Intimate Worlds: exhibiting erotica from Henry Wellcome’s collection

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By | Events and Visits, From the Collections

Sexual objects collected by Henry Wellcome are currently on display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. The exhibition Intimate Worlds: exploring sexuality through the Sir Henry Wellcome collection opened at the beginning of April and runs for one more month, ending on 29 June.

Image credit: Amanda Engineer

Poster for the exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. Image credit: Amanda Engineer.

The exhibition comprises objects from around the globe purchased, donated or otherwise acquired by Wellcome’s agents and later his Historical Medical Museum (HMM) staff, roughly between 1900 and 1936, the year of Wellcome’s death.

Collecting sexual objects from different cultures, some which were then termed as ‘primitive’, was part of Henry Wellcome’s quest to amass material that would illustrate the history of humankind with special reference to health and medicine. His vision for a permanent Historical Medical Museum (HMM) of world-wide importance embraced anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, art and folklore among other things.

L0075267 'Memoranda concerning the collection of information...' 1927 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Front cover of 'Memoranda concerning the collection of information and material among primitive peoples'. Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, possibly published in 1927. Cream cover, clothbound paperback. 1927? WA/HMM/PB/Han/27 Handbook Published: 1927?

Front cover of ‘handbook’ for collecting agents. Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, 1927.  Wellcome Image no. L0075267.

Documents in the Henry Wellcome Archive (collection reference WA) show that the remit for Wellcome’s collecting agents included tracking down sexual objects. This is explicitly stated in one of the five archive items which have been loaned by the Wellcome Library for the exhibition in Exeter. The Memoranda Concerning the Collection of Information and Material Among Primitive Peoples contains the following ‘Note’ on p.24:

“Obtain specimens of all amulets, charms, fetishes, etc., associated with the healing art and used or carried as a protection from disease and evil spirits …. Procure any talismans carried in order to give courage to the wearer; also Phallic emblems on fetishes, or other objects fashioned in the shape of the genital organs”.(WA/HMM/PB/Han/27)

Also in the exhibition is a letter to senior HMM curator Captain Johnson-Saint dated 2 October 1935. Surgeon-Captain M H Knapp writes from Kobe, Japan, that he has “bought the special things at the sex store here. Will have over spent some £10 or £12” (WA/HMM/CM/Col/60).

Montague Henry Knapp’s purchases may have included items such as the ivory carving of a clam shell dating back to 19th-century Japan, which is also on display. This item was most likely to have been displayed as a decorative object d’art in the house of a Japanese noble. The top part depicts a woman reading, the bottom part depicts the female genitalia. Other items in the exhibition include:

  • A 19th-century set of porcelain bowls from China (Ch’ing Dynasty), decorated with erotic scenes.
  • A mirror box, from 19th-century China, comprising a travelling mirror that folds out to reveal a series of beautifully illustrated erotic scenes.
  • A vase from Peru (1470-1532) featuring a ritualised sexual act (fellatio), intimating the potency of fluids and the power to give birth.
  • Symbols to promote fertility and to protect during pregnancy and birth, notably fertility dolls.
  • Votive offerings in the forms of female breasts, a phallus, a vulva.
  • Various phallic amulets and good luck charms.
  • A chastity belt (said to be probably for display rather than actual use).
  • A Roman oil lamp from the first century CE, depicting a woman having sex with a horse.


A113239 clay vase, Chimu-Inca Image credit: National Museum of Science and Industry / Wellcome Trust.

A113239 clay vase, Chimu-Inca (full details at end of post). Image credit: National Museum of Science and Industry / Wellcome Trust.

My personal favourite is the 19th-century copy of an ancient Roman wind chime (tintinnabulum) from Italy, which would have hung in a doorway of a home or shop in Pompeii. It depicts a gladiator fighting his own penis which has transformed itself into a panther. It was probably used to ward off evil, to protect, and (of course) to amuse. Similar ‘flying phalluses’ were made and hung in Roman households and could feature animal wings, legs, tails or human riders.

Intimate Worlds offers an insight into the ways sex and sexuality have been thought of, understood and represented in different cultures over the centuries. Rather than provide in-depth analysis or conclusive statements, this exhibition asks its audience to reflect upon possible interpretations of particular objects. It poses questions about our own attitudes to erotic depictions, sexual practices between men and women, adults and children and same sex, fertility and contraception, sexual education and pleasure, power and control relations.

Of the thirty items currently on display in Exeter, only four have ever been on show before. After Wellcome’s death in 1936 the million or so artefacts of the Historical Medical Museum collection were gradually dispersed to institutions, galleries and museums throughout the UK and abroad. A large portion were transferred the Science Museum in London. Along with hundreds of other objects, the erotica artefacts are normally held in storage at the Science Museum’s repository in West London.

This exhibition is therefore a unique opportunity to see Wellcome’s sexually related material brought together and beautifully presented at one venue. With one month left to run this exhibition is one not to be missed! The Royal Albert Memorial Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10.00 – 17.00, Entrance is free.

Intimate Worlds is curated by Tony Eccles, Curator of Ethnography at the museum, and co-curated by Kate Fisher, Jennifer Grove and Rebecca Langlands from the University of Exeter.

Author: Amanda Engineer is an archivist at the Wellcome Library.

A113239 clay vase, Chimu-Inca:

Many ancient Peruvian pots feature ritualised sexual acts. This functional water vase depicts an act of fellatio. Some scholars suggest that although the act of sex depicted is not reproductive, the passing of semen into the mouth symbolises the potency of fluids, a theme that is perhaps reinforced by the depiction of the Chimú-lord who sits atop a stepped pyramid representing the life-giving waters of the Andean mountains. For these scholars, this vase shows a woman imbibing semen so that she will have the power to give birth. The image was supplied by Tony Eccles.

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