Posted by: Johan Normark | June 21, 2011

Warning: the assumption of culturally constructed gender roles is in itself a construction

I usually do not visit museums but in the past couple of years I have on a fairly regular basis visited the Museum of Natural History in Göteborg. It takes me less than ten minutes to walk there from my apartment. The reason behind my frequent visits is that the museum is a good place for my son to learn more about animals when the nearby playground (Plikta) is closed (which it is nowadays) and the weather is bad.

Last weekend my son and I came across a new addition to some of the exhibited animals. On the floor, in front of the South African fur seals, we can read: “Warning: object on display may reflect culturally constructed gender roles”. A new photograph showing a man with women sitting on rocks is located behind the seals. A nearby signs has this to tell us:

Playing house?

These South African fur seals do not live in a human nuclear family structure. In this diorama, their natural behaviour is altered to fit human family ideals. During the breeding season, they live in groups of one bull and up to fifty cows. The females are free to choose which bull they mate with. Does this display say more about human society than about seal behaviour? In the background, we can see how a human family could be interpreted from a seal’s perspective.

This text is part of a greater exhibition at several museums that deals with gender issues (Gender Matters). Hence, the focus is gender and they have chosen a couple of examples to illustrate their points that gender issues affect exhibitions and the way we visualize the world. This is a typical social constructionist perspective.

However, there are even more strange animal behaviors exposed in this museum that one could use for another social constructionist agenda. Most of the species of herd animals are only represented by one individual. If you wish to focus on individualism in human society you could fairly easily make an argument that human individualism is represented in the dioramas of herd animals as well. The way human society sorts and selects people into classes and ethnicity/race can also be found at the museum. Mammals are located on the top floor in the largest hall, birds are located on the sides of this hall, and reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, etc. are located on the floor below mammals and birds. This represents the same way colonial societies socially constructed people into higher and lower categories. Hence, you can make an argument for racism at the museum as well if you wish to push that agenda.

Obviously the exhibitions in a museum are not the same as the world “out there”. They simply show idealized generalizations of the world. That is why I tend not to visit museums since they are too neatly organized and everything that is inside its walls is affected by the exhibitors own assumptions and values. The same goes for the ones responsible for the gendered perspective of the seals. What is their agenda? Does not their interest say a lot about them? Sure it does. Here I quote Slavoj Žižek (2010:50): “the critical claim that patriarchal ideology continues to be the hegemonic ideology is the form of the hegemonic ideology of our times”. The ones responsible for this perspective rely on a hegemonic ideology themselves. I believe that can be seen in the photo behind the seals. Here we see a man and a multitude of women, but as far as I can remember I did not see any children. The children were apparently forgotten in their focus on exposing gender issues. At least the ones responsible for the original diorama included a baby seal. That must mean that the people behind the diorama did a better “seal-gendered” job than the ones behind the photo…

All this boils down to the social constructionist perspective that is part of the linguistic turn. For me this is a perspective that had its peak more than a decade ago. There are far more interesting perspectives emerging within the speculative turn. One day I will write a speculative perspective of this diorama. I have too much to do right now but the diorama is not going away.

Žižek, S. 2010. Living in the End Times, London: Verso.



  1. Ser ut som om detta blogginlägg diskuteras på arkeologiforum,4359.msg38611.html#new



  2. “Yngwe” verkar ha missförstått det jag var ute efter. Vem påstår att “sociala grupper alltid syftar till reproduktion”? Det var inte ens i närheten av vad jag diskuterar. Jag håller mig till en kritik av socialkonstruktionismen.

    • Mitt inlägg på Arkeologiforum skall framförallt inte skiljas från sitt sammanhang som omfattar betydligt mer än ditt blogginlögg, då blir det aningen svårt att förstå. Det jag skrev skall alltså inte ses som ett svar på ditt blogginlägg utan som en del i ett resonemang om perspektiv.

      Mycket kort beskriver det hur det av dig definierade perspektivet som du tillksriver utställaren ligger till grund för din analys och den travers jag gjorde som tillskrev utställaren ett helt annat perspektiv, med en helt annan analys som resultat.

      Att jag dessutom bad om kontring betyder att jag dessutom var smått ironisk och väntade mig ett genmäle på forumet.

      Mitt motiv till detta kan på ingetsätt sammanfattas så det ryms här, utan jag hänvisar istället den nyfikne till Arkeologiforum.

      Väl mött där!

      • Jag valde att kommentera på min blogg snarare än på Arkeologiforum då jag skulle åka på semester inom kort och därmed inte hade möjlighet att deltaga i en diskussion.


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