Inside London's New Women's Museum

Inside London's New Women's Museum

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A woman in a blue dress 'framing' a painting with her hands
The inaugural show is curated by Nephertiti Oboshie Schandorf. Image: Londonist

Barking's women-led history is exceptional.

For almost 1,000 years, the area was overseen by the Abbesses, a group of powerful women who presided over not just the religious side of things, but day-to-day business. Barking was also home to the oldest surviving suffragette, Annie Huggett, while 1968 saw the Ford sewing machinists strike, leading to the Equal Pay Act.

On the flip side of the coin, it's the area with the highest recorded rate of domestic violence in London.

An old pharmacy cabinet with herbs on it
Lesley Asar's cabinet of herbal mixtures and tinctures will grow with the seasons. Image: Londonist

For many reasons then, Barking is the right place for a Women's Museum, and that's what it now has — a cosy yet permanent space in the New Town area of Barking (less than 10 minutes from the tube station).

The Women's Museum isn't a museum in the traditional sense. Inaugural exhibition — An Idea of Life — is grounded in the history of Barking Abbey and its architectural finds, yet allows young female artists to create their own reflections on this. For Ritual Recipes, British Ghanaian artist Lesley Asar has taken a vintage cabinet from the P. Gray Chemist and Optician and filled it with herbal tinctures and compounds. There'll also be workshops for visitors to make their own — just as the nuns would have done all those centuries ago. "It's about generating ideas and connecting these ideas to older stories," says curator Nephertiti Oboshie Schandorf, "I would love it if people are able to connect with the history they're passing through."

A textile mural showing hands holding a golden orb
The inaugural exhibition, An Idea of Life, will grow over time. Image: Londonist

Elsewhere, Meera Shakti Osborne's vivid Intimate Transformations paintings show modern women as they might be depicted as saints. Again, there are touches of the local: a blue shawl doubles up as the Roding River. Sarina Mantle's Sacred Cycles of the Divine Feminine interweaves Barking's history with the personification of Mother Earth and the cycles of her life.

The museum's initial show will grow organically; as the seasons progress, more works will be added by the same artists. Archaeological finds from the areas, or replicas of them — such as an ancient waffle mould (ancient biscuits have been found on the site of the Abbey too; those nuns had a sweet tooth) — will be scattered among the artworks too. There'll also be various workshops and events, with local companies and setups like New Town Culture and Company Drinks getting involved.

A painting of a woman with Arabic text
Meera Shakti Osborne's paintings relate tangentially to the stories of nuns living at the Abbey. Image: Londonist

The Women's Museum says it hopes to be an inclusive place, platforming the ideas, issues and histories relating to women, girls, transgender and non binary communities through art and culture from the local area and beyond. And with a 250-year peppercorn rent, it's not going anywhere soon.

Women's Museum, Barking, open Thursday-Saturday weekly, free

Last Updated 08 March 2024