There is a certain kind of pornography that presents itself as a documentary film. It’s been awhile since I’ve watched one of these mondo films, but let’s just say that I learned things about lesbians from that flick that would, …well, probably surprise a lot of lesbians.
The Erotic Heritage Museum reminds me a bit of such movies. Oh, I didn’t notice any outright disinformation, but it has that same odd fusion of license and libido, the same sense that an excuse no longer necessary has been turned into its own kink. It’s not just sex, it’s education.
…only it isn’t.
It’s is a damned shame, because a serious effort would have been interesting.
Let’s just take a tour, shall we?
I first noticed the museum in my quest for street art, and I must say that I like a number of the murals on the buildings exterior. Here, at least I have to give the place props for creativity. It is interesting that they had to cover the nipples on a couple of these pieces, as if that would really reduce the funkination passers by will witness upon even the most casual viewing. But of course the letter of the law can be as dull as it is senseless, and the girls had to be covered. …a little.
(Embiggen, …if you dare!)
Once inside, things get a little more interesting, or perhaps a little less, depending on your sense of perspective. One enters into a gift shop, which itself contains two private library collections and an Erotic Wedding chapel. They haven’t quite worked out access to the libraries, so that’s an interesting though currently unfulfilling part of the experience. One might even call it tantalizing! The staff is friendly and helpful, and they seem prepared to emphasize either the educational or the titillating aspects of the museum, perhaps shifting their approach according to the tastes of the customers.
The museum is curated by the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, an unaccredited institution based in San Francisco, California.
According to the Museum’s “About us” page, it is the creation of the Rev. Ted McIlvenna and Harry Mohney, founder of Déjà Vu, a highly successful chain of strip clubs. Money is also a longtime friend and associate of Larry Flynt, of Hustler Magazine fame. His role in creating the museum helps to explain the degree to which ‘erotic heritage’ seems to mean ‘mainstream pornography’ in much of the museum’s presentation. In and of itself, this needn’t be a problem. Located as it is on Industrial Ave., the museum would be a fine fit with much of the adult businesses in the area. And why shouldn’t it be? The problem as I see it is the pretense to commenting on larger issues, only to deliver a sort of ode to the adult entertainment industry. Take for example the following quote from the Museum’s website:
The EHM houses more than 17,000 square feet of permanent and featured exhibits designed to preserve wonders of the erotic imagination as depicted through the artistic expression of acts of sex and love. It is dedicated to the belief that sexual pleasure and fun are natural aspects of the human experience, that such pleasure must be made available to all, and that our individual sexuality belongs to each of us.
The Museum is dedicated to the preservation of great erotic heritage that is typically undervalued, yet is of tremendous importance. The EHM is owned and managed by the Exodus Trust, a non-profit California Trust that has as its sole purpose to perform educational, scientific and literary functions relating to sexual, emotional, mental and physical health. Historical and contemporary erotic materials donated to the Exodus Trust are tax deductible as charitable donations in accordance with federal law. For more information regarding charitable donations, please visit our DONATE page.
What fascinates me about this text is tension between a vision of sexuality as a natural part of life and one which must be shared. …the latter part strikes me as a bit of a euphemism, because I don’t think they are talking about the kind of sharing between a man and a woman in their own bedroom, or even of a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, or two men with 4 women in front of twenty others for that matter. No, the point of the sharing is in this instance the creation of some medium by which this sexuality can be exchanged, and somewhere in here that in itself gives way to the commodification of sexuality. Hence, the broad beautiful mandate for sharing of sexual freedom becomes a function of market values, and the themes explored in that sexuality quickly become a function of ownership and corporate capital.
Of course such commodification happens all around, and I’m not particularly shocked to find it happening with sexuality. But let’s just say that a little self-awareness helps, and when folks promise a museum dedicated to sexuality at large, it is little irritating to find that they have little to say about sex occurring outside of a men’s magazine or a xxx movie theater.
That said, let’s have a look at the Gift Shop (Click to embiggen):
After paying a very reasonable $10.00 entrance fee, one moves through a simulated red light district on the way to the main gallery. The red light district falls completely flat for me. Simply put, a red light district is not a red light district without people. All the store fronts and simulated sex businesses in the world will never convey the sense of such a place, and so this part of the museum more than any other simply fails on all levels.
