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Human nature in the raw

20 March 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees a frank exhibition

wellcome library, london

Twentieth-century developments: above: a portrait, c.1928, of Lili Elbe, a transsexual woman, one of the first known to have undergone sex-change surgery

Twentieth-century developments: above: a portrait, c.1928, of Lili Elbe, a transsexual woman, one of the first known to have undergone sex-change su...

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 century.

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 homosexual activity.

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 improprieties.

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 matters sexual. 

"The Institute of Sexology: Undress Your Mind" is at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1, until 20 September. Phone 020 7611 2222.



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