Why Is It Necessary to Include the Gender Perspective in Archaeological Museums?: Some Examples from Spanish Museums

by Lourdes Prados Torreira

Archaeological museums in the twenty-first century carry a clear responsibility toward society today. They necessarily aspire to become open spaces in which the many different social groups that make up our citizenship are represented. These must be spaces that reflect the diversity in our society, places that host the history of the different age and gender groups and that, ultimately, have the capacity for transmitting the collective memory of a community (Merriman 1999; Sørensen 1999). In such spaces, no individual should feel excluded on the grounds of gender, age, race, religion, social group, sexual choice, and so on. Museums, in short, are under the obligation to play a key role in education toward equality (Izquierdo Peraile et al. 2014; Prados Torreira et al. 2013). Broadly speaking, however, it can be observed that in the majority of archaeological museums an expositive discourse is used to project the present into the past, causing women to become invisible or assigning little value to the activities associated with them. These are places where objects in the collections that are supposedly manufactured by males are exhibited in a repetitive manner, casting no uncertainty on such ascriptions. As a result, androcentric stereotypes are conveyed and reflected, in most cases without any scientific grounding. Not only are spaces dedicated to women in archaeological museums usually limited to domestic settings, but in addition these essential tasks relating to the care and sustenance of the group, for which we use the collective term “maintenance activities” (González Marcén et al. 2008; Montón Subías 2010; Prados Torreira forthcoming a; Prados Torreira and López Ruiz forthcoming b), are not looked on as being of any importance.

Through gender analysis, the aim is to study how biological or cognitive differences are interpreted culturally, and to what extent such differences vary in different societies. There are a number of different fields of interest for the development of gender archaeology, such as funerary contexts, religious spheres, or maintenance activities within the habitat and everyday livelihood. However, we encounter recurrent androcentric stereotypes that are perceived by society as irrefutable historical truths. In this manner, the images of women represented in archaeological museums usually convey the idea that these are passive, secondary individuals who perform “natural” functions, reinforcing the notion that gender roles are unchangeable through history and similar across all cultures. This amounts to a denial of viewing gender as a cultural construct. We know, however, that the analysis of gender is essential to understanding social relationships within any culture, despite being fully aware of the difficulty involved in such studies from material cultural remains. Because of this, museum narratives on the societies of the past are in many cases incomplete, or clearly androcentric in that they reproduce certain stereotypes, the most common of which I will mention below.

In explaining the hominization process through graphic material, only individuals of the masculine sex are represented, causing the exclusion of women from the evolution of humankind. Another recurrent stereotype is the absence of women from themes such as hunting in Prehistoric times. However, it would seem logical to consider that, on many occasions, the entire group would need to work together—children and the elderly included—to butcher a kill, so that the meat would not be devoured by other animals ready to steal it. Similarly, all stone tools are attributed to men, while it is highly probable that many of these tools were crafted by women—and sometimes by children—for tasks such as cutting, preparing skins, and so on. Moreover, and although we are lacking in archaeological data to determine who made Paleolithic cave paintings, since their discovery in the nineteenth century it has been maintained as an absolute truth that they belonged to an exclusively male scenario in which women had no participation whatsoever and, therefore, this is how it has been transmitted from generation to generation. In like manner, the maintenance activities that were vital for the development and survival of any society are rarely highlighted through the materials, texts, or graphics exhibited in museums. As a result of the repetition of these stereotypes, women have become scarcely visible in archaeological museums.

If we consider that women have participated alongside men on a peer-to-peer basis throughout the history of humankind, then we must assume that it was precisely the division of labor, and the attribution of different social roles and their different classification on a scale of values, that has placed women in a secondary position and that this fact has caused women’s invisibility in museums: their invisibility through lack of representation within their material culture, through museum collections, and ultimately through their absence from history (Colomer et al. 1999; Gero and Sørensen 2012; Nelson 2006, 2007; Sørensen 2000).

