Press Who Cares ? Gender and humanitarian action

Exhibition on view at the museum

From 31 May to 9 October 2022

“Take care” is a deceptively simple phrase that evokes the principle of humanity and underpins all humanitarian action. In Who cares?, the Museum’s latest exhibition, a question that is often intended derisively is instead an earnest enquiry into who tends to people’s wounds and works to meet their needs. Who actually cares, in every sense of the word?

“Who cares?”, produced in partnership with the Institute for Ethics, History and the Humanities at the University of Geneva, invites visitors to consider humanitarian action through the lens of gender and diversity. The exhibition offers a fresh look at the experience of people who have been largely overlooked by history and encourages visitors to re-examine their own perceptions of humanitarian workers and of those who receive care, through a broad selection of objects and accounts that have been assembled and presented together for the first time.

Restoring forgotten figures in humanitarian history

Who embodies the world of care? In Western visual history, the provider of care has often been accorded characteristics perceived as feminine, such as devotion, attentiveness, sympathy, empathy and compassion. Nurses are potent symbols of the provision of relief and healing, and the nurse seated at a wounded soldier’s bedside became a prevalent stereotype starting in the late 19th century. However, this maternal or angelic imagining of the female humanitarian has all too often been restricted to white, Western women from privileged backgrounds.

This new exhibition draws from the history of medicine and gender, visual culture and the ethics of care to reveal recurring stereotypes in how humanitarians are represented, often based on rigid gender roles. Such representations, which divorce action and leadership from care and compassion, limit our understanding of humanitarians’ lived experience and fail to account for the complexity of their work.

Who cares? provides keys to understanding how the history of humanitarian action has largely been written from a male point of view. But history can also be a tool for building a more inclusive and, thus, democratic society. As researchers Dolores Martín Moruno, Brenda Lynn Edgar and Marie Leyder at the University of Geneva’s Institute for Ethics, History and the Humanities note:

Who cares? aims to re-examine the history of humanitarian action by focusing on how those providing care have been rendered invisible. Whether in terms of their lived experience, knowledge and technical know-how, or in terms of the power dynamics at play, these issues get to the heart of contemporary social questions. Debates around gender, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation are more ubiquitous than ever.”

©Aline Bovard Rudaz

That deconstructive approach underpins the exhibition’s constellation-style layout. For Museum curators Claire FitzGerald and Elisa Rusca, the exhibition:

“is an ecosystem made up of a large number of stories and objects – from textiles and medical instruments to photographs and film footage – that together embody the rich variety of care providers’ experience and the diversity of humanitarian work. We have created a new form of multi-layered exhibition space that invites visitors to step away from dominant preconceptions and open themselves up to other points of view.”

© Aline Bovard Rudaz

© Aline Bovard Rudaz

Advancing research and sharing it with the general public

Who cares? is supported by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation’s Agora project, which aims to share research with the public. Dialogue, debate and public participation are given pride of place in the exhibition, which features spaces for reading and reflection. Produced in partnership with the University of Geneva, Who cares? is emblematic of changes that began at the Museum before the pandemic, as the Museum strives to foster communication among the worlds of humanitarianism, culture and research, for the benefit of a wide audience.

The project also provides a new perspective on the Museum’s permanent exhibition. A series
of questions have been added to the displays to encourage visitors to consider The Humanitarian Adventure through the lens of gender – questions to which Who cares? provides possible answers. The Museum is deeply invested in including diverse voices in its programming as a way of better
reflecting sea changes not only within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement but also in the cultural sphere and in everyday life. Who cares? was developed as part of the Museum’s first annual theme, Gender and Diversity, launched in September 2021.

In the words of the Museum’s director, Pascal Hufschmid:

“Sharing cutting-edge, genderoriented research on humanitarian action, conducted right here in Geneva, in an accessible and inclusive manner means inviting humanitarian workers and the general public to reexamine the history of humanitarianism and how it is represented today.”

© Aline Bovard Rudaz


Exhibition texts

Humanitarianism and gender

The history of humanitarianism is full of images of men in leadership roles at the helm of organizations, while women are depicted as maternal figures. This latter imagery is strongly influenced by Christianity and shows women embodying virtues traditionally considered feminine: pity, compassion, devotion and tenderness. This focus on emotions rather than on acts of care-giving has contributed to the enduring visual archetype of the woman humanitarian worker. That stereotype became a highly effective recruiting tool for National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in search of female volunteers during wartime, as well as in fundraising campaigns. But images like these obscure the complex experience of women humanitarians and downplays their expertise.

