Tuesday, 4 February 2014



Hello friends! This week's Tuesday Newsday is slightly more risque than usual. It is about the things you don't usually see, our heritage that is slightly more body oriented than other material culture. If that was too vague of an explanation for you, I'm talking about smutty artifacts! Vintage Penthouse! Victorian panties! Naughty novels! (P.S. if you're offended by nudity you may not want to scroll down).

Bob Guccione's (the founder of Penthouse) Playboy and Penthouse covers collection (Source)

Now, I should probably explain why I'm talking about this. I was researching the use of folksonomies in museums and one article I read mentioned that if you looked up Annette Kellerman, Australia's "Diving Venus," you would find the Powerhouse Museum 's material on Kellerman on a blog called Silent-Porn-Star (Kellerman was arrested in 1907 for indecent exposure while wearing a bathing suit).

Wooden penny arcade peep show game by Esco (Source)

This discovery led me to think about the things that one doesn't see in the museum, after viewing several pages of the blog of course. The items which are featured on the blog are found on auction sites or in flea markets, though some are in online collections databases, like Kellerman's items. It made me wonder why don't we see items like smutty postcards or retro sex toys in regular museum collections or exhibitions.

Sex Museum (Source)

This led me to a bit more searching and I found the British Museum Secretum and the secret cabinet of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Both of these areas of the museums feature objects and imagery that was deemed too explicit for the public. The Museum of Naples initially exhibited the objects until the future King of the Two Sicilies, Francis I, told them off. Now the majority of objects are on display in both museums. There is also a Sex Museum in Amsterdam which features; "A rich and interesting collection of the objects about the human sexuality: art as well as photographs, china, figures, plates, arms and many other items."

I also just learned that under the Mark S. Bonhom Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies there is a Sexual Representation Collection. However, you need special permission to view the collection as it is for research only. And understandably so.

Items from the Gabinetto Segreto (Source)

The thing is, we all have sex (well most of us do) and there are a whole lot of accessories that can go with it.  Therefore, it is a part of our history as much as anything else. I don't think that "sordid," "lurid," or "smut" is covered under what we might call "difficult knowledge" (however, I still don't know what that means). So how does a museum handle less than savory items? Not accession them at all? Refuse them when donors try to thrust their naughty paraphernalia on curators? What are your thoughts? How should museums deal with this type of material culture?

Unpublished photograph of Madonna by Herman Kulkens in the collection of Bob Guccione (Source)

 This also leads to the question of whether or not all images of naked bodies are sexually explicit. Often they are not and we title them art. So where do we draw the line between art and pornography? Are vintage Playboy covers art? If they aren't then how should we handle them?

Photograph of nude sailor (Source)

Also what would the purpose be of such a non-art collection? Shock value? Pure entertainment? I, personally, am thinking that there could be some very educational and artistic sexual education traveling exhibits. Coming soon to your neighborhood middle school.

Virgins for the Cardinal, a book in the Monk's Secret Library Series by Star Distributors (Source)


  1. Well, is this heritage really not about material culture? :) This is fascinating as I find that the body becomes here, in certain images, both an object to be observed (and other things) and which observes and objectifies. Having an archive (or a cabinet) of this "material" heritage is essential in order to comprehend the history of gender relations and representation. Thank you for your brave post!

  2. I really like your point about how sex and sexual objects are very much a part of our history, just as anything else is! Thank-you for finding those international museum collections that either house or display such items. It is encouraging to see museums portray various aspects of human history, even the slightly more scandalous subjects. Well done Alex!

  3. Love the post! As one with experience studying Greek art, I am no stranger to the wonders of the body portrayed in art! Who doesn't love a wonderfully chiseled (pun intended) monumental nude sculpture of a Greek god? I wonder why it seems to be so much more acceptable to study and interpret gender and sexuality in a more historical context? Artworks depicting nudity have always been controversial from ancient times to the present, but what exactly is it about certain portrayals of sexuality, particularly in this day and age, that make them "smutty" as opposed to "high art"? Sadly I do not have an answer but definitely food for thought!

  4. I was really intrigued by your question of sexuality being “difficult knowledge.” No question sex is perceived as taboo a lot of the time, but you’re absolutely right in that it is something we all (or most of us) engage in. This topic reminded me of an exhibit which is currently under some criticism, “The Science of Sexuality” at the Children’s Museum in Kitchener/Waterloo. It hasn’t even opened yet, but many people are questioning the exhibit, especially in a children’s museum. So while, in this post we’re looking at sex as art or, as Irina put it “something to be observed,” but what about the science of it? Is it inappropriate to have these things on display for children? (though I believe the exhibit is limited to kids 12 years of age and up) It is no doubt an interesting subject!!


  5. There are a lot of museums of erotica and of sex throughout the world. Some of the most famous are in Paris, New York City, and the Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago. UCLA students made a brief list of some of these collections on an LGBT library and archive website: http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/liboutreach/libraries.html. However, this list is by no means comprehensive. A simple search in Wikipedia shows that the vast numbers of these collections.

    The Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at UofT gives tours of the Sexual Representation Collection by appointment. To schedule a tour, contact Nike Matte, the collection's curator: nicholas.matte@utoronto.ca. Several of our students work as work-study employees and volunteers at the archive, and I think Matt Brower has worked with the Centre and our students to exhibit the collection in past years.

    For more about the relationship between museums, libraries, archives and the invention of pornography, see Walter Kendrick's The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (University of California Press, 1997). See also Lynne Hunt's The Invention of Pornography, 1500-1800: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity (Zone Books, 1996).

    1. Thank you for the information, I feel quite embarrassed I didn't realize these existed.

      I appreciate your time in bringing these collections forward. It would be interesting if there were classes or a class devoted to these types of collections in one of the required courses. The collaborative program Sexual Diversity Studies appears to be a great way to explore this.

      In writing this post my interest and curiosity in the topic has been sparked and I look forward to learning more about it.

  6. Thanks for the further information Patrick!

  7. Nicholas Matte7 March 2014 at 22:16

    You should definitely come and check out the SRC sometime, and be sure to catch our upcoming exhibit "Archiving Public Sex" at the University of Toronto Art Centre April 29-June 28!