In this manner, in the majority of museums analyzed, we find that the archaeological heritage exhibited is linked almost exclusively to the discourse of men, disseminating a clearly biased vision of the past. This is how museums in general have embraced traditional patriarchal principles, by assuming that the greater part of material culture has been produced by men. From this fact, museum visitors are led to deduce the superiority of men over women, and to the belief that men are the protagonists of history. The result of such an androcentric vision of archaeology is to render women invisible through the discourse of museum exhibitions, as we know that what is not told in the museum discourse is likewise not present among the exhibits, and therefore cannot be transmitted to the visitor. Women are thus transformed into invisible subjects, deprived of the capacity to participate in the construction of societies, or in the collective memory the museum purports to preserve. Therefore, it is the voice of women that needs to be made an integral part of the gender perspective at museums, as only through participating in building the museological narrative can women recognize, and identify with, their leading role in history (Prados Torreira and López Ruiz forthcoming b). Incorporating a gender perspective to museums, however, must not be understood as a gesture of political correctness, but should constitute a line of scientific and museological research, open to permanent review and dialogue between the different sectors within museums themselves and in society.

From the turn of the century, and gradually following the development of gender studies, Spanish archaeological museums have acquired a concern for including a gender perspective both on their discourse and their expository design (Hornos Mata and Rísquez Cuenca 2005). In Spain, it is interesting to observe that institutions such as museums, which have traditionally been open to the presence of women as curators, assistants, restorers, librarians, and so on, are nevertheless, with regard to other professional fields of knowledge, extremely reluctant to accept research with a gender perspective. In other words, although women have played a prominent role in museum management, this fact has not been reflected in museums’ expository narratives (Díaz-Andreu 2002, 2005; Grau Lobos 2014; Prados Torreira and López Ruiz forthcoming a). And although it is chiefly women who are engaged in researching the field of gender archaeology, in Spain as in most other countries1 (Dommasnes et al. 2010), with a few outstanding exceptions female curators are in some occasions the most reluctant to understand that with these traditional discourses and expositions, we are not only leaving half of the population out of our past but, in addition, we are doing so without any scientific justification. To focus exclusively on the case of Spain, I shall examine a number of Spanish museums that have been inaugurated or refurbished in recent years to determine how they have incorporated the gender perspective.

The Expository Discourse

We know that drafting the narrative for an exposition, whether temporal or permanent, provides the centerline for the expository design, and ultimately, the museum’s message to the visitor. The first consideration the museum needs to make is regarding the main message it wishes to convey on the basis of, or in relation to, the collection of selected materials for the exhibition. In this sense, furthermore, we must establish clearly that this is not merely an “innocent message”—that underlying the chosen discourse is the dominant academic research concept, or that of the curator or curators who in the end are responsible for selecting certain themes and disregarding others.

This is why it is paramount to establish clearly, when selecting the main message and any secondary messages with regard to the materials exhibited, that the whole must be a comprehensive narrative in which the gender perspective is present not as a “filler” of any sort, or for reasons of political correctness, but as an integral part of the tale. The view of the past offered by the museum thus becomes a model and a reference for successive generations, given that museums do not ordinarily have the funds for permanent renewal (Izquierdo Peraile 2014). It is not a question of offering an idealized vision of the past, or of “inventing” narratives in which to include women. This is about giving content to those areas in which archaeological research tells us that women were active, and which have varied through time and across cultures; but also to those areas in which we do not know who performed certain tasks. For example, in prehistoric times we do not have data to tell us who made the cave paintings, or who made stone tools and the like. The discourses traditionally used for Prehistory have rarely paid any attention to women (Díaz-Andreu and Sørensen 1998; Gero and Sørensen 2012; Nelson 2006, 2007; Sørensen 2000). This has led to the failure to consider women as a factor to cultural change and progress in the societies they belonged to. And the justification for this does not lie in the absence of their archaeological footprint, since it is obvious that they have left the same footprint as their male counterparts, but in the traditional stance taken in research and the perspective adopted by museums that, in fact, have failed to perceive either those footprints or those changes.

In addition to the so-called technologies, other themes should also be selected for inclusion in the exposition, such as funeral rites; maintenance activities that encompass, among other functions, caring for people, providing food, and living spaces; and other activities in which we know women took an active part in the majority of cultures, for example, in the preparation of the corpse, in the funeral feast, grave goods characteristic not only of the social group but also dependent of gender and age, among others. (Arnold 1991; Arnold and Wicker 2001; Baker 2012; Delgado and Ferrer 2011, 2012; Dommasnes 2012; Gilchrist 1999, 2008; Prados Torreira 2012b, 2016, forthcoming b).

