Illustration: John Watson

The biologist behind the Vagina Museum

Florence Schechter on raising funds for the museum to survive—and why we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about vulvas
November 1, 2023

Stickers cover Florence Schechter’s laptop: a stained pad emblazoned with the words “BLOODY GOOD PERIOD”, a smiling clitoris with the instruction “FIND ME!”, some henna’d red-nailed fingers flicking the peace sign. The trans flag is there, along with a teabag dipped in rainbow stripes, a burning Shell logo—missing the S—the words “MAZAL TOV COCKTAIL—GOODNIGHT ALT-RIGHT”, and a uterus blooming with white flowers, a rose unfurling like labia, an open mouth.

I am sitting across from Schechter in the structure of the new Vagina Museum, which she founded and runs. Next to us, Kayla, another staff member, is unpacking postcards and books about sexual health for the museum’s reopening—after a nine-month hiatus—on 4th November.

Schechter set up the project in 2017. “We discovered that there is a penis museum in Iceland [the Iceland Phallological Museum], but no vagina equivalent anywhere in the world. So we basically just set one up to address that balance,” she says. After initially renting in Camden, the museum was located since 2022 in a property guardianship in east London, until the lease ran out this February and it was forced to close. Schechter launched an emergency crowdfunder. “It really was a do or die moment,” she says. “I think people understood that either we raise this money or the Vagina Museum’s over.” After 2,500 people donated a total of £80,000, they were able to find new premises nearby—a two-storey brick building under railway arches in Bethnal Green. 

Being a biologist means sex has been a special interest of mine

The museum will reopen with a new exhibition, “Endometriosis: Into the Unknown”, curated in collaboration with University of Oxford researchers who study the disease. “One in 10 people with uteruses between puberty and menopause have endometriosis,” Schechter says. “And yet, about 54 per cent of people in Britain have never heard of it. So we’re really excited to be doing this as our opening one.”

Schechter, 31, studied biochemistry at the University of Birmingham and worked as a science communicator before starting the museum. Her friends were not surprised by the career change. “A lot of people were like, ‘that makes so much sense for you,’” she laughs. “I was always the friend people would go to if they had an embarrassing question.”

“It’s not that I never felt shame, but I felt shame a lot less than my peers did, because I had quite an open family where I felt comfortable to ask questions,” she says. “And also, just being a biologist, sex has been a special interest of mine… I like learning about different animals and their reproductive behaviours and mating rituals.” Earlier in 2023, she published her first book, V—“your go-to guide to the vulva”. She shows me her favourite page: 12 vulvas, each distinctly coloured, sized, shaped and groomed.

Schechter, who uses both she and they pronouns, stresses that the museum is trans inclusive. “We do occasionally get some transphobes saying, ‘I think this is terrible that you’re being inclusive to trans people.’ But we mostly just ignore them,” she says. “They can stop being bigots and join us—or they can not be welcome.”

Museumgoers are “mostly, but not entirely, women”. “We get some single dads who come in, who are like ‘I need to teach my daughters about this stuff, but I don’t know how—can you do it?’” Occasionally, teenage boys enter—ironically, of course. “First of all they’re giggly… and then they look through the exhibitions,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Okay, I actually want to know—I’m aware that there’s this clitoris, and apparently I can’t find it. So I really need to find out where it is.’”

The museum’s main objective, Schechter says, is to counter taboos. “We can’t be fighting for abortion rights, fighting for access to obstetric care, fighting rape culture… if we can’t even say the word vagina.”