Sex: A History in 30 Objects was open from October 17, 2015 through July 31, 2016.
Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016 Penn Humanities Forum on Sex. Thirty objects from the Museum’s vast international collections are presented in this survey; like the Native American pipe bag decorated with the Lakota two spirit, or third gender, the phallus-shaped ancient Roman bronze pendant, and the “love stick” from Micronesia, each object has a story of its own.
“Anthropologists quickly learn that ideas about human sexuality and gender differ greatly across cultures and through time, and a society’s material culture can offer clues to understanding diverse perspectives. We wanted to use this small show, not to tell it all—that is impossible—but to invite guests to consider how societies and cultures weave sex and sexuality into the fabric of their world views.”
The exhibition explores several themes around the broad topic of sex: Love and Sex; Beauty, Desire, and Attraction; Religion and Sex; Gender Diversity, Gender and Society; and Initiation and Ceremony.
Objects come from many times and regions of the world, including ancient Iran, Greece, Rome, New Guinea, Egypt, Sierra Leone, India, Tibet, and North America, and each object has a story of its own. On view are late Roman period bronze pendants, one shaped as a phallus, one a vagina, not associated with eroticism but rather meant to offer protection. A Native American Lakota pipe bag is decorated with an image of the Double Woman, a powerful, ambivalent figure who, through dreams, has the power to transform men into winkte, members of the Lakota two-spirit, or third gender. A “love stick” from Tol Island, Micronesia, used by men, would be shown to a woman, an intended partner, then poked through the wall of her thatched house by night to elicit her acceptance or rejection.