The presence of women is also very frequent in religious rituals, in which they participate together with the rest of the community, or occasionally through specific rites as in Classical Greece. And in this sense, we should steer clear of clichés restricting women to the realm of divinities. According to these, any feminine figurine found in the Paleolithic is automatically thought to be a Venus, or many of the funerary female sculptures in Mediterranean Protohistory representing women of a high social standing are classified as feminine divinities, whereas in the case of male figures, these are assumed to be funerary images of warriors (Arnold 1991; Nelson 2015; Prados Torreira 2010; Soffer et al. 2000).

Gender Archaeology and Collections

Having decided on the program and the discourse that is intended to be conveyed to visitors, the latter must be embodied in the exhibition halls by means of the expository design in which the collections must serve as the centerline on which to articulate said discourse. The archaeological materials should be selected on the criteria of their relevance to the historical knowledge being conveyed.

We cannot overlook the fact that archaeological museums project on their collections the dominant views in research and also the personal views of their curators. It is on this point that we stress that just as the narrative is not innocent, nor is the choice of pieces in the exhibition. A recent example of curators’ ideological weight can be seen in the very well refurbished Museo Arqueológico Nacional (MAN), in Madrid. At this major national museum, despite the uniform approach established by the institution, reflecting moreover an outstanding standard of work as a team, there are important differences among the discourses and expository designs in the halls housing different historical periods. The discourse is far more open, comprehensive, and suggestive, according to my point of view, in the rooms dedicated to Prehistory or Greece, among others, than those for the Middle Ages, as I will show later on (Prados Torreira forthcoming a).

For these reasons, we should not ignore the subjective and noninnocent aspect underlying the museum’s discourse and expository design. On the one hand, a given narrative is chosen, dominated both by the trends in research current at the time, and by the ideology of the curators responsible for narrating and drafting the discourse. And on the other hand, some items are selected for exhibition from the collection while others are rejected. This explains why it is extremely difficult to find, for example, cooking pottery exhibited in showcases, as these spaces are given to other “more valuable” objects. With this, I do not mean to say that the we should reject an exhibition of, for instance, mummies of Egyptian pharaohs, but that we should also investigate and display other materials present in museums’ collections that help us to understand how common people lived in those times, what they ate, what their houses were like, what objects they used every day, how they made their clothes, how they worked on the land, and so on.

Museums should also make it their mission to encourage new readings of their collections, both by researchers and by the curators themselves. A highly significant example is to be found at the MAN, in the Protohistory room where the well-known Dama de Baza is exhibited. This is a funerary sculpture dating from the fourth century BCE, excavated during the 1970s, which contains the cremated remains of the deceased. As among the grave goods in this tomb there was a set of weapons, for several years this was interpreted as the burial site of a warrior and the female sculpture was assumed to be that of a protective goddess. Recent paleoanthropological analyses, however, have shown that the tomb contains the funerary remains of a woman. Therefore, the weapons are now displayed in the museum as the grave goods of an aristocratic woman (Arnold 2012; Chapa Brunet and Izquierdo Peraile 2010; Linduff and Rubinson 2008; Prados Torreira 2010, 2012a, 2016; Quesada Sanz 2012).

We therefore need to conduct a review of the archaeological materials at these museums that will allow us to ask ourselves new questions, not only with regard to the need to establish the sex of buried individuals from bone remains, for instance, on objective grounds, rather than solely on the basis of the nature of grave goods, that is, weapons for males and spinning or weaving utensils for women, but also about establishing ages, obtaining paleodietary data and discovering differences in protein consumption according to sex or other factors, differences in bone stress that may give us insights into types of physical activity, and hence tasks and the like. (Alarcón García and Sánchez Romero 2012; Aranda et al. 2009, 2011; Arnold and Wicker 2001; Baker 2012). But we should also display objects that are traditionally relegated to the museum warehouse, such as cooking pots and other utensils used in transforming and preparing food, textiles, and basketry, that can tell us so much about the identity built up by a people or a segment of that population, such as its women. These pieces, properly explained in the narrative offered by the museum, have the potential to communicate far more than a golden item devoid of context. In this manner, we are also encouraging the visitor’s critical regard and making it more likely that they will pose new questions: Were the cooking pots used at a given point in history in such a place or culture very different to those we use today? Did they have the same products for making their meals? Has the landscape changed much in the past two thousand years? Would their climate have been similar to ours today? How did they shelter from the cold or the heat? How did they weave? How did they have enough light for rock painting in dark caves? How did they obtain their pigments? Do we have scientific data to tell us which individuals were responsible for each of these activities?

