Jen Grove

I love this exhibition. It helps to challenge our perceptions of what is “right” and “wrong” about sex. It opens up a dialogue that helps us to question the “status quo”.

This comment was written by a visitor to Intimate Worlds: Exploring Sexuality through the Wellcome Collection, an exhibition held in 2014, co-curated by my colleagues, Professors Kate Fisher and Rebecca Langlands, and myself at the University of Exeter and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), Exeter (UK). This was the first dedicated display of Sir Henry Wellcome’s collection of erotic and sexually-related artefacts. These were collected in the early twentieth century as part of the pharmacist and philanthropist’s enormous medical history collection.

L0043873 Male anti-masturbation devices
Anti-masturbation device, c. 1880-1920 (Wellcome Library, London, Wellcome Images, L0043873)

The exhibition, as a review by Stuart Frost of the British Museum recognised, was designed to ‘open up discussion and debate, encouraging all visitors to question where their attitudes on sex and sexuality come from and to examine their own beliefs and values’. It formed part of our work at Exeter investigating the ways in which people and cultures throughout history have thought about their own sexual attitudes, identities and practices through comparison with those from the past. I am particularly interested in how historical visual and material culture, often viewed as immediate and accessible snapshots onto past attitudes, has provoked rich reflection for many modern audiences on how contemporary society compares.

Our public engagement project, “Sex & History, harnesses these research findings to explore how artefacts from across past cultures can be relevant tools for contemporary audiences to explore cultural attitudes to sex in the twenty-first century. This builds upon established object-based learning methods from museum studies which also champion the use of historical objects as a captivating medium through which to provoke discussion of contemporary issues. We bring this together with the latest in sex education and sexual health practice and research into the importance of finding creative and innovative ways for young people to think critically about sexuality and gender today. We have developed teaching resources for school-based sex education, based on material from the Intimate Worlds 2014 exhibition. But to assess how the exhibition itself engendered productive reflection about sex among its visitors, I am currently analysing the 179 visitor comment cards which were added to a wall in the gallery space.

What is immediately striking about the cards is the overwhelmingly enthusiastic and wide-ranging discussions about sex. Visitors wanted to talk, not just about the history of sex, but also about how our society today views sex and sexuality. But can we pick apart exactly if and how the historical objects on display engendered this moment of reflection for visitors?

So wonderful to see an exhibition publically [sic] informing and raising questions and inviting new perspectives. It somehow gives permission when we see that sexuality can be celebrated rather than shamed as it is in our culture. — Anonymous Visitor, Intimate Worlds exhibition.

The comments suggest that many visitors were encouraged by seeing an exhibition that was, as one put it, ‘raising questions and inviting new perspectives’, rather than only providing conclusive statements about the material on display. We wanted an exhibition which was as much about visitors’ reactions to the objects as it was about fixed, academic interpretations.The text panels posed questions to visitors, such as who controls sex or how we learn about sex.The value of this approach in getting people thinking for themselves in new ways is demonstrated in the fact that many visitors were inspired to leave their own new questions on the comment cards (see below).

Twenty of the commenters were enthused by seeing the subject of sex dealt with in an “open” fashion within a museum setting, especially within a medium-sized museum in a small, regional city. In the UK, even museums in major urban centres have, until recently, struggled with displaying sex and sexuality.

What a brilliant exhibition! So open, and it makes it feel possible to discuss these things openly. Love the way it was laid out, too. Really informative. Empowering to see something approach the subject of sex so openly. — Anonymous Visitor, Intimate Worlds exhibition.

We deliberately avoided drawing attention to more sensational possible interpretations or presentations of the sexually-themed objects. This was directly informed by our historical research into Wellcome’s own approach, described in a panel entitled ‘Taking Sex Seriously’. This told the story of the way in which historical erotica was systematically and deliberately collected and engaged with in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Wellcome and others, including the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. However, no comment cards directly referenced this panel, therefore we can only speculate as to whether visitors engaged with this history of collecting that we presented. It may be that visitors’ comments such as that above were inspired primarily by seeing sexually explicit material of any kind on public display within the museum.

In other areas of the exhibition, however, it is clearer that a comparison between past and present did facilitate reflection on the broader question of how societies deal with sex. As we acknowledged in the exhibition, the make-up of the Wellcome collection is limited to one wealthy, Anglo-American white man’s collecting interests during the time of British colonial rule. Despite this we did attempt to select material which, as the exhibition publicity advertised, presented ‘the varieties and complexities of the way that sex has been understood and represented in different cultures across global history’. The thirty-five objects selected from Wellcome’s substantial sexually-themed archaeological, ethnographical and artistic collection, included objects from ancient Rome, ninth-century CE Peru, and nineteenth-century China and Africa. Six comment cards show visitors feeling empowered by the realisation — or confirmation — that sex has been a subject of interest and debate for many millennia and felt this legitimised a more liberal approach to sex today. One visitor commented: ‘why [do] we criticise sex so much when all we need to do is to look back and discover that people have been having a lot of fun for centuries’. Another visitor drew comparisons across cultures (rather than time) to make a similar point: ‘[The exhibition] somehow gives permission when we see that sexuality can be celebrated rather than shamed as it is in our culture.’

The concept of “shame” or repression is found repeatedly in comments comparing modern, Western attitudes to those of past cultures. For instance, one card reads: ‘This is a great look at how sex and fertility were once viewed as “gifts” and not something to be hushed up/ashamed of (I blame the Victorians).’ Four other commenters also pointed specifically to the legacy of “Victorian” values in order to explain perceived contemporary restrictive sexual attitudes, particularly in Britain today. Two comments of this nature refer to a specific object on display: a metal device made in the UK in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and thought to be fitted to the penis of young men to prevent masturbation.

