Review: The Institute of Sexology Exhibition, Wellcome Collection, by Paul Burns

Porcelain fruit containing couple engaged in sexual foreplay, Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Porcelain fruit containing couple engaged in sexual foreplay, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

London, November 2014 to September 2015

Large doses of quackery, moral humbug and pseudo-science slowly yielding to reason sums up the history of the study of sexuality, the topic that The Institute of Sexology Exhibition is concerned with. The items displayed span the last century and a half of the discipline, an era divided by the fourteen year existence of the Institut fϋr Sexualwissenschaft, usually translated as The Institute of Sexology.

Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institut in Berlin operated until 1933. His homosexuality, being a Jew and promoting sexual tolerance led the Nazis not only to close this centre of learning and practical help but also to burn the huge library. It is good to see Hirschfeld, his work and colleagues honoured by the name for this current exhibition.

While almost any adult would find many of the displays interesting, I have some quibbles. Much has been made of the exhibition being staged in a new space for shows on the first floor of the Wellcome Collection building. However, this room is two-thirds the size of the ground floor exhibition area. I also dislike the dingy lighting, as if sex belongs to the twilight, and the mean notices about exhibits.

Opposite the Sexology area is another gallery called Medicine Now, which is bathed in bright light. Even the free Sexology brochure is dull and suggests a handout from a 1950s medical conference. However, at least the brochure is legible in reasonable light. Many of the texts by display cases are in small print and difficult to read in the gloom without getting close, which can mean waiting for others squinting at them. And some of the notices are set low as if designed for children.

Of course, bright lights can fade certain irreplaceable items. Put them in a separate dark corner of the exhibition, I say, and use floodlit replicas or large backlit photos in the main areas. The majority of visitors want ease of access to information more than the thrill of being inches away from the originals.

For people who can’t get to the exhibition or want further information after a visit, there is hefty hardback, The Institute of Sexology, featuring 200 works of art, erotica, photographs and rare documents. This is on sale at the bookshop at the Wellcome Collection for £24.99. The cheapest online copies at the time of writing are available from Foyles for £18.24 including p&p. ISBN 978-0-9570285-6-2

Putting aside the issue of limited space, is anything missing from the exhibition? How about recent sexology in other parts of the world? For example, Japanese doctors and scientists visited Berlin in the 1920s and were impressed by the work of Hirschfeld. I would also have liked to see something about the future direction of sexology and how it might avoid the scientific clangers and endorsements of prejudice that have blighted this field. While the west has made some progress in terms of more enlightened attitudes and laws, many countries still celebrate the persecution of sexual divergence and favour ignorance over sexual information. What could be done to help the Marie Stopes and Shere Hites of developing countries?

Paul Burns retired from psychotherapy to write fiction. His latest book, The Fetish Collection, contains fourteen short stories each of which features at least one paraphilia. Available from Amazon and Kobo.

Posted in Cliterati Magazine, Events

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *