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The exhibitionists
From displays of ancient condoms to high-tech love toys, New York's Museum of Sex takes its stimulating subject matter very seriously.
By Joe Sugarman

Noelle Daidone, spokeswoman for the Museum of Sex, wants me to know something about her place of employment right off: “This is not a sex museum, like you’d see in Amsterdam,” she says. “This is a museum of sex. Like a museum of art.”

Right. I’m not sure of the distinction, but I’m willing to give the museum a gander. This is the only Museum of Sex in the world after all, the only one that takes an academic approach to sex in a cultural, historical, anthropological sense. Just like a “real” museum,  it has changing exhibits, a gala fund-raiser and a temperature- and light-controlled archive of ephemera 30,000 items strong. It also has special lectures and events, but these have titles like, “Pop His Rocket: A Woman’s Guide To Handling Your Guy” and “Burlesque 102,” where graduates of “Burlesque 101” can make their own pasties. “It packs the house,” says Noelle, a peppy, bespectacled, early 30-something who got her start as an intern on the “Rosie O’Donnell Show.”

The museum, founded by Daniel Gluck, a computer software mogul and artist, to study “the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality,” has been a hit since it opened in 2002. Attendance has quickly increased over the last four years and Noelle says the museum is looking to expand, as well as to open another location in an as-yet-undetermined city.

There are three galleries to MOSEX, and after passing through the lobby— complete with pumping techno music— I find myself standing next to Noelle in a dimly lit room. This is “Peeping, Probing and Porn,” a temporary exhibit of 17th- and 18th-century pornographic block prints and brothel guides from Edo (now Tokyo), Japan. I assume the dim lighting is to “set the mood,” but Noelle says it’s to protect the ancient art from harmful light.

Each postcard-sized print or shunga, meaning “spring pictures” in Japanese, lays behind a rectangular hole in the wall so visitors must “peep” into the wall to view the print. The hand-colored art,  precursors to today’s anime or Japanese animation,  was mass produced— the Playboy magazines of its day— “to meet the desires of a libidinous society,” as the exhibit relates.  Used as masturbatory aids, more than 15 shunga were sold for every man, woman and child in Japan. “They were obsessed with genitalia,” says Noelle, as we study the prettily painted scenes of men with comically exaggerated private parts having their way with one or more submissive women. The spring pictures are indeed artistic, but after a while, one gigantic penis looks just like the next and we move on.

My guide leads me up a flight of stairs to the second gallery, which holds “Stags, Smokers & Blue Movies,” an interesting look at the history of American pornographic films. (The exhibit closes soon, replaced by “Action! Sex and the Moving Image.”) There’s a quaint innocence to the snippets of early stag films shown here; the grainy black-and-white images seem almost like documentaries of how people used to have sex. But all the familiar porno film story lines are there— the doctor’s exam that goes too far, the boss and his lascivious secretary. Only “body grooming and idealized body image have changed,” says Noelle. Text panels talk about the social subcontext of stag films or smokers— called such because there was usually so much cigarette smoke in the room. In the days before VCRs and on-demand pornographic videos, a stag film projected on a blank wall was a bonding experience for men as well as the way many received their sexual educations. 

The final gallery, “Spotlight on the Permanent Collection,” contains a sampling of the museum’s holdings, everything from 1830s New York brothel guides to record album covers featuring Baltimore’s most famous cross-dresser, Divine,  to patent applications for sexually related devices submitted between 1862 and 1994. (The water-cooling anti-nocturnal emission device, patented in 1893, apparently never caught on.)

This gallery seems to be enjoying far more visitor traffic than the other two (it’s also the most brightly lit), and I take a moment to size up my fellow museum-goers. There are several 20-something couples,  a few girlfriends, a couple who appear to be in their 50s and a few skeevy-looking men who apparently thought this was a sex museum, not a museum of sex. (They’re the ones who linger around the loop of porn movies just a little too long.) Nobody seems willing to make eye contact. I finally approach the 50-something couple and ask what drew them into the museum. “We were curious,” says the woman in a Midwestern accent. “We don’t have anything like this back home. Plus, we had a $5-off coupon.”

At $14.50, admission to the Museum of Sex is not a cheap thrill, and frankly seems overpriced.  (By comparison, a tour of the vast Museum of Modern Art runs $20) Definitely print a $5-off coupon from the museum’s Web site or clip one out from various New York City tourism brochures. 

There are some interesting items on display in this gallery, including a loop of sexual education videos from the 1940s through 1970s and an illuminating history of the vibrator. One case holds a sampling of pornographic objects from the collection of retired Library of Congress curator Ralph Whittington, aka the “King of Porn.” The Washington, D.C., resident’s collection of more than 25,000 sexually related items began when he picked up a pocket-sized porno mag on a second-grade school trip to— where else?— Baltimore.

Noelle walks me over to another case that holds a couple of sex dolls as seen on the HBO series “Real Sex.” These are high-tech, $5,000 love toys, with eye color, breast shape and size, and hair that can all be customized. One torso is displayed behind glass, with two holes cut above the breast and one above its genitals, allowing visitors to cop a feel. Noelle says that this is the museum’s second sex doll. “The oils on people’s skin degrade the material very quickly,” she says. “And someone bit the nipples off the last one.”

As she’s pointing out the whips and chains featured in an exhibit on bondage and domination, I finally ask my guide what it’s like to work for a museum that counts an anti-masturbatory device from the late 1800s as a prized possession. “You get used to it,” says Noelle, who stresses that the museum is a very fun— and very family-friendly— place to work. “It becomes like anything else. But when you work with sexual content,  there’s always going to be a time to chuckle. Like when you have to call someone up and order a label that says ‘parachute ball stretcher,’” she says, pointing to a particularly devious-looking gizmo. 

Like all legitimate museums, MOSEX dumps visitors out into its gift shop, where people can purchase items ranging from sex toys to “Titaroni pasta” to postcards of the Oscar Meyer Weiner mobile. The coup de grace is a cold-cast marble chess set with pieces posed in positions from the Karma Sutra. At $275, this both sexually and intellectually stimulating item is worthy of something you’d find at a museum of sex, definitely not at a sex museum. 

Museum of Sex
233 Fifth Ave. at 27th Street
212-689-6337
http://www.museumofsex.com
Admission: $14.50; $13.50 seniors/students
Hours: Sunday-Friday, 11a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11a.m.-8 p.m. 
Upcoming Exhibits: “Kink: Geography of the Erotic Imagination,” the museum’s “most hands-on exhibit ever,” opens in late January.  “Action! Sex and the Moving Image,” a look at the impact of sexuality in film and video, opens in early January.

JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2007

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