Sex in the Museum

PosterThere’s something odd about putting sex in a museum. If we think of museums as warehouses for relics of a bygone time, sex doesn’t seem a suitable focus for an exhibit. But if we think of museums as spaces to explore living history, sex starts to become an intriguing possibility for curation.

Still, to manage an exhibition about sex would seem a daunting (though thrilling) task. “Sex Talk in the City,” the Museum of Vancouver’s endeavour to curate such an encompassing topic, includes a lot of local flavour in its survey of sex in our city. The museum has attempted to tame the tangled mess that is sex through three themes: pedagogy, pleasure, politics.

The exhibition begins in “the classroom,” and a timeline shows how sex ed in BC schools has changed over time, often in response to crises such as unwanted pregnancies, sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted infections. Yet even today “the majority of elementary students will receive just over an hour of sex education a year.” Visitors next wander into the fun of “the bedroom” to consider the different forms that sex and relationships can take. On one wall hang photographs of individuals, many posing with their chosen families; one memorable image shows a couple of intertwined seniors on a bed, a hand placed intimately on another’s thigh.

When visitors hit “the streets,” politics and power come to the fore, especially in a city like Vancouver. The city’s first brothel was established in the same year as the first public school (1873), and today debates over sex work centre on whether “criminalization and stigmatization of prostitution [is] the cause of unsafe working conditions” or “sex work [is] a form of violence against women that should be prohibited.” Contraception continues to be another battleground for control of women’s bodies—and by the way, did you know that lemon halves have been used as cervical caps?

Advances in HIV treatment.The exhibit closes with one of the city’s most recent and ongoing pieces of history: the HIV epidemic. A small display from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS illustrates how the massive load of pills initially used to control HIV has been replaced by fewer and fewer pills over time. At the same time, as a presentation of older and newer AIDS posters demonstrates, the virus and associated social issues persist. (The observant viewer will notice that Positive Women’s Network is mentioned on an older poster advertising an info session about women who have sex with women!)

“Sex Talk in the City” offers several slices of sex history and politics in Vancouver that are worth sampling, but like any exhibit the silences and omissions are as interesting as the content. My hope is that the exhibit leads to many more, allowing us to cultivate a larger shared memory and understanding of how the history of sex affects us as individuals and communities.