Sex and Sensibility at the British Museum

David Gaimster reveals the origins and contents of the British Museum'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’. Restricting access inevitably helped to promote the collection. In 1822 only twenty requests for visits were made; two years later these had increased to 300. By 1861, after decades of uncertainty, the Museo Borbonico, transformed as the National Museum of Naples, became a central feature of Garibaldi’s Neapolitan cultural policy and provided the writer Alexandre Dumas, as director, with a short introduction to the museum world. Libertarian zeal drove the immediate publication in 1866 of a catalogue of the ‘Pornographic Collection’, as it was called, compiled by Giuseppe Fiorelli. Despite obvious discomfort in the vocabulary used to describe the artefacts, with its over-reliance on obfuscatory Latin terms, the catalogue’s arrangement forms the first nineteenth-century attempt at scientific classification of sexual material culture: the first experiment in the formalisation of the ‘secret museum’ as a curatorial concept. The term ‘pornography’ leapt into English usage as a direct result: Webster’s Dictionary of 1864 defined it as ‘licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii.’

Although the nineteenth century invented pornography, it did not invent the obscene. If sex was to be regarded as something separate from the rest of human experience, then it was Christianity that effected that divorce, the very act of judgement creating and perpetuating the category of the profane. From the time of Augustine of Hippo (d. AD 430) the Church sought to police sex by private confession and public censure. From the sixteenth-century, sex and the print medium proved a powerful combination, and in the atmosphere of Reformation Europe a potentially subversive one. The Roman Catholic Church embarked on a policy of actively destroying prints with erotic scenes, many of which had an explicit satirical dimension. It is this context which has produced one of the earliest survivals of the censored image.

The case revolves around a notorious set of sixteen drawings of couples in various sexual positions which were created by the young Italian master Giulio Romano in the early 1520s. Known as ‘modi’ (the positions), the drawings - a kind of good-sex guide - were first circulated privately and then made into engravings by the copyist Marcantonio Raimondi, for public distribution. The Catholic Church responded by judging the images obscene and threw the engraver into jail. Modelled in part on Classical sources, Giulio’s drawings represent an early rediscovery of ancient erotic art and became a model for erotica throughout the sixteenth century, legitimised partly by their mythological reference. However, in the increasingly censorious atmosphere of the nineteenth century few examples of the engravings survived. Today only nine fragments of the sixteen original prints are preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. Acquired in 1830, the single sheet mounted with the heavily doctored fragments can be traced back to a private English sale of 1812. Looking closely it is possible to see that the censor has laboriously cut out the genitals leaving only heads and flailing limbs, enough to indicate vigorous sexual coupling. In spite of this the fragments were considered too vulgar by the Museum for cataloguing with the general collection and were kept in a separate folio in the Departmental Keeper’s office. Only recently, after 150 years, has the folio been reunited with the rest of the collections. The explicitness made possible by the detail of the copperplate engraving helps to explain their suppression. The engravings represent some of the earliest examples of pornography as it would be recognised today. Their almost recreational imagery and medium of reproduction, the print, are entirely modern in concept.

The sensibilities involved in the segregation of the modi engravings prefigure the rationale behind the creation of a ‘Secretum’ or ‘secret museum’ of artefacts in the Department of Antiquities during the early nineteenth century. The Secretum remained in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities following the first subdivision of antiquities departments in 1861 and was transferred during the 1960s to the newly created Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities, where the residue of the collection is now housed. The ‘Secretum’ register indicates that some antiquities from the ancient Egyptian, Near Eastern and Classical civilisations were segregated from the run of the collections on the basis of their obscene nature as early as the late 1830s, with many more joining them during the 1840s and 50s. Many derive from collections donated by some of the foremost antiquaries of the day including Sir William Hamilton (husband of Nelson’s Lady Hamilton), formerly Envoy Extraordinary to the Court of Naples, who donated votive phalluses made of wax from churches in Isernia, near Naples, and Richard Payne Knight, author of A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and its Connection with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients.

