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Friday, 24 February 2012

Sir Henry Wellcome's sexual objects

On Wednesday I went to the Classical Archaeology Seminar at the Institute of Classical Studies in London at which Jennifer Grove (Univeristy of Exeter) was speaking on 'Henry Wellcome's Classical Erotica: sexually related antiquities collected for the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum in the early C20th'.

This was a very interesting seminar on collecting, museums and the display of objects with sexual connotations. There is something of a perception that Wellcome was a rather undiscriminating collector and that he also acquired a good deal of material of non-medical interest through buying up job lots which dealers had carefully salted with one or two medical items. In fact it turned out that he was specifically acquiring in the area of classical sexually-themed objects and the collection (before it was dispersed) had nearly 1000 of these.

At least in the case of the sexual objects of European Classical Antiquity, it appears that he saw these as falling within wider paradigms of medicine and the maintenance of life and health, in particular the (mostly phallic, but some vulval) amulets and votive objects. These were displayed alongside other amulets within the museum context, at a time, intriguingly, when most museums were still segegrating any material of a sexual nature into secret cabinets and closed collections, rather than displaying it alongside related materials of a non-sexual nature with which it might originally have been associated.

This was presumably possible for Wellcome's museum as he very much positioned it as a place of research and study rather than a public show of entertaining curiosities: although it did receive large numbers of visitors, including school-groups, one wonders whether these were carefully escorted and guided around the galleries rather than running around freely with check-sheets like contemporary school groups in museums.

I was also struck, given that Wellcome's intended audience was the medical profession and scholarly disciplines such as anthropology, by the similarity to the ways in which works of sexology were being published during the same period, with titlepage provisos that they were for the medical/legal professions and serious scholars only (which it is clear a number of booksellers took as guidance). There also seems an intriguing shift from erotic/sexual materials being seen as the province of the gentleman connoisseur (who could bribe his way or at least use social capital to get into secret collections, as well as purchase limited editions of pornographic works) to the realm of the medical and scientific.

However, while the classical sexual objects in Wellcome's collections clearly fit into a model of the religious/spiritual/superstitious approach to medicine, and were about the vital powers of fertility and reproduction, some of the other erotic items (for example the box of Japanese tortoiseshell sex toys currently on display in the Medicine Man exhibition in the Wellcome Collection)
raising rather more puzzling questions about how these fit into the wider paradigms of the collection.

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