In Search of Secret Museums
Johnson-Roehr, Catherine, The Journal of Sex Research
Secret Museums. Written and directed by Peter Woditsch, 77 min, release date: 2009, $398, Icarus Films, 32 Court Street, 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; (718) 488-8900, mail@IcarusFilms.com, www.IcarusFilms.com
Writer and director Peter Woditsch is a German documentary filmmaker whose previous work includes a film about the lost erotica that is thought to have decorated the palace of the 18th century Russian empress Catherine the Great. His latest effort, Secret Museums, was originally broadcast on European television in 2008 and is now available in the United States on DVD. In the film, Woditsch travels to France, Germany, Italy, and England to reveal the existence of hidden collections of erotic art and literature in private libraries and public institutions. He interviews collectors, curators, librarians, writers, art critics, and artists to find out why these secret archives were created and how they are viewed and managed today.
Secret Museums is organized into seven chapters: "Collectors and Auctions," "Pompeii and the First Secret Museum," "L'Enfer and the Secretum," "The Vatican," "Eroticism and Museums," "Suppression vs. Memory," and "The Origin of the World." The film opens at Christie's in Paris, where Gerard Nordmann's extensive collection of rare erotic literature has been put on the auction block by his widow. Nordmann exemplified the private collector who not only appreciated sexually explicit writing and imagery, but also viewed himself as the protector of works that might otherwise be destroyed. A very public auction of such materials would not have happened in years past, but now these previously forbidden books bring high prices in the open market, thus helping to ensure their preservation. Olivier Auger, a collector interviewed during the Christie's sale, states: "Widows don't burn their husbands' collections anymore." However, sometimes the public auction is eschewed by collectors. Karl-Ludwig Leonard, a collector of 20,000 erotic books living in Hamburg, Germany, does not want to see his collection sold piece by piece. He would rather entrust his library to another private collector, and sees nothing wrong in keeping it under wraps, as long as the materials are protected and preserved.
From private collections of erotic literature, the filmmaker moves on to the treasure trove of artworks and artifacts found in Pompeii, where extensive excavations have shown that Roman citizens lived in rooms decorated with nude sculptures and erotic wall murals. In the early 19th century, a royal decree led to the creation of the "Gabinetto Segreto," the first secret museum in Europe, where ancient artworks with sexual content were preserved but kept from public view, to be seen only by a privileged few. Now part of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, this collection had, until recently, been shown only to men; when Woditsch visited the museum, general tickets allowed visitors of both sexes only 15 min to view the materials.
Through his conversations with curators and other individuals responsible for institutional collections of erotica, Woditsch wants to make the argument that the ease of access to a great array of sexual material on the Internet today has not necessarily opened previously guarded collections to the public. However, the evidence he provides does not necessarily support this assumption. He visits with Marie-Francoise Quignard, whose job as chief curator of rare books at the National Library in Paris gives her access to L'Enfer, the fabled collection of forbidden erotic literature that received a great deal of attention when items from it were exhibited for the first time in 2007 through 2008 (after the filming of this documentary). Quignard explains that the library does now allow visitors to use the materials, although they must have some justification beyond simple curiosity to be given access to the books. …