Humanitarians

  • Sarah Monod (1836–1912)

Sarah Monod was a French Protestant philanthropist. She took part in a humanitarian mission organized by the Paris Evangelical Committee and the French Aid Society for Wounded Soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War. She worked as head deaconess, kept a journal throughout the war and drew numerous caricatures critiquing gender relations.

  • Juliette Fournot (b. 1954)

Juliette Fournot, who trained as a dentist, began working for Doctors Without Borders in 1980. Between January 1980 and November 1988, during the Soviet occupation, she served as logistics coordinator, programme director and then head of mission in Afghanistan. In a work environment dominated by men, she coordinated all aspects of humanitarian aid: hospital construction, prevention programmes and vaccination campaigns, negotiations with the Mujahideen, staff management and mission logistics.

  • Salaria Kea O’Reilly (1913–1991)

African-American nurse Salaria Kea O’Reilly was part of a politically-engaged branch of humanitarianism characterized by anti-segregationist and anti-fascist activism. She attempted to join the American Red Cross to help provide aid to victims of flooding in Ohio, she was turned away because of her race.

  • Anne-Marie Grobet (b. 1943) and Jeanne Egger (b. 1925)

Photographer Anne-Marie Grobet took part in various assignments for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Refugee Agency from 1974 to 1990 as both photographer and delegate. She worked alongside Jeanne Egger, who in 1962 became the first woman to serve as an ICRC delegate. In 1992, the two women, along with a group of former ICRC delegates, founded La Fondation DiDé (Dignity in Detention).

  • Claire Bertschinger (b. 1953)

Claire Bertschinger, a Swiss-British national, worked as a nurse from 1978 to 1980 as part of Operation Drake, a science programme for young people. She was employed by the International Committee of the Red Cross from 1983 to 1992. On her many assignments, she developed in-depth knowledge of field work amid war and famine. Bertschinger was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal in 1991 and was named a Dame of the British Empire in 2010.

  • Mairi Chisholm (1896–1981) and Elsie Knocker (1884–1978)

Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker were British nurses and ambulance workers who were deployed to the Yser Front in Belgium during the First World War. There, they witnessed first-hand how many wounded soldiers died in transit before reaching base hospitals. The pair therefore broke away to manage their own ambulance and set up a first-aid post on the front line in the village of Pervyse, which burned down in 1917.

  • Maria Skłodowska-Curie (1867–1936)

The scientific discoveries of Maria Skłodowska-Curie paved the way for major technological advances in war medicine, including the use of radon gas bulbs to disinfect war wounds starting in 1916. She was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize and the only one to have received two. She also contributed to the development of mobile X-ray services at the start of the First World War.

  • Irène Curie (1897–1956)

Irène Curie, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1935), was one of the first nurses to be trained in radiology during the First World War. She was only 17 when she joined her mother, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, at work in the mobile radiology laboratories of the French Red Cross. The vehicles made it possible to conduct pre-operative X-rays near the front lines, vastly improving medical care for wounded soldiers.

  • Pia Klemp (b. 1983)

Human rights and environmental activist Pia Klemp led numerous rescue operations in the Mediterranean between 2015 and 2020. As captain of the ships Iuventa, Sea-Watch 3, and Louise Michel, she rescued hundreds of migrants from drowning, and may now face prison time as a result of the heavily politicized humanitarian aid situation.  

  • Elena Arizmendi Mejía (1884–1949)

Elena Arizmendi Mejía was studying nursing at Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, when the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910. The Mexican Red Cross refused to provide first aid to the revolutionary forces, so Arizmendi Mejía dropped out of nursing school in 1911 to found La Cruz Blanca Neutral (Neutral White Cross) in Mexico City in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

  • Eedah

Journalist Dania Mousa was reporting from Azraq refugee camp in Jordan for the Danish Refugee Council in 2019 when she met Eedah, a widowed mother of four who had fled the Syrian Civil War. Eedah was running a makeshift hair salon and beauty parlour in the camp, offering the internees a rare moment of physical comfort and relaxation.

  • Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

The British nurse Florence Nightingale played a key role in the development of humanitarian imagery, as the founder of modern nursing. During the Crimean War (1853–1856), she worked at Scutari Hospital, then located on the outskirts of Constantinople, where she famously lit her way with a lamp as she made her night-time rounds treating wounded soldiers. Women humanitarians since Nightingale are often represented as the redemptive healers of a suffering world.

