Now that most of the initial hysteria surrounding the cinema release of the hugely successful (and equally provocative) 50 Shades of Grey has calmed down, I felt it was the perfect time to give the Wellcome Collection’s Institute of Sexology exhibition a visit. Because, frankly, I will jump at any chance to have open, healthy and positive conversations about sex and a trip to this exhibition documenting (and celebrating) the study of human sexuality is the perfect excuse.
With its enormous array of artefacts and objects exploring the links between medicine, life and art through time, the Wellcome Collection describes itself as the “free destination for the incurably curious”. An interest in the workings of the human body and its health is universal, even if the details of this are culturally and historically variable. The founder of the Wellcome Collection, Sir Henry Wellcome, in his passion for exploring the diversity of these attitudes and ideas, travelled the world and collected over one million objects.
The newly reopened Medicine Man exhibition displays a variety of these often pretty bizarre items, presenting objects ranging from gnarly looking surgical equipment (hardcore hacking saws!!), talismans and amulets with supposedly healing properties to false eyeballs and artificial limbs. Definitely worth checking out for a brief and beautiful introduction to the historical development of medicine worldwide.
Next door, the Medicine Now exhibition explores the body through scientific displays, artistic interpretations and everyday life experiences – especially in relation to medical subjects including genomes and obesity. A life-size see through cross section of a human female shows the veins, the muscles and the inner organs in situ – literally givingscientific anatomical descriptions of the body that we hear about and can sort of half picture some transparency. Nearby an artist likens the shape and variety in the classic ’23 pairs’ of human chromosomes to an ‘odd sock drawer’.
But the main event, (and the one with the largest queue – be warned they often introduce timed tickets, especially on particularly busy weekends) is the Institute of Sexology, investigating human sexuality and how research into this topic has shaped thoughts towards and ideas about sexual behaviour and identity. With displays including a collection of various antique sexual aids (many made of brass, steel or rubber), Moche ceramic pots in phallic shapes, extracts from the Kama Sutra, beautiful carved ivory statues in the form of copulating couples and (maybe one of my faves) a glorious sex chart where a group of ladies recorded their ‘completely subjective’ data about all of their sexual partners, it’s definitely worth taking time to look around!
The stories of some influential individuals who contributed to the beginnings of these conversations about sex were also explored. Marie Stopes (One of my newly discovered heroines) and her story in encouraging the provision of not only explicit practical advice to women when it came to sex, but also contraception was one of my favourites – particularly the black and white photograph from the 1920s of the World’s first horse drawn birth control caravan.
Anthropologists Malinowski and Mead both got mentions (which I was obviously pretty chuffed about) in their contributions in challenging notions of universal codes of sexuality and revealing the diversity of human kind – especially when it came to sex. Their field work in Papua New Guinea and Samoa respectively enabled them to do what Anthropologists do best in ‘making the strange familiar and the familiar strange’. Perhaps western ways of thinking about, talking about, and frankly, going about sex are more peculiar and maybe even more harmful than we once thought.
I also loved the displays about my home boii Kinsey and his intense research involving interviews with over 18,000 Americans about their sexual histories. This revealed, once again, the variation in people’s sexual behaviour, in their wants and desires as well as their actual Sexual activity. This led to the publication of the famous Kinsey scale in 1948 which challenged the confines of classifying people as EITHER homosexual or heterosexual, suggesting that human sexuality was actually more like a sliding scale and that these discrete boxes failed to acknowledge the diversity and unique-nature of individual human life.
After immersing myself thoroughly in these exhibitions, I left with my mind buzzing and my assumptions well and truly challenged – just the way I like them. I had just enough time to grab a coffee and a snack at their tasty-as cafe and explore their extraordinary gift shop full of quirky, sciency things that I almost definitely do not need but weirdly really, really want before heading home.
- Price: FREEEEEEEEEEE
- Opening Times: Closed on Mondays, Otherwise mostly open 10.00-18.00, except Thursdays when they close at 22.00
- Institute of Sexology Exhibit – Open until the 20th September 2015.
- Cup of coffee: £2.20 Americano (£2.80 Vanilla Latte)
- Bring with you: A pencil and your incurably curious self.
- Address: Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.
- Website: http://wellcomecollection.org
- Blog: http://blog.wellcomecollection.org
- Twitter: @ExploreWellcome
- Sex By Numbers