What sex means to us now
‘The Institute of Sexology’, the Wellcome Collection’s inaugural exhibition in its newly refurbished gallery space, is tellingly subtitled ‘undress your mind’. This is a thoughtful traipse through the history of sexology rather than (or at least as much as) a titillating collection of curiosities, though you wouldn’t know it from the kind of sniggering coverage it has already attracted.
Each room of the exhibition takes its focus from a different place associated with the study of sex. We move through the library, the consulting room, the anthropologist’s tent, the classroom, laboratory and home. Its displays take in the work of scientists, thinkers, archivists and collectors whose explorations of sex were as much a matter of personal discovery as professional labour. Through their work, they attempted to make sense of a subject with massive social as well as psychological implications.
As befits an exhibition on such a big and un-pin-down-able subject, the Institute of Sexology takes in literature, art, film, psychoanalysis, medicine, genetics, entomology and zoology. There are clips from sex education programmes and Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), readings from Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), correspondence between Marie Stopes and her variously grateful or disgusted readers, a collection of Kinsey’s measuring devices, and a photographic exploration of sexuality in modern South Africa by Zanele Muholi. On paper this might sound messy and vague but it makes for an immersive and thought-provoking exploration of an almost endlessly varied subject.
One of the aims of this exhibition, the curators say, is to ‘find a vocabulary’ to talk about sex. Our comfort with the frank discussion of a subject historically shrouded in secrecy and myth hasn’t always kept pace with the casual sexualisation of our culture. This exhibition tries to address this gap by asking us to think and talk seriously about what sex has meant in the past and what it can or should mean to us now.
The exhibition is bookended with two government curtailments of sexual research and education. It begins with the destruction of Magnus Hirshfield’s Institut für Sexualwissenschaft on 10 May 1933, three months after Hitler came to power, and ends with Clause 28, the Tory government’s attempt to outlaw the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in the 1990s. The first room is dominated by a looping video of Magnus Hirschfield’s library being burnt. This is a dramatic image to open with and makes an un-ignorable statement that sexual freedoms shouldn’t be taken for granted. Hirschfield saw this film in Paris where he lived in exile and said it was like watching his own funeral. As a tone-setter, it’s a strong one and presumably intended to remind us that the liberties we enjoy are precious and fragile.
Hirschfield’s institute was a centre for scientific research which sought to ‘further the quest for justice’ for ‘sexual minorities’ through greater knowledge and understanding. It was visited by leading intellectuals of the day including W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Sergei Eisenstein. This exhibition seems an attempt to echo that inclusive and enquiring spirit.
One of the particular strengths of this show is the way it puts diverse voices into conversation with each other, not only between the different rooms of the exhibition but within them. ‘The consulting room’ focusses on the work of Marie Stopes and Sigmund Freud and begins with a caption in which Stopes tells a correspondent: ‘Don’t please think about your subconscious mind […] All the filthiness of this psychoanalysis does unspeakable harm’. Touches like this make it feel like the Institute of Sexology is not about drawing conclusions but sparking conversations.
This discursive approach makes demands on the visitor to think for themselves. The Institute of Sexology doesn’t claim to be anything more than an introduction to a subject that is not only unmanageably vast but constantly changing. The exhibition ends in a large, comfortable library space filled with books referred to and quoted from in the galleries. It sets itself up as a starting point rather than offering a ready-packaged nugget of knowledge or opinion. The subject of the exhibition is our evolving attitudes to sex and, as such, it makes a particular point of engaging with the reactions of its audiences. There is a programme of live events planned and, in the final room of the exhibition, an uncaptioned object hidden behind a curtain invites interpretations from visitors which will be displayed and shared.
This exhibition will run until 20 September 2015 and promises to evolve and change with the reactions of its visitors. Admission free.
Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE