THE INTERVIEW: A Tour and a Talk at the Museum of Sex with Curator Sarah Jacobs

I waited breathlessly as my train thrust into the dark environs of the tunnel. Coming out the other side I was satiated, slightly hungry, but sauntering with a spring in my step to the long thick building, hoping to enjoy a stimulating wet morning…okay, okay, enough with the sexual metaphors. I happened to get a guided tour of the Museum Of Sex (TMOS) the other day, by none other than the museum’s curator, the highly informative Sarah Jacobs. With a background in anthropology and gender studies, Sarah has been with the museum for some four years now (it’s been open six) and a more passionate articulate woman, fervently devoted to her work, I’d say you not soon find. I was thrilled, entertained and intrigued as Miss Jacobs and I walked the two levels and three rooms of the museum, starting with the first floor’s The Sex Life Of Animals exhibit.

What’s the Sex Life Of Animals about?

Sarah Jacobs (SJ): Animals engage in a whole host of sex acts that have nothing to do with reproduction…which is really against the ways we have been taught about animal sexuality. In creating this exhibition, we’re hopingly creating a new natural history.

How do exhibitions like this come to TMOS? Is it your job alone or do you get solicitations for exhibits?

SJ: An idea will come to me or someone might pass along an idea, then it’s my job to do all the research and explore the full spectrum of the field as well as its boundaries. We’re very different than most museums with very separate departments, we move very quickly, we don’t have the kind of bureaucracy of a bigger museum. We don’t have to go through years and years of planning, though getting an exhibit up and running can take a while.

How long do the exhibits last? Do you have a set time in mind or do you keep them running if the popularity is there for them?

SJ: We have particular end dates, but we sometimes extend it.

Sarah and I moved beyond the amazing sculptures, video displays and scientific text in the chock-full animal exhibit to the second floor of TMOS, where Action: Sex And The Moving Image and Spotlight On the Permanent Collection are housed. Walking through a dimly lit, long room with a dividing ‘half’ wall in its center, I spied wall-set monitors showing various film segments, as well the films being projected on ‘boxes’ at about knee level.

Tell me about the films here, how you go about setting them up? What is included here?

SJ: The timeline is chronologically organized. We are interested in how the various films were produced, why they were produced.

Do you add and subtract to the films on a regular basis?

SJ: Yes, well, we are actually in the process of revitalizing and adding stuff to it. We hope that the museum will go through an expansion in the near future. Hopefully we’ll be getting more galleries, changing some and adding to the overall structures.

This is quite a filmic collection (is ‘filmic’ even a word? I’m trying so hard to sound smart and cultured here while I stand with this nice lady and try not to stare too hard at the bawdy images play around us!)

SJ: We have Russ Meyer, burlesque, films on the Hollywood level, nudist films. The really important art house, Deep Throat, and Caligula films are here too, and celebrity sex film’s. But overall there’s actually little pornography in this particular gallery.

Spotlight On the Permanent Collection, the last room of the museum presently-again in another long thin space, but brightly lit this time-boasts various sexual artifacts, books, photography, dioramas and sex toys on display behind clear glass cases. We come to the first piece, an example of a male chastity device (looks like it would definitely chafe!) and three examples of early female vibrators.

SJ: These were made by doctors to treat ‘female hysteria.’ A doctor would manually masturbate you, then he’d prescribe one of these vibrators.

We walk down a bit and come to another case displaying old condom cases, then erotic photography.

Out of all the pieces I like best the older erotic photography and images.

SJ: Yes, we have pictures of pinups, burlesque, gay male erotica. These pictures of nude men were really the first way for gay men to get images of other men, it was under the guise of this physical cultural body building kind of thing.

We turn and I come face to face with a freaking Picasso! of all things….and some Keith Haring paintings.

SJ: We’re not an art museum, so when we do show art we’re interested in exploring what its meaning is, why it’s important. Our interpretation is different from the usual art museum. We’re not just considering the aesthetics, we’re also asking what does a piece mean for the person to create this piece of art at this time?

How often does this area change or is added to or subtracted to?

SJ: We’ve actually been changing the last couple of months. It is a constantly changing space, which is great, and then we can tackle a wide range of particular subjects.
But this gallery changes more than the others. The film is semi-permanent; the first gallery changes every couple of months.

Since your not government funded, you’re not beholden to anyone’s criteria but your own, right?

SJ: Right, we don’t receive government or public funding-which is a blessing and a curse-so we can create anything we want to create. But people are very suspicious about the subject of sex and are suspicious when there is money associated with it. I always want to create balance here. This should be a fun place to go, this should be entertaining, absolutely educational, and there should be a social and responsible element.

Ok, so this ain’t MOMA, but I do believe Sarah and the rest of her obviously skilled staff have indeed created a fun, educational and socially relevant responsible museum here. Sure, it’s about sex, and you can chuckle a bit, go in wide-eyed, maybe even get a little jolt ‘you-know-where,’ but I feel TMOS is important, as much as any other museum in NYC, dare I say the world.

Thanks Sarah, it was well worth the trip!

The Museum of Sex’s hours are: Sun – Fri 11 AM to 6:30 PM; Sat 11 AM – 8 PM. It is located at 233 Fifth Ave (at 27th Street). For more info see their website at www.museumofsex.com or call 212-689-6337. All visitors must be over 18

Ralph Greco

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