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.

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