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Doctoral dissertation project of Sophie Kühnlenz

Doing gender in museums: On the (re-)construction of gender in history exhibitions (working title)

How is gender constructed – or reconstructed – in history museums?

Museums as places for the negotiation of history enjoy increasing popularity in recent years – both in research and concerning numbers of visitors. Following the museum boom since the 1980s and the advancing diversification of museum tasks, history museums are seen as central actors in the historical landscape and their practices are critically analyzed by various disciplines.

In my dissertation I argue that history exhibitions are gendered reconstructions of the past. Despite that, the gender of the represented persons is usually only discussed if they are not male. The starting point of the analysis is that predominantly (white) heterosexual men appear as historical agents in the exhibitions. Women are often marginalized and non-binary people are seldom part of the presentation. Consequently, human history is equated with men‘s history – men who govern and rule, men who wage wars, men who explore, conquer, invent, men who act, produce, invest and make politics. As dominant historical actors, men remain gender-unmarked. In this way, other genders and their experiences and possibilities for shaping the future are put aside. If they appear as historical protagonists at all, then in relation to, or in demarcation from, men as the dominant historical force.

My objects of investigation are the exhibition practices at the Canadian Museum of History (Ottawa), the National Museum of American History (Washington D.C.) and the German Historical Museum (Berlin). Based on a tri-national approach, the role of museum-mediated gender knowledge in three Western countries with constitutionally guaranteed gender equality will be reflected on the content level of the presentation from the 1980s until today. The project understands gender as a relational, social construct that is (repeatedly) produced, i.e. made, in different contexts (conceptualized as ‘doing gender’ by Candace West and Don H. Zimmermann in 1987). It strives for a semiotic analysis of gender-connotated coding processes in exhibitions, linked to Raewyn Connell‘s theory of hegemonic masculinity, based on Mieke Bal‘s concept of cultural analysis. The aim is to follow the change of doing gender in the selected national museums and to critically question implicit or explicit museum-mediated gender stereotypes.


Short biography

Sophie Kühnlenz is a public historian and doctoral candidate at a.r.t.e.s. In her research she focuses on museums as historical institutions where soci(et)al knowledge is generated, negotiated and contested from various sides. In her ongoing dissertation she analyzes gendered (re-)constructions of the past in history museums in Canada, USA and Germany.  Since 1 April 2019 she is a research fellow in the EU-funded Marie Curie program of the a.r.t.e.s Graduate School. Her dissertation is supervised by Prof. Dr. Christine Gundermann (Department of Didactics of History / Public History, University of Cologne) and Prof. Dr. David Dean (Department of History, Carleton University, Ottawa). 

She studied History, Peace and Conflict studies and Biology in Siegen and Marburg and obtained her Master‘s Degree in Public History at Free University Berlin in 2018.  During her studies, she received a scholarship by the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung and gained academic and practical museum experience at the Center for Contemporary Historical Research (ZZF) Potsdam, the German Historical Museum (DHM) Berlin, and the Wende Museum of the Cold War Los Angeles, among others. For her Master thesis she conducted research at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Winnipeg (CMHR) and at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) in 2017. Sophie is co-founder and speaker for students and young professionals (SYP) in the working group on applied history / public history (AGAG) of the German Historical Association (VHD) and a member of the International Federation for Public History (IFPH). As part of her doctoral research, she will return to Canada in 2020 to work with her supervisor David Dean at Carleton University and the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa.  

Contact: sophie.kuehnlenz(at)


Publications (selection)

Female revolutionaries. Women and the Russian Revolutions in 1917, in: Klara Schwalbe, Matej Samide, Nicole Hanisch, Miriam Eisleb (Hrsg.): How Communism Shaped Our World. A collection of essays at the 100th Anniversary of the October Revolution, Berlin 2018.

„Der umkämpfte Krieg“. Zur (Un-)Vereinbarkeit von Geschichte und Politik. Das Museum des Zweiten Weltkriegs in Danzig, in: Der Westpreuße 4/2018, S. 21f.

„Wir Kinder vom Busbahnhof“, Steinewerfer, „Surfin‘ Gaza“ und schwarze Wassertanks auf Häusern. Der israelisch-palästinensische Konflikt im Blick des Fotojournalismus. Workshop-Bericht auf Visual History (ZZF), veröffentlicht am 03.01.2017 (

„Guten Tag, ich bin der Klassenfeind“. Foto-Bestand von Klaus Mehner bei der Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur. Beitrag auf Visual History (ZZF), veröffentlicht am 29.11.2016 (

Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, in: Audiotour zu Homosexualität_en (2015), Gemeinsame Ausstellung Schwules Museum* und Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin, Ko-Autorin und Sprecherin (

„Aufstand der Perversen“ in: Invertito Jg. 16 (2014). Jahrbuch für die Geschichte der Homosexualitäten, Hrsg. Fachverband Homosexualität und Geschichte e.V., Männerschwarm Verlag Hamburg 2014, S. 125–152.

Die verkannte Katastrophe. Die Rolle der Spanischen Grippe in der Nachkriegszeit 1918/19, in: Pharos. Historische Randnotizen: Katastrophen (2/2012), S. 37–41.


Presentations (selection)

„(Un-)doing gender in history museums“, a.r.t.e.s. Kolloquium 2019, a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School University of Cologne, July 2019

„Are historical fights for gender equality part of contemporary museum narratives?“, 4th Public History Conference of the International Federation for Public History (IFPH), Ravenna, Italy, June 2017

„‚We called for workers- human beings are coming’ - The exhibition ‘Immer bunter. Einwanderungsland Deutschland’ at the German Historical Museum and its perspectives on migration to Germany“, ISHA New Year‘s Seminar, Budapest, Hungary, January 2017

„‚Aufstand der Perversen‘. Zur Rezeption von Rosa von Praunheims ‚Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt‘ in Medienberichten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland“, 3rd Student Symposium of History at the University of Bamberg on "Scandals!“, Bamberg, January 2016

„‚Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt‘“, Poster presentation at the 1st LSBTIQ*- Science Congress of the Bundesstiftung Magnus Hirschfeld, Berlin, November 2013


Organised events

„Wer? Macht? Medien?“, Co-Organization „Fachcluster Medien“ of the Hans-Böckler-Foundation, Berlin, December 2016

„Historians @ work“, Co-Organization of the Autumn Seminar of the International Students of History Association (ISHA) Berlin, Humboldt Universität Berlin; Co-organizer of the workshop „Teaching: Didactics of Memory - Public History and the Role of Historians and Teachers“ in cooperation with the Anne Frank Zentrum Berlin, September 2016

„Health and Disease in History“, Co-Organization of the New Year‘s Seminar of the International Students of History Association (ISHA) Marburg, Philipps-Universität Marburg, January 2013


Cover photo: © Wladyslaw, Free Art License, Wikimedia Commons // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad

a.r.t.e.s. EUmanities has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 713600.

Call: H2020-MSCA-COFUND-2015 | Proposal: 713600 – artes EUmanities