Why I'm Fighting For Female Representation In The Museum Gift Shop

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
Karen Johnson

I’ll be honest—I’m usually anti-gift shop. My kids know that when we go to a museum, zoo, amusement park (or anywhere else that costs us our left kidney to get into), and then buy them luke-warm $11 chicken strips and a root beer followed by ice cream cones that will likely melt before they can slurp them down, to not expect a cheap-ass toy from the gift shop. We can buy tiny plastic turtles, or big stuffed turtles, or books about turtles a hell of a lot cheaper at Target, kids.

However, last weekend, they still had some leftover money Nana had hidden in their Easter eggs, so I said sure. After touring a local children’s museum, I let them spend their precious Easter cash on gift shop treasures of their choosing.

Let me start by stating how impressed I was by the facility’s exhibits, most of which were very hands-on. Divided into two primary centers—one focused on technology, the other on water—my kids excitedly ran from robot to robot, moving their arms to manipulate machinery, learning about centrifugal force and how batteries work, and then spent the other half of our day walking through aquarium tunnels and touching sting-rays.

None of the exhibits or activities were gender-specific. At no point did I feel like anything was geared more toward my science-loving son than my daughter. Both of them experienced virtual reality, where they wore special goggles and headsets and felt like they were walking on the ocean floor. By the end of our visit, as we headed to the gift shop for their much-anticipated souvenirs, I felt that they had learned quite a bit and experienced every nook and cranny of the museum.

Unfortunately, my feelings of pride in all that this science-centered children’s museum offered did not carry over into what I thought would be a quick stop in the gift shop before we left. As my kids walked around, making the life-altering choices of which bug collecting kit or which stuffed stingray to buy with Nana’s loot, I spotted a rotating book stand.

As a writer, former English teacher (and proud book nerd), I camped out here for several minutes perusing the choices offered. Issaac Newton… Albert Einstein… Benjamin Franklin… Bill Gates… The Wright Brothers… all obvious choices for a museum that focused on innovative inventions and scientific achievements.

I continued to scan the rack. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln made the cut. As did Leonardo DaVinci, Jacques Cousteau, and the Beatles. Okay, I thought. So we’ve got history covered. And the arts. I also spotted Martin Luther King, Jr., Steven Spielberg, and our favorite enslaving racist Christopher Columbus. Hmmmm… something didn’t seem right.

Aha! There they were—the women who had done things awesome enough to get their faces on book covers. Sally Ride! Amelia Earhart! And…?

Well, that was it.

19 books about men. TWO about women. In a place where we had just spent hours showing my 7-year-old daughter that she could be anything she wanted to be, that she could move machines and invent something that could change the world, this is the message she received in the gift shop at the end.

19 to 2.

This is not okay. This book series—Who Was—is diverse and offers a plethora of books about both men and women of all colors and ethnicities. Seeing a book rack stacked so heavily with white male faces in a place that’s supposed to be forward-thinking, in a place that’s supposed to inspire all of our children to imagine how they can impact the world, is not okay.

Mama Bear was pissed. And the museum director heard about it in a letter from me. After cordially introducing myself and praising the museum for its fantastic exhibits, I launched into my concerns about the books selection’s lack of women.

I cannot think of a justifiable reason why there were so few books about strong women who have impacted our world, I stated in my note. I am very familiar with this series and know for a fact that there are a great number of women included, such as J.K. Rowling, Harriet Tubman, Jane Goodall, Helen Keller, etc. I saw that you had one about the Beatles, so why not also Aretha Franklin? Or Dolly Parton? You have several political figures, so why not Queen Elizabeth, Michelle Obama, Abigail Adams? In fact, did you know that the Who Was series has an entire women’s history section you can order from? Surely, Marie Curie should be on your shelf.

Your museum greatly impressed me, but as a center focused on learning, what type of message does it send to the girls like my daughter who visit your gift shop and see 19 men and only 2 women represented in the books you sell? After a fun and educational day of showing my daughter all of the amazing STEM possibilities out there for her, this was a very disappointing ending.

I hope that my bringing this to your attention causes a change in the right direction with regards to the ordering and purchasing of books for your gift shop. Representation matters, especially in a center focused on STEM education. It’s crucial that our girls see women they can look up to as we teach them that they can be anything they want to be in this world.

I’ll say it again. Representation matters. As Sally Ride herself stated, “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose. You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Was I looking to end our enjoyable visit on a negative note? No. But a ratio of 19 to 2 wasn’t something I could ignore. My little girl deserves better. I deserve better.

I am happy to report that the museum director promptly responded, apologized, forwarded my letter to the director of purchasing for the gift shop, and cordially invited my daughter and me to attend a “Girls and STEM” event the museum is holding in a few months. You can be sure she and I will be there. And that on our way out, we will stop by that book rack and see what faces are on those books.

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