London: A Quickie (teehee) Review of The Wellcome Collection’s Institute of Sexology

Apologies for the rather juvenile post title, but I do often have the sense of humour of a twelve year old…

At any rate, the Wellcome Collection has been in the middle of a revamp for what seems like years now, but they’ve gotten to a point where some of the galleries are starting to reopen (though the downstairs remains closed and the temporary exhibits have been moved to an upstairs gallery).   They had an exhibit called An Idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition that closed last month, which I visited but never bothered to blog.  Now however, with this whole lack of a car thing, I must confess that I’m running out of things around London to post about, so even though I don’t have a whole lot to say about the Wellcome’s latest special exhibition, you’re getting a write-up anyway!

So, The Institute of Sexology (subtitled Undress Your Mind) is the latest exhibit to fill that upstairs space, and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on how much you like looking at pictures of genitalia) no photography is allowed (which as always means I struggled to remember exactly what’s there when writing this up without the pictures to remind me, so please excuse any vagueness).  I popped in on a Friday afternoon – like everything at the Wellcome, the Institute is free although they advise that a ticketing system might be in operation at peak times.  It was fairly crowded even on a weekday, though mostly with what looked like university students; I’ve been to the Wellcome before on weekends, and can attest that things get insanely crowded, so I’d definitely recommend getting there as early as possible if you have to go on a weekend, as the upstairs gallery doesn’t have anywhere near as much space as the downstairs one did.

In keeping with the subject matter, the lighting was kept fairly low and sexy, and due to the relatively small size of the gallery, most of the material was to either side of the narrow halls, with not much room to navigate the few things that were in the middle of the larger rooms.  For the first section of the exhibit, I was convinced that I was going in the wrong direction, as the numbering on the objects started somewhere in the 40s and worked its way down, but as I progressed through and the timeline was moving in the correct direction, it became clear that it was just the numbering that was backwards (confusing).  The exhibit talked about the work of famous sexologists like Alfred Kinsey, Sigmund Freud, and Marie Stopes, as well as some random Victorians I hadn’t really heard of (it even included part of their collections of unusual erotica, some of which really needed some further information to explain what exactly was going on in those photographs, which unfortunately wasn’t provided).

There was a rather loud video playing wherein some American students discussed their sexuality, which I found quite distracting, as I could hear it throughout the entire exhibit when I was trying to concentrate on other things (maybe it’s just to do with me being American, since I don’t come across that many other Americans here so their voices really stand out to me (plus they usually talk way too loudly), but I think the volume of the video was really much too high).  Perhaps because of that, or because of all the other people in there, I wasn’t able to give most of the captions in the exhibit more than a quick glance.  It’s a shame, as there were many interesting looking objects, including erotically themed jewellery and toys, various charts detailing different types of sexual encounters, and the aforementioned perplexing erotica.

I’m not at all one to be offended by this sort of thing anyway, but it did seem to be tastefully done nonetheless…although there were some fairly explicit images, it was more just straightforward photographs of genitals and illustrations from the Joy of Sex featuring that beardy ’70s dude rather than anything really hardcore.  There were some differing types of sexuality explored, like homosexuality, but it didn’t seem to get much into sexual deviance overall, focusing mainly on heterosexuality, and more just the way sex generally was viewed by society over the last century and a half. Despite these gaps, it definitely seemed like an interesting topic, especially the work of women like Marie Stopes and Margaret Mead, but I do think the gallery was just too narrow to explore things properly, even at an off-time, so I imagine weekends are hellish in there.  It’s worth seeing, but only if you can manage a time when the gallery isn’t too busy, as any more people would have ruined it entirely.  It’s certainly not the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Wellcome, but I understand that they’re currently limited by the space constraints.

3/5, and make sure to pop by their excellent little bookshop on your way out for all the latest medical history books (or if you’re always broke like me, quickly scribble down the titles and order them from the library).

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