The wait is finally over. After two and a half years, three pop-up exhibitions and a £50,000 crowdfunding campaign, the Vagina Museum is finally opening the doors to its permanent home. Situated in London's Camden Market, it's the world's first physical museum space dedicated to vulvas, vaginas and all things gynaecological.
Although pre-launch events have been taking place at the museum's premises since 5th October, its official opening is marked by the launch of its taboo-busting exhibition, Muff Busters: Vagina Myths and How to Fight Them. We had a sneak preview to find out what you can expect.
At first glance, the museum and its inaugural exhibition might not look like much – a relatively small space lined with colourful information panels, and not much in the way of traditional museum objects and artefacts. Despite the glittery tampon in the corner, which immediately grabs your eye, the exhibition doesn't ooze the same fun and playfulness as many of the Vagina Museum's fundraising and pre-launch events, which have ranged from comedy nights and pub quizzes to vulva arts and crafts.
But don't let its slightly sparse appearance fool you; this exhibition packs a much-needed educational punch. Tackling myths about anatomy, sex and contraception, gender, periods, virginity, discharge, pubic hair and feminine hygiene products, Muff Busters lays out the Vagina Museum's stall, making the case for its own existence and contributing to vital conversations around gynaecological health.
"We really wanted to start with the basics. If our aim is to destigmatise the anatomy, we need to make sure everyone knows the basics before we delve into more complicated issues," Vagina Museum founder Florence Schechter tells Refinery29. "It's about laying the groundwork and talking about why this museum is so needed. These myths have terrible consequences, and they're really hurting people."
For all the fun of crocheting a clitoris or taking selfies with a giant glittery tampon, this is the serious message at the Vagina Museum's core. It exists against a backdrop of health inequalities and stigma, in a culture where vaginas and periods are still seen as dirty and shameful, and health issues that predominantly affect women are underfunded and poorly understood by medical science.
Naturally then, the exhibition opens with an anatomy lesson, an explanation of the difference between sex and gender, and a labelled diagram of the female genitalia – knowledge that should be 'the basics' but sadly still eludes roughly half of women in the UK.
From filling in the gaps left by school biology and sex education classes to addressing the harm caused by the growing feminine hygiene industry, Muff Busters doesn't skimp on vagina facts. Burning questions answered by the exhibition include: Can you put Coca-Cola in your vagina as a contraceptive? (Spoiler alert: No, no, NO!) Is the clitoris really impossible to find? (Bring your partner along, they might learn something!) And what's the biological function of pubic hair?
While vagina-themed objects are fewer and further between than you might expect, those that do feature have a powerful effect. The first is an actual medical textbook, currently being used by medical students in Pakistan, which falsely claims you can tell if someone's a virgin from the size and appearance of their vagina and labia.
Next up are three framed pairs of knickers, all bleached by the natural acidity of vaginal discharge. You've heard the term 'model's own'? Well, these are museum curator Sarah Creed's own knickers and if that isn't dedication to the cause, then I don't know what is. Finally, there's a briefcase full of unnecessary and potentially harmful feminine hygiene products. One of these is designed to 'tighten' the vagina, using the same ingredient as those tingly, lip-plumping lip glosses from the '90s – information that had me clenching in horror.
The Vagina Museum certainly isn't a lengthy outing in the same way as the V&A or the Tate Modern, nor is it meant to be. For me, it felt more like a much-needed educational lunch break. Once you've finished exploring the exhibition, you could easily spend just as long browsing feminist books and vulva merchandise in the well-stocked gift shop.
As someone who spends most of my working life writing about women's health, I'm curious about how other visitors have responded to the Vagina Museum so far, and who they're most keen to reach. "We've had lots of cheers and whoops, a few confused people, apprehensive people, quite a few gigglers, but we want to reach all of those people," Florence says.
"I know you're not supposed to say your target audience is everyone, but there's not a single person on the planet to whom a vagina is not relevant," she adds. Indeed, as the exhibition notes, half of us have one and almost all of us were born through one – and Florence says visitors, from teenage boys to middle aged women, are already coming in with questions and misconceptions for museum staff to clear up.
"If they're coming through the door we've done our job. Gynaecological health is having a big moment, which is amazing, and I think the Vagina Museum can contribute something really unique to that as a cultural venue," she says. For that reason, she adds, the extracurricular events programme will also continue. "It's giving people different ways to get involved, because it's fun and not everyone is going to want to come to an exhibition."
You can find the Vagina Museum at Unit 17 & 18 Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 8AH. Admission is free and the museum is open 10am-6pm Monday to Saturday and 11am-6pm on Sundays.