The Institute of Sexology

Wellcome Collection, Euston Road, London

If you wanted to demonstrate the impact of research, nothing could do so more effectively than the free Institute of Sexology exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. The way sex has been regarded, studied and portrayed at different times and in different cultures is set out in more than 200 exhibits which could keep you fascinated for hours.
The exhibition contains art, film, photography, ephemera, equipment and documents from some of the sexual, social and anthropological studies which have contributed to the way we understand and relate to sex now. And what a journey it has been! It is easy to forget how recently narrow and oppressive attitudes stultified and criminalised what we now understand to be natural forms of sexual expression and sexuality.

b and w hand holdingThe exhibition makes clear how the overwhelming feelings and consequences of sexual activity led to punitive and legislative management due to ignorance and fear. Hence, we see how the ground breaking researchers who sought evidence to overcome ignorance often risked social rejection and tattered careers. We often think of psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud as making discussion of sex possible, but it was not until the sexual revolution of the 1960s that science provided enough of the evidence and means (such as reliable contraception) to enjoy sex without fear or guilt. That fear returned in the 1980s as the impact of AIDS became evident — the exhibition demonstrates its evolving effect on society, sexual behaviour and attitudes to relationships.

The exhibition contains spine tingling exhibits and film from the work of iconic sex researchers such as Alfred Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, including some of the equipment they used to research human sexual response in volunteers performing live sex acts, and some of their films demonstrating sexual arousal.

Social as well as scientific impact is well addressed; for instance, the extraordinary impact on women’s health of Marie Stopes’ work to make birth control acceptable and available. It is hard to believe that only a few decades ago it was almost impossible to get contraceptive advice if you were married, let alone if you were single. Similarly, I hadn’t fully appreciated the significance of Margaret Mead’s anthropological studies in Samoa in the first half of the last century. Mead’s work demonstrated the fluidity and plasticity of sexuality and gender, work which contributed substantially to more liberal attitudes to sexual expression and the development of feminism. Mead is also credited with encouraging the famous paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock to promote on-demand breastfeeding.

The exhibition is running until September 2015, and is part of a national sexology season, taking place in Brighton, Southampton, Manchester and Glasgow. One of the delights of the ‘space’ where the exhibits are displayed is the sense that it encourages encounter and conversation. It was packed when I visited, and very easy to start up a conversation with other visitors. This is further facilitated by special events days on Researching Pornography, Uncovering Freud and Photographs as Evidence.

There are some guided tours to the exhibition but I was happy just to browse and am looking forward to a further visit, especially as the exhibition is dynamic, changing as the year progresses.

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