Bicycle exhibition at The Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem

By Damon Shusterman, Senior Guide in the Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem, Assistant Curator of the 2X200 Bicycle Exhibition and Graduate Student in the Museum Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University

“Bicycling has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”.

This claim, made in 1896 by leading American Suffragette Susan B. Anthony, is examined in the Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem’s 2X200 Bicycle Exhibition display “Riding to Freedom”. Since the exhibit opened in July, the display and the research that has accompanied it have successfully generated a host of activities that deal with gender inclusion.

The 2X200 Bicycle Exhibition, marking the bicentennial of the invention of the bicycle, is a collaborative effort of the Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem Israel, the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, the Universum science museum in Bremen Germany and the Citta Della Scienza science museum in Naples Italy. Jointly curated by Prof. Ido Bruno of the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem and Dr. Amir Ben Shalom, Chief Exhibit Developer, Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem, it contains interactive exhibits, historic and contemporary bicycles, as well as works of art and media that present the bicycle through three different lenses: “The Machine”, “The Human Rider” and “Bicycles and Society”.

The curators’ decision not to limit the exhibition to the scientific and technological aspects of the bicycle, but to also explore its social impact, has created a unique opportunity to present gender inclusive content as part of a “classic” museum modus operandi  – sharing important stories by using artifacts.

The image shows the "Riding to Freedom" display from the 2X200 Bicycle Exhibition held at Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem.

The “Riding to Freedom” display, 2X200 Bicycle Exhibition , Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem.

The “Riding to Freedom” display  focuses on the backdrop to Anthony’s claim – the bicycle mania of the 1890’s when the “safety bicycle”, similar in design to the bicycle of today, replaced the daunting high wheeled bicycles, thus enabling  and encouraging hundreds of thousands of Europeans and North Americans to purchase and ride bicycles. Rather than just “looking on” or limiting themselves to the clumsy yet “respectable” tricycles that offered heavily garbed women a seat rather than a saddle,  tens of thousands of women adopted the bicycle as a vehicle that offered mobility, a healthy lifestyle and just plain fun.

The image, entitled "Au bois du Boulogne", is from the Supplement to Vanity Fair (3.6.1897) and shows a large crowd of cyclists.

This image “Au bois du Boulogne” from the Supplement to Vanity Fair (3.6.1897), shown in our display, helps illustrate the “bicycle craze” phenomenon of the latter half of the 1890’s. Image courtesy of the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

Women’s “Safety Bicycles”, like the much earlier Women Draisenes or Hobby Horses were “suited” to 19th century gender perceptions. Thus, as the 1897 Styria on display demonstrates, women’s bicycles were designed with a low top tube, to accommodate female riders or, rather, their socially acceptable outfits consisting of dresses or long skirts. Similarly, the net on the back wheel was added, as in many other women’s bicycles at the time, to ensure that the dresses would not get caught in the rear wheel spokes. Such nets, together with chain guards and skirt lifters, enabled safe and clean cycling for women with dresses. An assortment of decorative skirt lifters is also included in a showcase in the display.

This image shows a 1897 Styria Damen Niederrad Model 6 bicycle.

1897 Styria Damen Niederrad Model 6 on loan courtesy of the Velorama National Bicycle Museum Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Importantly, the Styria also presents our visitors with an example of a 19th century “feminine” saddle – designed for women riders. These saddles reflected both pseudo-scientific theories that cycling might be injurious to women’s bodies – damaging their reproductive organs as well as patriarchal concerns that female riders’ morals may be undermined by cycling-induced sexual stimulation.

In addition to the bicycle, a set of three mannequins present historic replicas of a traditional Victorian dress, an early women’s trouser outfit and also a present-day, state of the art, woman’s riding suit. The outfits embody the effect bicycling has  had on changing  women’s fashion : Rather than struggle cycling with a dress or long skirt,  many female riders at the end of the 19th Century chose to adopt clothing that would enable more comfortable cycling such as bloomer trousers or “rational dress” thus transforming the gender conventions of the time.

Personal stories are often a preferred mode of connecting a museum’s public to a showcased theme. The remarkable story of Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky, presented as a case study in the general display, has proven an excellent means of connecting guides and visitors to some of the issues and decisions that faced women who chose to cycle in the 1890’s. This part of the display relates Annie Kopchovsky’s remarkable journey using examples of the two types of bicycles used by Annie, photography and video.

Influenced by the bicycle craze that was sweeping across the United States at the time and inspired by stories of global journeys, Annie, a Jewish immigrant and mother of three from Boston, decided to embark on a bicycle trip around the world. Annie managed to finance her trip through a variety of public relation ploys and sponsorships, including one with the “Londonderry” beverage company whose name she adopted over the course of her trip.

The image shows two images side by side. The first is a postcard that Annie herself issued before she began her journey. The second is the advertisement for the Sterling bicycle she rode. Side by side, the images show the changes in clothing she had to make in order to complete her journey.

‘Before and After’ Pictures From the “Riding to Freedom” Display : The postcard that Annie issued before she began her journey, and her later portrait in the advertisement for the Sterling bicycle she rode, demonstrate how she had to revolutionize her clothing in order to complete her journey. Annie foresaw that bicycle riding would encourage other women to adopt a more comfortable and less restricting form of dress. Both images are courtesy of Peter Zeuhtlin, Annie’s great grand Nephew and author of “Around the World on Two Wheels” which charts Annie’s famous journey.

Illustrating the transforming role bicycles played for many women at the time, early on in her journey, Annie exchanged her women’s bicycle and cumbersome feminine clothing for a much lighter men’s bicycle and a more comfortable “masculine” outfit which made riding easier. Between June 1894 and September 1895 Annie travelled across the globe riding thousands of miles, primarily in the U.S itself and France.

Aside from the 60,000 visitors that have enjoyed the exhibition over the past two months, the decision to address the effect of bicycles on women’s social standing has brought about a variety of activities. The large amount of research and material that did not enter the display itself has been used to create a thought provoking presentation on the effects of the bicycle on women’s liberation. This presentation has already enthused our explainer staff, who have taken a special liking to the “Riding to Freedom” display and has proven to be a thought provoking stimulus to both high school students and teachers. This presentation will be offered to teachers and students throughout the 10 months of the exhibition as a supplement to a tour of the exhibition. Furthermore, the “Riding to Freedom” display, together with other gender related exhibits, was the focal point of a very successful evening event that included a tour of the exhibition, a guest lecture and a panel on gender inclusion. The success of this event demonstrated the appeal of using cycling’s concrete historic examples of gender inclusion issues; more events of this nature are planned with the cooperation of leading local feminist activists, over the coming months.

“I believe I can do anything that any man can do”.

As the central text of the display concludes, women’s cycling is frowned upon in many conservative or traditional societies the world over. This issue is touched upon in the display that includes the trailer of “Afghan Cycles”, a documentary film that follows a group of Afghan women who engage and overcome severe gender barriers as they cycle. Indeed, “closer to home”, even in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox religious communities, women’s cycling is not the norm, a fact that adds a further meaningful context to the display. On completing her trip in 1895, Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky wrote: “I believe I can do anything that any man can do”.  Here in Jerusalem, we now believe bicycles and perhaps even bicycle exhibitions may help communicate this message to all.

  • A great online source of information on cycling and women is Dr. Sheila Hanlon’s website
  • For more information on Annie Londonderry see this dedicated website