The collections, in short, must speak to the museum visitors, helping them to pose new questions and form part of the collective knowledge process. If these collections render half of the population invisible and give a voice exclusively to those elements considered masculine and generally belonging to the power-wielding groups, then the museum is transmitting a biased message lacking in scientific content. It is not, therefore, a matter of renouncing scientific rigor, or of faking or idealizing the past; it is a question of creating a nonexclusive discourse that speaks of a reality that is more prismatic and less homogeneous.

Consequently, we need to cause museum objects to “speak” so that they tell us about traditionally less privileged groups such as women, the elderly, and children (Baxter 2005; Izquierdo Peraile et al. 2015; Moore and Scott 1997; Sánchez Romero 2007). These narratives must necessarily be open to gender variants that have existed across different cultures, such as the “two-spirit” of North America, eunuchs in Imperial China, and the like (Darvill 2008; Dowson 2000; Insoll 2007; Linduff and Sun 2004; Voss 2006, 2008). Not to mention other social groups that are difficult to trace through archaeology, such as slaves or children (Izquierdo Peraile et al. 2015; Lucy 1997; Marshall 2015).

In some museums we find that certain pieces are indeed displayed, such as feminine figures engaged in a variety of activities including carrying firewood, but no reference is made to them in the expository discourse or the accompanying illustrations, and the visitors’ attention is drawn elsewhere to other items and narratives (Rodríguez-Shadow and Corona 2014; Rodríguez-Shadow forthcoming). Including a gender perspective in the exposition of museum pieces allows us to dismantle deep-rooted clichés that are the result of an androcentric attitude toward history and research and, in many cases, have shaped Western ideology and culture.

Another frequent issue is the division of tasks according to gender, which in the majority of cases is based on stereotypes lacking any scientific grounds. For example, we cannot attribute Paleolithic artifacts to men or women, children or the elderly. Any interpretations, in principle, should be based on ethnographic analogy, although in most cases a traditional biased interpretation predominates that was built on the stereotyped notions of Prehistory developed in the nineteenth century.

In this sense, the Museo de Altamira, in Cantabria, strives to include in its discourse and permanent exhibition the lifestyles and culture of people in the Paleolithic who shared roles, and in this way include women, children, and the elderly in this remote period in Prehistory (Fatás Monforte and Martínez Llano 2014). Why should we assume that only one segment of the population was engaged in making and using tools? Is it possible for us to ascertain who manufactured each and every one of the flint tools or the bone needles we have found? It is very likely that each member of the group learned to make their own tools and would improve them as each item became adapted to its purpose. On this point, we can establish ethnological analogies, or simply observe that many artisans today prefer to make their own tools.

Given that we lack archaeological data for the Paleolithic to confirm this stereotype regarding the assignment of tasks by gender, the wisest course is to use comprehensive discourses and language, which also apply to the accompanying illustrations that include the whole community, as we shall see in the coming pages on the subject of language and images. An excellent example of comprehensive treatment of the different groups in Paleolithic society is the Museo Arqueológico Regional de la Comunidad de Madrid (MAR), to which we shall also refer on the subject of images.

Through the medium of archaeological collections we are able to present visitors with new narratives, a different way of telling the story of a culture, or a society. We find an interesting example of this in the Ancient Greece rooms at the MAN in Madrid. We know that Greek ceramic vases are documents of exceptional value, because they offer a wealth of information on diverse social, political, and ideological aspects of Ancient Greece. The curators of these rooms decided not to display the vases according to their shape, nor to their characteristic style, but to the images they narrate. In this way, they resolved to do away with precise chronologies and to group the items according to the narrative discourse they wish to transmit from the museum, focused on identity and gender. The discourse begins with the famous text attributed to Thales of Miletus: “I thank the Gods for being born a man and not a beast, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a Barbarian” (Diogenes Laertius 1.34).

