“That’s a hard one”: answering and asking questions at the Institute of Sexology

EXCUSE ME, WOULD YOU MIND IF I ASKED YOU A FEW PERSONAL QUESTIONS ABOUT SEX?

It’s the final section of the ‘Institute of Sexology’ at the Wellcome Collection and I’m greeted by a wall display with “a few thoughts about sex today”, provided by fellow visitors. According to this display, over the last 7 days, 17 female visitors identified as ‘homosexual’, while 23 male visitors reported that their sex life was making them unhappy. Underneath some more statistics, some thoughts of visitors scroll across an LED display.

Institute of Sexology (Photo: Hayward)

Institute of Sexology (Photo: Hayward)

These statistics and thoughts were all collected via a questionnaire that visitors to Institute of Sexology were asked to complete. Opposite this display is a long table (with only a few spare seats when I visited), with piles of questionnaires, pencils and the faces of amused and curious visitors. I enjoyed the Institute of Sexology exhibition, but this element, this questionnaire and the way it will be used, is the reason I came away in awe. (For reviews of the exhibition, see Heike Bauer, Rebecca Saunders and Fern Riddell). The Wellcome has used the phrase ‘Undress Your Mind’ to promote the exhibition, but I wasn’t actually expecting to contribute my own opinions to the exhibition.

Before turning the final corner, I hadn’t seen any opportunities to interact with exhibits – the exhibition is very much a look and learn rather than interact display. The final section, however, turned it into a “participatory” exhibition, where visitors were asked not only to contribute to the exhibition, but also to the catalogues of the Wellcome Collection.

The questionnaire is set out to look like a test paper – I haven’t seen anything much like it since I took my A Levels. It includes 25 questions, which visitors are encouraged to answer as many of as possible. The introductory guide informs the visitor in bold, red writing that the questions “are all about sex”, but nothing in their answers could be used to identify them – they are completely anonymous. Then it got really exciting – for me anyway. The intro goes on to explain that completed questionnaires will be used to update the display every week, used in statistical analysis, possibly quoted in print or online, incorporated in future editions of the questionnaire and then archived, along with every other visitor’s responses, in the Wellcome archive. For future historians of sexuality, what an amazing resource. For public historians too, these questionnaires are an incredible example of how the the thoughts of visitors can be incorporated into an exhibition and museum collection.

What I thought was really incredible though, is that this questionnaire is updated and reprinted every week, to replace one of the questions asked by the Wellcome with a question asked by a visitor. The final question on the 8 page document is “if you could ask the other people coming to this exhibition just one question of your own about sex, what would that question be?” Questions that have been asked by visitors are identified in bold, red text in the document – 10 of the 25 questions were visitor questions when I visited. Some examples are: “Why do you have sex?”, “What do you think your life would be like without sex?” and “Should homosexual sex information be taught in schools?” Eventually, ALL of the questions in the questionnaire will have been provided by visitors. Visitors are not only providing the raw data for future studies based on these questionnaires, but they are shaping the questions, and this part of the exhibition, themselves. As both a visitor and as a scholar of public history, this element really made the exhibition special for me. I’m planning on going back in the final week of the exhibition to see what other questions visitors have asked, and to see the final shape of their contributions to this exhibition.

Despite that, there are two particular questions that were asked by Wellcome that I’ll be sad to see disappear from the questionnaire: “Would (or could, or should, or does) being a feminist make you have better sex?” and THE hardest question I’ve ever been asked “If you could change just one thing about your identity, and visit one other place and time in order to have sex there, where would you time-travel to, and as whom?” This last one sparked something rarely seen in London, or in museums in general: conversations and laughter with strangers. While I was discussing the difficulty of this and throwing some suggestions around with my friend, a group of friends sitting next to us joined in the conversation. It reminded me that exhibitions and museums are as much about provoking conversations, learning, debate and fun, as they are about presenting the past.

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