Thirteen years ago, when the Hammer Museum was getting its start, Carol, who is Dave’s wife, wanted to attract women and children into the museum. So she started up her own collection of hammers. While Dave focused mostly on workhorse hammers, like our 36 pound claw hammer, the maritime hammers, or the railroad hammers, Carol focused on novelty hammers. There’s a large collection of drink hammers in the museum (used at nightclubs to call for applause for the band) as well as a display of glass hammers. There’s also a couple of hammers that were used to break the clay shell off of Beggar’s Chicken (a recipe that calls for baking chicken in 11 pounds of clay).
Her idea worked–while a fair number of visitors are elderly men who previously worked as carpenters, blacksmiths and other hammer-wielding professions, a number of women and children make positive comments about the range of the collection. Everyone makes a connection with at least one hammer.
I have to say though, the fact that we have novelty hammers in order to appeal to women bothers me. I wanted to work at this museum because I like hammers–and not in the theoretical sense–I actually like using them! Aside from that, I would never want a curator of any museum to tell me, “Well, here’s the part of our collection that we think women will like…” It’s a similar reaction when I see floral-patterned hammers at the hardware store, or pink bicycling gear, for that matter.
But I suppose it’s the job of any museum professional to make sure that their institution can appeal to folks of all ages, genders, races, orientations, etc., and to present history in an honest but compelling way.
And sometimes, visitors unwittingly remind me why it’s so important for museums to do this. Yesterday, Emily and I (who are, I would like to point out, the only paid staff at the museum, and we’re two females) were sitting behind the counter when an older woman from Southern Virginia walked up to us and said, sotto voce, in a not un-judgmental tone, “This really seems like more of a man’s thing to me.” Rather than laugh and agree with her so I didn’t have to make further conversation and justify my life decisions to a stranger, I walked her to the front room and talked to her for 10 minutes about all of the hammers that apply to women.
For example! Our Hammer of the Week this week was put out by a company that made “Ball-Bearing Bicycle” shoes, so they manufactured a hammer made of ball bearings to advertise their shoes. The shoes for women were especially uncomfortable-looking, and it was recommended that women wear these shoes while hiking the 33-mile Chilkoot Trail (which they had to do over 40 times in order to bring all of their stuff North for the Gold Rush). Which is just a reminder that women in that era got to hike in heels and dresses–pretty cool, right?
I don’t think I changed this woman’s mind about anything, because she mostly just nodded and then made some disparaging comment about how unimpressive this museum was going to look on my resume (“Well at least you have a job…”). But I felt better.
We also have a two-handled hammer in our collection, and Emily overheard some man comment that it was a hammer designed for a woman to hammer straighter. And then the other day, a kid (about 10 years old) asked me and Emily where our boss was. She said, “Well what makes you think we couldn’t be the bosses?” The kid got really quiet for a second, and his dad said, “Jimmy, are you being a chauvinist?” To which Jimmy responded, “What’s that?” But yes, Jimmy was implying that he wasn’t expecting a Hammer Museum to be staffed by two women.
It’s true that I might be a little overly sensitive to this sort of thing. What I view as blatant sexism is often (maybe) more innocently intended, and I do need to bear this mind before I jump down people’s throats. Especially when those people are museum visitors.
Of course, a majority of our visitors understand what we’re trying to do here, and I have met some truly awesome individuals. In fact, one woman from Fairbanks was telling me how her mother taught her how to use a hammer as a concealed weapon.
But the occasional sexist comment is a nice, though sometimes annoying, reminder of why I choose to work in this profession. While I don’t expect people to leave a hammer museum with their entire worldview changed, it’s fun to challenge assumptions and persuade people to consider another perspective. And this current runs both ways–I learn quite a bit from visitors, too!