If you find yourself in Devon during the Easter holidays then you might like to visit the “Intimate Worlds” exhibition that is currently taking place at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter.
Better still, even if you haven’t intended to go to Devon in the next few months, take a trip to this beautiful part of the country that has so much to offer. Guaranteed, you’ll find something of interest there.
The “Intimate Worlds” exhibition had its launch last week and we were fortunate enough to be invited to the preview.
Sex and Relationships Education is a passion of ours. It is such a vital subject that, taught sensitively and carefully, can be so integral to the wellbeing and education of our children and young people. Taught badly, it can be extremely damaging, which is why a programme of training and development is essential for anyone taking on this subject for the first time.
The exhibition focuses on an eclectic mixture of artefacts, gathered from all corners of the earth, which demonstrates societal and historical interest in sex and relationships. From the Shunga drawings of Japan to the phallic instruments of France, these artefacts convey a clear message of the importance of sex throughout cultures and the ages.
Sir Henry Wellcome, founder of the pharmaceutical giant, was a keen collector of medical artefacts, some of which relate to sex. He collected these pieces from 1900 to his death in 1936, and they’ve never been on public display in this way before.
As the RAMM museum says on its website,
“Wellcome believed passionately in the potential of historical artefacts to unlock the secrets of human sexuality by revealing the varieties and complexities of the way that sex has been understood and represented in different cultures across global history.”
The exhibition is a joint endeavor between RAMM (Exeter museum), the Science museum, the Wellcome Foundation and Exeter University – specifically its “Sex and History” project.
There are many reasons for this exhibition as described on the “Sex and History” project website.
“These [artefacts] reveal the varieties and complexities of the way that sex has been understood and represented in different cultures across global history. This prompts us to question our own attitudes towards such contemporary issues as censorship and display, gender and desire, the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, control of sexuality, fertility and contraception, pleasure and power relations. It asks our audiences to reflect on their own culture and consider the value and significance of sex to us today.”
It is aimed at Key Stages Four and Five, and there are teaching materials available to accompany the exhibition.
For more information, visit the Sex and History blog.
This exhibition complements our own work on using literature in Sex and Relationships Education.
Today, our children have greater access to sexual images in an increasingly sexualised society yet aren’t simultaneously equipped with the skills to discuss such sensitive issues or indeed fully appreciate the effects of this sexualisation on themselves. Story books offer the possibility of dealing with some sensitive issues from an objective distance. They offer starting points to which young (and older) children can relate, thus providing a distancing technique to avoid discussions becoming personal.
The artefacts in this exhibition do a similar thing. They allow young people to see sexuality from the perspective of others. It challenges their own thoughts, their perceptions and potentially some misconceptions about what sex and sexuality mean to them and to others. Through studying the pieces within the exhibition they can gain insight into some of the myths and truths about sex.
For instance, one of the exhibits is a 19th century chastity belt. The historians have done their research and have come to the conclusion that these metallic nightmares were probably never used and that they weren’t invented in the 13th century. Rather more likely, they were created in Victorian times as a threat to women – and a reminder that they should be compliant (and owned). The fact that some Victorian men pretended that there was a long history of chastity, with its accompanying contraptions, kept women and female sexuality in its place. The implications of such actions are still felt today.
The other important point about an exhibition of this nature is its honesty about sex. Often our children and young people are discouraged from talking about sex and relationships, largely due to the concerns and embarrassment of adults – not the child, or young person. To see that sex has been such an important part of life for centuries enables us to have an honest discussion about it.
For those who are concerned that raising the issue through an exhibition such as “Intimate Worlds” might encourage young people to have sex, we would have to respectfully disagree. Seeing the importance of sex gives it greater value, thus providing educators with an opportunity to reiterate the “delay” message. Sex and intimate relationships are so important; they shouldn’t be entered into until there’s a full appreciation of their importance – for anybody.
Our children and young people, as we’ve said, have access to all manner of sexual images. Pornography is available if they choose to find it. These artefects are not intended to be titillation for our young adults. Let’s face facts, many of those coming through the doors of this exhibition will have seen far more outlandish displays of sexuality. What some of the exhibits do offer though is an appreciation of sexual art – erotic art – thereby laying the foundations for discussions on the difference between pornography and erotic images; the potential difference between exploitation and consent.
It might make them question their own behaviour – for example the use of intimate ‘selfies’ or ‘upskirt’ shots taken without the consent of the photographed person. The opportunities for discussion are endless and far easier to initiate with the help of historical artefacts instead of just launching into a list of “do’s and don’ts”, which teenagers may find both intolerable and at times hypocritical.
In many ways, our attitude to sex has remained constant over the centuries and continents. Our ability to talk about sex and relationships remains problematic. Be it a book or an object of intrigue that offers the opportunity for a meaningful, honest and considered discussion about sexuality, then we say again – we need to look at a fresh way of teaching and learning about sex and relationships.
For more information about the exhibition, visit the RAMM website.