Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Guest Post: Monica Allison considers sex and the concept of "the unexhibitable" in modern museums

Monica Allison contributes the final essay in a series of four guest blog posts written by the students in my Exhibition Development and Design class at Walsh University. This past semester my students learned about the elements and principles museums employ in creating successful exhibits and valuable visitor experiences. With this final chapter, each of my students has presented her own perspective on an exhibit, book, or experience that resonated with her. You may find the the other student posts in the blog archive at the bottom of the page.

Guest Post by: Monica Allison
Junior, Museum Studies Program
Walsh University
Some things should stay behind closed doors…  Specifically, bedroom doors. 

Have you noticed how open people are about their private lives lately? You might have seen something on Facebook, Myspace, or Twitter that seemed a little too personal. People sharing their personal habits and feelings on the web to all of their friends, and even people they barely know, seems to be the norm for the 21st century. For instance, on Facebook you may see an old friend, let’s say her name is Jane, and she has just changed her status to “in a relationship.” You send her a comment saying, “Congratulations, that is wonderful,” and asking questions like, “Who is he?” Later, you receive her response in another comment telling you and everyone else on Facebook about her new beau. Then, a month later you see Jane has changed her status back to “single,” and below it will be 12-20 comments, including things like a frowning face, or an “I'm sorry”, or a “What happened?” You read further down the comments and Jane has sent a posting where she spills her guts about how heart-broken she is, and how her ex-boyfriend is a no good cheating son-of-a-gun. She expressed all her personal feelings for the whole world to read. Relationships and personal problems are no longer an individual or private matter. Even sex is now discussed in the open quite frequently, but has it been a bit too open lately? It can make a person wonder, shouldn’t there be some things we just keep to ourselves? 

It seems to me that the thing that should always remain behind closed doors is sex. But unfortunately, it’s not. Why? Well, advertising agencies say “sex sells,” because apparently everyone is always after sex. I suppose it is an animal instinct, but it is crazy what some people will go through just to find a sexual partner. Some women go through extreme pain, even surgical procedures, just to look sexy for men. “Pain is beauty” seems to be the motto for many women. Some men count sexual conquests and brag to their male friends. Men even have provocative sex jokes they share with one another, and then there is always the popular saying “it is not how big it is, it is how you use it.” For me, the question is, in today’s society are we being a little too open about certain things like sex? Are there things that should only be discussed in the bedroom?

Apparently not, because in today’s society sex is openly established in public places like adult toy and video stores, adult cable channels, romance novels, instructive sex books teaching new moves, magazines, sex toy parties, strip clubs, and even museums. That is right, in the 21st century we have museums for sex. In fact, there is also a phallological museum. In case you do not know what "phallological" means, it is the scientific term for all things relating to the penis. Yes, there is a sex museum and a penis museum. In fact, there are actually a lot of bizarre museums out there. Rachel Greenberg has an article on the “9 Ridiculously Creepy Medical Museums open to the Public.” Number three on her list is the Icelandic Phallological Museum in Husavik, Iceland. 

Photo by Wellingtn Grey, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Phallological Museum has 272 penises in their collection-- some in jars, some mounted on the walls, while others hang behind glass cases. 209 of these penile parts belong to almost all of the land and sea mammals that reside in Iceland, about 46 different species of mammals. The Icelandic Phallological Museum's website proudly states, “that the museum has also been fortunate enough to receive legally-certified gift tokens for four specimens belonging to Homo sapiens.” A centerpiece of the Homo sapiens specimen display is the current collection of silver casts of the"members" of the Icelandic National Handball Team, who won the Olympic silver medal in 2008. Talk about taking one for the team! Some of the artifacts are truly from another dimension, like the museum's collection of 23 folklore specimens from creatures such as sea monsters, trolls, and elves. There are also 40 foreign specimens. I do not want to know what the foreign specimens are. You can find out for yourselves.

Back to Sex

The Museum of Sex located in New York City currently has five exhibitions: The Sex Lives of Animals, Rubbers, Action: Sex and the Moving Image, Spotlight on the (Permanent Collection), and Sex Lives of Robots: Spotlight on Michael Sullivan. The mission of the museum is as follows: “The Mission of the Museum of Sex is to preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality. In its exhibitions, programs and publications, the Museum of Sex is committed to opening discourse and exchange and to bringing to the public the best in current scholarship.”

Museum of Sex photo by David Shankbone,
via Wikimedia Commons.
In the past seven years that the Museum of Sex has been open it has produced sixteen exhibitions and five virtual installations. With each new exhibition, lecture, series, event and publication, the museum is committed to concentrating on a wide range of topics, while at the same time, the museum highlights material and artifacts from different continents, cultures, time periods, and media. The Museum of Sex’s permanent collection has over 15,000 artifacts, consisting of works of art, photography, clothing, costumes, technological inventions, and historical customers. The museum’s building has a research library and an extensive multimedia library. The multimedia library includes VHS, DVDs, and more. The Museum of Sex is proud to have a collection that ranges from fine art to historical ephemera to film. They believe their growing collection is preserving these sex related objects, which would otherwise be destroyed due to their obscenity.

