Two women looking at an Etruscan statue, one seated reading from a guide book, the other standing leaning on an umbrella.

Women of the world

Publication date: 8 March 2017

Did you know that the word ‘museum’ literally means a temple to the muses, all of whom were female (albeit allegorical)? This International Women's Day, take a look at some of the very real women represented in the Museum’s collection today. Your guides are some of the many women curators who are continuing to tell these important stories to the world.

Women of the world

The British Museum is the museum of the world, for the world. Yet so often in history half the world has been ignored or obscured. On the occasion of International Women’s Day – and as part of Women’s History Month – we’ve compiled contributions from some of our female curators who have picked interesting and notable parts of the collection highlighting women in one way or another. From women artists to women in positions of power, from the elites to everyday life, read on to discover some of their fascinating stories.

Women artists

Received wisdom can be very unwise indeed. For centuries, the study of art history has favoured male artists. So to begin our story, Jill Cook, Keeper of Britain, Europe and Prehistory, dispels the myth of women artists as ‘recent’ in this video on women artists from the Ice Age:

The female gaze in Ice Age art

The female gaze in Ice Age art

Ice age sculptures of the female form depict women in every stage of their lives, and do not simply conform to the traditional "male gaze".

Curator Jill Cook contrasts the posture and gaze of these female forms with classical depictions of Venus, while artist Ghislaine Howard explores her own contemporary representations of women in child birth, including self-portraits.

Originally made for the exhibition Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind.

Women artists cont.

As Jill says

Recognising that female images made 35–20,000 years ago may be made by women, for women, rebalances ideas of women’s roles in our deep history.

Moving forward a few thousand years or so, Dora Thornton, Curator of Renaissance collections, has picked this dish.

Painted oval-shaped enamel dish showing Apollo seated beside stream, surrounded by Muses, Cupids, Pegasus and river god
Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helicon. Painted enamel on copper with gilding. Limoges, France, c. 1600.

Made in Europe around 1600, it is a rare example of a work signed by a woman – Susanne Court. Susanne’s family, from Limoges in France, was famous for its skill in the difficult technique of painted enamel on copper. It is stunningly decorated with the goddesses of the arts making music, and demonstrates Court’s rich gilding, jewel-like colours and pale flesh tones.

Curator of British prints and drawings Kim Sloan has chosen to highlight the work of Mary Delany (1700–1788) who made nearly a thousand of these botanically accurate pieces using tiny pieces of coloured paper glued onto a black background.

Depiction of a flower with thin petals and flat leaves made from a collage of coloured papers on a black background
Mary Delany (1700–1788), Passiflora laurifolia (Gynandria pentandria). Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, on black ink background, 1777.

Modelled on flowers sent by friends from around the world, she only began making them at the age of 72!

Curator of contemporary art Jennifer Ramkalawon has a personal account of the work she’s picked – Hope Bryan’s Three Figures:

I went to Diana Gurney’s house in 2014 as she wanted to donate the work of her friend Hope Bryan to the Museum. They had studied together at Westminster School of Art in the 1930s. I was really struck by the work and immediately accepted it – I spent a wonderful afternoon with Diana as she reminisced about her friend – she was so sad they had lost contact as Bryan had emigrated to Canada in the early 50s. So the piece is about one artist donating the work of a dear friend. By presenting Bryan’s works to the Museum, it was a way of honouring her friend.

Three figures in conversation, one is seated on a lounge
Hope Bryan (b. c. 1915), Three figures. Wood engraving, c. 1940-1951.

The following two pieces are by American artists and both are about to go on display in two exhibitions – The American Dream at the British Museum (until 18 June) and Lines of thought at the Ulster Museum (until 7 May).

A girl and a woman wearing red capes appear from a wolf's stomach. Abstract shapes of lines, spirals and smudges.
Left: Kiki Smith (b. 1954), Born. Colour lithograph, 2002. © Kiki Smith/Universal Limited Art Editions. Right: Julie Mehretu (b. 1970), Untitled. Ink on vellum and mylar, 2002. © Julie Mehretu. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Kiki Smith's work deals with representations of women in art, religion, literature and popular culture. This work, entitled Born, was chosen by Exhibition Project Curator Catherine Daunt. Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge from the stomach of the wolf. Did it eat them? Were they rescued by an unseen (male) hero? In fairy tales, a female protagonist is often endangered when she strays from the ‘correct’ path. Here, the girl and her grandmother have been given a second chance.

This scintillating drawing by Julie Mehretu enacts a dialogue between tracings from architectural plans and the artist’s own gestures. Isabel Seligman, Project Curator for the Bridget Riley Art Foundation, says that both are layered in ink on the transparent Mylar (a polyester film) on top of one another, as a kind of palimpsest. Mehretu has described her works as operating like 'narrative maps without a specific place or location', and the range of marks evokes everything from contours and isobars to clouds, ripples and waves.

Powerful women

Women have held power throughout history, in a variety of ways. Curators Amelia Dowler and Vesta Curtis have picked coins that depict women who achieved a couple of 'firsts'.

