The only unnatural sex act is that which you cannot perform. – Alfred Kinsey
One of the perks of living in London is there is often a new exhibition opening up somewhere. Yet whilst you may find a selection of recently opened and free exhibitions, with all that London has to offer, there may not be many that immediately grab your interest.
This is not something that can be said about The Wellcome Collection’s10-month exhibition, teastingly titled ‘The Institute of Sexology: Undress Your Mind’, ‘A free exhibition that lays bare the big questions of human sexuality’. Naturally, my attention was caught, mostly from the appeal of visiting an exhibition that promises to be both open and honest on such an intimate subject. The exhibit advertised something different from the usual on offer, even for London. My friend Rachel, my regular exhibition partner, was also intrigued and we decided to visit in the opening week.
We entered past several warning signs reminding us that the exhibition contains sexually explicit material and headed towards a suitably moodilydarkened room. As our vision cleared, we found ourselves greeted by a collection of ancient sex objects behind glass, and notes on what everything was. An intriguing start.
The exhibition itself is very well placed out, with objects kept behind glass with a detailed but easy to read description. Ranging from erotic artwork, condoms dating back decades, charts showing the process of an orgasm and 1980s leaflets on the AIDS pandemic, there will be something in this exhibition that you’ve probably not seen before. Although a sex exhibition, the displays aren’t exactly ‘sexy’ in themselves. There isn’t much that I believe could offend a visitor. There may be a few items which could make a person blush, but nothing worse than what you could see in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Covering 150 years of information, the exhibition itself looks at our ever-changing attitudes to human sexuality, and how research over the years has contributed to a better understanding of sex. In addition to research, a look at the changing behaviour of our culture also shows the changing attitudes towards sexuality and sexual identity within our society.
In addition to the objects on display, the research of several pioneers, including William Masters & Virginia Johnson, Sigmund Freud, Marie Stopes and Alfred Kinsey are also part of the exhibition, looking at how taboos around sexuality have altered through the decades, and how sex and sexuality has been analysed and observed over time. There are also a very interesting series of letters written to Marie Stopes from people who regard her research as ‘filth’. In 1918, Stopes published her book Married Love, which provoked a great deal of controversy, in her arguing that marriages should be equal, on the topic of contraception and in her describing that female sexual desire coincides with ovulation. Quite scandalous for the time. Although banned in the US until 1931, the book sold out rapidly in the UK. The famous ‘Go Back Home’ letter on display is almost humorous to read to today’s audience.
There is an interesting display from renowned artist Zanele Muholi, exploring the identity of black lesbians in South Africa, and several other sections of the exhibition exploring the research and understanding of LGBT lifestyles throughout the years. A variety of footage is also placed around on display, ranging from animal intercourse to Woody Allen’s 1972 film Sleeper; set in the year 2173 when a machine called the ‘Orgasmatron’ is invented to induce orgasms very rapidly, reducing the need for human contact. Woody Allen and his films are a perfect example of how sex and humour can live side by side.
I’m sure an entire exhibition on the subject of Woody Allen and sex could be opened itself. This is the man who gave us these famous lines on sex in his films:
The difference between sex and love is that sex relieves tension and love causes it.
Don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love.
Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go, it’s pretty damn good.
When looking at the research nowadays, it is very easy to see how views have changed quite dramatically. Although the research being completed by Alfred Kingsey in the 1940s and 50s may now seem dated or certain aspects are incorrect, there is no doubt that his work, and the work of other researchers, has paved the way for how we understand sex today. Their attempts to lift the taboo on sexuality has allowed for greater discussions in regards to sex, and the surviving research which can be compared and contrasted, when laid out in exhibit form as it is, also represents the changing attitudes of society over the past 100 years or so. Our views have progressed greatly over the years, and for the better I feel. Sex is clearly not as taboo a subject as it ever was previously. Can you imagine an exhibition such as this being available to the public in the 1950s? No, I can’t either.
You can comfortably move around the exhibition within an hour, and beable to look at everything on offer. Although there are several aspects of human sexuality that are not touched upon in the exhibition, such as virginity, there is enough to keep you interested, and may well leave you with more questions by the time you leave. With over 200 objects related to sexuality on display, including art, photographs, footage, audio, letters, surveys, scientific research and a wide range of artefacts, the exhibiton could have risked becoming laborious. However, with the wide range of media on show, it keeps the audience captivated. As the exhibit is running for 10 months, it allows for the project to grow and expand over 2015, making it just as appealing to visit towards the end of its run, as at the opening. It’s supported by ongoing internal and external link events, such as their Long Table– ‘an experimental open public forum that is a hybrid performance, installation, roundtable discussion and dinner party’- and numerous creative off-shoots like the delightful Transvengers comic by a group of young trans people.
A great exhibition will leave you thinking, rather than just giving you information, which this certainly does. As well as being informing and interesting, it held my attention for the time I was there, as I believe it did for everyone else visiting. When you move around an exhibition where everyone is silent because they are concentrating on what they are looking at or reading, I think you know you have a winner. A word of caution though: be careful about who you take along with you, your grandparents might not appreciate the invite!
Join the conversation: #sexology
(Exhibition Video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xneFJRTrsRc
‘The Institute of Sexology: Undress Your Mind’ is open until 20th September 2015, and is located at The Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1. Visit the site for more information.