Guest writer Jessie Rodgers reviews the Institute of Sexology

The appeal of ‘The Institute of Sexology’ comes from its willingness to ask interesting questions in relation to how institutions perceive themselves. From the name of the show, to its marketing and curatorial layout, it attempts to turn the exhibition space into a different form of institution and therefore change how we view the space. With this in mind, it leads us through sections entitled ‘Library’, ‘Consulting Room’, ‘Tent’ and ‘Classroom’. It is an institution impersonating another form of institution.

The Wellcome Collection was set up by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1932 to house his collection relating to health and medicine through the ages. This exhibition on the scientific study of sex relates directly to the Collection itself and the museum’s unique relationship with medicine and art. ‘The Institute of Sexology’ exhibits the collections of many sexologists and anthropologists, avoiding a contemporary art interpretation of sex in society instead focusing on the archival history of the study of sex.

Because of this historical element to the exhibition it is of no surprise that initially the display houses artefacts collected by sexologists from Asia in particular. Objects like a 19th Century gouache painting of a camel composed of copulating humans from India are numerous and give the exhibition an overwhelming impression of the sexual ‘other’, a popular Victorian idea. In the infamous age of supposed sexual frigidity it might have been easier to study the sexual habits of Samoan tribes than your own society, however in such an exhibition it created an overwhelming feeling of sexual Orientalism and it was a relief to move on to the lesser-exhibited 20th century practices of figures such as Kinsey and Stopes.


By dividing the show into the sections: ‘Library’, ‘Classroom’ and ‘Laboratory’ it attempts to map out the chronological path sexology has undertaken since the 19th Century. While such a historical theme is mapped out clearly it seems rather arbitrary in comparison to the larger universal themes surrounding the study of sex such as sexual identity and freedom. Although objects and artefacts are laid out logically in order to ensure a navigable exhibition, I feel, by doing so, it risks losing connection to larger critical themes.

The ‘Institute’ works hard at reminding us that this is an exhibition of the study of sex. Therefore, the objects are exhibited in a traditional anthropological way: in glass display boxes, with corresponding numbers and dense paragraphs of information. Your journey is heavily directed around rows of display cabinets in one large circular motion. And with the heady lighting, thick curtains and carpets you get the feeling that sex, even the medical or anthropological study of it, is still something that’s slightly shameful and needs to be kept away from the light of day.

As the exhibition’s publication notes, this is an exploration of the journey society has undertaken in order to find ‘a language with which to talk about sex.’ However, I ended the show unsure as to whether curatorially they had found such a language. Initially it uses an objective, scientific ‘language’ with display boxes showing Victorian masturbatory aides,  however the ‘language’ of the exhibition develops into a dialect of interpretation and satirisation with works such as ‘Pedagogue’ by Neil Bartlett and Stuart Marshall from 1988, that ridicules Clause 28 which outlawed the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in education.

If you were to read this show like an essay, you would find it a clear and well presented piece, with a powerful and moving introduction and a coherent body of text that raises the reader’s expectation for a considered conclusion. Therefore you can imagine my surprise when I walked past ‘The Home’ section relating to AIDS in the UK in the 1980s only to find that the exhibition ended there, with no comment on sexology in the 21st century.


If ‘The Institute of Sexology’ teaches us anything, it is that since pioneering sexology in the 19th century, (despite advancements in sexual freedom and identity) issues relating to sex and human freedom are of an equal weight today as they were when Magnus Hirschfield embarked on the first ‘Institute’. The exhibition’s publication reminds the reader that in almost eighty countries in the world it is still illegal to be gay, bisexual or transgender. However there is no attempt to comment on these issues in the exhibition itself. The show seems to place a full stop on sex after the 1980s, as if sexual freedom, regulation and science reached a dead end with AIDS and everything since then has been of little note. The advancement of awareness of sexual identity in particular since the 80s is considerable and is of great relevance to a visitor to the Wellcome Collection.

Neil Bartlett,
Courtesy Neil Bartlett and Lux, London

‘The Institute of Sexology’ is the first of the recently revamped Wellcome Collection’s longer exhibitions and such a show is no doubt a popular one; as the old adage goes: ‘sex sells’. Society has proven that our appetite for sex and the study of it still remains insatiable. Recent television shows such as Channel 4’s ‘The Paedophile Next Door’ illustrate that society’s ability to understand sexual or psychosexual conditions is still, to an extent, limited and demands further study. Paedophilia, in particular, is a disorder that has gained increasing prominence in society in the past twenty years, yet the study of it as a sexual condition is given no exhibition space in this show.

Furthermore, as of November of last year, civil partnerships between same-sex couples have been allowed to convert to marriages in the UK, changing the way many homosexual or lesbian couples identify themselves on a personal and legal level. This is the context that ‘The Institute of Sexology’ finds itself in, and it is a reason why people will attend the exhibition; we are curious as to the way our attitudes towards sex have evolved and are still evolving. Therefore, despite being an impressive retrospective of the history of sexology, ‘The Institute of Sexology’ is flawed in its lack of contextualisation in the 21st Century.

You can follow Jessie on Twitter at @Jessie_ARodgers

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