Museum of risqué objects

Charukesi Ramadurai | Updated on May 24, 2019

Selling point: The small museum— in the corner of Fifth Avenue and 27th Street— appears like a sex shop, the kind found in Amsterdam and Berlin   -  CHARUKESI RAMADURAI

New York houses the rock stars of the musuem world, but the one on sex remains relatively obscure

It is the home of the Met — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for the uninitiated. It also houses the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the American Museum of Natural History — all the rock stars of the museum world. Then there are the dozens of smaller ones in every corner of the city. Yet, on a recent trip to New York, I decide to shell out good greenbacks for a peek into the obscure Museum of Sex. After all, how much art and culture can one take?

The first time I came across the small museum — at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 27th Street — I thought it was a sex shop, the kind found in abundance in Amsterdam and Berlin. Its posh location was a bit of a surprise too — it is just a block away from the urban oasis of Madison Square Park and bang in the midst of bustling coffee roasteries. Perhaps it is meant to attract rich tourists who throng the theatres of Broadway and the ateliers of Fifth Avenue. I discovered much later that the area was earlier known as the ‘Tenderloin’, notorious for its illicit bordellos and dance halls. The museum itself is possibly on the site of an erstwhile brothel.

As it happens, entry to the museum is indeed through the gift shop, and what a shop it is! I linger longer than necessary over the risqué, downright audacious rows of merchandise. From water bottles with naughty messages to sex toys whose purpose I can only barely speculate on, there seems to be something for everyone.

After getting my wrist inked — a stamp that works as an entry ticket — I am allowed to step into the less-than-hallowed portal to the actual museum. Dimly-lit steps — the multi-level museum has only mood lighting — lead me to the first exhibit on The Illicit Origins of Pornographic Film. The massive room is empty except for a giggling group of pre-teen girls (I wonder where their parents think they are, early on a weekend morning) who steadfastly ignore the explanatory boards, and instead point at the images on display and collapse into helpless laughter.

James Bidgood’s Reveries   -  CHARUKESI RAMADURAI


One level up is an exhibit of drag queen photographer James Bidgood’s collection of images. He had photographed the drag scene in New York in the mid-20th century. Shot on location or inside his tiny apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood, these images are startling, not just for the costumes and colours, but also for the lighting that perfectly captures those closeted times.

The museum is room after room of these temporary exhibits about specific aspects of human (and animal) sexuality, as perceived and interpreted by society. It is an interesting perspective, to be sure, but it is also disappointing to see no anchoring space devoted to the theme, an exhibition or display that pulls it all together. But for those wishing to drown their discontent at the museum’s content, there is a bouncy castle of breasts in one of the rooms. Called Jump for Joy, this installation is “designed to increase awareness of the body and to create the thrilling possibility of physical contact between strangers”.

Europe, with its practical or even blasé approach to the subject, has always had plenty of sex museums. But prudishness as well as squeamishness had kept sex away from public discourse in the US for a long time, with only San Francisco taking a brief stab at such a museum in the 1970s. It was only at the turn of this century that New York got its own Museum of Sex — or MoSex, as the few locals who are even aware of it, call it — thanks to the efforts of entrepreneur Daniel Gluck, the founder and executive director of the museum.

The stated aim of the museum is to adopt a scientific approach towards a subject that is usually taboo, or viewed only through the lens of titillation. In an attempt to attain the stamp of scholarly seriousness, the museum has an expert advisory board comprising researchers and historians from the field of sexual studies. However, that did not stop local authorities from being ambivalent about its existence, and religious leaders from opposing it vehemently even before it was opened in 2002. William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, even referred to these advisors as pornographers and demanded the museum contain a “death chamber that would acknowledge all the wretched diseases that promiscuity has caused”.

Ah well, even in these enlightened times, and even in the city that prides itself on never sleeping, discussions about sex are never easy.


Travel log


  • Getting There: Fly to New York City from any major Indian city, connecting via West Asia or a European airport such as Frankfurt.
  • Stay: The InnSide New York NoMad by Melia Hotels (https://www.melia.com/en/hotels/united-states/new-york/innside-new-york-nomad/index.htm) is fun and classy, and conveniently located.
  • Tip: More information: https://www.museumofsex.com/

Charukesi Ramadurai is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer-photographer

Published on May 24, 2019

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