“Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display” by Jennifer Tycurczy— The Role of Museums in Sexuality”

Tyburczy, Jennifer. “Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display”, University of Chicago Press, 2016.

The Role of Museums in Sexuality

Amos Lassen

Writer Jennifer Tyburczy tells us that “all museums are sex museums” and she explores the formation of Western sexuality—particularly how categories of sexual normalcy and perversity are formed—and asks what role museums have played in using display as a technique for disciplining sexuality. She argues that most museum exhibits assume that white, patriarchal heterosexuality and traditional structures of intimacy, gender, and race represent national sexual culture for their visitors. In “Sex Museums, we see the history of such heteronormativity at most museums and she proposes alternative approaches for the future of public display projects, while also offering the reader curatorial tactics—what she calls queer curatorship—for exhibiting diverse sexualities in the twenty-first century. If we indeed live in a world of diversity, we must also be able to see diversity in our museums.

Tyburczy shows that museums are sites of culture-war theatrics. Dramatic civic struggles over how sex relates to public space, genealogies of taste and beauty, and performances of sexual identity are staged in the hope that these will provide better understanding. As we look deeply into the history of erotic artifacts, we see how museums have historically approached the collection and display of the material culture of sex, which poses complex moral, political, and logistical dilemmas for the Western museum. The author unpacks the history of the museum and its intersections with the history of sexuality and argues that the Western museum context (from its inception to the present) marks a pivotal site in the construction of modern sexual subjectivity. We get new interpretations of what we see in museums along with case histories that are compelling in every aspect. Tyburczy’s selections are “a diverse array of incidents that beautifully index period ideas about sex and its structures of visibility and invisibility. Ultimately, in weighing these discreet histories within a new category of displaying sex, Sex Museums manages to make them speak to one another.” This is an original, and timely account of the rhetoric and material practices of the display of erotic materials. Tyburczy uses her own experience as a curator and interviews, observation, and archival research to give us deep looks at these often-precarious institutions. She brings together queer studies and museum studies to show what works in terns of exhibiting and archiving sex.

She urges museums and museumgoers to think more carefully, creatively, and queerly about how diverse sex and sexualities are displayed and navigated in the museum. This is a very smart analysis of the politics of the erotic in the public sphere. Representation has the power to change how we understand the world, and care about sexual and gender minorities in “civic space.”

Tyburczy brings us a genealogy of the recent culture wars as she examines transnational circuits of capital, sex, and tourism. She reorients the history of exhibition in new ways and I am quite sure that whoever reads this will never look at an exhibition in the same way again.

Here we are reminded of how important performative display of images and objects are to the world outside the museum walls. We become immediately aware of Tyburczy’s consistent attention to the complex interplay between race, sex, gender, and the politics of display. We see how history and theory come together and how museums studies can come together with sexuality studies as well as how performance can join the archive thus producing thought and innovation in method. Tyburczy creates her own museum that is “a rich transnational-transdisciplinary space” and she leads us in an exploration of it. She also suggests that museums might be more open to sexual displays than we might have thought.

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