The book, a study of customs and artefacts relating to the Roman fertility god, Priapus, was privately printed in London in 1865 by John Camden Hotton, a publisher of pornography. Ironically, the British Museum, beneficiary of Payne Knight’s collecting activities, responded with hostility to the book. Edward Hawkins, Keeper of the Department of Antiquities from 1826 to 1860, represented the official curatorial view and his reaction provides an insight into the evolving moralistic climate in which the Secretum was created:

Of this work it is impossible to speak in terms of reprobation sufficiently strong: it is a work too gross to mention: and it is quite impossible to quote the indignant but too descriptive language of the critics in their severe but just remarks upon this disgusting production ...

A further highlight of the early years of the collection is the Joseph Nollekens (d.1823) small-scale terracotta version of Pan copulating with a goat after the myth, which was done from memory by the sculptor having seen the Herculaneum marble original preserved in the Naples Museum during the 1760s. The object belonged at one time to Charles Townley (1737-1805), collector of classical sculpture and one of the chief benefactors to the British Museum during the late eighteenth century. Irrespective of cultural context, artefacts were being segregated on account of their peculiar subject matter in the manner of the ‘secret collection’ in the Naples Museum. The same approach was applied to the classification of printed books, which were already being assembled into the Private Case of the British Museum Library.

But it was in 1865 that the Museum ‘Secretum’ took on its official status with the donation by Mr George Witt of 434 diverse objects described as ‘Symbols of the Early Worship of Mankind’. It is this collection of antiquities, and its subsequent fate, that illustrates more than any other the growing anxieties of Victorian curators in relation to artefacts of an erotic nature. George Witt was born in Norfolk in 1803 or 1804 and entered Leiden University in 1828 to study medicine, graduating in 1830. On his return to England he took up an appointment at the Bedford County Infirmary, soon afterwards becoming Physician to that institution. In 1834 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and Mayor of Bedford. His obituary in the Bedford Mercury some years later observes: ‘Doctor Witt was at one time as familiar to our town and county as a household word.’ In 1849 Witt emigrated to Australia and practised in Sydney for several years before dropping medicine altogether to become a banker. Having amassed a considerable fortune he returned to England in 1854 to take up residence at Prince’s Terrace, off Hyde Park. His wealth enabled him to indulge in his taste for collecting antiquities, and it is said that he used to hold Sunday morning lectures on his collection of phallic artefacts. An illness in 1865 forced him to consider the fate of his collection, however, and he wrote to Anthony Panizzi, the Director of the British Museum:

Dear Sir,
During my late severe illness it was a source of much regret to me that I had not made such a disposition of my Collection of ‘Symbols of the Early Worship of Mankind’, as, combined with its due preservation, would have enabled me in some measure to have superintended its arrangement. In accordance with this feeling I now propose to present my Collection to the British Museum, with the hope that some small room may be appointed for its reception in which may also be deposited and arranged the important specimens, already in the vaults of the Museum - and elsewhere, which are illustrative of the same subject.

The Museum’s Trustees, perhaps surprisingly, accepted the gift. Although divorced from their cultural context, the artefacts were of sufficient archaeological merit to justify acquisition. Of particular note is the scope of the collection, which covers all the principal ancient and Classical cultures as well as the medieval and Renaissance worlds and contemporary cultures from the colonial sphere. Key objects include Greek Figure vases, Egyptian sculpture, Roman terracottas and bronzes, Indian temple reliefs, medieval pilgrim badges, the insignia of eighteenth-century secret societies, watercolours of early discoveries from the ancient and Classical worlds. Of particular interest are the nine leather-bound scrapbooks arranged loosely by culture: Grecian, Etruscan, Roman; Persian, Egyptian; Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese; aborignial American; and modern European. Compiled over many years, they contain sketches, watercolours, pioneer photographs and descriptions of objects held in both public and private collections. Most intriguing is the correspondence with fellow collectors of phallic objects from Britain and Europe who sent Witt descriptions of further finds. Witt was clearly the centre of an international nexus of collectors of antique erotica. Like him they were all gentlemen of means and taste who would have considered themselves capable of responding in a detached, scholarly way to the subject matter. Looking through the scrapbooks, however, one can sense a certain erotic tension which is more difficult to interpret. Among the engravings of Roman bronzes and pottery lamps are eighteenth-century sketches of copulating couples, nineteenth-century Japanese colour porn cards, a Victorian reproduction of a medieval chastity-belt, early photographs of nudes in classical poses (including scantily clad females engaged in gladiatorial combat) and a Victorian cartoon showing a version of the Ages of Man which would today qualify as paedophile in character. In this shadowy area, where archaeology and the erotic meet, lies the key to Witt’s motivation for collecting.

