While some are used to spending their Sunday afternoons at an art gallery or a renowned museum, on the 8th of October Menstruation Museum Amsterdam showed the world something different: items, health products, and clothing related to menstruation. And to ‘walk the talk’, the exhibition bore the name: “Bloody Sunday”.
The exhibition “Bloody Sunday” took place in Utrecht’s “In De Ruimte”, a co-working place in the city center, and gathered artists, poets, singer-songwriters, authors, entrepreneurs, and development workers, all drawn by their interest in menstruation and sustainability. Dutch and internationals alike were sipping bloody marys, menstruants receiving vendors’ samples of sustainable period products, and non-menstruants had the chance to experience simulated period pain. Just your regular Sunday afternoon, right?
Mitigating the environmental impact of menstruation was on the agenda.
Not only was this the annual Utrecht Duurzame Week’s [Utrecht Sustainability Week’s] first time exploring sustainable menstruation management methods, it was also the Menstruation Museum Amsterdam’s first ever public exhibition. Over the past couple of months, the museum’s collection has grown to feature a diverse range of period products and related artefacts. The exhibition spans little over 150 years of menstrual management methods history. It features items from both then and now, authentic antiques as well as replications, and both disposable and reusable products.
Don’t let the cheerful colours fool you! Vaginal douching increases the risk of infections, sexually transmitted diseases, & pregnancy complications.
Many were puzzled by our bright pink vaginal douche — a device used to flush the vagina “clean” — and yet more expressed strong reluctance to ever try the technique themselves. Fortunately so, since the female reproductive system is self-cleansing, and douching is not only superfluous, but has been found to have directly harmful effects on reproductive health. Although medical professionals nowadays discourage the use of douches, they still enjoy legitimacy and popularity in many parts of the world, including USA, Indonesia, and Turkey. According to our donor, douches like this one are still regularly prescribed by doctors in Serbia for treating vaginal yeast infections.
Another crowd’s favourite were the sponge tampons, both ones made of natural sea sponges grown in the Mediterranean Sea, and ones made of polyurethane in the Netherlands. Displayed side by side, both wet and dry, visitors could both see and feel them to compare texture and size. Those at first intimidated by the size of the sea sponges, were relieved to see how compact they became when compressed.
Polyurethane sponge tampons are known in Dutch as “thread-less tampons” and can be worn during sex. The invention has been credited to sex workers, who would use regular, cut-up sponges to conceal their menses from clients.
One of our less eye-catching highlights, was a replication of a sanitary apron commercially sold in early twentieth century USA. Sewn by textile designer Eszti Besenyei-Merger in cotton and lamé (the original calls for what is vaguely described as “rubberised cloth”), the pattern is based on a 1918 catalogue. At first confused about the purpose of the apron, visitors’ faces lit up with comprehension as soon as they got to try it on. At the time, rags made of worn fabric were frequently used to absorb menstrual blood, to varying degrees of success. A sanitary apron protected the skirt from stains if the rags failed to fully absorb the menses. As a broad panel of water-repellent fabric covers the wearer’s behind, menstruants can sit down without having to worry about menstrual blood leaking or staining their seats or skirt. As for the floor? That’s what mops are for.
A sanitary apron (bottom, middle) could be worn with reusable knitted cotton pads (above), rags, or disposable gauze pads (top).
That the exhibit was received with such curiosity and enthusiasm, is a sign that there is a lack of accurate and unashamed menstruation education. Shrouded in secrecy, menstruation remains a taboo and neglected topic around the world to this day. For example, despite being a natural and healthy part of life, all historical period products in our collection were originally designed to conceal the menstrual cycle and any signs thereof.
To me, the knowledge gap came as no surprise. As someone who has researched period products and menstruation management methods, you can take my word for it: it is extremely difficult to find historical records about menstruation. The upside is that since it is a path seldom travelled, it is also possible to learn something new every day.
In stark contrast to the worldwide persistence of menstruation taboos, our first exhibition was a place of frank and constructive conversations, which brings hope on the remaining path towards global menstrual health equity.