Ministry logo

Ministry logo

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

NSFW! Field Report: The Museum of Sex in New York

NSFW! Contains images of an explicit sexual nature, not suitable for readers under the age of 18. 

Well we can honestly say that's the first time we've ever had to start a blog with this kind of a warning, but it comes with the territory if you are attempting to review an exhibition about sex. As you can imagine, when we do get out of London for a brief while, we always try to track down the most interesting museums we can. On last week's trip to the Big Apple, we just had to see what was going on at the Museum of Sex (or MoSex, as it goes by- you know like MoMA? Get it). When it opened in 2002, the message of the museum was clear- they were not another tawdry tourist exhibition, but a critical, cultural take on the evolution and significance of sex and sexuality. 


The Museum of Sex defines it's mission as: "to preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality. In its exhibitions, programmes and publications, the Museum of Sex is committed to open discourse and exchange, and to bringing to the public the best in current scholarship." The seriousness of this mission has been, since it's earliest days, questioned by the New York Authorities who have been, perhaps understandably, concerned about the idea of a museum about sex. The New York's Regents Board called the idea of a sex museum a 'mockery' of the name museum. Well, you all know how much we love a controversy, so we had to go see for ourselves. 


Glory hole door, c.1990s
In most museums, as you enter the main doors to buy a ticket, you wander through a gift shop. Of course, its clever marketing, but in this case, it's a high class erotic shop. Everything from porn to sex toys to high end art books are on display, full of giggling tourists and serious looking bouncers. My initial hopes of visiting a serious take on the history of sex were knocked down a few pegs. Next, I went to buy a ticket which was a full $17. $17!!! Now I know this is America and museums cost money, but that seemed a lot. Since I'd made the trip especially, I coughed up the cash. Only later did I learn that this high admission price is a result of the fact that New York will not grant the museum charitable status due to its subject matter. Fair enough.


Somewhat shaken after empyting my wallet and having to push through squealing college kids playing with dildos, I finally made my way into the first floor of the museum. I have to tell you - I was shocked. And not in the - oh how salacious way. In a pleasant, impressed way. Well designed but darkly lit, with everything you expect to see in a museum (text panels, themed sections, interesting objects), I found myself in an incredibly professional gallery. Entitled 'Hard Core', the first floor of the museum explores the history of pornography (in its drawn, written and filmed forms) from the Roman era to the mid twentieth century. Its introductory panels introduced the authors and curators - almost every single one of them PhDs and post-docs, many from the UK, including Dr Sarah Bull, a Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow.



Organised chronologically, the exhibition provided a glimpse into pornographic imagery from the works of the Marquis de Sade, eighteenth century 'fancy books' (pornographic etchings' and directories of ladies of fashion (brothel guides).  These printed artefacts provide an interesting perspective on how idea of sexuality were shared and spread in an era before any other kind of communication technology. One pamphlet claimed to tell women how to enjoy sex, as well as including a section on how men might enjoy anal sex. And while the era of print technology certainly took advantage of the new means of communication, the advent of photography in the nineteenth century brought pornography into its own.

As the text label helpfully explained, the Victorians, despite their moralistic outlook on life, were particularly adept at capturing sexuality in imagery. From erotic post cards, images, stereographs, and drawings, you can see why by the 1880s the Victorians felt they were in a moral crisis. Anything they could use to take dirty pictures, they can and they did. And these were no run of the mill cheeky photographs. The Victorians experimented with orgies, mixed race and homosexual encounters, all documented in the Museum of Sex's collections. 



By the early 20th century, the film had brought new possibilities for pornography. And indeed, even as early as the silent film era, you can bet there were pornographic films. I learned that these early pornos were called 'stag' films (for the young, presumably single men who watched them), and porn watching parties, were called stag parties. Lolz. As the technology got more sophisticated, so did the porn and what it could capture.

Personally, I found the exhibition incredibly well curated. While somewhat light on materials, each image or object was carefully described and well lit in the dark gallery. The text labels were written critically and intelligently, each ascribed to a particular curatorial voice. Attributing text labels is something museums talk a lot about, and MoSex has put this into action. of course, this is likely an attempt to give their somewhat salacious exhibition some scholastic integrity. 



Not to ruin it or bore you with a full description of the museum's three floors, at the moment you can also visit an interactive artistic intervention about sex and nature, browse a gallery about sexual pleasure in the animal world, and visit their object in focus gallery. This last one immediately reminded me of the Wellcome as it has a very similar curatorial style. Single objects are highlighted and jumbled together to provide different sides of the history of sex. Items related to public health, fetishes, technology, and social justice are mingled together side by side. 



In fact, I couldn't help but think that the Wellcome's recent exhibition, the Institute of Sexology, really could have stood to learn something from the Museum of Sex. The Institute of Sex was trying to achieve something similar (admittedly with more of a focus on the scientific research into sexual behaviour) but fell down short because, well, it didn't include very much that was sexy! MoSex is packed with very explicit imagery, and yet managed to keep its message firmly on course with its carefully written text. That said, I do believe there was a room full of blow up boobs I could have gone to jump around in. Perhaps more an activity for a group of friends than a lone blogger scribbling notes on curatorial technique.



I left the Museum of Sex informed, entertained, and impressed by what they had achieved with admittedly difficult subject matter. Is everyone ready for a museum with such an upfront treatment of sexuality? Maybe not. There certainly was a lot of giggling happening in the galleries. But in a world in which issues of sexuality are increasingly prevalent, I think everyone could use more of an education. I think the signs for their toilets pretty much sum up why places like MoSex matter:

Definitely worth the price of admission if you are ever in New York! Now let's see how long until this blog gets taken down...

No comments:

Post a comment

);