A Victorian gentleman's collection of phalluses sounds intriguing, right? Laura Thomas explains why curator David Gaimster (right) is determined to prevent the break-up of the collection kept in Cupboard 55
When words fail, sometimes only a number will do. Area 51; Studio 54; Room 101 - tight-lipped digits that have become synonymous with the sinister or the salacious. So it is with a cupboard in the British Museum's medieval and later antiquities department. Its contents were so profoundly shocking that for 135 years, access was limited to gentlemen of "taste and education". This is Cupboard 55, the "Secretum", concealing the scandalous legacy of George Witt, a Victorian collector of phalluses.
They are sculpted from stone, wax, amber, bronze, glass and, in most cases, have no body attached. Some have wings. One is decorated with small engraved birds and flowers that appear to be hanging from the foreskin. There's a cartoon depicting penises sitting in church pews, heads reverently bowed. Here is a medieval drinking vessel in the shape of a phallus; a collection of 19th-century Japanese pornographic cards; a copy of Giulio Romano's Il Modi (a kind of 16th-century good-sex guide); pornographic scribblings by Fuseli; detailed scrapbooks of erotica from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
No longer are the strict visiting regulations that Witt imposed enforced, allowing anyone who applies in writing to riffle through the remains of a very private pastime.
The array of objects is overwhelming, yet David Gaimster, keeper of medieval and later antiquities, describes the contents of 55 as a "residue". Half of Witt's collection - including classical figure vases and Indian temple reliefs - has been removed and placed in other exhibitions at the museum.
To understand the artefacts, one has to think back to Chaucer and Boccaccio. The problem, Gaimster explains, is that most of the time we cannot. Instead, "we tend to see the material through a very Victorian eye". It seems that at some point in the 19th century, we lost our sense of humour about erotica - and the lapse persists. Many of the medieval and classical pieces are amulets, good-luck charms, fertility symbols, humorous and subversive in a Carry On sort of way, but likely to have made Victorian luminaries blush.
What, then, drove Witt to collect and hoard items he could never display in polite society? With only the scantiest of biographies - mainly pieced together from public records - that question has never been answered.
Born in Norfolk in 1803, Witt became the director of Bedford Infirmary in his 30s, then a fellow of the Royal Society, before being elected Mayor of Bedford in 1834. Precisely the pillar of society one expects not to be fascinated by winged penises. In the 1840s he went to Australia, where he abandoned medicine to make a fortune from banking. A decade later, he returned to England and established a circle of gentlemen scholars preoccupied with items of "phallic worship".
Gaimster points out that the collection tells us far more about the Victorian mind than it does about the antiquities contained within it. "It tells us how 19th-century scholars understood their world - and misunderstood a lot of it." One of the more curious items is what Witt believed to be a medieval chastity belt. An intimidating object with metal teeth, it is, in fact, a fake, manufactured by Victorians for Victorians. "This is how the Victorians imagined the medieval past," Gaimster says.
Gaimster acknowledges "an erotic tension" running through the collection that makes it more difficult to interpret. "If we could be sure it was entirely scholarly, that would be one thing, but there are such contradictions in the material." Leafing through the scrapbooks with their detailed illustrations of statues and frescoes, for instance, we come upon photographs of scantily clad women, dressed as gladiators, depicted in episodes designed to arouse more than scholarly attention.
It is in the shadowy area where archaeological and erotic interest meet that the key to Witt's obsession lies. The objects seem bizarre because of their collector's fixation with obscenity. He did not care to place them in any cultural or chronological milieu. Regardless of provenance - Pompeii, Herculaneum, Europe or the Far East - Witt selected the pieces for their obscenity value alone. The resulting legacy documents the Victorian encounter with the classical world and the farthest reaches of the British Empire.
It was not an entirely happy meeting: Gaimster calls it a "major trauma". "The Roman world that was being discovered in Italy frequently depicted private life in its art." Similar problems afflicted discoveries in India and the Far East. "The problem there was that heaven was depicted as a highly sexualised place. The Victorian idea of heaven was entirely chaste."
If Witt and his colleagues were disturbed by what they found, why go to the expense of shipping it back to England? A pamphlet, published by Witt to mark the acceptance of his collection by the British Museum in 1865, is telling. Entwined with his obsession was a desire to legitimise his preoccupation. What could be more respectable than official acceptance by the British Museum? The museum's trustees, under director Anthony Panizzi, had "no hesitation" in accepting a bequest "of such quality", Gaimster says. Witt's secret passion was given the rubber stamp of high cultural approval. Naturally, provision was made for the protection of the morally suggestible. Witt insisted the collection be allotted a room where it could be viewed - for scholarly purposes - by men of an appropriate education and class. In a final example of the contradictions of the man, Witt censored his life's secret work.
Gaimster is determined to prevent any further break-up of the collection. He argues that it is a "time capsule, a laboratory" for studying the way the Victorians made sense of history. He plans to use Witt's collection as the centrepiece of an exhibition on the "censorship of antiquity". By 2003, the mayor of Bedford's best-kept secret might be on display in all its glory. It is probably not what he would have wanted.
Laura Thomas works for the BBC social affairs unit.
This (edited) article is taken from Index on Censorship. The British Museum: www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/.