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The Museum of Sex
by Melissa Ulto

There is a line out the door, down the street and past a strategically placed pretzel vendor. The crowd is nattily dressed, a little giddy, pressed close together against the cold, under the scaffolding above the side of the building. Two forty-ish women giggle with each other, excited and a bit wary.

All business, I bypass the crowd and head in past the doormen. The entry is glossy looking - very white with well designed branding in black and red. So this is the Museum of Sex.

I get my press pass, thankful I don't have to dole out $17.00 for the admission, and grab my handy-dandy digital storyteller aka the exhibition audio guide. For regular folk, the audio guide is included in the admission fee.

The current exhibit is NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America - a historical overview of sex in the city. The museum opened later than expected and is supposedly still under construction in some areas.

The line to get into the exhibits winds around a club style coat check and small merchandise display. I wait with a crowd that flips through photography books, each an essay in sex. Finally, we enter and I have to make it abundantly clear I am press, so my camera doesn't get confiscated. I am told no pictures on the second floor, where the nudity and porn are exhibited.

The walls are stark white with letraset paragraphs stuck above and around exhibits, highlighting the historical context. The display cases are arranged in narrow corridors, with no room to back up and take a wider look at the object d'sexe. The crowd pushes impatiently, as we pass dioramas of early STD models from the 1800's, illustrations of white slavery, costumes of Ziegfeld showgirls, early anti-abortionist propaganda and tools of their trade.

In the areas where early film plays on tiny inset screens, the crowd pauses and the resulting traffic jam blocks the entire halting flow. The screens loop films of the first exotic dancers and stag films, while on-lookers bend over or squint to see the images better.

I was happy to see Victoria Woodhull, (1838-1927), included in the exhibit, quoted as saying:

"Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere."

She is hailed as the first true feminist of our times, running for president in the 1872 race, running her own newspaper and being the first female Wall Street stock broker. The only disappointing thing about her particular exhibit, as with all the others, is the brevity of it. There was simply not enough there to fully experience Victoria Woodhull as the amazing social reformer and charismatic force that she was.

Up a narrow staircase to the second floor where the most modern of exhibits are displayed. Vargas girls and fetish ala Betty Page lines a few walls. Gay and lesbian history begins to filter into the exhibit with Tom of Finland and other iconic and sexual art lovingly placed under layers of plexiglass.

Wonder Woman as a lesbian icon is featured in a small exhibit. Of course, I took many pictures of the comic books illustrating my buxom hero wrestling with Cheetah, a society girl gone bad. Oh, how I long to be Cheetah…

A Playboy bunny outfit fits snugly in one well-lit niche. I come across a predictable display of 60's skin magazines that lie out of touch under glass. Seventies porn movie posters feature hits like "Deep Throat" and "Behind the Green Door", while there are several small screens looping a best of reel of the era's porn stars.

Around the corner and the topic of AIDS and HIV are explored in posters, health department closing memos, ads from GMHC and public service announcements to keep sex safe. We end with images of WigStock and drag queens, as I pass out and down another narrow staircase.

I leave unsated. There was not nearly enough on any one topic and just too much of everything to really get a grasp on New York's sexual history. The scope was too wide, it seemed, to really go into any analysis or depth on any one point in time. It seems tasty at first, the idea of a sex museum, but the clinical aspect of its approach to sexuality, as it skims over it, does nothing to impress, challenge or inform me, except on a very superficial level.

Missing was a discussion of the rise of rape and sexual molestation, or at least the final (deserved) criminalization of such acts. Sexual deviance and violent drives that include gay bashing, serial murder and some of the more brutal fetishes like branding were not discussed. Nor was tattooing, the rise of the sex symbol, sex in the media, the music industry and sex, or the evolution of the club scene. But considering there were a couple of centuries to cover, one can forgive a real in-depth look at modern sexual phenomena.

Still, the existence of Museum of Sex is an important step in the understanding of our sexual past and our sexual destiny. The overarching theme in the exhibit was the way society has punished and vilified the sexually expressive, open and experimental. One can only hope this exhibit helps museum goers understand that sexuality is about free will, not legislation. Live and let live, baby.

The exhibit is a good display for those interested in sexual history but not interested in delving too deeply. I hope the next exhibits go deeply into one subject or examine one artist's work, and I do hope they change their layout to something a little more spacious and accommodating, for those who like to stand back and ponder the work.

The Museum of Sex is located at 233 Fifth Avenue (@ 27th Street), New York, NY 10016, and is open every day but Wednesdays, from 10:00 am. The current exhibit, NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America, runs Oct 5, 2002 - July 3, 2003. Admission is Adults (18+): $17.00, with a special weekday rate of $12.00 before 12 noon, Monday-Friday. Students and Seniors (with valid ID) can get in for a mere $14.00.

Melissa Ulto
© 2002 multo.com



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