Sexual Objects as Artifacts

Feb 29, 2012 • Culture, History

Japanese tortoiseshell sex toys on display in the Medicine Man exhibition in the Wellcome Collection

Sir Henry Wellcome was a very successful American-born, British entrepreneur in the pharmaceutical industry. During his lifetime, he was an avid collector of artifacts, in particular those related to medicine. But that’s not all he collected.

From archivist and historian Lesley Hall:

There is something of a perception that Wellcome was a rather undiscriminating collector and that he also acquired a good deal of material of non-medical interest through buying up job lots which dealers had carefully salted with one or two medical items. In fact it turned out that he was specifically acquiring in the area of classical sexually-themed objects and the collection (before it was dispersed) had nearly 1000 of these.

At least in the case of the sexual objects of European Classical Antiquity, it appears that he saw these as falling within wider paradigms of medicine and the maintenance of life and health, in particular the (mostly phallic, but some vulval) amulets and votive objects. These were displayed alongside other amulets within the museum context, at a time, intriguingly, when most museums were still segegrating any material of a sexual nature into secret cabinets and closed collections, rather than displaying it alongside related materials of a non-sexual nature with which it might originally have been associated.

Read her whole post for an interesting look at Sir Wellcome’s collection as well as a commentary on the treatment of sexual artifacts of the time.

Header image is from the Wellcome collection and features a box of Japanese tortoiseshell sex toys, which is currently on display in the Medicine Man exhibition in the Wellcome Collection.