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Sex Museums

The Politics and Performance of Display

Sex Museums

The Politics and Performance of Display

Winner of the 29th annual Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Studies

All museums are sex museums. In Sex Museums, Jennifer Tyburczy takes a hard look at the formation of Western sexuality—particularly how categories of sexual normalcy and perversity are formed—and asks what role museums have played in using display as a technique for disciplining sexuality. Most museum exhibits, she argues, assume that white, patriarchal heterosexuality and traditional structures of intimacy, gender, and race represent national sexual culture for their visitors. Sex Museums illuminates the history of such heteronormativity at most museums and proposes alternative approaches for the future of public display projects, while also offering the reader curatorial tactics—what she calls queer curatorship—for exhibiting diverse sexualities in the twenty-first century.

Tyburczy shows museums to be sites of culture-war theatrics, where dramatic civic struggles over how sex relates to public space, genealogies of taste and beauty, and performances of sexual identity are staged. Delving into the history of erotic artifacts, she analyzes how museums have historically approached the collection and display of the material culture of sex, which poses complex moral, political, and logistical dilemmas for the Western museum. Sex Museums unpacks the history of the museum and its intersections with the history of sexuality to argue that the Western museum context—from its inception to the present—marks a pivotal site in the construction of modern sexual subjectivity.    

296 pages | 27 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Gay and Lesbian Studies

Gender and Sexuality

History: General History


“The power of money has been wielded against disturbing depictions, whether through protests against tax-funded obscenity or fears of board members and donors about institutional reputation. Tyburczy presents evidence that the audience(s) for museums may be more open to sexual displays than gatekeepers suppose, but user feedback suggests unanswered questions about what the public expects from a sex museum.”

Times Higher Education

“The performative nature of Tyburczy’s writing ensures that Sex Museums does not remain a static museum studies text, and instead urges museums and indeed spectators to think more carefully, creatively, and queerly about how diverse sex and sexualities are displayed and navigated in the museum.”

H-Net Reviews

“Creatively conceptualized and methodologically queer, Jennifer Tyburczy’s Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display is a welcome addition to a growing corpus of scholarship on museum history and the politics of exhibiting sex for leisure, entertainment, pedagogy, and activism. . . .Provocative and troubling, methodologically diverse, and deeply creative, Sex Museums is a book that successfully enacts the author’s own “queer display praxis.” Jennifer Tyburczy’s intense engagement with a wide range of displays and exhibitions of sex holds the radical potential to disorient (and reorient) us around our own viewing practices, both inside and outside the space of the museum.”

Zeb Tortorici | GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies

“Merging examinations of institutional history, curatorial selection, visitor observations, political commentary, architecture and soundscapes, pedagogical materials, sexual tourism, and the phenomenology of touch, Tyburczy takes the reader on a tour of how and where meanings are made and inculcated. . .Tyburczy adds significantly to this body of literature through her study of sex and eroticism as displayed in museums in her important book Sex Museums, the first of its kind.”

Women's Review of Books

“The book is a dynamic and compelling study of the wide-ranging modalities in which sex has been displayed in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. Tyburczy joins writers, methods, theories, and objects otherwise uncoupled, and in so doing brilliantly archives an approach to museum studies that accounts for gendered, racialized, and sexualized histories and theories of display. Her study is an urgent example of contemporary institutional critique that seduces us by asking us to look and feel sex differently in the museum, and therefore opens us to the affective elements of surprise enacted by encountering pleasure in public.”

"[This] wide-ranging book offers multiperspectival analyses of sex in museums. . . . Engaging with research across a variety of disciplines (museology, performance studies, sexuality studies, and queer theory in particular) alongside a confident autoethnographic approach, Tyburczy also deploys other strategies, such as interviews, descriptions of curatorial practice, and sections of performative writing. . . . Not only, then, is this book a vital contribution to scholarship on the censorship of sex and sexuality that has long been politically important to theatre and performance studies scholarship, but it also contributes innovative and compelling methodologies for the work of political resistance so urgently demanded by our extraordinary times."

Theatre Journal | Susan Bennett

“This is a unique and valuable book. Tyburczy’s grand theme is sexuality on display and the individual case histories presented are very compelling and studded with wholly new interpretations. Tyburczy has selected a notably diverse array of incidents that beautifully index period ideas about sex and its structures of visibility and invisibility. Ultimately, in weighing these discreet histories within a new category of displaying sex, Sex Museums manages to make them speak to one another.”

Jonathan D. Katz, author of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture

“Grounded in extensive multi-site research, Sex Museums is a far-reaching, original, and timely account of the rhetoric and material practices of the display of erotic materials. Tyburczy draws on her experience as a curator as well as interviews, observation, and archival research to present rich portraits of these often precarious institutions. Deeply engaged with museum studies and queer studies, as well as with work on affect, performance, and empire, Sex Museums grapples intelligently with the paradoxes of exhibiting and archiving sex.”

Heather Love, author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History

 “Tyburczy’s Sex Museums hits the sweet hot spot between sexuality studies and museum studies to offer a smart analysis of the politics of the erotic in the public sphere. Read it and teach it if you love art, appreciate the power of representation to change our understandings of the world, and care about the place of sexual and gender minorities in civic space.”

Susan Stryker, director, Institute for LGBT Studies, University of Arizona

Sex Museums is a queer manifesto for museum studies. Curating a grand tour of the museum as the West’s privileged space of display, Tyburczy excavates a genealogy of the recent culture wars while also attending to transnational circuits of capital, sex, and tourism. Offering the intriguing possibility that ‘any museum can be a sex museum,’ this work reorients the history of exhibition in compelling new ways.”

Molly McGarry, author of Ghosts of Futures Past

Sex Museums is a must-read for anyone who loves sex and/or museums. It is an eloquent reminder of how integral performative display of images and objects are to the world outside the museum walls. Tyburczy embarks upon an important exploration of museums as sites of norm-making and offers a valuable critique of ‘choreographies of museumgoing’ which explicitly or implicitly police/censor sex, or the sexually taboo. In Sex Museums, an impressive range of material is covered—from such an American classic work of dissidence like David Wojnarowicz’s  A Fire in My Belly  to the creative, yet controversial work of Mexican artists like Rolando De La Rosa’s La Virgen de Guadalupe con la cara de Marilyn Monroe. Through these, we are able to witness Tyburczy’s consistent attention to the complex interplay between race, sex,  gender, and the politics of display. Sex Museums is a model of how history meets theory, how museums studies can meet sexuality studies, and how performance can meet the archive—producing a rich terrain of truly original thought and methodological innovation. With Tyburczy’s eye and careful theorization, she creates her own museum with careful curatorial notes; a rich transnational-transdisciplinary space we are all lucky to explore.”

Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr., author of Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing

Tyburczy offers a sustained analysis of he curatorial management of sexuality and the staging of sexual content to show how he museum operates as a discursive site for producing sexual pedagogies and codifying sexual norms. Combining critical theory, archival research, exhibit analysis, participant observation, and extensive interviews with visitors and museum staff Tyburczy weaves together varied methodologies to offer an incisive analysis of museum spaces."

Maggie Unverzagt Goddard | Fwd: Museums

Table of Contents

Preface: “A Fire in My Belly”

Introduction: All Museums Are Sex Museums

1 Hard-Core Collecting and Erotic Exhibitionism
2 Nudes and Nazis; or, Surveying Sex through Violence in Museums
3 WARNING: Dissident Sex in Museums
4 Touring the Sex Museum
5 Exhibiting the Sexual Modern
6 Queer Curatorship

Coda: When Sex Museums Fail



Lambda Literary Foundation: Lambda Literary Awards

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