Everyone I know who’s been to the Wellcome Collection’s Institute of Sexology exhibition has come away feeling that something was lacking.
It’s not surprising, really. For one thing, it has to appeal to a broad audience in a small space. Focusing on any one aspect of such a sprawling subject would be at the cost of something equally important to someone else. There’s no way we could ever hope for an exhibition, even one that took over the whole of the old Millennium Dome, to cover it all in the depth we’d like.
Then there’s the fact that it’s sex we’re talking about. Given the way it’s still treated by the wider world, and indeed by much of academia, hitting the right tone was always going to be difficult. It has to be serious, or face accusations of being nothing more than titillation and publicity baiting.
Perhaps if Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexology in Berlin hadn’t been burned down by government-sanctioned rioters in 1933, we’d have wider, more in-depth, knowledge and resources to draw upon for a project like this.
When I was young, we went to Jorvik for the day. Back then it was seriously innovative and eye opening; while there were still the glass cases of carefully preserved and cleaned artefacts, right next door were reproductions of them being shown and used in context, in an exhibit that owed as much to ghost trains as modern archaeology, transporting us through the world of of the people whose broken combs and pottery we’d been glancing at moments before. I remember my parents commenting on the smell, all cesspits and warm bodies, and our delight at seeing the people responsible for creating that smell on TV about a week later.
I can imagine the difficulties involved in doing something similar with the artefacts on display at the Institute of Sexology, the need to balance context and learning and keeping focus on the objects themselves rather than the scenes they’d be found in. But positioned just so in their cases, they lose some of their vitality. Perhaps one day through virtual reality, we’ll be able to flick through the comics and postcards, get a better idea of the people who carried those ornate and meticulously detailed explicit carvings around with them, or how they displayed them in their homes.
But turn your back on the cases and gaze at the wall of portraits arranged there. This is Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases, a display of monochrome portraits of black South African lesbians, bisexuals, and trans men. Every one of them is beautiful, luminous. Taken from 2006 to the present day, there are gaps in the display to represent where one of the subjects has since died, whether of violence, illness, or some other cause.
And so I came to the part of the exhibition that stayed with me most vividly, looking at the life and work of Marie Stopes.
In particular I was drawn to the charts she made tracking her degree of sexual desire at different times of the month, not just measuring the intensity of her feelings, but breaking them down to include exactly how and where she felt any stirrings, from “thoughts constantly reverting, in the midst of other business” to “the feeling of tenderness in kisses” – and my favourite:
“Desire to be held tightly around the waist, till corsets become tempting, tho’ normally they are abhorrent.”
Like the best of us she was a complicated woman. She was a staunch eugenicist, while devoted to women’s reproductive health and happiness, and that of the children they bore. There is a clear logic to this: she may have wanted only the best people, only those who met the right criteria, to breed – but that wouldn’t be helped by denouncing reproductive wellbeing and the right to choose not to have tens of offspring to those she’d rather weren’t multiplying.
I was equally fascinated by Ye Olde Sex Chart, a labour of love compiled by Carolee Schneemann, detailing the characteristics of every man she slept with after breaking up with her partner, but it didn’t stay with me in quite the same way. It doesn’t take “filthy psychoanalysis” as Stopes referred to Freud’s work, to realise why: Stopes’s focus was sexual health and happiness, and to help her understand it she kept a watchful eye on her own body to see what it was up to. My mind is far more involved in my own sexual happiness than perhaps she’d approve of, but observing our physical selves closely as part of the process is something we share.
I would have loved to see the interviews with the women who carried out the NatSal surveys presented in a more interactive way, or the opportunity to watch one through in its entirety. They’re the women responsible for gathering the intimate details of how the UK thinks and acts when it comes to sex, and they would have made fascinating listening.
But we do get a glimpse into a small, partly self-selecting group of new subjects, in the form of the visitor survey. Responses from the previous week’s surveys are added to the data presented at the end of the exhibition. Some of the less quantitative, more emotional – or soundbitey – responses are included more explicitly, scrolling across the data matrix display set into the wall.
My guide to the exhibition is covered in asterisks and exclamation marks demanding further attention. I came away with plenty to think about, and plenty of avenues to research further should I wish – and perhaps that was the point of an exhibition like this. We’re not supposed to leave sated, but with more of an idea about what to explore next.
The Institute Of Sexology can be found at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London. It runs until 20 September 2015.