I would add that the big poster on First Amendment issues is simply too high to be read in the dark, at least by people without superior cat-eye magic-vision. So, that too is lost on the customer. It’s place in the museum is also at least a little odd. Of course the connection comes from the tension between erotic expression and censorship. This is not entirely limited to the porn industry, though they have played a key role in defending such expression. The bottom line here is that there is certainly a place for this content in a discussion of erotic expression, but one has to wonder if the context for it has been well framed, especially when posters like this one are just dropped into a collection that is otherwise on the surface at least a-political. One has to wonder if the rhetoric of free speech hasn’t become an essential part of sexuality for the museum’s curators and staff. …as opposed to a historically situated feature of sexuality as filtered through the conflict between the particular powers of the industrialized West.
In any event, this is the red light district:
The main room actually comes in two floors, both essentially arranged into one large round presentation floor. The top floor is a private collection, and I don’t have any pictures of its content. The bottom floor has an amazing quantity of interesting materials. Unfortunately, the arrangement leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the more exotic items are left almost entirely without explanation, while images associated with the mainstream porn industry and its political battles dominate the outer walls.
For example, we get very little information about sundry deflowering devices scattered throughout display cases, but the sections describing developments in pornography get much fuller treatment, as do numerous celebrity sex scandals. So, a practice that the average customer will not understand without some presentation to put it in context gets nothing in the way of an explanation while stories many of us have seen before get plenty of coverage. This works fine if the point of museum is to promote the pornography industry; it does not work at all when the declared point of the museum is something much broader and more enlightening.
And here, we have an interesting question, what does all the exotic cultural material mean to the average customer as opposed to those for whom these items were originally developed? Indeed, just how sexual is all this sexual memorabilia in its original context? How does a customer interpret an African deflowering device, for example, in the absence of any reason to believe it isn’t just another sex toy? I can’t help but think that – presented as it is, with so little explanation – the sole lesson that many customers will take away from the ethnographic materials will be that other peoples are damned kinky. There just isn’t enough context to compete with the sexual background of the museum itself and the likely skewing off all things by an emergent narrative emphasizing sex and strangeness.
…it’s a bit like looking through old copies of national Geographic just to see pictures of the naked natives.
Some of more the playful aspects of the exhibit are quite wonderful. The million penny penis is pure gold! …or, copper, really, but the point is, I approve! The bathroom with all its graffiti (pens are provided) is at least a little interesting, but honestly it looks like it’s time to paint it over and let people start again. Other amusing displays certainly can be found, but they are jammed together in such a haphazard fashion, and with so little explanation, that is can be really difficult to make heads or tails of what one is looking at.
Strangely, a number of displays are given to various sexual scandals, and the treatment is (ironically) quite punitive. It makes sense of course for those interested in free sexual expression to feel a little vindicated when various anti-porn crusaders or seemingly repressed right wing cultural warriors get caught with their pants down (sometimes quite literally), but some of the folks appearing on the wall of shame just don’t fit that most. More importantly, at least some level, one ought to appreciate that this is to be expected. Rather than ‘haha’ might one say “welcome back to humanity?”
In any event, the museum never does give us any context in which to elevate the “Wall of Shame” beyond the level of pointing and laughing. That doesn’t strike me as worthy of a museum, and if I am going to laugh, I would rather laugh at a penny penis than people proving themselves all-to-human, …even those who may have wished otherwise.
So, once again the museum presents an odd blending of politics and sexuality, one if which the curators seem to have let the one skew their sense of the other a bit too much in my estimation. In any event, here is the bulk of the first floor stuff (if you click on the pictures, they get bigger, …really!)
Before signing off, I want to say thank you to Sarah from the blog, A Knitty Society. She and her husband accompanied me through the museum. I very much enjoyed discussing the materials with them, and I look forward to reading her own post on the museum. Y’all should definitely check out her blog.
And let’s finish with a bit of zoological interest:
I suppose I should add that I actually think there is a lot of potential in this museum, which is what makes its present state all that much more disappointing. The staff certainly have a diverse range of talents, and they have a fantastic collection of interesting materials on display. What no-one seems to have done at the Erotic Heritage Museum is thought through the kind of effect the want to produce and just how much the museum is intended to promote education as opposed to titillation. Frankly, I think they could manage both a lot better than they presently have. One has only to get past the point where a momentary glimpse of things-sexual is enough to satisfy the mind and the libido all by itself. All of this stuff has context; the folks at this museum really ought to provide that.