The Institute of Sexology

The Institute of Sexology

Katrina Russell explores the recent exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and the history of sex

‘Sexology’ entered scholarly language around the turn of the 20th century, but the study and analysis of sex has afflicted many minds for centuries. Focused on the past 150 years, ‘The Institute of Sexology’ explores and reveals the metamorphic status of sex: the privately and publicly stimulating, the utopian possibilities and the rigorous constraints and controls of ‘sexologists’.

The Wellcome Collection’s invitation to “undress your mind” alludes to the common repression of sex in social discourse today. At the beginning of the exhibition there are ancient relics of sexual worship and home décor—including an extensive array of Egyptian phallic amulets and Chinese decorative statues of copulating couples. They confront the relative veiling of the sexual act in modern western culture.

Through a series of locations, from ‘The Laboratory’ to ‘The Tent’, a surprisingly prudish chronology of the evolving study of sex is punctuated by contemporary reminders of the poignancy of the struggle for sexual freedom. Photographs from Zanele Muholi’s ‘Faces and Phases’ series query the notion of a black bisexual, transgender or lesbian aesthetic. In this wall of portraits, the empty spaces signify the people who have died from disease or hate crimes since being photographed. It’s a moving display, one that resists consigning the wider exhibition’s history of sexual oppression to the past. The final, most interactive location – ‘The Archive’ – proffers the opportunity to write your own captions for a sexual model, as well as a small library area.


A section on Marie Stopes discloses the struggle for sexual freedom in early 20th century Britain. Stopes was a forerunning advocate of women’s sexual enjoyment and use of birth control. In the letters she received after publishing her 1918 guide to family planning, ‘Married Love,’ we find requests for sexual advice alongside hate mail urging her to “Go back home” (to Scotland) with her “depraved” and “dirty” ideas. These letters are illuminating, but not to be missed is her correspondence with Japanese botanist Kenjiro Fuji- not so much for Fuji’s rather cheesy romantic intonations, but for Stopes’ intimate confessions of her “wish that people find me a little beautiful.”

Does placing something in a museum emancipate or enhance its social stifling?

Much of the show points to the excitement of sexual activity, and the possibilities it provides for social and individual happiness. One doesn’t know whether to giggle or marvel at Victorian vibrators and photographs of modern furniture equipped with dildos. Highlights include Wilhelm Reich’s ‘Orgone Accumulator,’ a small box developed in the 1930s, in which the sitter could ostensibly charge their ‘orgastic potency’—and reportedly alleviate the effects of cancer. In the 1970s, the accumulator’s orgasmic effects were especially popular with the likes of William Burroughs and Sean Connery, and parodied by the ‘orgasmatron’ of Woody Allen’s film ‘Sleeper’ (as shown in the exhibition by a screened clip from the film).

Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’, the controversial, systematic, sexual research that brought the terms ‘fetishism’ and ‘sadism’ to the popular lexicon, is displayed alongside Chinese foot-binding shoes, which sexologists saw as epitomising the foot fetish. The pioneering vigour of sexology in Germany and Austria was halted by European fascism, including the first ‘Institute of Sexology’ that was ravaged by the Nazis in 1933. This exhibition is an impressive tribute to the Institute’s work and cause.

There is something clinical about the exhibition, which is only provocative in so far as you might be provoked to research its contents further. The condoms and Playboy magazines assembled behind glass cases pose the question: does placing something in a museum emancipate or enhance its social stifling?

This multimedia array of over 200 objects demonstrates the inseparability of sex from wider cultural, psychological and scientific ideologies. The Institute forms a fruitful springboard for confronting ongoing sexual intolerance and obstructions to ‘undressing your mind’ here in London, and across the globe. Visiting and re-visiting the exhibition as it expands is highly recommended.

The exhibition can be seen in the Wellcome Collection until 20th September 2015. Free entry.

Katrina Russell