One of our aims in this exhibition was to challenge the popularly held concept of a strict division between the repressive modern day West and the liberated “other” of the past. For instance, we pointed out that, although objects like the anti-masturbation device which evidence modern, Western societal and religious control of sex did exist, they themselves were collected as part of a sustained fascination with and study of human sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Again, no visitors acknowledged this alternative narrative told through the history of the objects’ collection in their comments. As museum studies scholarship has shown, visitors often engage with only certain aspects of an exhibition, and/or come with preconceptions that we aren’t able to change through displays. I am left wondering how much this matters, if the aim is to engender meaningful reflection on our attitudes to sex and sexuality today.

While many commenters referred to a non-specific more liberal past which could act as a challenge to today’s attitudes, others pointed to examples of specific historical differences highlighted by the objects on display. Six cards refer to artefacts which demonstrated the very open display of sexual imagery in the ancient Roman Empire, for instance, an enormous, highly detailed marble phallus from Pompeii that would have been placed above the door of a house or shop.

Carved male genitalia, possibly a shop sign, from Pompeii. 1-79 CE. Stone. (Science Museum, London)

The comment cards suggest that this ancient approach was viewed favourably when compared with our apparently more controlled approach to displaying sex today. One comment simply reads ‘Good on the Romans!’ Another wondered: ‘…if we tolerated homosexuality back in the Greek times, why is it so frowned upon these days?’. One of the objects on display was a Greek vase which showed a scene of two men having sex. In the exhibition text we addressed the ancient Greek valorisation of relationships between older and younger men and highlighted the scholarly distinction made between ancient “pederasty” and the modern concept of “homosexuality”. This was meant to offer a challenge to the idea of an unrestricted sexual past, and show that historical cultures had their own socially-imposed structures and restrictions when it came to sex. However no visitor who commented on same-sex relationships engaged with this discussion. This underscores the question of the extent to which museum visitors may selectively engage with panel texts on the theoretical aspects of the history of sexuality – here the inconsistencies between modern and ancient sexual categories – to think through modern attitudes.

Finally, it is important to note that the comment facility itself appears to have acted as an important mechanism for the visitor to engage in critical reflection about sex. One visitor said: ‘I enjoyed the visitors’ comments as much as any other exhibit.’

Thought-provoking, interesting and wide-ranging. I enjoyed the visitors’ comments as much as any other exhibit. Very candid. About time. — Anonymous Visitor, Intimate worlds exhibition.

This exhibit’s participatory nature clearly created its own dialogue around the material: visitors debated topics amongst themselves, adding comments to each other’s cards, or answering new questions posed by other visitors. For example, one visitor asked: ‘Why do we always seem to concentrate on the sex and not the love?’  Another visitor left an answer on their card: ‘[Because] love is much harder to describe’. The comment wall appears to have provided its own very important stimulus for critical reflection.

There is so much more to be said from the analysis of these cards than was possible here. They provide a snapshot of attitudes to sex and sexuality by visitors to a museum in the South West of England in 2014. Furthermore, they suggest that historical objects and their interpretation can provide a significant impetus for critical reflection on contemporary sexual concerns within a museum context. But they also signal the many factors which may be at play. These include: the impact of witnessing the open display of any sexually-themed material within a museum space; the opportunity for comparing and contrasting objects from different past cultures; visitors’ prior interests and knowledge about the history of sexuality; how far visitors engage with the history of collecting presented; the benefit of a questioning approach as a way of contextualising sexually-themed material; and the opportunity to debate the subject of sex in a public space.

This exhibition was just part of the extraordinary explosion of museum projects relating to sex, sexuality, gender, and identity in the UK and worldwide in the last few years. New approaches to the display of sex have been particularly informed by the work of activists and educationalists, especially in addressing the gap in telling LGBT+ histories in museums. This work is highlighting the role of museums in increasing awareness of diversity and in developing new societal understandings of sex and gender. Our work at Exeter, together with a number of UK initiatives, continues to explore the way in which the public history of sexuality can facilitate much needed public critical reflection on these topics and can contribute to greater sexual health and wellbeing within society today.

Jen Grove is an Engaged Research Fellow in the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter. She is currently employed on a Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Rethinking Sexology: The Cross-Disciplinary Invention of Sexuality: Sexual Science Beyond the Medical, 1890-1940’. She has published several book chapters on the modern collection and reception of ancient sexually-related artefacts. She is the editor of a forthcoming book Sculpture, Sexuality and History: Encounters in Literature, Culture and the Arts from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Palgrave, 2018, with Jana Funke). Since 2009, Jen has been part of Sex and History project, which collaborates with museums, schools, charities and young people throughout the UK, using artefacts to get people talking about sex and gender today. She tweets from @jenniferegrove

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  1. Hi Jen,
    WHilst I feel I’m not qualified to comment on the exhibition in general, the anti Masturbation device perhaps deserves a little more from my perspective (as a queer Dom / sadist). There have been a few texts in recent years about how devices sold as ‘medical’ devices could also be seen as sex toys (there’s a light gloss on the topic here and a more heavyweight approach here'Hysteria'_the_Vibrator_and_Women's_Sexual_Satisfaction)
    So whilst some people will see an anti masturbation device it can’t be excluded (without first hand textual evidence) that the manufacturers knew that what they were designing and selling was a device ideally designed for what we’d now refer to as CBT – such devices are a commonplace now, in both hetero, and same sex BDSM where a sub male is involved.

  2. Wonderful and very interesting post! Thank you!

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