Meet The Millennial Science YouTuber Who Is Setting Up The World’s First Vagina Museum
The Debrief: ‘If you look at a lot of Ancient Greek pottery you will see a lot of vulvas...I just want to get people more comfortable about talking about vaginas and seeing them.'
In March last year, my partner and I were on holiday in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik. Strolling through the city’s streets, we got caught in a massive rainstorm and decided to duck for cover in the nearest museum. It turned out to be the Icelandic Phallological Museum – yes that’s right, an exhibit housing the world’s largest collection of dicks (after the US Republican Party HQ of course). Following an hour spent looking at a load of narwhal, fox and elephant cocks, I started wondering if there was a vagina equivalent. It turns out there isn’t – yet.
This experience is something London-based science YouTuber Florence Schechter can relate to. Earlier this year, one of her friends had visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum and had told her about it. ‘I was doing a video for my channel called ‘the top ten animal penises’ and researched that museum as part of this,’ Schechter tells me. ‘Then I decided to a top ten vagina one, and I thought ‘maybe there is a vagina museum too’. When I saw there wasn’t one, I put out a bit of a silly tweet saying I was disappointed a vagina museum didn’t exist so I was going to make one, and it started from there.’
Art by @kate.eggleston
Although there are travelling exhibits such as the Great Wall of Vaginas and a virtual museum, the lack of a physical space made it feel as if ‘wasn’t enough vagina representation out there.’ So Schechter, 25, launched her website in March and started a Patreon site for those who could commit to offering a monthly payment, with the overall aim being to open the world’s first vagina museum in London. She also plans to have travelling exhibitions, focusing on topics such as sex and relationships, going around the UK.
The scale of the project – finding a building, legal fees, employing people to work there, and so on – is highly ambitious, but Schechter is confident it can be done. ‘There are a few funding streams – Patreon is one feed, ticket sales for our events (she’s put on comedy nights, for example) is another. There’s the opportunity for people to make one-off donations and I’m also speaking to organisations like the National Lottery and the Wellcome Trust,’ she says.
When I ask her what form the museum will take, Schechter says it’s ‘going to be very extensive, and showcasing more than just objects.’ The current plan, which ‘may evolve over time’, is to have four free galleries. These are: science, which takes in subjects including anatomy of the genitals, menstruation and menopause, and sexuality; culture, which takes a look at cultural representations of the vagina and vulva in things like books, film and art; society, including subjects like domestic violence, FGM and religious rites surrounding menstruation; and finally history, described by Schechter as the ‘history of the erasure and oppression of women and the LGBTI community, as well as the history of feminism and where we are today, as well as what things could look like in the future.’
Art by @ghrabbath
She also hopes to use the museum as an entertainment venue, putting on a wide range of events from film screenings and public lectures to speed dating, first aid training and art workshops – and there will be a café selling vulva cupcakes too.
It will also be trans-inclusive. ‘I recognise that not every woman has a vagina and not every person with a vagina is a woman,’ Schechter says. ‘I say it is a museum about vaginas, not gender. If you look through the website, the tagline is ‘a museum about vaginas and the people who have them’, I never mention women explicitly, unless it’s part of a scientific study where you have to quote the study.’
The overall response to her project, she says, has been very positive, although some negative comments have crept through the woodwork. ‘To be honest, talking about vaginas you do get that,’ Schechter admits. ‘I’ve had people say things like ‘this is really gross, why are you talking about this? They’re called private parts for a reason’ and it’s been both men and women who’ve said this. However, it’s exactly this sort of criticism, from people who say that vaginas are disgusting, that makes me want to do this more.’
It’s evident that a lot more needs to be done to educate people about the female anatomy and remove the taboos. A 2016 study by gynaecological cancer charity The Eve Appeal found some alarming statistics – 44% of women surveyed couldn’t correctly point to the vagina, while 60% couldn’t label the vulva.
