Institut für deutsche Literatur

Workshop "Exhibitionism: Sexuality at the museum"

In October 2020, the Wilzig Erotic Art Museum (WEAM), the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, and the Research Center for the Cultural History of Sexuality at Humboldt University conducted an online workshop titled “Exhibitionism: Sexuality at the Museum”. The workshop brought together researchers, museum professionals, and educators in order to discuss how sexuality is being addressed in museums, to share their experiences of working on sexuality in museums, and present new ways of using artworks, objects, and other materials to talk about sexuality.


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Sex at the museum

Some overarching sentiments of the workshop included mainstream museums’ lack of critical information on sexuality, a deficit of spaces in which to address sexuality, an avoidance of the topic by mainstream museums, and the abiding importance of presenting inclusive, scientific  education  on sexuality. In the first session Julie Peakman, historian of eighteenth-century culture, sexuality, and pornography, stressed the importance of museum collections on sexuality for her research on the history of non-normative sexualities. This is not always easy as many museums are still squeamish about sexually explicit materials. Additionally, it is difficult to find first hand indigenous accounts  when it comes to these topics, especially the further one looks back in history. Many museums in recent years have started to address diverse sexualities and sexually explicit art, but it is often external curators who curate these exhibitions. Such was also the case of the exhibition “Queer Miami. A History of LGBTQ Communities”, curated by Julio Capo, associate professor of history at Florida International University (FIU), at the Miami History museum in 2019. Capo recounted that initial tension over the title soon eased and the exhibition was a great success, providing new visibility for the queer communities in Miami. When it came to more sexually explicit themes, though, such as the role of bath houses for the gay community, the museum was worried about their school programs and responses from teachers. This led him to focus more on the role of the bathhouses for the gay movement and culture rather than emphasizing “Here’s where a lot of people had awesome sex.” The reaction to the exhibition was very positive, and several others also commented on the initial fears that need to be dealt with when it comes to sexuality. Jen Grove, Engaged Research Fellow in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter, UK talked about her experiences co-curating an exhibition called “Intimate Worlds: Exploring Sexuality through the Sir Henry Wellcome Collection” at the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter. At the beginning, the museum had been quite wary about doing the exhibition, but by the time the show opened they were fully on board. And although Exeter is a small conservative town, visitors were pleased with sexuality being dealt with in an “open” way. The visitors were happy to have a public forum to talk about these things and would even debate different aspects via the comment cards. Now the museum is supporting future projects about sex and sexuality.

Despite these tendencies there is still a general reluctance in museums to show explicit sexual materials, even in LGBTQ community museums. Carol Queen, sociologist and staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, San Francisco added that the fact that the local LGBTQ+ center did not want to show queer porn was one of the reasons she co-founded the Center for Sex and Culture - a community space for exhibitions, performances, events, and a library that included events showing explicit sex. She stressed the importance of “digging into the dirt” to find private spaces that hold sexual histories and to convey that the institution is a safe space for these materials.

Sex museums

This potential of sex museums – museums focused on the presentation of erotic, pornographic, and sexual material – to counter the widespread avoidance by mainstream museums to present erotic or sexual materials to their audiences and/or the reductive, veiled, and heteronormative approaches was another central concern of the workshop. But many sex museums, while they might have a big collection, often only have a small staff and tiny budgets. The economic precariousness and niche status of sex museums was also apparent in Carol Queen’s presentation on the Antique Vibrator Museum in San Francisco. Carol Queen, the curator at the museum, explained how the museum has no budget and only exists in a small space in one of the stores of the woman-owned sex store. The museum was originally founded as a guerrilla marketing tactic for the store but now has become much more. While the lack of funds and space makes it hard to tell alternative histories and to make it a more global history, the easy accessibility provides unique teaching experiences and also a low bar for people to engage with the topic. But as several of the speakers pointed out, many of the exhibitions at sex museums around the world fail to tell a compelling narrative and often lack a sensitivity to non-Western cultures. Vicente Ugartechea, artist, researcher, and educator, formerly at the Leather Archives in Chicago, underscored that sex museums are often white, cis-male dominated, and are tied into a history of racist exclusions, marginalizations, and fetishization that extend beyond what is on display to the way that BIPOC staff are treated. This is also reflected in the leather and kink communities that are seldom safe spaces for BIPOC practitioners of kink and BDSM.