Witt’s interest in the antique was almost entirely phallocentric, his thesis being that all pre-Christian cultures across the globe shared a common religious heritage in their worship of fertility gods and goddesses. This interest is reflected in his research library which accompanied the collection to the Museum. Personally monogrammed books include Des Divinités Generatrices ou du Culte du Phallus, published in Paris in 1805, Payne Knight’s Discourse (London, 1865), a catalogue of the Secret Cabinet of the Naples Museum (Paris, 1857) and M. Felix Lajard’s book on the Cult, Symbols and Attributes of Venus (Paris, 1837). Entwined with Witt’s obsession was a desire for scholarly recognition for his area of research. To mark the acceptance of his collection Witt presented to the Museum a pamphlet, published by himself, entitled Catalogue of a Collection Illustrative of Phallic Worship in 1866. What could be more respectable than official acceptance by the British Museum?

The Witt collection reveals a degree of the trauma experienced by Victorians in their encounter with the antique and cultures from the further reaches of the British Empire. The Classical world was regarded as a model for nineteenth-century European civilisation, its architecture and art a blueprint of decency, taste and cultural aspiration. Its empires were a historical reference and motivation for imperial expansion. The British Museum and other metropolitan public buildings were based on strictly Classical conventions of style and proportion. What then of the discovery at the Vesuvian cities that private life in the Greek and Roman world was also a very public experience? Just as we are today, the citizens of Pompeii were surrounded by images of sex, on tavern signs, street corners and in the domestic interior. As the Classical art scholar John R. Clarke has noted, ‘Here was a world before Christianity, before the Puritan ethic, before the association of shame and guilt with sexual acts.’ Revealing their own prejudices, the early excavators reasoned that the erotic murals and artefacts could only derive from brothels. The finds confirmed the realisation - already clear from the literary sources - that the antique world was characterised by a quite different social and moral code from that of nineteenth-century Europe with its increasing onus on privacy and manners. Similar problems afflicted imperial Britain’s encounter with the indigenous cultures of its colonies in India and the Far East. Here, in its monumental religious art, particularly its temple reliefs, heaven was depicted as a highly sexualised place, whereas the Victorian celestial vision - with its strong Judeo-Christian legacy - was entirely chaste in character. The only strategy, therefore, was to suppress the past, hide away the artefacts which might be misunderstood by all but the most educated of intellect who could be trusted to respond appropriately. This was, essentially, the rationale for the secret museum.

Following the line of the recently passed Obscene Publications Act, the formal foundation of the Secretum in 1865 enshrined a new code for cultural consumption: that what gentlemen chose to look at was a matter of taste, but that there must be regulations to control the circulation of images or erotic objects among the more vulnerable sections of society. The division along gender lines in particular belies more deep-seated fears held by the British (male) establishment, namely a quasi-Darwinian view that if women or children were exposed to pornography, and even to the sexual material culture of the past, it might provoke an imbalance in the relationships between men and women and hence a breakdown in the social order. Female sexual pleasure threatened not only the security of marriage and legitimacy, but also the security of men themselves and their own identity. Victorian Britain, it must be remembered, read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) as a cautionary tale. It contained the equation that sexual excess equals general degeneracy which leads invariably to economic and social collapse. Class prejudice formed a further layer of anxiety. The first obscenity laws were part inspired by fear of the reaction of the working masses to cheap pornography. The ‘casual’ nature of the sex lives of the poor was already the object of a moral crusade by Victorian reformists. If archaeological discoveries or ethnographic collecting did contain an erotic element, then best to suppress it from those who would be incapable of understanding it. This paternalistic view involved removing artefacts from their original contexts and grouping them under the new and artificial heading of the ‘obscene’. Ironically, it is this curatorial strategy of compartmentalisation that survived almost intact until the latter part of the twentieth century.