Puppets by @wondering_hands
Scarily, one in five women were unable to identify a single symptom of gynaecological cancer, including womb, ovarian and cervical cancers. ‘There are so many bad implications with this,’ Schechter says. ‘It doesn’t seem that a lot of people are educated and know their own bodies, and we need to discuss this on a public forum. The problems aren’t going to go away.’
Alarmingly, nearly a third of the women The Eve Appeal spoke to said they didn’t feel comfortable talking about, or showing their vagina to a doctor – something that could at best lead to years of unexplained painful and chronic symptoms, or at worst cost them their lives. This could also be down to the institutionalised sexism within medicine and women feeling they might not be taken seriously or that their symptoms aren’t real, something that was covered in detail by The Debrief earlier this year. ‘Gynaecological health [knowledge] remains really poor – for example, the internal anatomy of the clitoris was only mapped in the 1990s,’ Schechter says. ‘There are so many incidents of doctors not taking period pains seriously and saying ‘get over it’, and that happening with women’s pain in general.’
A lot of the plans Schechter have for the museum aim to challenge – and change – these issues. ‘This will be a big part of it, teaching people what is ‘normal’ and what’s not, and what the kind of things are that they should be concerned about,’ she explains. ‘Another issue is the fact that people are worried about things they don’t need to be anxious about, such as what their vulva looks like. In porn, they are clean, tidy and shaven and that isn’t what most people’s look like.’ Disturbing news from earlier this week said girls as young as 9-years-old are seeking labiaplasty on the NHS as they are troubled by the appearance of their genitals.
Art by @anya_bliss_artist
I ask Schechter if this lack of knowledge around, and portrayals of, the vagina has been prevalent throughout history, and she tells me it really depends on ‘geography, not just time.’ ‘If you look at a lot of Ancient Greek pottery you will see a lot of vulvas. I’ve got a pottery of a woman having a piss in a jar and you can see everything, simply because somebody wanted to put that image on a pot,’ she says. ‘But on the other side, somebody sent me an image from an anatomy textbook dating to 1559, an illustration of a woman. The skin on her torso was pulled apart so you could see all her organs – but there was a triangle where her vulva would have been. So you could see her insides, but the vulva, no. The reaction to them massively varies depending on where and when you existed in the world.’ She also cites a recent example of a Japanese artist, who was found guilty of obscenity after trying to make a canoe out of a 3D model of her vagina. ‘Ultimately, I just want to get people more comfortable about talking about vaginas and seeing them,’ she adds.
At present, her Instagram page is doing just that. ‘I get people sending me things to put on my Instagram all the time,’ she says excitedly. Images range from Suzanna Scott’s vagina purses to a Kate Eggleston sculpture of a vagina with wings, mounted on canvas. I ask her what her personal favourite pieces are. ‘ I have some really cool vagina puppets that were from a theatre show in New York,’ she says. ‘As well as an image from Laura Bates’s (from Everyday Sexism fame) illustrator showing dancing vulvas where they have sticks and top hats.’
Championing emerging artists is something Schechter is also passionate about. Last week, it was confirmed that she is being lent an exhibition space in Edinburgh, to run for the duration of the upcoming festival. ‘I am currently looking for donations of pieces by artists (deadline for submission is 16 July), and I plan to have 10 works featuring vaginas and vulvas on the wall in the same pub a comedian, Gusset Grippers, who does a lot of work about pelvic health is performing.’
Other upcoming plans include a screening of Hidden Figures at the end of August with a panel Q&A featuring women of colour working in STEM, another comedy night and a talk in September, as well as proposals for the museum to do their first larger public exhibit in February. The crowdfunding will be ongoing throughout these events and beyond.
It’s clear Schechter is highly determined to make her dreams of opening the vagina museum a reality. ‘I know the final cost will be a few million, but I think we will raise that total,’ she says. ‘It’s going to take a lot of time – it could take four years, it could take 20, but I believe we can do it.’
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