WHO, WHAT, WHEN, BUT NO Y
Byline: Holly Haber
DALLAS — Women invented Kevlar, the game of Monopoly, refrigerated air and a self-cleaning house.
These achievements are a sliver of the story at The Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future, a national gallery that opened last month in a soaring architectural space in Fair Park here. Considered long overdue by its organizers, the museum celebrates the history and accomplishments of American women, exploring their mythology as well as the facts.
“The idea was to have a renowned place where you could bring family and grandchildren to see and hear the history of American women as it has never been told before,” said Cathy Bonner, the museum’s president and founder, who literally dreamed of the idea for the museum in 1996.
“I didn’t know how or what, but all of these things started to fall into place, and we found this incredible historic building that was in dire need of rescue,” she said.
The availability of a former opera house and livestock arena dating from 1910, a decrepit Art Deco building that was last used a decade ago as the Hall of Administration in Fair Park, is exactly what landed the museum in Dallas. Critical seed money came in the form of a $10 million matching grant from the SBC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of SBC Communications Inc., the San-Antonio-based telecommunications firm that owns Southwestern Bell, Pacific Bell, Nevada Bell and Cellular One.
Debra Michals, a former ready-to-wear editor for WWD who is pursuing a doctorate in women’s history at New York University, was contracted by exhibition designer Whirlwind & Co. to supervise the content of the museum.
“I wanted people to learn about women they had never heard of and to realize how recent the acquisition of most women’s rights and opportunities has been,” Michals said. “I wanted them to realize there is no American history without women’s history. We are always thinking about history in terms of wars and great men, but history is people rising to the occasion of their lives and doing something that reflects a greater social or political trend or transformation.”
The first visual impact is of the elegant and spacious main hall, dominated by the steel ceiling and an illuminated 30-foot-high electronic wall that projects a patchwork of changing images on video screens. The central displays begin on the second floor, winding behind the central hall. Visitors have the option of borrowing a wireless “Mentor” telephone that plays commentary on the exhibits by former Texas Governor Ann Richards, actress Maria Conchita Alonso, newswoman Connie Chung and entertainer Gladys Knight. The tour starts with a vitrine of simulated time capsules displaying objects used by women in the years 1900 and 2000. A round tin condom case sits among the memorabilia from 100 years ago, along with a Corona typewriter, a hand mirror set in antler, and brown leather lace-up boots, among other objects. Year 2000 items include a Nine West black nylon shoulder bag, bottled water, birth control pills and a portable CD player.
The adjacent gallery illuminates artifacts and stories related to 37 “Unforgettable Women.” Opposite is a time line of milestones in women’s achievements and rights. There’s a lot to read, but those who take the time will discover intriguing stories.
The famed King ranch in south Texas, for instance, was largely assembled by Henrietta King to a massive 1.2 million acres. But King was so discreet about wealth that when her husband gave her big diamond studs, she had them dipped in black enamel and wore them as button earrings, noted Victoria Montelongo, registrar for the museum, during a tour.
Computer pioneer Grace Murray Hopper, who invented the first compiler, is another whose contributions are noted, including her coining the terms “computer bug” and “debugging,” when she removed a moth that had jammed her system in 1956.
One of the most amusing areas is the Myth Maze, which points out things like women drivers are less likely than men to be injured in car accidents, citing statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, despite the hyperbole about females behind the wheel.
“The big concern had to do with tone,” noted Michals, who wrote the text in the Myth Maze and a number of other areas. “We wanted to make it a welcome place for everyone who walks in, and that includes men, so there was concern about not sounding antimale.”
The maze isn’t antimale, but it does pointedly depict stereotyping of women.
Most comically, it announces that there was once a statute in Kentucky law forbidding women from wearing swimsuits on state highways “unless escorted by at least two officers or armed with a club.” Women under 90 pounds or more than 200 pounds and female horses were exempted.
Exhibitions continue at the rear of the first floor, where displays highlight sports figures, activists and the lives of scientists, engineers and designers. Interactive systems offer information on women’s health. Another touch-screen computer lets people learn more about dozens of careers, from toy testing to medicine, by displaying information on the salaries, pros and cons of the fields as well as educational requirements.
“We wanted people to be able to leave with new thoughts for their own lives and to understand that challenges are not frightening or daunting, that they can do it and anything is possible, without being preachy,” Michals said. “So the key was to use women’s stories.”