Nevertheless, the Head of Department, Paloma Cabrera, highlights that in the Greek world, paradoxically, the identity of the male is defined in terms of women, by means of the constant and vital interaction between the two opposite worlds that, at the same time, are permanently in contact. Under this paradigm of identity, the curators present a new discourse on Ancient Greece from a gender perspective, supported by the images on terracottas and vases, by the functions and contexts for their use, and not by their styles or chronologies. Two thematic units, “Oikos, the Home” and “Polis, the City,” synthesize this otherness: that is to say, life in the home and participation in civic life. The field of religion and death also provides a link between these two worlds in which women actively participate. The aim is to showcase daily life in Greece and to underscore, from a gender perspective, the construction of a social and political system that established and sanctioned inequality and exclusion (Figure 1; Cabrera 2014, forthcoming; Picazo 2008).

Figure 1. The Ages. Ancient Greece rooms. Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid (© MAN).

Figure 1. The Ages. Ancient Greece rooms. Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid (© MAN).

This is an example of how a narrative discourse can be changed using archaeological exhibits, without succumbing to an idealization of the past. In these exhibition rooms women are rendered visible, in a society in which they were highly invisible, not through idealizing the role they played but by means of recounting the role that was theirs through the objects that represent them.

Other collections of interest in their exhibition are, for example, the inscriptions relating to women, such as Roman and Islamic inscriptions. These are direct documents of their memory, containing a great deal of information about the participation of certain women, in public and private life, as midwives and nurses, landowners, administrators of their estates, and so on. The Museo de Córdoba ran a temporary exposition of these titled “The Dwelling Place of Memory: Women in Inscriptions” (Baena Alcántara 2014).


A further important aspect is that not only must we pay attention to the narratives—what we wish to tell and how we wish to tell it—but also to the language we use. It is essential to avoid the use of sexist language, and in this sense, in a language such as Spanish that clearly distinguishes the masculine and the feminine, we need to take special pains to use inclusive expressions. The work of María Ángeles Querol is noteworthy in this sense, as she stresses the need to stop using the masculine gender for the plural, as, far from being inclusive as it is supposed be, in actual fact it excludes women and contributes to making them invisible. This researcher began by analyzing the discourses published in Spain on “the origins of Man” to point out the extent to which women had been taken into account in such texts. She found that the use of the expression “the origins of Man” led to the idea that the texts did not deal with the origins of “mankind,” because the accompanying images only portrayed masculine individuals; the same occurred in references to “Cro-Magnon man,” “Paleolithic man,” and so on. And this problem is also found in textbooks (Querol 2005, 2014).


The importance of images in museums is clear to us today. Each image contains a huge amount of information, and this information also includes the actual contribution of the creator of the image, as well as that of the person responsible for disseminating it. Images help to structure a message, but at the same time generate stereotypes that museums use repetitively until they become recurrent models that no one thinks or dares to contest. And once again, we insist that such stereotypes are not innocent. In general, and as demonstrated by Querol, whose research in recent years has focused on analyzing the representation of women in museums (Querol 2008), there is a tendency to make women invisible in scenes of the past. Having examined a number of recently opened or refurbished archaeological museums in Spain, findings show that the percentage of women represented is always considerably lower than that of men, the highest score being 33 percent (Querol and Hornos Mata 2011). But these museums should be providing a balanced appearance of men and women, at different ages and engaging in diverse activities. These authors insist, as most others do too, on the subject of hunting as an example of an important economic activity from which women are barred, with some remarkable exceptions. The Museo Arqueológico Regional de la Comunidad de Madrid (MAR), in Alcalá de Henares, proposes an image in which a captured Elephas antiquus is quartered by men, women, an old woman, and a child. Hunting these enormous animals would undoubtedly have been a group endeavor, in which each individual may have had a specific task: lookout, locating the prey, capturing and killing it, quartering it, tanning the hide, and so on (Escobar and Baquedano 2014; Prados Torreira and López Ruiz forthcoming a).