Lee H. Skolnick asks a very important question about the Museum of Sex in his article “MoSex / LessSex?” published in the National Association of Museum Exhibition’s journal Exhibitionist in the Fall 2008 issue entitled “The Unexhibitable.” Skolnick’s question is “Okay, now, who has actually visited this museum? Anybody?” (Page 51) In fact, Skolnick asked around to see if anyone he knew had been to the museum and he did not receive any yeses. However, in the article the Museum of Sex’s Director stated that his museum has “experienced steady growth since our opening in 2002 and every month our attendance exceeds that of the same month a year earlier.” Why is this? My answer is that we are no longer a “let’s keep things private” society anymore, and the main private topic everyone likes to discuss is sex. Even Skolnick admits, “Who is not interested in sex?” (Page 51). I suppose sex is the new black for the 21st century.

The fact is that this is not the only sex museum, nor the only bizarre museum. Most of these sex museums are referred to as "erotic museums" or "erotic art museums," instead of “sex museums.” In the United States, we have the previously mentioned Museum of Sex in New York City, as well as The  Erotic Museum in Hollywood, California, which opened in 2004, the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami Beach, which opened in 2005, and the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas, which is the newest, open since August 2008.

Europe has about seven museums, which specifically focus on the erotic. In fact, even the British Museum in London once exhibited the Secretum (cupboard 55), which contained a collection of erotic objects. In Asia, several countries appear to have at least one sex museum. China’s first sex museum opened in 1999 and was located in Shanghai; however it moved around a couple times and had different titles. It was called “Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture” or “Dalin Cultural Exhibition.” In 2004, it finally moved to Tong Li and is now known as the China Sex Museum, featuring over 3,000 erotic artifacts. In Japan sex museums are not unusual; Japan has many of them. They are called “Hihokan” translated as The House of Hidden Treasures.

In fairness, there might be some justifiable reasoning for why these museums might be beneficial for society. If the museums are responsibly educating the public about HIV/Aids, STDs, teen pregnancy, factors on abortion and foster care, and so on, then they are being of assistance to society. If these museums have an educational purpose to make society a better place, then these institutions have value. If individuals never had the opportunity to enroll in a course in sex education, or are at a point in their lives where they are mature enough to gain knowledge of sex, then these museums can be worthwhile. The problem arises when these institutions become more about currency than enlightening individuals on matters that are sometimes considered taboo. In truth, the real problem is that most of these erotic museums are not nonprofit organizations and they are not truly functioning as professional museums. 

For clarification, I define "museum" as a depository for collecting and displaying objects having scientific, historical, or artistic value. The collections in these erotic museums, are they considered history, science, or art? Does the collection have any communal value? The sex museums might have a collection, but is this collection being used for education or entertainment? 

Another issue to consider when declaring these establishments "museums" is that museums in the contemporary world have been assimilated into a public dwelling that is open to all and for everyone to enjoy. The vast majority of American museums are nonprofit organizations, but I believe these for-profit erotic “museums” fall into a different category of entertainment. Why? Examine the admission tickets, or better yet look at the age limit that is required for admission to these museums. The best age for anyone to learn about sex is in high school when the hormones are in hyper mode. However, The Museum of Sex in New York only allows visitors over the age of eighteen. Would it not be better if the museum had core programs that were dedicated to educating adolescents in high school on safe sex and the consequences of poor choices? These “museums” need to prove they can be institutions instrumental in improving the society around them if they want to earn their title. 

I believe there are unexhibitable exhibits. Even if the timing and context arrive at a paramount moment, I still believe some things, like sex, should remain private. To display things like sex objects and penile specimens, in my opinion, makes the museum experience uncomfortable and a bit immature. If people are actually visiting these sex museums, they must have different intentions and expectations for their museum experience than I. Patrons may either be going there to broaden their horizons by seeing exhibits of a more graphic nature, or to be titillated by something taboo. Today’s world already has too many private and personal notions flying around. Is it really important to add museums as another source of sex education? At least in museums let’s try to keep gratuitous sex to a minimum... Better yet, let it stay behind closed bedroom doors!

If you are interested in the sex, or erotic museums, check out the article “Visit the World’s 12 Sexiest Museums” by Marlei Martinez. If you are curious about the bizarre museums like the Phallological Museum, try Rachel Greenberg’s article “9 Ridiculously Creepy Medical Museums Open to the Public.” 

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