Beginning in 1985 with Amsterdam's Venus Temple, sex museums have become a special genre of museum display. Their subject matter is sexuality in all of its manifestations, from masturbation to group sex, erotic art, erotic objects, books and manuscripts, furniture, sex toys, and sexual subcultures. The collections of such museums span histories and cultures from ancient China, Africa, and Central America to modern Europe and North America. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were sex museums on four continents: the Ancient Chinese Sex Culture Museum in Tongli, China, and in Seoul, New York, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Canberra, Australia. Most sex museums are privately owned and operated, as many governments do not envision collections about sexuality as central to history or civic memory.
The functions of a museum are to organize and display significant historical artifacts, especially those items that might otherwise be lost or forgotten. The purpose of such display is to preserve the past, provide a sense of the foundations and precursors to current practices, and show the variety of beliefs and folkways humanity has embraced. Sex museums may also arrange their materials thematically to enable museum-goers to explore various aspects of human sexuality. To accomplish these ends, museums think carefully about the design of their displays, often making sure that the mode of display reproduces the feeling or environment of the display's topic. The designers of New York's Museum of Sex, for example, tried to produce an architectural space that would enable the museum to "re-evaluate ideas and concepts" about sex.
Sexual artifacts are not, however, the typical material for museologists. Most museums of fine art define such art as not specifically erotic. This does not mean that fine art museums do not display work that has sexual content, but rather that the work's value lies more in its accomplishment as art than in its ability to communicate erotic content. Natural history museums and historical societies do not understand specifically sexual material as their province either, which means that most collection and display of erotica is left to private individuals and foundations.
Most sex museums are legitimate, even scholarly displays of carefully collected artifacts whose cultural uses have been scrupulously documented and analyzed. Understanding the ways various cultures have treated issues of sexuality is one of the main purposes of displaying sexual artifacts. Because sexual issues are central but often regarded as private, the history of sexual practices is often much harder to trace and display than those events typically regarded as either culturally or politically important. For this reason, some sex museums often carefully consider the relations between artifacts and the way they display them, making them less objects of titillation or embarrassment than integral parts of domestic existence. The age, beauty, and value of many of the objects provide a sense of sexuality as a central and revered part of most cultures.
Many of the artifacts displayed in sex museums are considered works of fine art. Erotic paintings and etchings from ancient China and Japan mix with manuscripts of the Kama Sutra, African and Maori wood carvings, and Aztec images. Many museums house works by such masters as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Aubrey Beardsley, Otto Dix, and Jean Cocteau as well as celebrities like John Lennon. Such paintings and etchings depict a variety of subjects either exhibiting sexual behaviors and acts or rendering scenes associated with sexual behavior. Paintings of sexual positions and practices, sexual parts, fetish objects, and subjects in the act of enjoying sexual activity constitute the body of erotic art. These works are often more explicit than the more subtle eroticism of typical art museum displays.
Sculptures range from global folk art renditions of sexual symbols and Indian temple art to work by contemporary sculptors. Some carved items, such as Maori wood carvings or Indian temple sculptures, depict sexual activity, while others once served as fertility symbols or objects in sexual or religious rituals. Yet other sculptures, such as carved dildos, served as sex toys.
The museum collections include books, manuscripts, and scrolls that are sex manuals, collections of instructions and advice, and erotic stories. Along with books, museums also often display other printed material in the form of erotic postcards, photographs, magazines, advertisements, games, and comic books.
The more unusual items sex museums display, however, include sex toys, sex aids, and sex furniture. Most museums have large collections of dildos and erotic items such as clamps and restraints, erotic clothing, leather outfits, and shoes. Several museums feature erotic furniture, such as male masturbation chairs or chairs that raise women's hips for intercourse. One museum, The Shanghai Museum of Sex Culture, even displays a mask used to cover the genitals after death.
Museums also collect and screen erotic films, provide sexual biographies of celebrities, and document sexual subcultures such as 1970s disco culture or leather cultures in various cities or the history of burlesque. To do this, many museums also try to produce "experiences," displays that organize as a coordinated production multiple aspects of a single phenomenon, such as the clothing, fetishes, music, and famous figures of leather culture, or the costumes, music, and tools of strippers, or artifacts from gay male cruising culture. Many exhibits documenting such multi-faceted phenomena are multimedia, merging the museum's archival qualities with entertainment as well as a serious reconsideration of the part such subcultures have played in history as well as in the development of sexual communities.
Many sex museums are tourist attractions, located in urban areas known for their nightclubs. Amsterdam's two sex museums are both located near the city's red light district, while Hamburg's Erotic Art Museum resides in the Reeperbahn (an area known for its sexually oriented businesses) and Paris's Musée de l'Erotisme is situated in Pigalle close to the Moulin Rouge. For tourists who frequent these more sexually charged areas, sex museums are also a site for titillation, and the value of a museum lies in its ability to provide a varied and sexually stimulating experience here this is also modified by the idea of those museums located in explicit areas.
Bennett, Oliver. 2003. "The New Breed of Sex Museum Takes its Subject Seriously: Oliver Bennett Picks 10 of the Best." The Observer. London. February 9, 2003. Available from http://observer.guardian.co.uk/travel/story/0,6903,891773,00.html.