  • María Gómez Álvarez (1914–1975)

María Gómez Álvarez was a surgeon who operated on Republican fighters during the Spanish Civil War. She emigrated to France in 1939 but continued her humanitarian work at the Noé camp for Spanish refugees in Haute-Garonne. In 1944, she began working at Varsovie Hospital in Toulouse, which was funded in part by an American aid organization, the Unitarian Service Committee. There, she continued to bring aid to Spanish refugees until she was dismissed in 1950, likely owing to ideological conflicts with the Communist Party or because she was pregnant.


For more information

To learn more about Florence Nightingale, listen to researcher Dolores Martín Moruno from the Institute of Ethics, History and Humanities at the University of Geneva:

 

To learn about Red Cross nurse Friedel Bonhy-Reiter, listen to the audio of Brenda Lynn Edgar, researcher at the Institute of Ethics History Humanities of the University of Geneva:

©Aline Bovard Rudaz

To find out more about two of the photo albums presented in the exhibition, listen to researcher Marie Leyder from the Institute of Ethics, History and Humanities at the University of Geneva:


Press release

EN Press release: Word | PDF

FR Communiqué de presse : Word | PDF

DE Medienmitteilung: Word | PDF


Curators

From the University of Geneva: Brenda Lynn Edgar, Marie Leyder and Dolores Martín Moruno.

From the Museum: Claire FitzGerald and Elisa Rusca, with support from Pascal Hufschmid.


research partners

The Elizabeth Wilson Collection, The Humanitarian Archive, University of Manchester Library

AHRC Project : https://colonialandtransnationalintimacies.com

John Rylands Research Library, University of Manchester


A Swiss national science foundation agora project

Beyond Compassion : Gender and Humanitarian Action, a Swiss National Science Foundation Agora project led by Dolores Martín Moruno.

In an era marked by public health crises and growing resistance in the face of inequality, injustice and exclusion, humanitarian action and the role of women are at the heart of current social issues. Beyond Compassion invites the public to consider the history of humanitarian action through the lens of gender by engaging in dialogue with researchers, people active in the humanitarian and cultural spheres, and active citizens. The project aims to draw lessons from little-known historical figures and events to enhance our understanding of current and future humanitarian action.

Beyond Compassion continues the line of study begun under a 2017–2021 SNSF professorial grant project, Ces femmes qui ont fait l’humanitaire : une histoire genrée de la compassion de la Guerre Franco-Prussienne à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (“The Women Who Made Humanitarianism: A gendered history of compassion from the Franco-Prussian War to World War II”), and another SNSF project, L’humanitaire vécu : Genre, expériences et savoirs (1853- 1945) (“Lived Humanitarianism: Gender, experience and knowledge (1853–1945)”).


Scenography

Raphaèle Gygi : Raphaèle Gygi | Scénographe (raphaelegygi.com).


Visual identity

Flavia Cocchi : Accueil – Atelier Cocchi Switzerland Atelier Cocchi Switzerland.


The exhibition in figures

  • More than 5 years of research
  • More than 200 objects
  • About twenty private institutional lenders
  • About twenty academic case studies based on the research of our partner UNIGE
  • An important work of research and development of the Museum’s Collections

Institutional lenders


Coproduction

Official partners

        


Media contact

North Communication

Laure Külling
Tel. +41 79 576 25 67
laure@north-communication.ch

Objects

Unknown Mobile medical unit France, 1914–1918. – International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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Unknown, Japanese Red Cross Society nurse’s uniform, Boots, Japan, 1940–1950. – ICRC long-term loan. International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva. © Zoé Aubry
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Unknown Algerian Red Crescent Algeria, ca. 1960 – ICRC long-term loan. International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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Unknown Japanese Red Cross Society nurse’s uniform, Armband, Japan, 1940–1950. – ICRC long-term loan. International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva. © Zoé Aubry
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Unknown, Woman alongside wounded people during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis China, 1958. – International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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Unknown, "Enthusiastic Red Cross members! Take an active part in public health promotion exercises!", Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, 1956–1957. – ICRC long-term loan. International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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Unknown, Janet Ndoti, whose tasks included sterilizing instruments in the operating theatre, during her training at King George V Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, 1952. – International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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Unknown Red Cross hospital aboard a steamship Italy, 1914–1918 – International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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Unknown “Vittorio Emanuele III” Red Cross field hospital Turin, Italy, 31 May 1916 – International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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Unknown, "Join the Japanese Red Cross", Tokyo, 1958. – International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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Samina Sattar, Blood transfusion service, Pakistan, 1987. – International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.
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