Much of the graphic support fails to represent the proposed scenes with due rigor and equity, as the artist is allowed to interpret the image or the scene on the basis of a text or from brief instructions given by the curator, which is a grave mistake. A clear example of this can be seen in the Prehistory rooms at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, in an image showing a woman milling grain. While the text tells of the importance of the archaeological findings of the remains of women’s bones showing signs of considerable stress on the upper limbs, which could be related to the task of milling, the illustration depicts a young woman of “sexy” appearance which fails to transmit to the beholder any indication of the physical effort involved in the activity she is performing (Prados Torreira and López Ruiz forthcoming a). In this case, too, we can speak of the noninnocence of images. Likewise, the absence or undervaluation of “maintenance activities” is a constant (Sánchez Romero 2008). It is not necessary to depict men and women performing the same activities and in the same attitudes; what is needed is for all the different activities to be depicted as indispensable to the development of the community.

Another clear example of androcentric bias in museums are graphic representations of human evolution in which, in most cases, only males are depicted as the protagonists of said evolution. But haven’t women evolved as well? Only a few museums, striving to promote a realistic view of history, produce graphic material for their displays in which human evolution is represented through both the sexes. These include, for example, the Museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid, the Museo de Prehistoria de Valencia, and the Museo Nacional y Centro de Investigación de Altamira (Prados Torreira and López Ruiz forthcoming a).

A museum that stands out for its exemplary application of a gender perspective on its use of images, especially in its numerous temporary expositions, is the Museo Arqueológico Regional de la Comunidad de Madrid (MAR). The team at this museum believes that both the texts and the images must be based on the latest scientific research data known, keeping firmly in mind that our own modern-day interpretation will give shape to the end result. Hence their premise that not only are highly skilled artists required, but that the museum’s team of experts must oversee the production process for all graphic materials, texts, and other expository resources. They must discuss what is to be conveyed to the public, how it must be conveyed, how to disseminate certain ideas, and the means available to do so. Going beyond considerations of a quantitative nature—which are also taken into account—attention is paid to aspects such as scales, proportional hierarchy, the tiered placement of figures within each scene, their facial expression and regards, or the preeminence of certain types over others.

For example, a Carpetani family in the second Iron Age is portrayed with all its members on the same level, with none placed in attitudes of submission or obedience (Figure 2) (Escobar and Baquedano 2014). As an example of village group activities, a pottery-making scene has been chosen, in which a young woman is working with a potter’s wheel, a man is decorating a vase, and a child is preparing some clay. In another scene, a woman and a girl are carrying firewood through a street, in similar attitudes to those seen in Mexican figurines, as women and children also performed tasks requiring physical exertion. A further noteworthy example at the MAR was the poster designed for the exhibition “Art without Artists: A Look at the Palaeolithic” for which Enrique Baquedano, the museum director, selected the image of a woman painting the polychrome ceiling in the cave at Altamira (Figure 3). The reactions and criticism from the scientific world were not slow to arrive. As there are no reliable data to prove that the artists may have been women, how was it that the museum ventured to propose and present such a hypothesis to the public? But there are likewise no reliable data telling us the artists were men. In the wake of the criticism, compliments also arrived from a different sector of academia (Escobar and Baquedano 2014).

Figure 2. A Carpetanian family. Exhibition Los últimos carpetanos: El oppidum de El Llano dela Horca, Santorcaz, Madrid (Th e Last of the Carpetanians: Th e Oppidum at El Llano de la Horca, Santorcaz, Madrid), April to November 2012. Museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid (© MAR).

Figure 2. A Carpetanian family. Exhibition Los últimos carpetanos: El oppidum de El Llano dela Horca,
Santorcaz, Madrid (Th e Last of the Carpetanians: The Oppidum at El Llano de la Horca, Santorcaz,
Madrid), April to November 2012. Museo Arqueológico Regional de Madrid (© MAR).