Four coins decorated with portraits of Queen Amastris and Queen Boran
Coins of Queens Amastris (above) and Boran (below).

Amastris (d. 284 BC) is the first woman ever to be named on a coin – here as 'Queen Amastris'. The image, however, is probably of the Persian god Mithras or the Anatolian god Mên. The reverse shows the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, holding Nike, goddess of victory. Despite a tumultuous life (she was married three times: to a general, a tyrant, and a king – and then murdered by her own sons), Amastris wielded great political power in northern Asia Minor. She used her power over neighbouring cities to bring four of them together into a new political entity and named it 'Amastris'. This city still exists as the modern town of Amasra in northern Turkey.

The silver coin underneath, from AD 630, depicts Queen Boran – the first Iranian queen to rule in her own right. She wears a winged crown topped by a moon crescent and a globe, symbols of divine kingly glory. Her long braids indicate that she is a woman.

Curator Aurélia Masson-Berghoff has decided to focus on this beautiful gilded faience head, which depicts the queen of Egypt Arsinoe II. Like the famous Cleopatra VII, Arsinoe was a powerful royal woman of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Greco-Macedonian dynasty which ruled over Egypt for almost 300 years (305–30 BC).

Head of a queen modelled with large eyes, a long, aquiline nose and prominent Venus rings around the neck
Gilded faience head of Arsinoe II. Naukratis, Egypt, 3rd century BC.

Arsinoe was the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. In a third wedding, she married her brother Ptolemy II, who promoted the worship of his sister-wife after her death. She was sometimes recognised by Egyptians as Isis, mother goddess and patron of magic, and was worshipped extensively by Egyptians and Greeks alike. By royal decree, a statue of her had to be placed in every temple in Egypt.

England's Queen Elizabeth I is renowned for being a steely ruler and Curator Sarah Vowles, has chosen this portrait of her, made in 1575, 17 years into her reign.

Queen Elizabeth I holding a fan, her hands crossed at her waist, a spaniel on a pedestal to her right
Federico Zuccaro (c. 1542–1609), Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (detail). Black and red chalk, 1575.

The artist has portrayed her as shrewd, calm and self-contained. In the background, symbols refer to her virtues: fortitude (a pillar), prudence (a serpent), chastity (an ermine) and fidelity (a dog).

Powerful women weren't always royal, of course. Curator Sue Brunning has chosen this sorceress’s staff to illustrate powerful Viking women.

Iron staff with a hook at one end
Iron staff, from a woman's grave at Villa Farm, Møre og Romsdal, Vestnes, Norway, AD 900s.

Sue says:

Old Norse writings describe women known as völur using staffs in mysterious magical practices involving divination, speaking to the dead and controlling others. Burials of possible völur hint that people feared these women – their staffs were often bent, broken or weighed down in their graves so they couldn’t be used again. However, they were also respected and often buried with fine artefacts – this rod’s owner was honoured with an earth mound, suggesting she would be remembered forever.

You can also read more about powerful Viking women in this blog post by Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Moving across the world to India, Sushma Jansari is currently curating the newly refurbished Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia (Room 33), due to reopen in November 2017. She has picked as her object an inscription on a capital that will feature in the new gallery. Sushma explains:

Women were important benefactors to Buddhist sites in South Asia and inscriptions record their generous donations. A famous example is found on a lion-shaped capital from Mathura in central India that dates to around AD 100. The inscription records the donation of a monastery and Buddha relic by Yasi Kamui, main wife of Rajuvula, the Indo-Scythian Great Governor.

Pillar capital consisting of a pair of stylised adorsed lions supporting on their joint backs a rectangular abacus
Red sandstone pillar capital. Indo-Scythian, made in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, India, 1st century AD.

Women's everyday lives

Over time and across the world, what it means to be a woman has constantly changed. Sometimes, though, history throws up some surprises. This bronze statuette of a running girl was chosen by Etruscan Curator Judith Swaddling.

Bronze figure of a running girl
Spartan running girl, c. 520-500 BC.

It was probably made in Sparta where, unusually for ancient Greece, women were expected to take part in athletics. Strong mothers were believed to produce good soldiers. Women could not compete in the Olympic Games, but they had a festival of their own at Olympia, called the Heraia. There was only one event, the foot-race, and this girl’s appearance corresponds well with Pausanias’ description of those taking part. The statuette would have been one of several decorating the rim of a bronze vessel and she seems to be looking back to see how close her competitors are.

Jumping ahead a few centuries to Iron Age Britain, Julia Farley, Curator of British and European Iron Age collections, reflects on the St Keverne mirror and how it might have been used.

Copper alloy mirror decorated in a simple style. The handle has a loop which is contained within a Y-shape.
The St Keverne Mirror. Found in Cornwall, Iron Age, c. 120–80 BC.

