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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.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Leo Abse on Stella Browne

I recently came across, cited in Stephen Brooke's Sexual Politics: Sexuality, family planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day (2011: eventual post to follow when I've finished it), Leo Abse's comments on Stella Browne in his autobiography, Private Member (1973).

Abse considered that Stella Browne, Janet Chance and Alice Jenkins, were 'intelligent shrill viragos...[with] pathological disorder... [who] resented their feminine identity'. Stella, he claimed, was a 'loud-mouthed, filthy storytelling ragbag'.

Although at first I was concerned that I had missed a firsthand impression of Stella when writing her biography, on reflection the likelihood that Abse ever met any of these three women, apart possibly from Alice Jenkins, who was the only founder member of ALRA to see the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act, seems minimal in the extreme. He was nearly 40 years younger than Stella (and over 30 years younger than Janet Chance), and their paths could only possibly have crossed in the late 1930s when he was studying law at the London School of Economics (possible, but not very likely). After war service in the RAF, he was based in Cardiff until being elected to Parliament in 1958. Furthermore, his condemnation is expressed in terms so very similar to Mrs Garrett's reported description of Stella quoted in Hindell and Simms, Abortion Law Reformed  (1971 - recently reissued in paperback) that the balance of evidence suggests he was working from that source rather than any personal acquaintance.

So I don't think I've let some precious piece of primary evidence escape me, though I suppose this posthumous and hearsay bit of blackguarding might have fitted into my 'Coda' on Stella's afterlife.

Friday 17 February 2012

Various links

A couple of recent posts of mine on the Wellcome Library blog:
 Alan Turing and the Ratio Club (for LGBT Month)
Top archives of 2011
Not one of my posts, but of interest: Evenings with a Merman

Collective Artistes:  ZHE: [noun] Undefined
From childhood to adulthood and across continents, this poignant and honest piece of theatre follows the lives of two British Africans living at the crossroads of culture, nationality, gender and sexuality.  Humorous yet haunting, this story is told by the characters whose lives are healed and celebrated through the experience.
I attended a read-through of this last summer. Not sure if I'll be able to see any of these stagings.

Roma Routes: EU funded project made up of a partnership of heritage organisations and Roma representatives from Germany, Greece, Slovenia, Romania and the UK. The project aims to encourage intercultural dialogue between Roma and non Roma to promote European Roma cultural heritage.

Friday 3 February 2012

Website update: Situating Stopes

I've just added to my website the paper Situating Stopes: or, putting Marie in her proper place that I gave as keynote at the IHR@90 event, The Birth of the Birth Control Clinic, last March. There don't seem to be any plans afoot to publish the proceedings from this conference (and it doesn't seem as though the projected podcasts of contributions have happened), and anyway, much of the material synthesised in my paper was drawn from things I had already written on Stopes and on the interwar birth control and eugenics movements. However, I think it is a useful overview of some of the issues that continue to surround Stopes and make her a persistently controversial figure.

Thursday 2 February 2012

Archives of voluntary action

I see that I have posted before on the vexed issue of the archives of voluntary bodies.

The Voluntary Action History Society is making a concerted effort to make these organisations more aware of their archives and the need to preserve them: Wanted: Champions to safeguard the archives of our charities.

As I commented in a recent post to the Wellcome Library blog, we have acquired over the years a significant collection of archives of voluntary organisations in the medical and health field, and continue to consider the preservation of records from this very important sector a priority.

However, in the course of dealing with this question over the years we have had depressing experiences of records lost or stored in conditions under which they became irretrievably damaged, and encounted instances of very significant institutions which had paid no attention to preserving any details of their history.

Even if records do survive, there may be problems in finding an appropriate repository and in accessing the necessary resources to care for them.

But raising awareness of the importance of archives is a start.