In my view, this “scientific provocation” was extremely positive. Now, visitors to museums, children in particular, will at least consider the possibility that the cave painters may have been women, something that hadn’t been publicly considered before. This new uncertainty invites reflection on the matter, which in itself is a positive development. Although in general, as I have mentioned with regard to the prehistoric period, in a majority of scenes Paleolithic art is associated with masculine activities, there is another depiction of the Late Paleolithic in which a woman is shown painting within a cave: it belongs to the new installation at the Museo Arqueológico de Asturias (Figure 1; Prados Torreira and López Ruiz forthcoming a). In this case, and despite the original idea having been to show the traditional scene of a man painting, thanks to guidance by the technical team at the Subdirección General de Museos Estatales it was decided to use this image, more polemic in nature but that, as in the previous case, encourages reflection and invites the viewer to break away from preestablished dogmas (Prados Torreira and López Ruiz forthcoming a; Soler Mayor 2008).

Figure 3. Exhibition poster from the exposition Arte sin artistas: Una Mirada al Paleolítico (Art without Artists: A Look at the Paleolithic). Museo Arqueológico Regional de la Comunidad de Madrid, December 2012 to April 2013 (© MAR).

Figure 3. Exhibition poster from the exposition Arte sin artistas: Una Mirada al Paleolítico
(Art without Artists: A Look at the Paleolithic). Museo Arqueológico Regional de la Comunidad
de Madrid, December 2012 to April 2013 (© MAR).

Finally, we must not forget the vital importance of the role played by museums’ educational offices, with the organization of activities to promote education in equality and empowerment of women in the past. The aim is to present a history that is plural and to value the activities performed by men and women alike in the everyday lives of people in the past, by means of workshops and working groups, dramatizations of different periods, and scenes in which boys and girls feel represented (Izquierdo Peraile et al. 2015; Pujol Tost 2014; Sada Castillo 2014; Sánchez Romero et al. 2015). Other activities include the arrangement of temporary expositions of a more informative and demanding nature, focusing on themes specific to women such as “Women in Prehistory,” Museo de Prehistoria de Valencia (Bonet 2006; Ripollés et al. 2014); or the most recent, “Enfrentándose a la vida: Mujeres ibéricas y mujeres mesoamericanas prehispánicas—Un encuentro arqueológico” (Facing life: Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican women and Iberian women—An encounter through archaeology) (López Ruiz and Prados Torreira 2014).

Therefore, to achieve education in equality, we cannot tolerate the underrepresentation of women, children, or other groups, studied and shown as though they existed in the margins or periphery of “true” history, which tradition assigns to men. We need to underscore that we are not proposing a manipulation of the past in order to portray an idealized view. We need to gain knowledge of our past in order to understand the present, to understand who we are, and through this knowledge to be ready for the future. We need archaeological museums in which, free from exclusions, we can all feel represented.


Among the objectives we can aim for from the analysis of museums presented in this article, we can mention the need to incorporate a gender perspective in archaeological museums in order to uproot the traditional messages associating men to the most important tasks and women to passive attitudes within their respective societies throughout history. We must explain, through texts, archaeological collections, and graphic media that the division of tasks—regarding specialization by sexes or gender—indicates differences but not necessarily a scale of greater or lesser importance or a hierarchization of the tasks assigned to each group, as has been the assumption in traditional archaeology, and, in short, we must steer clear of the androcentric museum narrative that advocates the inferiority or limited social functions, and even the invisibility, of women based on the assumption that the greater part of the material culture was produced exclusively by the males. It is therefore necessary that museums review the way they exhibit their collections, to allow spaces for the items traditionally reviled such as those linked to maintenance activities, to revise the expository narratives, and to take special care both with the language used and with the graphic materials that are so prominent in museums today. Incorporating a gender perspective in museums should constitute a line of scientific and museological research.

In this way, we must strive to remove the androcentric bias present in archaeological museums and to convey clearly that women have also played—and continue to play—a protagonist role in history.


This article originally appeared in volume 4, issue 1 of Museum Worlds: Advances in Research.


LOURDES PRADOS TORREIRA is Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain). Her research mainly focuses on protohistory of the Mediterranean and in particular, on issues of religion and gender in Iberian culture (sixth–first centuries BCE), as well as on archaeological heritage and museology. She has conducted several research projects whose results have been published in a number of journals and books.

For Notes and References, please view the article on the Berghahn Journals website.