of these items were given to us by individuals and some of them were pro-actively collected by us."
Situated in the old city hall of Aarhus, the museum was inaugurated in 1982. Its location is relevant to the Danish women`s struggle for suffrage. For it was at this city council that, in 1910, the first woman member of the council, Dagmar Petersen, raised the issue of increased wages for publicly employed women.
Women have always had an influence on Danish history and mythology. For instance, Margrete I was a notable Danish queen, who united Denmark, Norway and Sweden under the Kalmar Union in 1397. Swedish Brigitta, probably the most well-known visionary of the 14th century, wrote down many of her ideas and founded the Brigitine Order of nuns, wherein nuns received an education.
The museum is in possession of belongings and exhibits associated with such women, such as a photograph of the bridal jewellery of Queen Dorothea, which she gave to the city of Copenhagen in 1557. Upper class Danish brides would wear this kind of jewellery, shaped in the form of a door - a sign that on her wedding day the bride was settling down into a new home and life. Not that the rather mundane lives of women of the Middle Ages have been forgotten amidst the glamour: Items of everyday use like needles, combs, butter kernel, an iron coffee grinder, and cake moulds are also on display.
The museum is home to the book that formed the cornerstone of the women`s movement in Denmark - the letter novel `Clara Raphael`. Written by a 19-year-old teacher, Mathilde Fibiger, the novel comprises 12 letters. Published in 1850, it questioned the position of women in society.
"Though the museum tells the story of women from prehistoric times to the present, it documents the history of Danish women since 1870 when they started moving from the countryside to the cities and started asserting themselves," explains Mork.
Responding to the need of the emancipated women, many institutions like the Danish Women Society and the Business School for Women were established in 1871 and 1872, respectively, to train women for jobs.
Alongside, many large households were also in need of servants and young women from the countryside fulfilled this demand. Thus arrived the servant code books - the first evidence of women as workers. "We have a lot of servant code books. They are a record of whether a woman had been a good servant or not. It was illegal for a servant girl not to have a code book. One couldn`t tear pages from it," elaborates Mork. Shoes, cleaning brushes and kitchen equipment are part of this collection, too.
A part of the museum is dedicated to recreating a 19th century kitchen - complete with old-fashioned stoves, utensils, cooking vessels, spoons, pots and pans, and baking instruments. The museum displays sewing machines, furniture, clothes and shoes made by the women of charitable institutions that imparted vocational training to poor and destitute women. Also exhibited are photographs of women at work at the two most prominent institutions: Udby`s Girls` Community School at Funen, and The Women`s Aid institutions. Visitors can also see what Ellen Schepelern, the founder of these institutions, looked like through quaint photographs.
Offering an insight into the conditions of maternal health in the early 1910s are the models of a large foetus, a cradle, instruments used for childbirth by midwives, clothes worn by women and a truly interesting exhibit: the huge record book belonging to the Jutland Birth Institution. Founded in 1910, Jutland was where both married and unmarried women went to give birth. "The married women were treated differently from the unmarried women. They were better looked after and given better food. The record book from the institution has entries regarding the name of the women, the sex of the newborn and whether or not the woman was married at the time of childbirth," says Mork.
The 1940s war displayed a different facet of Danish women with many of them being involved in the Resistance - the underground insurgency movement to resist the German occupation of Denmark during World War II. The museum displays new items that came into the market during this period reflecting the shortage of food and supplies with the coffee and soap substitutes and synthetic wool. The museum displays shoes made of fish skin and sweaters made of threads from crocheted tablecloth. "We also have a hat in white, red and blue - the colours of the Allied Forces," says Mork.
Commenting on the 1950s and 1960s are a typewriter and a dress that mark the beginning of a large number of women entering the job market, largely as typists. In fact, the museum has a section on women`s wardrobe that portrays the change in the way women dressed over the years. Corsets and gowns gave way to jeans and dresses. But more interesting is the change in the wedding dress. The early dresses, worn by peasant women, were surprisingly, black or bottle green. Only women from wealthy families wore white. The white veil became common in the 20th century perhaps as a kind of throwback to the days when a girl wore her hair loose until she became a wife. The museum also showcases hats, shoes, belts, and undergarments used by women over the ages.
A prominent exhibit is a video clipping of the women`s victory march of 1915, after they had obtained suffrage. While women could stand for elections from 1909, they only obtained the right to vote in 1915. "The women marched in order to thank men for giving them the right to vote," explains Mork.
The museum, which occupies the first floor of the old city hall, also holds periodic exhibitions related to women`s lives in Denmark. "Right now, we are holding an exhibition on the women`s suffrage as, in 2009, we mark 100 years of women`s right to stand for elections," says MÃ¸rk.
"The museum is different from other women`s history museums of the world. While the Frauen Museum in Germany focuses more on art, the Women`s Museum of San Francisco is online, and the Chinese Women Museum deals with women and work. The chief focus of the Danish museum, however, is the history of women in Denmark," says Mork.
In fact, an oral history of Danish women that offers digital guides with sign language for a better understanding of this fascinating history, is also on display.
A visitors guide:
* The Women`s Museum is open to public on all days of the week (except on Mondays, from September to May).
* Admission for children under 18 is free.
* Students and large groups may avail of an entry fee discount.
(Â© Women`s Feature Service)
By Elsa Sherin Mathews