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The Institute of Sexology opens at the Wellcome Collection. Jessie Brinton asks Dr. Ken Arnold the million dollar question…


This is it - just what we’ve been waiting for. Possibly the greatest subject of human curiosity of all time - presented in all its glory as a new exhibition. We’re talking ‘The Institute of Sexology’ at Wellcome Collection.

This free exhibition explores the most publicly discussed of private acts, the first of its kind in the UK to bring together the pioneers of the study of sex. From Alfred Kinsey’s complex coded questionnaires to Samoan jewellery to sex machines, the show investigates how the diverse research, methods and collections of sexologists have shaped our ever-evolving attitudes towards sexual behaviour and identity.

I caught up with Dr. Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, Wellcome Collection for a quick chat on the show that could undress our mind and expose us to lordy knows what.

Back view of standing figure, nude except for stockings, Anonymous photograph from the Kinsey Institute Documentary Collection (c) The Kinsey Institute

Jessie: Hello Ken. You’re doing a massive show about sexology, the study of sexuality. Why did right now seem like a good time for it?
Dr Ken:
Arguably, it’s always the right time to do a show about sex, but maybe now is especially significant. One of the triggers for us was knowing that the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) were releasing the findings of their most recent research this year. We thought this would be a great moment to encourage and join the national conversation about their results, and to look back at how attitudes and lifestyles have shifted across history, and especially to find out about who had done research into this area in the past.

Jessie: Lots of British people still find sex an awkward subject to talk about openly. What comfort level have you gone for, and how did you decide on it?
Dr Ken:
We are eager not to embarrass or indeed shock people, but we also wanted to share, in a straightforward way, the fascinating and often otherwise ‘private’ aspects of this topic. The show is very much about the scientific study of this universal aspect of the human condition. Inevitably there will therefore be some material in the exhibition and accompanying publications that might not be to everyone’s taste, but we hope people who don’t think it is for them will have the sense to avoid it. There will be more and more alternative public programming for visitors to peruse as Wellcome Collection continues to open more spaces over the coming months.

I often like to go outside my comfort zone in these situations …

Our ‘what it says on the tin’ approach to the title and the fact that we are a medical/scientific organisation will, we hope, make people realise that there is likely to be ‘adult’ content in the show. As a venue, we welcome anyone who wants to visit us, but are explicitly aimed at the 14+ age group. We have been very careful with how we present the material, avoiding salaciousness, without being too dour about an endlessly fascinating subject. Nonetheless, we have also been careful to place a warning at the entrance to the gallery.

Masked man in pink tutu, from collection of Richard von Krafft Ebing (1840-1902) (c) Wellcome Library, London

Jessie: Why do you think it’s important to study sex?
Dr. Ken:
Arguably, it is the most fascinating, and yet most mysterious aspect of being human and as such, perhaps the most important area to study. Certainly, its consequences in terms of recent epidemics of sexually transmitted disease, as well as the ever contentious topics of sexual politics, and the tricky morals and ethical questions associated with sexual behaviour, mean it is never out of the news and media. The adage of being wary of the dangers of ignorance about sex is still important to bear in mind. Thinking about and understanding sex can also provide great insights into other areas of human activity– not least art and culture.

Jessie: What’s your favourite part of the exhibition?
Dr. Ken:
For me, it’s the range of material and approaches to the topic. Erotica gathered in the Victorian and Edwardian era by Henry Wellcome, alongside frank letters about ‘married love’ sent to Marie Stopes, clips from Woody Allen’s Sleeper playing with Wilhelm Reich’s invention of an ‘orgasmatron’ make it clear how constant and ubiquitous this aspect of humanity is, and how varied the scientific approach to understanding it has been.

'Les charmes de la masturbation' Page from 'Invocation a l'amour, chant philosophique' (by 'A virtuoso of the good fashion') London, 1825 (c) Wellcome Library, London

Jessie: Which historical figure, featured in the exhibition, has in your opinion left the more important legacy?
Dr. Ken:
Freud. Though the legacy of his research has had a bumpy ride over the last century, I don’t think anyone else who set about scientifically investigating sexuality has had as significant an impact on how we think about our sex lives, or indeed our whole sense of ourselves.

Jessie: During the course of putting the exhibition together, did anything properly shock or embarrass you?
Dr. Ken:
The extensive archive of anatomical photographs of male and female genitalia from the Kinsey archive are rather remarkable, in part for their sheer volume, and almost for their desexualised presence.

Sex Machines, by Timothy Archibald 'Dan and Jan Siechert, The Monkey Rocker, Bakersfield, California' (c) Photography by Timothy Archibald

Jessie: I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but there seems to be a lot more “sex talk” in public life now than there was. Do you think our attitudes to sex are changing?
Dr. Ken:
Undoubtedly. The NATSAL reports now offer us a detailed 30 year-long monitor of how those attitudes and behaviours are shifting. I think in the UK we saw something of a loss of innocence with the onset of the AIDS epidemic and the associated public panic. On the other hand, as a society, we seem to be becoming more and more comfortable sharing our emotional and passionate lives with friends and many more. Travelling even to the U.S. I found a very different attitude to sex. So it’s complicated, always changing, and it always will be I suspect. Will we next rediscover the value of privacy and secrecy I wonder?

Neil Bartlett, Pedagogue (Video still) Courtesy Neil Bartlett and Lux, London

Jessie: OK, million dollar question. From all of your reading of the work of the great sexologists, how important is outward “hotness” in relation to good sex?
Dr. Ken:
‘Hotness’ is very much in the eye of the beholder isn’t it? It will always be vital and contested in equal measure.

Jessie: That’s a very diplomatic answer. What are you hoping will be the net effect of the exhibition?
Dr. Ken:
We want the exhibition to provide visitors with a broad range of ideas and information about a topic that they will, in all likelihood, have already spent a considerable amount of time thinking about. We want them to relate what they discover in our show to their own experiences, assumptions and ideas, and maybe for some, expose them to topics they’ve not considered in this context before. It is also very much an exhibition about a fascinating lineage of scientific researchers, ones who have often been left out of the history of science books. They’ve all added greatly to what we know about sex, whilst often having to work secretly against a background of fear. We’d also like visitors to find out more about their efforts and maybe have a greater appreciation of them.

Jessie: Do you think British people will ever learn to express themselves freely?
Dr. Ken:
I’m not sure the idea of Britain as a nation of suppressed people unable to express themselves freely still holds true. There seems to be no shortage of freely available ‘expressing’ going on almost everywhere, and about almost every imaginable topic. It’s also the case that Britain is more and more diverse, ethnically, by age, culturally, in religion and region and so on, and so there might well be increasingly different views and ideas expressed. A more interesting question might be whether the British people can become comfortable with the fact that freely expressed ideas will frequently not coincide. Can we become more comfortable agreeing not to agree?

Jessie: Would you hazard a guess at how our approach to sex might change in the next 20 years?
Dr. Ken:
I’ve no idea what our approach to sex will be a quarter of the way through the 21st century. We are bound still to be grappling with the repercussions of our current and future technological developments. The gradual renegotiation of human kind’s relations with nature, and with the world of machines, might play a big part.

Jessie: If you were to state one conclusion about sex from all your research into sexology, what would it be?
Dr. Ken:
We will carry on finding out more and more and yet, still always find sex fascinatingly mysterious.

Jessie: And if you had one wish, what would it be?
Dr. Ken:
Broad mindedness.

The Institute of Sexology
Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road
London NW1 2BE

20 November 2014 - 20 September 2015
Daily: 10:00-18:00, except Thursdays - close at 20:00


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