It was not until the inter-war period that attitudes in the British Museum became more liberal, and in 1939 the Trustees were informed that part of Witt’s ‘phallic and allied antiquities and works relating to primitive mysteries’ were partially dispersed. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of the original donation remained in the Secretum, and in 1948 the Keeper ruled that anyone wishing to consult the collection was required to submit a formal application to the director of the Museum. The same year an outside scholar applied for a photographic copy of the register of the collection. His request was regarded as so sensitive that he was asked to state ‘his qualifications for the study of the catalogue, the use he proposed to make of the photostats, and the arrangements made for the disposal thereof at his death’. Although there was further dispersal from the Secretum before the Second World War, new objects continued to be added. The last items were deposited in 1953. These were a group of animal membrane condoms, tied at the open end with silk ribbons, which can be dated by their original paper wrapper to the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries. They were discovered hidden in the pages of a book in the British Library, a 1783 Guide to Health, Beauty, Riches and Honour. Following the more permissive 1960s further Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Oriental material was dispersed.

Today around half of Witt’s 1865 gift of 434 objects and around 100 of the 700 or so items of the pre-1865 Secretum remain together in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities. Despite the modern view that obscenity is not a scholarly category but a moral one, and that the continued orphaning of these artefacts from their host cultures can only diminish their research value, there is growing realisation that the collection is of greater value today as a time capsule of Victorian collecting interest in sexual material culture. It is not intended to break up the Secretum any further.

The challenge remains, however, to explain the context in which these objects were made and appreciated in the past. Explication forms the motivation behind the BM’s purchase in 1999 of the Warren Cup, a Roman silver drinking vessel decorated with scenes of homosexual love-making, probably made during the reign of Nero (AD 54-68). Had the Museum purchased the cup when it came up for sale in the 1950s, when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain, it would almost certainly have caused an outcry. Today, in contrast, the new acquisition stands in the centre of the Wolfson Gallery of Roman Antiquities (Room 70).

The cup, along with other objects and murals showing similar scenes, enables us to see, as opposed to read about, the dramatisation of sexual conventions and transgressions from the Hellenistic period onwards. Its acquisition and prominent position in the Museum galleries highlights the contrast in the response of previous generations to the erotic artefact. Today the emphasis is on illuminating the social and mental context for the representation of sex in antiquity. For the Victorians this was not an option. The Secretum is a product of its time, place and culture. It is a historical artefact in its own right, but also serves as a warning to future generations of historians against imposing their own contemporary prejudices on the material culture of the past.

Further Reading:

  • John R. Clarke Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 BC -AD250 (Berkeley, 1998)
  • Catherine Johns Sex or Symbol: Erotic Images of Greece and Rome (London, 1982)
  • Walter Kendrick The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (Berkeley, 1987)
  • Bette Talvacchia Taking Positions. On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture (Princeton, 1999)
  • Isabel Tang Pornography: The Secret History of Civilization (London, 1999)
  • Dyfri Williams ‘The Warren Silver Cup’, British Museum Magazine, Nr.35 (Autumn/Winter 1999), pp 25-28
  • S. De Caro ‘Up and down, in and out: the story of the erotic collection’, The Art Newspaper, No. 102 (April 2000), pp 44-45.

David Gaimster is an Assistant Keeper in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities, The British Museum.

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