The Institute of Sexology, Wellcome Collection, London

The pioneers who examined human sexual desire took personal risks to uncover the realities of sex, this exhibition shows. Fern Riddell writes

November 20, 2014

The Institute of Sexology

Wellcome Collection, London
Until 20 September 2015

Last week, I spent a very happy hour peeking behind the tissue paper-covered display cases at the Wellcome Collection’s Institute of Sexology, the first exhibition to open in Gallery 2 since the £17.5 million refurbishment that has dominated the collection since late 2012. Full of curators and designers who were taking last-minute delivery of artefacts from the Freud Museum and filling the glass display cases, the gallery seemed to hum with a tangible air of excitement. This is hardly surprising given the focus of this new exhibition: sex has aroused and intrigued humanity since the dawn of time. But the Wellcome Collection has done something unique, pulling together from its extensive library and catalogue of artefacts, dating from the classical world to recent times, an exhibition that focuses on the men and women who founded the discipline and study of sexology.

The collection has been designed with the science of sex in mind. Four rooms display the research of leading sexologists from Sigmund Freud, Marie Stopes and Alfred Kinsey to William Masters and Virginia Johnson – the enigmatic duo whose groundbreaking study into human sexuality during the 1950s and 1960s is now immortalised in the Golden Globe-nominated television drama Masters of Sex. As the visitor travels from “The Library” into “The Consulting Room” and then “The Classroom” before finally entering “The Lab”, she is introduced to the Victorian obsession with collection through the artefacts of Henry Wellcome, Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing. This theme of collection, as a tool for understanding human sexuality, runs through the entire exhibition, from the votive phalluses from the ancient worlds of Egypt, Rome and Peru to the anatomical photographs of male and female genitalia by William Dellenback in 1952.

The scientific approach is evident as soon as you enter the gallery, for the whole space feels almost clinical. The soft grey palette – created by the architects Casper Mueller Kneer, with graphics by the John Morgan studio – places the objects on display front and centre for the visitor. There is a distinct lack of neon lighting, florid colours or boudoir appeal in the gallery. Instead of evoking the sensuality of sex, The Institute of Sexology offers a history of the clinical methodological approach to the study of human sexuality, highlighting just how researchers have tried to understand its biological and preference-based desire, in themselves and in others.

In The Secret Companion, a ‘medical work on onanism’ from 1845, the decidedly unhappy male subject is reduced to a mental and physical husk by overindulgence in the solitary vice

But clinical does not mean boring. The exhibition opens with a dramatic image of the Nazis burning Magnus Hirschfeld’s library and archive, which he had spent a lifetime compiling to support his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, on 10 May 1933. From the moment you step into the gallery, you are made acutely aware that those who have tried to unlock the mysteries of sex and sexuality have always had to take huge social and personal risks. Hirschfeld opened his institute in 1919 not only to study the sexual lives of Germans but also to offer counselling and marriage guidance, advice on contraception and sex education.

Perhaps unique in its time, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft also called for acceptance of the rights of homosexual and transgender individuals. Hirschfeld, who had published Die Transvestiten in 1910, became, in 1923, the first to distinguish transsexual individuals from those who are transvestite. His institute offered one of the earliest examples of sexual reassignment surgery to Rudolph Richter in 1932, who went on to work for Hirschfeld as a maid named Dora. Sadly, there is no record of her after the night of the burning books, and it is believed that she died in the attack. The Wellcome Collection has continued Hirschfeld’s sense of advocacy for the trans community with its display of The Transvengers, a comic created especially for the exhibition by trans people aged 13-19 under the guidance of the artist Jason Barker, which can also be viewed online.

Moving on from the first striking image, the cabinets in the gallery go on to introduce the Victorian sexologists and their international collections. On display are early condoms, German anti-masturbation devices and Indian erotica, but it was the private pornographic postcards of Richard von Krafft-Ebing – author of the 1886 volume Psychopathia Sexualis and the man who declared that “woman, if physically and mentally normal, and properly educated, has but little sensual desire” – that really surprised me and overturned my preconceptions of the lives of the sexologists on display. And this is the exhibition’s main aim – to challenge you, to make sure that your idea of sexuality, and the lives of the people who have tried to define and understand it, is altered and transformed as you navigate the four rooms. The connection to a sense of the sexologists’ selves, their sexual and social identities, is subtly presented, and a testament to the exhibition’s determination to display their methods and interests freely and without judgement.

So what made the sexologists tick? Masturbation seems to have gained a great deal of attention, self-pleasure having always been a target for the clinician as well as the moralist. From the 18th-century horror of the sin of “onanism” to the invention of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in the early 20th century, medical men sought to expose and reduce this sexual act. But, as is to be expected, not everyone was convinced that masturbation carried such deadly risks. Two opposite views are represented side by side in The Institute in the display of The Secret Companion (1845) by R. J. Brodie – a “medical work on onanism” whose decidedly unhappy male subject is reduced to a mental and physical husk by overindulgence in the solitary vice – and a page taken from Invocation à l’amour: Chant philosophique (c. 1825) titled “Les Charmes de la Masturbation”, which depicts a couple glorying in mutual pleasuring. This clash between private cultural attitudes to sex and public medical disapproval proves a battleground for the sexologists selected by the Wellcome’s curators, who tried to reconcile the realities of private experience with traditional doctrines of public morality.

Among a wealth of anonymous patient data, the record of the sexologist is, at times, intensely personal. One of my favourite pieces in the gallery is Marie Stopes’ graph of “Tabulation of Symptoms of Sexual Excitement in Solitude”. Fresh from the annulment of her marriage in 1914 – because her husband was unable to consummate their union – Stopes kept a detailed table of her own feelings of sexual arousal when alone. Ranging from a low libido when she is “fearfully tired and overworked”, to peaks in orgasmic activity during fantasies about “tenderness in kissing” or “a desire to be held tightly around the waist”, the graph is a unique chart of female sexual desire. And Stopes was not the only one to use her own sexuality for research. Havelock Ellis, whose work is also displayed, based much of his research on his own experiences, as well as those of his wife and friends.

In the exhibition, the sexologist’s journey to expose and alter attitudes to masturbation ends with illustrations from Robert Latou Dickinson’s notebook of the 1930s and 1940s. A contemporary of Kinsey’s, he gathered information from more than 5,000 female patients, which led him to conclude that masturbation must be seen as part of natural sexual desire, with no physical or mental danger. This is the attitude that the modern world has embraced; and so the sexologist’s desire to promote the realities of sex and to challenge traditional public attitudes does seem – in part – to have been realised.

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