Sex & Sensibility

By Gaimster, David | History Today, September 2000 | Go to article overview
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Sex & Sensibility


Gaimster, David, History Today


AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM

David Gaimster reveals the origins and contents of the BM's Secretum, a hidden repository of artefacts deemed pornographic and unfit for public gaze by Victorian curators.

SINCE THE INTRODUCTION of the printing press at the end of the Middle Ages with its ability to replicate the visual image, the dividing line between art and obscenity has been constantly changing. Today we are surrounded by the sexual image, on television, in magazines, on video and on our home PCs. Pornography is becoming an increasingly accepted part of British popular culture and remains the only business that consistently turns a profit on the net. But the political and moral dilemma between access to sexual culture and its regulation has a long heritage in Britain going back to the decades before the drafting of the first obscenity legislation in the mid-nineteenth century.

If museums are a physical metaphor for the way in which the present sees the past, then their collections reflect the cultural and moral attitudes of successive generations of curators in both their choice of artefacts and in the strategies used to classify them. Perhaps it is here that we can best trace the origins of public delicacy towards the erotic and the development of the strict division between art and obscenity. The British Museum `Secretum' or `secret museum', founded officially in 1865 in the wake of the Obscene Publications Act (1857), forms a unique laboratory in which to study changing public sensitivities, in particular to the sexual customs of the ancient, Classical and medieval worlds and to the new cultures being encountered through the growth of Empire. Fresh investigation of the Secretum provides a new chronology for the evolution of pornography as a distinct cultural category. The collection presents a historical context for the development of modern manners, and its study helps inform the current political debate.

The classification of antiquity on moral, as opposed to strictly scholarly, grounds can be traced back to early archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum, two flourishing Roman towns in the vicinity of Naples obliterated when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. When excavations initiated by the Bourbon King Charles of the Two Sicilies in the mid-eighteenth century revealed streets, houses and shops in near-perfect preservation, they provided a snapshot of everyday life in the Roman Empire. But almost as soon as the excavations began, the field notebooks record with ill-concealed embarrassment the discovery of more and more `obscene items': amulets, lamps, murals and reliefs depicting sex, explicit and often in the style of caricature. At first the objects were shown openly to Grand Tour visitors in the Museum Herculanense in Portici. One casualty of the finds was the myth of the austere moral grandeur of the Romans. In 1795 we read for the first time of the existence in the Herculaneum Museum of a room, number XVIII, the first `secret museum', reserved for `obscene' antiquities which could only be visited by those in possession of a special permit. With its star exhibit, a marble statue of Pan making love to a she-goat, the room represented a new taxonomy for the study of antiquity, that of the `archaeological obscenity', one that was to be perpetuated across Europe for almost two hundred years.

In February 1819, the heir to the Neapolitan throne, the future Francesco I (1825-30), visited the museum, by then transfered to the Palazzo degli Studi, with his wife and daughter. He suggested that `it would be a good idea to withdraw all the obscene objects, of whatever material they may be made, to a private room.' To this room, at first prosaically named the `Cabinet of Obscene Objects' and in 1823 more coyly the `Reserved Cabinet', only those people of mature years and sound morals would be admitted. According to a contemporary guidebook, when the collection was first installed it contained 202 `abominable monuments to human licentiousness'.

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