Wednesday, 4 November 2015




Warning!! This blog contains museum collections of an erotic nature. Please be advised.

As David Gaimster of the British Museum once wrote: "If museums are a physical metaphor for the way in which the present sees the past, then their collections reflect the cultural and moral attitudes of successive generations of curators in both their choice of artefacts and in the strategies used to classify them." For collections deemed too scandalous for society’s delicate sensibilities, its artefacts were boxed up and locked away in dark corners of storage rooms for decades. Explanations for these decisions were often based on moral, as opposed to scholarly, principles. Here are a few of those hidden erotic collections, full of phalluses, chastity belts, and erotic art.

Gabinetto SegretoNaples National Archaeological Museum (Italy)

The term Gabinetto Segreto principally refers to the collection of erotic or sexually explicit finds from ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum, held in separate galleries in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Mars and Venus, 1st-century CE, Fresco  Source

Systematic excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum began in the early 18th century. Archaeological finds in the ancient cities, for example, included dozens of stone phalluses, phallic wind chimes, and erotic frescoes.  Many of these artefacts were relocated to the National Museum in Naples for safe storage, study, and display.

In 1816, a limited-edition French guide to the collection (with illustrations) began making its way around Victorian Europe. Early commentators were shocked by the explicit imagery and overt sexual nature of the artefacts, prompting curators to require a new taxonomic classification for the collection. As a result, those artefacts deemed too obscene and unsuitable for the general public were termed “pornography” and in 1821, they were locked away in a secret gallery.

Polyphemus and Galatea, c. 50-79 CE, Fresco  Source

In 1849 the collection was bricked-off and remained famously prohibited to women, young children, and the general public. The collection was only accessible to mature gentlemen of high moral standing. For over 150 years, the collection remained out of sight, on view only during brief liberal periods in the 1960s. The Gabinetto Segreto was finally opened to the public in 2000 and moved into a separate gallery in 2005.

Artefacts from the collection are currently on display in Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano at the Royal Ontario Museum.

SecretumBritish Museum (England)

Founded in 1865 in the aftermath of the Obscene Publications Act (1857), the British Museum’s Secretum – originally called the “Cabinet of Obscene Objects” – was essentially a repository for antique pornography.

Chastity Belt (forgery), c. 18th to 19th-century CE, Iron  ©British Museum

At the height of Victorian sexual hysteria, the Secretum was created to protect the more impressionable public – women, children, and the working class – from the moral perils of erotica. During this period, numerous items from archaeological finds were arriving from abroad, and these objects revealed the seemingly exuberant carnal habits of ancient societies. Such guilt-free sex, it was decided by curators, should be locked safely behind closed doors.

At one point, the Secretum housed an estimated 1,100 objects. It included such artefacts as George Witt’s collection of phallic antiquities; the graphic Italian Renaissance engravings known as “The Positions”; the Warren Cup which features Greek scenes of homoerotic acts; a replica medieval chastity belt; and antique condoms. Only gentlemen scholars deemed qualified to interpret such dangerous imagery could gain access to the collection.

Statue of Tara, c. 8th-century CE, Figure; gold/bronze  ©British Museum

In the 1960s, the Secretum collection was gradually redistributed to other parts of the British Museum. The Statue of Tara, one of the earliest artefacts in the collection, is now located in The Joseph E. Hotung Gallery (Room 33) is an example of this. From the 1980s onward, its remaining relics were kept in Cupboard 54 and 55 in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities.

Today, some curators at the British Museum argue that the remaining Secretum collection should be preserved as a “time capsule” of Victorian taste.

ShungaHonolulu Museum of Art (Hawaii)

Called shunga (“spring pictures”), this form of Japanese erotic art was developed during the 17th and early 18th centuries. While there are very explicit images of people in sexual acts, the work does include parody, social commentary, and how-to-manuals for newlyweds.

Flowers, Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1770, Woodblock print; ink and colour on paper  ©Honolulu Museum of Art Shunga 2012

The Honolulu Museum of Art’s extensive collection of Japanese erotic art was developed over decades by renowned Japanese art scholars James A. Michener and Richard D. Lane. But for more than 50 years, no one at the museum wanted to display or even pay attention to the shunga, due to the explicit nature of the subject matter.

The way shunga was treated in Japan no doubt also had something to do with keeping the work out of view. For a period of time, shunga fell under the same Japanese law as contemporary pornography and was illegal to reproduce, even in articles about art history. During the 1990s, however, the Japanese government decided to ease up on enforcing the laws as far as historical materials were concerned.

Caught in the Act, The Kanbun Master, c. late 1660s-early 1670s, Hanging scroll; ink and colour on paper  ©Honolulu Museum of Art Shunga 2012 

In the aftermath of these changes, the museum went back and forth for a long time trying to decide whether there would be too much negative public reaction to an exhibition on shunga. But the staff and the board finally decided to give it a try. And instead of putting out just a little shunga, the museum decided to mount three major exhibitions. Focusing on various themes, the exhibitions ran from November 2012 to March 2015.

All three exhibitions – The Arts of the Bedchamber: Japanese Shunga; Tongue in Cheek: Erotic Art in 19th-Century Japan; and Modern Love: 20th-Century Japanese Erotic Art – are currently available online.

Sources Consulted:

Berry, Paul. "Rethinking 'Shunga': The Interpretation of Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period." Archives of Asian Art 54 (2004): 7-22.
Gaimster, David. "Sex and Sensibility at the British Museum." History Today 50, no. 9 (2000).
Grant, Michael and Antonia Mulas. Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1997.
Jones, Catherine. Sex or Symbol: Erotic Images of Greece and Rome. London: Taylor & Francis, 1982.
Kendrick, Walter. The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Screech, Timon. Sex and the Floating World. London: Reaktion Books, 1999.
Thomas, Laura. "Restricted to men of 'taste and education'." Times Higher Education, 26 May 2000.

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