Julia says:

Often, we only know that an Iron Age object was used by a woman if it comes from a grave. One of my favourites is the St Keverne mirror, buried with a woman in Cornwall around 50 BC. The front of the bronze mirror was polished, and the back is engraved with swirling designs that seem to play on the idea of reflection, of dark and light. In a world where most people only saw their reflections in water, a mirror would have seemed powerful, perhaps even magical. I like to think about the woman who owned it. Who was she? What did she see when she gazed into the strange, distorted reflection in the metal? Herself? Or something more?

Very much not an object, this body of a naturally mummified woman was found during 2005 rescue excavations at the Fourth Nile Cataract in Sudan.

Mummy of a young adult female with a tattoo in the shape of the monogram of Saint Michael on her inner right thigh
Mummy of a woman from Sudan, c. AD 700, and the detail of her tattoo.

Curator Marie Vandenbeusch takes a closer look:

The study of this woman's skin revealed a tattoo in the shape of a monogram of St Michael, placed on her inner thigh. It combines in one symbol the letters forming the name Michael (MIXAHΛ) in Greek or Coptic, finished with a cross. The tattoo suggests that the woman was of Christian faith. She might have hoped to place herself under the protection of the Archangel – one of the patron saints of Nubia.

Sarah Jaffrey, Bridget Riley Art Foundation project officer, has highlighted a print of artist Mary Cassatt, seen here leaning confidently on her umbrella in the middle of the Louvre’s Etruscan gallery while her sister Lydia looks on from behind her guide book.

Two women looking at an Etruscan statue, one seated reading from a guide book, the other standing leaning on an umbrella.
Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Mary Cassatt at the Louvre: the Etruscan Gallery. Soft-ground etching, drypoint, aquatint and etching, 1879–1880.

Sarah explains the significance of this drawing, and why it illustrates the changing role for some women in 19th-century Europe:

It is not a traditional portrait, yet it still conveys Cassatt’s character. As a female artist working in the male-dominated art world of late 19th-century Paris, her work boldly explores a woman’s place in middle class society. Degas depicts this boldness in his portrait by contrasting Cassatt’s assertiveness against the timidity of her sister. Her physical stance embodies the careful, full-bodied observation required to take on the social complexities explored in her art.

Two aspects of how women's lives changed in the 20th century are shown by this Chinese print, selected by former Curator in the Asia Department Mary Ginsberg, and this Chinese banknote, chosen by Helen Wang, Curator of East Asian money.

Five girls being drilled with rifles by a female instructor. A 1 yuan note showing a woman driving a tractor.
Above: Training at a Tianjin Girls' High School, China. Woodblock print in ink and colour on paper, 1920–1930. Below: 1-yuan note of the People's Bank of China, dated 1960.

In the early 20th century, some prints in this folk-art style urged social reforms – including better education as well as social, political and military participation for girls. Here, five girls are being drilled with their rifles by a female instructor. However, Mary says that 'it probably represents wishful thinking more than the reality for many girls at the time'. The woman driving the tractor on the banknote is thought to be modelled on Liang Jun, China’s first female tractor driver. She looks strong and healthy – quite different from more traditional images of Chinese women, and her control of the machinery suggests freedom from oppression. Wearing a clean white shirt, she is clearly not a farm-girl, but a working woman and a member of the proletariat.

So often in history, women have been defined by what they wear. Curator Eleanor S Hyun has picked this hanbok – the general term for traditional Korean dress, commonly worn until the mid-20th century.

Women's coats, one made of yellow fabric with white cuffs, another made of yellow and blue fabric with a flower pattern.
Woman's hanbok and Jang'ot. Choi Bokhee (1930–2008), South Korea, 1980s.

Eleanor explains their importance:

Women's hanbok consist of a jeogori (short jacket) and chima (skirt). The one on display of a blue chima with floral patterns and chartreuse jeogori would have been an everyday outfit for a wealthy woman. A Jang’ot was worn by women of the Joseon period (1392–1910) as a veil and head covering. Adhering to the Confucian principles of modesty and decorum, women wore jang’ot when traveling outdoors to shield their appearance from unfamiliar men. This is a modern reproduction based on a Joseon example in the Onyang Folk Museum.

Also focusing on the importance of clothing in different societies, these wedding slippers from Ghadamis Oasis, Libya, have been chosen by Curator Fahmida Suleman.

A pair of slippers made of red-dyed leather embroidered in silk thread and decorated with metal studs
A pair of bride's wedding slippers. Ghadamis Oasis, Libya, 1960s–1970s.

Fahmida says:

I love these hand-stitched and silk embroidered red leather wedding slippers (tarkasin) from Libya. The tongues are cut in the shape of a protective hand called a khamsa or ‘Hand of Fatima’, which protect the bride from the ‘evil eye’ or the ‘eye of envy’. The metal studs also deflect harmful forces, keeping her safe.

Hopefully this brief list scratches the surface of how women are an integral part of the collection, as makers, artists, subjects and users. As with any list, there is never enough space to include everything. What objects would you have picked from the collection? What objects related to women's history, or by women artists, should be in the Museum's collection but aren't? Let us know your thoughts @britishmuseum on Twitter.