Nestled in a leafy courtyard at 36 Ly Thuong Kiet street, the new Women's Museum is an eye-catching green structure with a grand entryway that seems fitting for the first national museum of this type in Vietnam. Although it opened last October, the galleries are not yet full of visitors.
Bao Tang Phu Nu Vietnam, 36 Ly Thong Kiet Street
Open Monday - Saturday, 8:00 to 11:30am and 1:30 to 4:00pm.
However, the museum is poised to become one of Hanoi's foremost cultural centers over the next few years, imparting its particular view of Vietnamese women.
In this view, Vietnamese women today should not only know about their history but also about traditional activities such as sewing and dance. "Today's generation of women has lost touch with our traditions and cultural history," says director Dang Thi To Ngan. "We want the museum to be like an academy, with exhibits and events about minority women, a research library and space for conference on women's issues." In addition, Ms. Ngan hopes to expand the two-room library, add a souvenir shop and a guest house for visiting scholars, as well as offer classes on sewing, make-up application and exercise.
In 1985, Vietnam Women's Union President Nguyen Thi Dinh made this project one of her special concerns. Says Ngan, "Nguyen Thi Dinh wanted the character of the museum to be different from any other museums in Vietnam. She wanted it to be a center for research and activities especially for and about women; a place where women could feel comfortable and enjoy themselves."
Designed by female architect Tran Xuan Diem, construction of the 10,000,000,000 dong project began in 1991 with financing from the Vietnamese Women's Union and the Ministry of Culture. Mrs. Dinh passed away in 1992 before the museum was completed, but Ngan says that "it remains a major goal of the Vietnam Women's Union to develop the museum along her guidelines and in her spirit."
It took over ten years to collect the 3,000 items on display here, a task that sent public relations specialist Nguyen Bich Van all over Vietnam to persuade families and provincial women's union offices to part with clothes, photos and other memorabilia belonging to local and national heroines. From rice pots to rifles, the pieces collected here evoke the public trials and successes of Vietnamese women as well as the personal details of their private lives.
On the ground floor, these dual themes are evident in the lobby's design. Rising over the marble floor is a domed ceiling modeled after a woman's breast, complete with globe lights representing drops of breast milk. Under the dome stands a golden statue entitled "Me Vietnam," designed by artist Nguyen Phu Cuong in a competition with forty-five other artists. Standing tall and fierce with a male child on her shoulder, Me Vietnam holds her right hand out to push away difficulties.
Behind her is a painting of a white river, which Van describes as the "river of history and river of milk Vietnamese women produce to bring up future generations."
The focus on women's public and private lives continues on the second floor with Dong Son era jewelry and a three-dimensional scene showing a peasant woman rinsing rice. Such displays reinforce traditional notions about women and domestic life. However, sandwiched between these displays are prison and interrogation scenes, complete with cutout American GIs, which remind visitors of the crucial role Vietnamese women have played in national defense.
On the third floor, the focus shifts to exhibits that chronicle the sixty-five year history of the Vietnam Women's Union. This is the floor that foreign visitors are most likely to relate to, with its colorful display of items sent by women around the world to support Women's Union activities. Solidarity posters from anti-war feminist organizations cover the walls, reminding visitors of the force of international bonds among women. This is graphically illustrated in a huge painting of the earth with colored lights marking the several countries where the Vietnam Women's Union has contacts.
Shifting focus from the display of political artifacts back to women's domestic lives, the entire fourth floor showcases minority women's clothing. Standing stiffly in groups, the mannequins wear clothes representing all fifty-four minority groups in Vietnam. Van says that such an exhibit "helps preserve traditional culture through clothing and highlights women's role as the more fashionable gender." Large black-and-white photos of minority women engaged in domestic activities such as cooking, weaving and caring for children decorate the walls, but there are no photos of minority women in public life.
The last diorama on this floor is a rotating platform of mannequins in contemporary dress that looks like a clothing store display. Flanked by photos of recent beauty queens, it seems to reflect Ms. Ngan's hope that in the future the museum will be a place where women can lam dep (make themselves beautiful).
Keeping this huge place in order and developing these activities will certainly be a task for the twenty-two employees. To prepare themselves for future visitors, all employees are taking English classes and workshops in museum curatorship. Says Ngan, "In the future, the staff will concentrate on developing their language skills so they can guide foreign visitors through the museum and also help us form contacts with other women's museums to find how they do things."
As of yet, however, women's museums are still a rarity in other countries, and the message of other women's museums is likely to be quite different from this one. These differences will hopefully generate interesting exchanges as more visitors from Hanoi and beyond begin to drop by, turning the museum into the lively cultural center Nguyen Thi Dinh always hoped it would become.