- The Museum of Menstruation, a dream deferred (Photo: Harry Finley)
From 1994 to 1998, Department of Defense employee Harry Finley curated and operated the Museum of Menstruation out of his suburban Maryland basement. The museum exists now only online and in storage boxes in Finley's home.
But the years Finley spent assembling, displaying, and defending this collection of historical menstruation artifacts left him with a blocked coronary and a dream: That the culture of menstruation that had consumed Finley would one day be publicly available, out in the open, at a real museum.
Finley, 68, took the time to speak with me about the emotional drain of menstruation curating, the lingering taboo of the subject, and the sexist responses to Finley's obsession:
Why menstruation: “I wanted to do something interesting and even make a contribution to the world. And this is something that had never been done before, a Museum of Menstruation. It certainly livened my life up, that’s for sure. It had been pretty boring, I have to say, and the museum was the exact opposite of that. But it became too much after a while.”
On the emotional drain of menstruation curating: “I closed it 12 years ago in 1998 because I was totally worn out. I was working full time for the Department of Defense, and I was doing the museum in all of my spare time, on weekends, often in the evening. . . . Oh my god, it was all-consuming. I had to have a splint put in one of my coronary arteries nine months after I closed it. I was just screaming for a vacation, something just to get away from it. . . . And then there was the nature of the museum itself. Menstruation. And there was all the media attention focused on why someone, a guy, was doing this. I know that many people have small museums in their homes that go on year after year after year. But it’s not menstruation. It’s gumballs, or crazy paintings, or something like that. Something that just doesn’t have the emotional impact of doing what I was doing.”
On the menstruation taboo: “It’s not a polite thing to talk about in casual society. I’ve gotten so used to this now that it’s no big deal for me. But it is for other people. Especially coming from some guy. I really get, sometimes, a horrified reaction. I can tell by the stares and the silence. Even from liberal people. When I started the museum, I thought, ‘Oh boy, this would not bother them.’ But it still bothers basically everybody. Almost every reaction is negative. . . . I think a lot of it is the association of a male doing this. Like, what is his interest in this?"
On menstruation: “My own personal feelings with menstruation are probably not different from most men. Menstruation itself, I don’t find it appealing. And I think that most men feel that way, that it’s an impediment to sex, it’s messy. I strongly suspect this goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. It’s just something which is not an attractive thing.. . . Most men, like most women, are not interested in it as a subject. However, I really think if this were in a public museum, accessible to anyone who just wants to walk in, they could be made very interested."
On menstruation enthusiasts: “Probably 99 percent of the visitors to the museum were women in pairs, or women accompanied by men. I got the feeling that the men were body guards. Almost never did single women visit the museum. I think they were afraid of what they would find. I can understand that. When I step back and look at it, it is kind of weird. Occasionally a single man would come in and take a look, then hurriedly go out. These are men who are interested in the subject but didn’t want anyone to know they were interested. In a sense, I have functioned as a surrogate for these people.”
On offers to buy the museum of menstruation: “My objection [to interest from museum institutions] was that it would never be displayed. They would box it up somewhere and never put it out . . . This museum actually belongs to the public. I know that sounds contradictory, like I’m squirreling it away in my basement and saying it belongs to the public. But this is really the dream: A permanent display. I'd really like to get ahold of a menstrual hut and put it in a museum, where people could walk in and out of it. The probability of this happening is very low . . . Once I give it up, the whole idea is gone. If I hang on to it, there is still that possibility. Everyone’s entitled to one quixotic idea in their life. And this is my quixotic idea, that sounds so odd and impossible, but is truly this impossible dream in the Don Quixote sense . . . Giving the material to an institution is basically giving up.”
The Department of Defense reaction: “My office [at the Department of Defense] was very good about this. I never got any negative feedback from my bosses or coworkers or anything. I have to hand it to them, they were very nice about this . . . At one point, they had my office essentially closed down for an hour, so that everyone could listen to my live interview with Howard Stern. . . . Believe it or not, he was very kind to me.”