This is not the first Museum of Sex. Some might say that distinction goes to the Museo Borbonico, created near Naples in the mid-18th century to house frescoes newly unearthed in Pompeii- those sexually explicit scenes were locked in a special room that only gentlemen were allowed to enter. But I prefer to credit the Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexology) founded in 1919 by Magnus Hirschfeld, an energetic physician who was among the pioneers of the study of human sexuality. While more concerned with research than exhibitions for the general public, the Institute collected and displayed fine art, and assembled thousands of photographs, books and manuscripts in its remarkable library. The Institute’s collections were lost on May 6, 1933, when a mob of Nazi “students” ransacked the building in central Berlin, burning the contents of its library in a public square four days later. Speculating as to why the Institute was a target for the Nazis just three months after Hitler came to power, one former employee said that anti-Semitism obviously played a part, but also noted that many Nazi officials had been Hirschfeld’s patients and wanted to destroy evidence of their homosexuality.
Unable to return to Germany from a worldwide lecture tour, Hirschfeld died in Nice, France in 1935. But his vision of creating institutions dedicated to the inquiry about sex and sexuality survived, and found a safer haven in the United States. In this nation of presumed Puritans, Alfred C. Kinsey would develop an institute that carried Hirschfeld’s mission, William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson would investigate the physiology of sexual activity and, following the social upheavals of feminism and gay and lesbian rights, universities would soon offer courses in women’s history and queer studies. And while Americans have become increasingly sophisticated in their understanding of sex, there has not yet been an institution in this country dedicated to bringing the serious study of sex and sexuality to a popular audience. Until now.
Following in the lineage of our distinguished predecessors, The Museum of Sex will produce exhibitions, publications and programs that bring the best of current scholarship on sex and sexuality to the widest possible audiences. The Museum’s inaugural exhibition NYC Sex appropriately focuses on the social history of a city that has been the hub of activities and ideas which have changed how Americans think about sex. In most respects, this can be attributed to the qualities that have made the city so influential in other arenas. Since its founding as a Dutch company town in 1626, New York has attracted generations of opportunists, con artists, fanatics, dreamers, and adventurers. Over the course of its history, this port city has anchored the greatest commercial and cultural expansion the world has ever known, and became home to millions of the world’s “homeless and tempest-tossed.” New York has tended to favor innovation, and learned to tolerate difference.
The sexual diversity of New York has come at a high personal and legal cost to many. The city’s sexual freedoms were won in courts, in the media, in the clash of politics, religious beliefs and competing cultures. But “only in New York,” as the expression goes, could this particular Museum of Sex been born- in a city bold enough, bad enough, bizarre enough and brazen enough to have a sexual history unlike that of any other city, and with the financial and media platform that made this history known and relevant far beyond the boundaries of the five boroughs. In investigating this history, we draw inspiration from those who have struggled in New York – whether as activists or hucksters, intellectuals or entrepreneurs, leaders or lovers – to transform sex in America.