Royal Albert Memorial Museum explores sexuality through the Wellcome Collection

By Culture24 Reporter | 11 March 2014

Exhibition preview: Intimate Worlds: Exploring Sexuality through the Sir Henry Wellcome Collection, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, April 5 – June 29 2014

A photo of a pair of wooden dolls lying on top of each other in a sexual position
Ivory okimono of copulating couple, Japan (late 19th century)© Courtesy Royal Albert Memorial Museum
“It’s a picture of these two little statuettes, both with fairly large phalluses,” says Jared Baldwin, who, in his role at South Dartmoor Community College, was part of the team who helped put together the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s exploration of global attitudes towards sex through the ages.

A photo of a wooden doll of a woman and child
Replica of a doll used in stillbirth ceremonies, Gambia© Wellcome Library London
“The way I looked at it is there’s one guy there and he’s looking really happy with himself ‘cos it’s this really big phallus. And then his mate comes along and it’s bigger again. And it’s this sort of ‘oh, his is bigger than mine’.”

The first ever display of the Wellcome’s sexually-related material is often saucy. But there’s a serious overtone: inviting young people to use these artworks and objects as starting points, curators hope to break down inhibitions surrounding sexual health.

“I just thought that one of the issues we have sometimes in education is we talk about sexuality – there’s all the pressures on girls about their image, but we don’t talk about it very much for boys,” says Baldwin, discussing the Sex and History project.

“This is one of those areas where, I think, it could be a really good starting point to actually get the boys to talk about it in a way that previously they wouldn’t, so that they’re not going to be defensive about it. It’s something they’re going to be maybe more open about.

“Talking with the curator, having this this sort of historical approach is a way of opening it up so that students can work with it. I also think it gives it kudos for parents and senior staff to say ‘actually, this is something that we should be doing, I can see there’s more to it – it’s not just something that’s going to upset the Daily Mail.’”

A photo of an ancient silver belt against a black background
Iron Chastity Belt© Wellcome Library London
The items include a replica of a doll used in stillbirth ceremonies in Gambia and ivory sculptures of an amorous couple from late 19th century Japan. Some of the exhibits were picked by University of Exeter students.

“I chose this ivory oriental clam shell that opens into two halves revealing a naked woman,” says one of them, 21-year-old Camilla Morgan.

“It makes me think about who made it, what it was used for and how we think about sex in our time.

“As a modern society we think of ourselves as more sexually liberated and open, yet objects from history challenge this view.

“The clam is fascinating because it’s beautiful and modest when closed, but when opened becomes quite explicit.”

A photo of a woman looking at a small circular open clam on a wooden floor
Camilla Morgan with the ivory oriental clam© Courtesy Royal Albert Memorial Museum
David Regis, of the Schools Health Education Unit, expects “all sorts of people” to be “engaged” by the display.

“They are often very beautiful objects. They’re sexy – they’re interesting and they make you talk,” he feels.

“In my working life I often describe it as a trick to get people to talk to each other. They seem to have the same quality about them, as a device for getting people to talk about what’s on their mind.”

“Getting young people’s perspectives on collections brings a fresh approach to history,” believes Morgan.

“I think we can bring an ‘un-academic’ view, more of an impulsive reaction to objects.

“It’s easy to have preconceptions about museums but the stuff you can learn there can be really interesting – it’s up to us to get the message across.”

Co-curator Rachel Vowles says the objects have served as a medium for vital conversations.

“It’s just an amazing opportunity to get people talking about sex and sexuality, gender issues as well as things like body image – things that are very difficult to talk about with young people,” she observes.

“It’s been a fantastically positive experience.”


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