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The rites of man: The British Museum and the sexual imagination in Victorian Britain

Janes, Dominic (2008) The rites of man: The British Museum and the sexual imagination in Victorian Britain. Journal of the History of Collections 20 (1), pp. 101-112. ISSN 0954-6650.

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhm019

Abstract

In the nineteenth century, the British Museum possessed a locked store of erotic objects. However, this did not serve to sanitize the rest of the collection. I use the evidence of an anonymous tract, Idolomania, set in the context of other literary productions of the time, to show how a wave of anti-Catholic agitation led to claims that the public displays of the British Museum were saturated with morally dangerous material. A wide range of objects, images and motifs were interpreted as evidence of pagan fertility cults, thus throwing into question the seemliness of the Museum's public displays. However, I use the evidence of an anonymous early Victorian tract, Idolomania, set in the context of other literary productions of its times, to show that the early Victorian wave of anti-Catholic moral panic led to claims that the public displays of the British Museum were saturated with morally dangerous material. Although I cannot and do not claim that this was a mainstream view, I do use this tract to emphasise that there is a ongoing tradition of eroticised readings of sculpture galleries, even ones supposedly purged of explicitly sexual material. That this fact is not widely recognised may be to do with dominant conceptualisations of the separation between art and pornography that date from the Victorian age. Much classical and Hindu statuary may indeed have been intended indirectly if not directly to produce erotic responses. And it we want to fully engage with the power of bodily representations in museum collections it may be sensible to openly acknowledge sexual fetishism as a social construction and, therefore, the diversity and unpredictability of arousal.

Item Type: Article
Additional Information: This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Journal of the History of Collections following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version (v.20(1), pp101-112, 2008) is available online at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhm019
School or Research Centre: Birkbeck Schools and Research Centres > School of Arts > History of Art
Depositing User: Dr Dominic Janes
Date Deposited: 26 Oct 2011 12:35
Last Modified: 08 Apr 2014 12:05
URI: http://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/id/eprint/4241

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