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International Museum of Women is virtual

originally posted by SF Gate
March 8, 2013

Fourteen years ago, the International Museum of Women was born out of a mother’s desire to have a place for her daughter to see the contributions women have made to society.

Today, inspired by the Bay Area’s tech-centric community, the San Francisco museum exists solely on the Internet. Just as Internet companies such as Facebook and Google reach users around the world, interim executive director Catherine King says the museum’s online-only model allows it to have a much broader and more global influence than if it were only housed in the city.

Last year, it drew more than 600,000 visitors from 200 countries to its online exhibits.

Over the years, the nonprofit museum has received funding from the likes of Google and the MetLife Foundation and received recognition from the Anita Borg Institute in Palo Alto for its efforts in spotlighting women in technology. With a staff of five, it partners with other museums and groups to host pop-up galleries, which are tied to its online exhibitions, around the globe.

The museum takes center stage in March, which celebrates both International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. Recent exhibits have included “Curating Change,” which featured art, photographs, videos and podcasts curated by Cisco’s Padma Warrior, nine women from Facebook and others.

The guest curators combed through the museum’s digital archives to highlight the work they felt a deep connection to, from an essay on motherhood to efforts to empower women in developing countries by training them for tech jobs. The museum also launched this week a yearlong project dedicated to Muslim women’s art, voices and stories.
In a recent interview, King talked about the museum’s origins and the impact it has made. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Tell us about the museum. How does it operate?

A: We’re a unique institution. We’re reimagining the concept of a museum for the 21st century and for a new global generation of women and men. We’re entirely virtual. We have no borders. We have no boundaries. We’re available anytime, anywhere in the world with an Internet connection – and no admission fee.

Our focus is on curating art and personal experiences, stories, ideas and visions that women have. Our mission encapsulates who we are, which is to inspire creativity, awareness and action on vital global issues for women. We take on critical contemporary global issues for women, whether that’s global motherhood, the economy or politics.

This week we’re launching a brand new project called “Muslima, Muslim Women’s Art and Voices.” We take on a whole array of critical contemporary human rights issues for women that generally align with the United Nations’ agenda for women globally.

We really believe if you give voice to women and allow a place for them to express their realities and creativity, then you inspire people, you fuel dialogue and you catalyze change.

That’s the other aspect of the museum. We’re sometimes called a social change museum because audiences learn about the issues, they get inspired and they want to know how they can get involved. We offer those action opportunities online. It’s very quick and immediate for people to act. They can learn more, they can share with their friends, they can take a pledge, they can donate to an organization. There’s an opportunity to make a difference.

Q: How did the museum become a virtual experience?

A: Where we came from was not virtual. We were founded in 1997 here in San Francisco. At that time, the founders felt strongly to have a place that provided history, stories, art and ideas about women’s contributions to the world.

The vision was to build a museum in San Francisco. It started out holding speaker series events in San Francisco and hosting traveling exhibitions. Around 2005 the museum had an opportunity to build on one of the piers and there was a lot of energy and enthusiasm around that, but the cost was (ultimately too high).

The board, our founder Elizabeth Colton and our global advisers said, “It’s 2005 and the International Museum of Women is based in San Francisco. There’s incredible creativity and things happening online. We’re seeing this increasing connectivity, energy and partnership among women’s human rights organizations online. You should think about doing something online.”

So the museum said, “We’ll do an experiment.” The first online exhibit launched in 2006. It was the project “Imagining Ourselves,” inviting women in their 20s and 30s around the world to share their thoughts on opportunities and ideas for their generation.

It was museum-curated but user-generated content, and it blew away all the expectations that the museum had about the reach it could have and the change it could affect. From that point going forward, the museum has been dedicated to the current incarnation as a virtual museum, with global online exhibitions and pop-up events and installations around the world.

Q: How do your pop-up exhibits work?

A: They can be a lot of different things. Last year, the 11 installations were large-scale, exterior photo installations. We partnered with TED and the Inside Out Project, and we created a project called “Making Mothers Visible.”

We worked with photographers in 11 cities who photographed mothers in their communities and then identified prominent public spaces where these posters, from 5 feet to 15 feet tall, could be displayed. Here in San Francisco, we posted 55 of these giant photographs of mothers on the exterior of the San Francisco Main Library.

This year for the Muslim Women’s Art and Voices exhibit, we’re working with partners (such as) the Ayala Museum in the Philippines.

Q: What are some interesting outcomes from your exhibits?

A: We measure (outcomes) through surveys and interviews with our exhibition visitors. Up to 70 percent of survey participants report personal changes in attitudes, opinions or aspirations about global women’s issues. Up to 60 percent of respondents report having taken action toward gender equity as a result of their visit to our exhibitions.

Last year, we created a maternal health online pledge as part of the global motherhood exhibition. This was a pledge to advance maternal health rights, and we designed it in partnership with the former model Christy Turlington Burns, who is now a maternal health advocate and (whose organization is) Every Mother Counts.

Together, we collected nearly 16,000 signatures from men and women around the world. We presented them to the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year. That’s a measurable way we were able to take the voices of our visitors, and present them to the heads of state who have made commitments to meet millennium development goals for maternal health.

Find the International Museum of Women at

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