Women of REME: Are you going to paint the walls pink?

Plotting and planning. A surprising amount of paperwork goes into temporary exhibitions.

Plotting and planning. A surprising amount of paperwork goes into temporary exhibitions.

In the last blog we wrote about Women of REME, the Museum’s new temporary exhibition, we mused on the difficulties of putting together an exhibition about women when women are not well represented in the Museum’s collection. Despite this, it was a challenge to determine what of the material we already had and the materials that had been lent to us should go on display. The Museum’s temporary exhibition space is not enormous so it is always necessary to be discerning in the items we pick, the stories we tell and the design choices we make.

Some of our aims included:

  • Establishing a clear historical narrative of women’s changing roles within REME and the British Army more widely over the last 75 plus years
  • Presenting stories of women who have served in a varied range of time periods, ranks and trades
  • Sharing a balanced view of the similarities and differences in the experiences of male and female personnel

That final aim was the most challenging. It’s tough to highlight differences in female experiences without wading into areas that risk gender stereotyping. There’s a persistent question asked by prominent female figures as to why they are asked about their clothes, their relationships and their children when men in similar positions are not. Through the years REME women have been subject to different rules and attitudes in relation to all of these areas compared to their male colleagues. Ignoring these differences means not telling the whole story but focusing on them risks presenting a predictable picture.

Similarly, it would be disingenuous to suggest that women have not faced sexist attitudes in periods where cultural values were different. We’ve chosen to shed light on these aspects of female experience but balance that with an exploration of female achievement and the theme of a gradual movement towards integration, equality and acceptance. Now, female Craftsmen, training at MOD Lyneham struggle to differentiate their experience from the boys on their courses but that doesn’t mean it’s not important to celebrate their accomplishments and the road taken to get to that point.

Women’s uniforms are a great way to chart changes in policy and attitude over the years. The current issue peaked cap for women (left) is only different in sizing. Caps worn by REME women in previous decades (right) would have made them stand out amongst their male colleagues.

Women’s uniforms are a great way to chart changes in policy and attitude over the years. The current issue peaked cap for women (left) is only different in sizing. Caps worn by REME women in previous decades (right) would have made them stand out amongst their male colleagues.

Concerns about stereotyping arose when we planned out the story we wanted to tell but also when making decisions about the physical design of the exhibition. Those who visited the Museum’s last temporary exhibition – the very popular Military Ink – will remember the striking blue walls which really made those arresting shots of tattooed REME personnel pop. To give Women of REME a distinct identity it was important that we gave the space a new colour scheme – the choice of which prompted some debate. Some of the women we spoke to during the design process suggested we lean into gender stereotypes and paint the space pink while others asked for anything less girly.

The suggestion of covering the walls in stylised tank tracks was vetoed on the basis of a lack of artistic skills amongst the Museum staff and an unwillingness to suggest a trade based bias – this exhibition was to tell the story of all REME women, not just VMs! In the end we choose to stay neutral, or army neutral at least, and went with a khaki colour scheme. Covering up the blue, however, proved a challenge. Many curses were levelled at the Museum’s previous Curator who picked out the infernal stuff. Are your ears burning Jen?

Three coats of white paint and the blue is NEARLY gone.

Three coats of white paint and the blue is NEARLY gone.

Finally, the perfect shade of mucky green.

Finally, the perfect shade of mucky green.

You can view Women of REME from 23 April – 5 October 2019. Admission to the exhibition is include with your ticket to the Museum.

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