The Institute of Sexology exhibition ran at the Wellcome Collection in London from November 2014 to September 2015. This was the first major event of its kind in the UK investigating the history of sexology. It was also the first exhibition the Wellcome Collection held in its newly refurbished building on Euston Road, and at nearly a year long, it was the Collections’s longest exhibition to date. In her Notches review in April 2015, Heike Bauer noted that as visitors were exiting the exhibition, they were “confronted with an invitation to record their own thoughts and ideas, thus contributing to an ever-expanding archive of sexuality.” That invitation came from artist, theatre director and author Neil Bartlett in his Wellcome Collection commission “Excuse me, would you mind if I asked you a few personal questions about sex?” (often shortened to “Would you mind?”), that coincided with the last six months of the exhibition. All completed questionnaires have been catalogued and are available to researchers in the Wellcome Library: 135 archive boxes challenging them to do sexology differently.
As Bartlett said in an interview, “people love to talk about sex if you give them the chance.” As the exhibition ended in September 2015, we had about 19,280 completed surveys.Following the work by the Wellcome Collection Visitor Experience Assistants, who not only read most of the questionnaires but also packaged them neatly into acid-free archive folders, I catalogued this new archive collection.
The questionnaire Bartlett offered to the consenting visitors in week one (beginning 24 March 2015) consisted of 25 questions including “Questions about you,” “More questions about you,” “Questions about us,” “More questions about us.” The first 24 questions inquired about the respondent’s sexual experiences, fantasies and ideas about the role of sex in society and culture. Crucially, Question 25 encouraged a more active involvement in the piece, elevating anonymous “informer” to the level of artistic collaborator and amateur sexologist: “If you could ask the other people coming to this exhibition just one question of your own about sex, what would the question be?”
Each of the 25 weeks of the commission, Bartlett replaced one of the original 24 questions with a new one, suggested by the visitors and shortlisted by his Wellcome Collection assistants. The questionnaire was therefore different each week and its final version consisted entirely of the questions submitted in previous weeks by respondents, with Bartlett’s voice ultimately disappearing altogether.
The design of the questionnaire, complete with its serial number on the front page, was aimed to make it appear official, serious and “scientific.” However, its heterodoxy was revealed already on the first “statistical” page, where it was clear that Bartlett was deconstructing a classic sex survey. Participants were invited to answer some introductory questions about themselves which, following a standard one about age, continued:
- Do you currently identify as being Female/Male/Neither/Both
- Do you currently identify as Homosexual/Heterosexual/Neither/Both
- This week is your sex life making you Unhappy/Happy/Neither/Both
- Which mattered most the last time you had sex? Pleasure/Love/Neither/Both
Not only is putting “female” before “male” and “homosexual” before “heterosexual” a welcome subversion of prevalent norms, but also the presence of “neither” and “both’” at the end of each set of answers and the two arbitrary final questions render this opening chunk of gathered data idiosyncratic.
The art piece’s physical set up combined the modern use of media for communicating “science” (an LED display, running quotes selected from the completed questionnaires) with a long white table and old-school pencils, with clinical associations and providing no privacy when answering these very personal questions. Each anonymously completed survey was sealed into a plain brown envelope – a nod to discreet postal deliveries – and put into a see-through ballot box.
It is an unusual collection from the Wellcome Library archives perspective, documenting a piece of contemporary art that was very context-specific (existing both spatially and temporally as part of The Institute of Sexology). Although different from our usual archival acquisitions, it is not a first for us: in 2010 we accepted the One & Other audio archive of Antony Gormley’s famous Fourth Plinth commission. The Wellcome Collection’s involvement stemmed from our desire to capture the thoughts and feelings of the participants in relation to medical humanities and wellbeing, in the broadest sense of the term, and this rationale also holds for “Would you mind?” surveys.
Although the piece only opened in the exhibition’s fifth month, the artist had been planning it with the curators beforehand. The fact that the surveys were meant to be kept indefinitely in our archives influenced the work of four indefatigable Wellcome Collection questionnaire readers who searched the incoming questionnaires for quotes worthy of the public LED display and interesting new questions.
Although the respondents were asked to remain anonymous and it was made clear the material would ultimately be made accessible to the public (each questionnaire ended: “Your answers will in due course be archived in the Wellcome Library, where they will become available to anyone who wants to know what people are really thinking about sex, these days”), we acted on an assumption that risk of distress from publication of any sensitive information is potentially high and closed about 30 questionnaires until 1 January 2100 in accordance with the 1998 Data Protection Act (DPA). Without my archivist hat on, I wonder: how does such closure intervene into the mode of expression chosen by some participants? Wouldn’t it be fair to assume that they were, sexologically speaking, exhibitionists, deliberately revealing their identity?
As catalogued, the questionnaires are grouped into 25 series by a week/questionnaire version and ordered in an ascending questionnaire number within these. None of them have been, or will be, digitised so it is not possible to search for specific data in the collection: neither a keyword search nor a search by age, stated gender, or sexual orientation is feasible. From the beginning of the cycle, with respondents seated at a rather exposed “clinical” table and using pencils that sometimes needed to be sharpened, to its very end, when future researchers need to go through many hand-written submissions, “Would You Mind?” remains non-digital and rather old-fashioned, harkening back to sexology’s earliest history. As Bartlett explains in his artist’s statement:
This was deliberate. It was the artist’s intention that the archival afterlife of the piece should provide a provocative and idiosyncratic snapshot of the sheer diversity of all of the above at a very specific point in time – no more, and no less.
For those flocking to the Wellcome Library to read the contributions of our “incurably curious” public to the contemporary history of sexology, I recommend looking also at the collection’s road map, sketched in the reports of the reading team filed towards the end of the archive. Sarah, one of the assistants, shared her experience of working on the project in a Wellcome Collection blog post, which makes for a great companion piece to the reports. Neil Bartlett’s artist statement, in which he explains the piece’s genesis, execution and future, is also part of the collection.
We hope that the collection will prove useful and inspiring for both the general public and academic researchers. While coming from what in scientific terms constitutes the opposite of a ‘representative sample’ (unless you are doing the anthropology of the Wellcome Collection, that is), the data set can be approached as a collaborative art project; a snapshot of a certain audience’s sexual behaviours and beliefs; a source of inspiration and ideas to feed your own sexual life or your artistic practice. Can you guess what was the most popular destination for time-travel sex tourism? Come and find out!
Ania Ostrowska is a Special Collections Assistant at the Wellcome Library. Ania earned an MA in Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London. She has been a film editor for The F-Word, popular British feminist blog, since 2011, combining her love for moving pictures with promoting of independent films and filmmakers, feminist and beyond. She is also an AHRC-funded PhD student in Film at the University of Southampton and tweets in personal capacity @ostrutka
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