The newly renovated Women’s Museum is for everybody

A family meal during wartime; bicycles were a popular means of transportation for the
Vietnamese army in the old days.
Photos: Dan Ton

Vietnam Heritage, October-November 2011 -- The Vietnamese Women’s Museum, in Hanoi, reopened late last year, after three years of renovations that enlarged space and modernised display. Video and other technology has been upgraded. Public amenity has been enhanced. The building, designed in 1991 by a woman architect from Hanoi, Tram Xuan Diem, has withstood the test of time very well, and is now thoroughly modern.
On the north side of Ly Thuong Kiet, between Ba Trieu and  Hang Bai, you cannot miss the five-storey, white edifice, the face studded with slabs of colour. It is back from the street behind an iron fence. Its main door is two heavy, glass panels in fiery red, with more doors on either side made of glass panels in, pink, orange and blue. The windows facing the street are in shades of light and dark purple. Overall, the façade makes a strong and inviting visual statement. The colour film to sheath the glass for these doors and windows was imported from France. The museum also benefited from the advice of French graphic and interior designers, as well as a consultant from the Branly Museum, in Paris, which is dedicated to the indigenous art of world civilizations.
In the centre of a rotunda on the first floor you will be greeted by a golden statue of the Vietnamese Mother holding a child on her shoulder. Behind the wall at the back of the statue is a brand new addition to the facilities of the Museum  − the Discovery Centre for Children. It is a cheerfully multi-colour room with interactive, hands-on activities, intended to stimulate creativity. Under staff supervision, young visitors can work on puzzles related to the exhibits of the museum, make traditional hats, jewellery and bookmarks and taste betel.
The second floor is devoted to Family Life, with special emphasis on Marriage and Birth. Hand-embroidered wedding gowns, not (dully) white but brimming with colour, are exquisite. Those in red are particularly splendid, as are the matching head coverings. Also enchanting are many accessories of childbirth and child-rearing, including the charms women wore, and probably still wear, to help themselves become pregnant.
The third floor is about Women in History. Vietnam has a long history of invasions, with the Chinese and Mongols and then the French, Japanese and Americans. Women have played significant support and leadership roles in struggles against foreign aggressors and to building of the country, and there is a strong Warrior Goddess theme in the national culture. Posters, letters, diaries and artefacts illustrate women’s contribution. Portraits of women who have lost their lives on the battlefield, or had been executed, are respectfully mounted on red glass panels.

The forth floor is about Women and Fashion  −  and it is not the ostentatious fashion  from the  catwalks of today’s Milan or Manhattan, but sensible wear  −  authentic, hand-made, smartly cut and skilfully embroidered work clothes and bejewelled gowns from many regions of Vietnam. The museum has in its collection clothing from all 54 of Vietnam’s ethnic groups, but can display only some of it at one time.
Presiding over these riches, and the staff of 42, is Hanoi-born Director Nguyen Thi Bich Van – wife of a construction engineer and mother of two young children. In the mid-1980’s, straight out of university, Nguyen Thi Bich Van got a job with the Women’s Union, and promptly found herself assigned to a team of women sent out to search for artefacts for the proposed Women’s Museum. The team tramped around town streets and murky alleys, peasant huts and village markets, collecting relics of women’s lives  −  weaving looms and lime pots, rice-planting and -harvesting tools, bead and pod jewellery made by mountain women, fancy bridal gowns and slippers dating to colonial times, handmade children’s toys, letters and diaries left behind in trunks and secret places, yellowed photographs and guerrilla gear from the dark days of the struggle for independence, vintage posters from the time of the revolutionary transformation of agriculture in the 1950’s, and a host of other treasures that testify to the traditions, rituals and customs governing Vietnamese women’s lives over the centuries. 
When the Women’s Museum opened, in 1991, Nguyen Thi Bich Van became the collection’s manager and exhibit-planner. She later became a curator. On Monday, 18 October, 2010, she welcomed over a hundred guests to the official reopening of the Museum and pointed out that the event coincided almost to the day with the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Vietnamese Women’s Union, on 20 October, 1930. She feels the Women’s Museum is not just for women but for families. She is proud that visitors can expect all the comforts: wide staircases and roomy display areas, two elevators, a museum shop with gifts and souvenirs marked with the museum logo and a museum café, to the right of the main gate and serving Vietnamese and Western dishes all day. She would like the museum to be ‘a dynamic institution with a strong gender identity, and providing interesting exhibitions and ativities for all’.
The Women’s Museum is at 36 Ly Thuong Kiet; (www.baotangphunu.org.vn;  www.womenmuseum.org.vn.
Open daily 8 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.. Closed on Mondays.
Entry fee VND30,000; no charge for children under 7 or women visiting from rural areas.
On 18 October, International Museum Day, admission is free to all.

By Elizabeth McLean
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