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Why the Feminist Archive Exhibits Matter

The Feminist Archive Exhibits are a collection of student-curated exhibits that highlight and explore the hidden histories of marginalized people and communities worldwide. This project was developed at the University of Washington Bothell by Dr. Julie Shayne with librarians Denise Hattwig and Penelope Wood, with each exhibit curated by a UWB student researcher.

This project relies on open-access, digital feminist archives to center feminist knowledge and magnify marginalized voices, experiences, and work throughout history that would otherwise be forgotten without the work of archivists. Students worked together, often in groups and pairs, to develop their research, coming to understand the need for these archives and exhibits alike. Below are some selected student testimonies:

“Something that strikes a chord within me in regard to this project is the fact that this knowledge that my classmates and I discovered and shared on the journey of creating our exhibit is nowhere to be found in many, many places. This knowledge that shines a light on the darkest parts of humanity, the knowledge that allows us as a collective population, to reflect, learn, and grow; simply does not exist in many places, for entire populations. As what I’ve discussed above hit home, the meaning and importance of feminist knowledge production took a new importance to me. This project lost its value as a means to an abstract letter grade and became something I had to do. Not for me, but for those that will come later. With so much discourse on the internet that is either not factual or untrue and slanderous, I realized that it is so important to counter such inaccuracies with content and material that is true, well-sourced, and free. So much knowledge is hidden behind paywalls that few have the privilege of having access to. But so much more is out in the world, simply needing to be found and linked in the right way. In the same way that the Nazi party destroyed the Institute of Sexology in the 1930’s, there are parties that are hellbent on destroying knowledge that makes us better as a collective, one hundred years later. While a single online exhibit may be a drop in an ocean compared to the volume that is the complete internet, these exhibits will exist in a space that is accessible and nearly impossible to eradicate.”

Meera Kismet (she/her), Community Psychology, 2023.

“Much of our history has only taught about the victories of white men. There is so much more to account for than the accomplishments of white men. The achievements we learn about have often come at the cost of and lives of queer, black, indigenous people, and people of color. The groups mentioned above have provided and changed our world for the better, and more often than not, their contributions are erased. […] This archival exhibit allowed me to expand on my knowledge by living a queer life and gave me the tools to share it with others and find the history that I had thought had been erased. It allowed us, the students, to ask and answer what isn’t being taught. Celebratory queer history that shows more facets than activism hasn’t been taught widely in schools. Queer people have not had most of their histories taught in mainstream schools. This project allowed us to honor our ancestors and share the knowledge they handed down from generation to generation. These archives center the voices so often silenced, and we get to breathe new life into them by including them in our exhibits.”

Lo Radclyffe (they/she), Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, 2023.

“Although it was exhilarating to be in a position of unveiling hidden queer history, I also felt pressured to do these archives justice. Seeing that my partner and I were adding to the already limited collection of queer life through the arts, we had to make sure that our descriptions were accurate and respectful. There was also a part of me that felt I owed this to my community. I would not be able to proudly and openly call myself queer without the work of the openly gay and transgender individuals before me. Truthfully, this exhibit felt like a love letter of some sort. I was in awe of how many snippets of history were out there, and further wondered why these archives were not in the public eye. […] We live in an era where the majority of information is behind a paywall. This method of blocking information to the public is a disservice to everyone who seeks to learn new information, especially those who may not be able to afford a one-time payment, let alone a monthly subscription. It is also harmful to the production of feminist knowledge itself. As previously discussed, topics of feminism are already difficult to come across. They are covered by recycled content that continuously promotes and maintains the race, gender, and overall identity hierarchy present in society. It is unfair that only certain histories are allowed to be told. Our class exhibits were yet another way to combat this overpowering structure with open and diverse information that is free to the public. By contributing to this project, we are paying tribute to our chosen artifacts and all the other content that was not chosen. This method of relaying information to the public is necessary for feminist ideals to halt the cycle of oppressive knowledge production and begin to build a new structure of diverse feminist knowledge.”

Levi Gutierrez (they/them), Educational Studies major, Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies minor, 2023.

The Feminist Archive Exhibits have sparked in students an understanding of the value of feminist knowledge production and the value of archives and exhibits that prioritize neglected histories. These exhibits exemplify how marginalized voices are vital to further feminist development, educational accessibility is fundamental to feminist knowledge, and everyone’s story deserves to be remembered.

By Tessa Denton

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