In 2019, a team of London-based campaigners opened the world’s first Vagina Museum in the chaotic, crowded confines of the city’s Camden Market. Installed in a former warehouse, the gynecological sanctuary featured walls of plaster-cast pussies, crocheted clitorises and giant, bedazzled tampon art installations, as well as a series of temporary art exhibitions.
Visitors have flocked from around the world to brush up on their vulva knowledge, but this popularity hasn’t been enough to sustain the museum through the pandemic. In September, a request to extend the museum’s lease was declined, for reasons seemingly unknown to the team. And so, the Vagina Museum needs a new home.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” says Zoe Williams, the museum’s marketing manager. “We’re connecting with people and organizations who do want to help us, but there’s a degree of urgency to this.” Since the doors closed two months ago, she says there’s been “a wave of love and support online” — there’s even a pretty popular #savethevaginamuseum hashtag — so Williams’ hope is that this online visibility “will eventually connect us with the right people, and hopefully the right landlord, to keep us open.”
To date, securing these relationships hasn’t been easy. Multiple landlords have rejected their lease requests, but Williams says there’s no concrete reason as to why. It could be that not everyone wants a cornucopia of pussy-themed items and exhibits spilling out of the doors of their property, or, as Williams suspects, it could be because they’re a registered charity. “We can’t say for sure that we’re ever rejected because we’re the Vagina Museum, but we do get messages more generally from people who don’t understand what we’re doing,” she says. “They think we’re just being provocative. They don’t understand the purpose of the museum. That doesn’t come from specific landlords though, more from the community at large.”
Still, beneath the surface of the “cuterus” artwork and pussy puns, there are serious politics and repercussions at play. “There’s a complete lack of awareness about gynecological health-care issues, about anatomy and what should be considered ‘normal,’” Williams says. From saggy labia to a chunky clitoris, there are endless variations of perfectly healthy vulvas and vaginas, and to shutter the doors of a museum dedicated to educating people about these things means there’s less visibility and information available. “You have a large proportion of people who are unwilling to go to the doctors about their periods, or other gynecological health issues,” Williams continues. “I speak to people all the time who are deeply, deeply ashamed of their bodies.”
None of this is new, and part of the Vagina Museum’s appeal is that it teams tongue-in-cheek artwork with cold, hard facts. Through exhibitions like Periods: A Brief History and Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them, the team has called bullshit on the hugely lucrative “feminine hygiene” industry, which profits from stigmatizing vaginas as gross and unhygienic, and delved deep into the repercussions of gynecological miseducation. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, women believed Coca-Cola could act as a spermicide. Due to restrictive laws around abortion and the scarcity of contraception, some resorted to using it as a douching liquid (if you’ve seen what Coke does to Mentos, it should make you shudder to think what it does to a vagina).
Without physical premises, the Vagina Museum’s only option right now is to spread this education through social media — no easy feat. “It’s hard being on social media with the word ‘vagina’ in your name,” says Williams. “We’ve stopped using TikTok entirely, because we go to a lot of effort to make videos and then they’re immediately taken down.”
More frustrating still, the Vagina Museum was thriving before the shutdown, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors. With enough visibility and support, they’re hoping their legacy can live on a little longer. For now, anyone wanting to donate can dive into their online gift shop. Every pussy pin and tampon-shaped earring brings them one step closer to a speedy cumback.