Florence Schechter (a la derecha) en su exposición “¿Es tu vagina normal?”. Fotografía: Magda Wrzeszcz.
Two years ago, the London-based biologist and science communicator Florence Schechter made a video about the most "weird animal penises in the world” for her playful and informative YouTube channel.
The obvious next step was to do the same thing for vaginas, but Schechter found comparatively little information about the female sexual organs. Iceland has a penis museum – the Icelandic Phallological Museum – but no such museum exists, anywhere in the world, for vaginas.
There was only one way to address this lack of vagina representation for Schechter: make her own museum. That is how she came to direct a team of professionals to create the world’s first bricks and mortar Vagina Museum, with four main galleries: history, culture, society and science.
Still in its launch phase, the project is currently travelling around the UK to festivals and events with a pop up exhibition. The next phase is to establish an interim museum in London, and finally open a permanent museum in 2032.
Recently, the project’s exhibition “Is Your Vagina Normal?” featured in a Vagina Day event organised by the London Feminist Library, in early June.
Schechter describes the future museum as a series of exhibitions covering topics from what we need to know about our sexual health to the significance of female pleasure and reproduction to human beings.
“What people will learn is all about de-stigmatisation, health awareness and just having fun, because, why not? Vaginas are fun,” Schechter told me, at the event.
Florence Schechter, la creadora del Museo de la Vagina. Fotografía: Magda Wrzeszcz.
She also emphasised that the museum, while focused on vaginas and vulvas, would not be an exclusive “women’s museum.”
“Trans men are very important,” Schechter told me. “People who have vaginas but don’t identify as women have a particularly tough time, for example, getting cervical smear, but they are just as risk as anyone else with a vagina.”
“People who have vaginas but don’t identify as women have a particularly tough time.”
The Great Wall of Vaginas – a sculpture made from the plaster casts of 400 women's vulvas, by English artist Jamie McCartney – or an exhibit on Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian vision of the future, The Handmaid’s Tale, are examples of what visitors might find in the museum’s four galleries.
In its history and society rooms, visitors will learn how humankind has seen (and sees) women’s sexuality, and how devastating can it be for women to feel that society judges them if they talk about their bodies or sexual experiences.
Exhibitions in these galleries will reflect how the world is still uncomfortable even speaking of vaginas.
“Very recently, a Turkish politician said the word vagina in parliament and she was reprimanded by the Prime Minister. These are the people who are legislating; they can’t even say the word vagina,” Schechter exclaimed.
A 2016 survey from the charity Eve Appeal in the UK found that 65% of women said they “have a problem using the words vagina or vulva.” This discomfort can have serious consequences for women.
“A woman told us about how her friend was too embarrassed to go get her cervical smear for years, and when she finally went, they found she had a late state of cancer. It was too late to do anything.” Schechter said.
This is not an isolated case. According to a recent survey by Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, a third of women in the UK delay getting a smear test because of embarrassment. Cervical cancer is the most common type of cancer in women aged 35 and under and smear tests can prevent 75% of these cases. “Women are literally dying of embarrassment,” Schechter warned.
“Women are literally dying of embarrassment.”
The museum’s science gallery will present accurate and detailed explanations of the vulva’s anatomy – the kind we never get in our sex ed lessons at school.
“In school we barely get sex education and when we do it’s always about STIs [sexually-transmitted infections] and this sort of thing,” Schechter said. “There is so much we don’t know because it’s such a stigmatised subject, it is so taboo.”
The Eve Appeal survey also revealed that half of women aged 26-35 were unable to label the vagina accurately, reflecting this lack of education.
Throughout history, vaginas and vulvas have been subjects of social taboos – and significant curiosity. Art and religion exhibitions in the museum’s culture gallery will show that vulvas were present in prehistorical cave paintings, before penises, as well as in holy images of different faiths.
“One of the things that religion is always concerned about is children and reproduction, so they have talked about vaginas more than you would expect. South America, for example, has an image of the Virgin Mary that looks like a vulva, where her head is the clitoris,” Schechter explained.
Other groups are also fighting the lack of information about women’s anatomy, sexuality, and sexual health.
Jo Corrall durante su taller “Esto Es Una Vagina”. Fotografía: Magda Wrzeszcz.
Jo Corrall was also at the Feminist Library in London on ‘Vagina Day.’ Her ‘This Is A Vagina’ project, began as an Instagram feed to spread creative vulva drawings and art pieces because “we’re fed up of seeing cock and balls scribbled everywhere.”
Now, Corral told me, she organises workshops in which women share their experiences and have conversations about “periods, vulvas shapes or how people feel embarrassed about what their labia look like.”
The Vagina Day event included a panel discussion about women’s sexual health and a vulva cupcake-making workshop, amongst other activities.
The day was organised to share information and raise funds for the library, which was on the verge of eviction two years ago and continues to fight for its sustainability.
Taller de fanzines en el Día de la Vagina en Londres. Fotografía: Magda Wrzeszcz.
When asked why they chose to host the event, Gail Chester from the library said: “We realised that health is something women are always interested in.” Not surprisingly, the library has 600 books on women's health.
Spaces like the Feminist Library, or the Vagina Museum, support women’s rights, history and knowledge. Thanks to these projects, and others that are yet to come, soon no one will struggle to find information about the most amazing vaginas in the world.