Curatorial strategies: queer, collaborative, transnational, artistic

In the light of these shortcomings of sex museums, Jennifer Tyburczy, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, urged for a queer curatorship – an experimental curatorship grounding queer theory into practice. She argued for a display of materials and objects in new configurations to evidence the presence of marginalized communities even in their absence. This practice involves a reorganization of materials and reshaping of the relationship between objects and visitors. Jen Grove recounted her experience in the exhibition Intimate Worlds, where she decided not to “fill the gaps” that the heteronormative Wellcome collection presented, but instead addressed these gaps in the exhibition texts. The analysis from the comment cards, though, led to her feeling that visitors did not engage very much with that aspect of the show but rather focused on the objects themselves.

In her presentation on her curatorial strategies at the Museum of Sex, Lissa Rivera, artist and curator at the Museum of Sex in New York, underscored the importance of bringing in new and different voices when curating. She curated a wide range of exhibitions on BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women, and figures of queer culture often overlooked in history. She recounted the problem that the materials in the collections are usually dominated by the male gaze and mainstream pornography, which is why she focused more on outsider art as well as oral histories. She accentuated the need for reaching out and fostering links with queer, BIPOC, sex worker, and other marginalized communities. A greater diversity of curators and coalitional curatorship was seen by many of the speakers as one of the central avenues to counter the persistent dominance of the white, Western, male, and heterosexual in museum narratives and collections.

But these collaborations with communities need time and involve a lot of trust building as Julio Capó laid out. He underlined the importance of recovering queer people’s own voices and not only focusing on surveillance and persecution and relying on official records. For him this meant building strong connections with the queer communities of Miami, gathering stories and objects from and with them and also creating new sources, such as oral history recordings, that then became part of the permanent museum collection of the HistoryMiami museum. He also stressed the need for decentering national historical narratives and to tell a transnational queer history that involves migration, trade, and tourism, and in the context of Miami, also Central and South American communities.

This transnational approach was also central in Alpesh Kantilal Patel’s presentation on the curation of the exhibition WOMEN in Miami. Alpesh Patel, associate professor of contemporary art and theory at FIU talked about how he and other curators pushed and stretched the concept of the exhibition originally focusing on contemporary Chinese female artists and how they made cross-cultural connections. Alpesh also discussed some of the issues that came up with marketing the exhibition, and brought up the need for the entire museum staff, not just curators, to understand transnational, queer, and anti-racist museum practices.

Another strategy of dealing with the limitations of the collections has been bringing in artists to engage with them. As Vicente Urgatechea made clear in a presentation on their own artistic practice, archives often remain static and art can make things dynamic. Museums are places of information and provide a social good, and art is a way of processing the work, making you think creatively and critically. They showed how artists from marginalized communities employ uniforms of oppression and violence, and how they are used and activated - along with archives.

Engaging audiences – educators, objects, curators

Urgatechea also highlighted digital technology as an important part of opening up museums and collections to new audiences and being able to give access to people that they wouldn’t have otherwise. This sentiment was also shared by Ellen Nicolau, a historian and the education supervisor at the Museum of Sexual Diversity in São Paulo who stressed how the COVID-19 crisis had propelled the museum to expand their online offerings and, in this way, reach a much larger audience. Reaching a large audience is also integral to the mission of the museum of sexual diversity not only because it is positioned in an underground train station and has a lot of traffic, but because the museum makes an effort to actually ask the different LGBTQ+ communities what they want and get many proposals from artists and community members. In addition to  preserving LGBTQ+ history in Brasil, the museum also promotes research and education,  supports  vulnerable communities, and provides  health services such as HIV testing and social support. The role of education is much broader than in many other museums, and the education department is also an integral part of the curatorial process. Nevertheless, she recounted moments of tension between educators and curators, who in many cases are not thinking about accessibility.

This close collaboration between curators, educators, and researchers was also highlighted as one of the factors that made the “Sex and history” project that Jen Grove was involved in at the university of Exeter so successful. In this project, which was dedicated to creating resources for young people to talk about sexuality using historical objects, she worked closely with experts in sex education and sexual health. The project showed how looking at the past and other cultures opens up and broadens perspectives and understanding about sexuality and gender, as well as promotes critical thinking about the norms young people come across in their own lives. The success of the project also hinged on building trust with teachers and schools, who are often nervous about and resistant to sexually explicit imagery. The development of compulsory sex eduction in the UK and their cooperation with the national health forum had also been important aspects of the success of this program. Additionally, the incorporation of the voices of young people in development processes and the testing of resources with different groups and in different settings was central to this program.

In the end, as Alpesh Patel stated, “Museums should be places where tough questions are asked. Not just what communities want, but also bringing people together to go through these difficult topics. Museums fail when they can’t engage.” These topics, along with others, will be further addressed in a public conference on sexuality and museums that the Kinsey Institute, the Research Center for the Cultural History of Sexuality, and WEAM are planning for September 2021.