THE women's close-harmony group Fascinating Aїda have a
well-rehearsed and constantly revised cabaret song that is called:
"It's Taboo!" The song trespasses on the unspoken, and the
unspeakable, to an audience's clear, embarrassed delight. I imagine
that I was not the only visitor to this year-long exhibition to be
found humming those jaunty lyrics, since in part the Wellcome wants
to say that there are no taboos.
The Wellcome Trust is a world-wide charity dedicated to
achieving improvement in both animal and human welfare. Part of
that commitment has been to provide exhibition galleries, a
library, a bookshop, and a run of public events next to its HQ on
Euston Road in London.
The current exhibition is the first to be staged in the
refurbished first-floor space that is the first part of a
£17.5-million redevelopment by the architectural practice Wilkinson
Eyre. It is unfair to judge the overall vision on the basis of the
staging of this in a cramped single hall, as there is much more
development to follow; but the whole space still reeks of solid
institutional building and the didactic world of the mid-20th
Part of the problem is that an exhibition with this sort of
heading, much like Alex Comfort's notorious publishing success in
1972 with The Joy of Sex, is bound to draw the crowds.
When I visited on a weekday afternoon, more than half the visitors
were students or of student age, while the rest were the "incurably
curious", the audience that the Wellcome has in mind.
The exhibition title consciously recalls that of the Institut
für Sexualwissenschaft established by Magnus Hirschfeld
(1868-1935), a Polish anthropologist and sexologist, in Berlin. His
pioneering library of resources was established in the tolerant
years of the Weimar Republic, the world of Cabaret, so
vividly conjured up also by Philip Hensher in his latest brilliant
novel, The Emperor Waltz.
Dr Hirschfeld had travelled extensively to collect material for
an ethnological section of his library, in order to make
cross-cultural comparisons to indicate the rich diversity of sexual
practices and customs; in one early photograph from his travels
across Asia, he stands between two phallic cult stones in Java. He
intended that his library would offer evidence to end the unfair
treatment of sexual minorities. He was one of the founders of the
Scientific Humanitarian Committee that sought to decriminalise
Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin lived in the Institute for a
time, and W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood visited the library
(and the latter wrote about it in Christopher and his
Kind). Sergei Eisenstein, André Gide, and René Crevel were
among other international visitors.
Less welcome were the students on the Deutsche Studentenschaft
parade on 6 May 1933, who marched by in close formation and
returned later to ransack the library. Four days later, they
photographed themselves as they torched its collection. Hirschfeld,
a gay Jewish man who had already fled into exile in Paris, saw film
of the conflagration. He recalled later that it was as if he
witnessed his own funeral; that followed within two years.
The first of the galleries recreates some of Hirschfeld's
collection from Henry Wellcome's own collections, and then further
explores the research of Henry Havelock Ellis, and leads on to
Alfred Kinsey, who was suspended from teaching at Indiana
University in 1941, because he had undertaken to educate the
sexually naïve prairie boys and girls on campus.
His "marriage courses" were immensely popular with students, but
not with the conservative governors of the Bloomington college.
Thereafter, he concentrated on interviewing States-wide for his
ground-breaking book Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male
(1948). When he lectured at the University of California, in
Berkeley, the following February, 9000 students attended.
The galleries take the story into the contemporary world, and
the catalogue offers the findings of Shereen El Feki, a British
Egyptian health worker, who has taken up the Prophet's
encouragement of widespread permissible activity to highlight the
widespread popularity of the tenth/11th-century Baghdad text, the
Encyclopaedia of Pleasure, by way of contrast with today's
restrictive Muslim tradition. On a recent walk along Commercial
Road in east London, I found any number of flyers and posters
calling for the introduction of sharia laws to make the UK a
society of prohibition.
I was impressed that all the museum staff on hand could explain
what the purpose of individual displays was, and explain the more
esoteric, or perhaps simply exotic, objects. Nineteenth-century
solutions and prescriptions can be pretty baffling; the material
from earlier cultures and civilisations even more so. It occurred
to me that they could also monitor reactions and report
Many of the exhibits are akin to those that can be seen from
Pompeii in the Gabinetto Segreto of the Archaeological Museum in
Naples; the British Museum, too, has "secret rooms"; and the
University Library in Cambridge has a stack for pornographic
literature. All of them are presented scientifically.
The exhibition silently passes judgement on a Church that never
felt it necessary to oppose the 1988 introduction of Clause 28, a
government measure to outlaw "the promotion of homosexuality". No
persecutions were ever brought under the measure, although books
were removed from school-library shelves. Despite recent changes in
the law sanctioning marriage and civil partnerships, many
homosexual people still face violence and prejudice daily.
Worse still, how many died from ignorance? In September 1989, it
was reported that Margaret Thatcher had personally intervened to
ban a proposed medical survey of a random sample of 20,000 adults
to try to identify the spread of AIDS and other sexually
transmitted diseases. Where was the Church then as a voice for
truth and knowledge?
While this ambitious exhibition is not for the faint-hearted nor
the weaker-spirited, neither it nor the catalogue is in any way
titillating. It should be compulsory viewing for all bishops and
General Synod members before they next start pontificating on
"The Institute of Sexology: Undress Your Mind" is at the
Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1, until 20
September. Phone 020 7611 2222.