Sex and History

Optional Abstract: 

In the Sex and History project Professor Kate Fisher (History) and Dr Rebecca Langlands (Classics) use their research expertise in the history of sex and sexual knowledge to work with museums, schools, sex education experts and charities throughout the South West, to change the face of sex education and enhance the role of museum collections in social change. The project pioneers new methods of using erotic objects from distant times and cultures to stimulate embarrassment-free discussion about sex, especially in schools and youth groups. Collections of objects from past cultures such as ancient Rome or China have proved hugely effective for stimulating discussion about sex, particularly with disadvantaged youth. Activities have included workshops with youth facilitators, creative projects in dance, drama, film and art projects as well as museum exhibitions. A sex education resource, Talking Sex, has been developed for use in an educational setting.

The Sex and History project, which is part of Sexual Knowledge, Sexual History at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Medical History, draws upon the world-leading research of Dr Rebecca Langlands and Professor Kate Fisher to meet the need for effective sex and relationship education. It empowers young people to discuss pressing contemporary issues in a supportive environment. At its heart is a methodology that uses historical objects from past cultures such as ancient Rome or China as a springboard for discussion, debate and creative responses. Museum collections such as the Wellcome Collection (held by the world-renowned Science Museum, London) have proved an ideal resource for stimulating discussion about sex: they demonstrate diversity, allowing people to reflect on similarities and differences between cultures; they offer thought-provoking evidence about human practices, yet provide historical distance that depersonalises discussion; objects are open to interpretation which enables viewers to generate new theories and test them against their own preconceptions; they empower people with the awareness that people have been concerned about and been depicting sex for millennia. Material culture is a particularly effective medium, providing an immediate point of engagement.

In 2009-10 we worked through six museums (in Bristol, Cheltenham, Bournemouth, Exeter, Plymouth and Truro), with a range of schools, colleges, drop-in centres, LGBT groups and charities for vulnerable young people, in developing activities to engage young people in object-inspired discussion. These included trips to the Science Museum warehouse, object-based workshops with youth facilitators, documentary making and creative projects in dance, drama, film and art projects. One highlight was “Lust in Translation,” an intergenerational film project with Plymouth City Museum and Age Concern (see . The project is also resulting in a series of museum exhibitions of both historical objects and creative responses to them, taking place around the South West of England including Revealing Collections at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro (July-September 2011) and an exhibition of Henry Wellcome’s "Secret Collection", at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (forthcoming in 2013).

Participant feedback (see below) demonstrated not only the transformation of young people’s attitudes towards museums and cultural heritage – instantly making them relevant and engaging – but also the empowering effect on young people’s approach to issues around sex. Therefore we piloted this methodology as a means of delivering national Sex and Relationship Education requirements in formal education settings, bringing youth facilitators and/or museum professionals into school classrooms to kick off creative projects exploring sexual issues through art, dance, drama, music and film. Feedback from teachers and students confirmed the methodology’s efficacy, describing it as a “revelation” for the delivery of sex education. Such evaluation highlighted the need for the project’s methodology to find a sustainable mode of delivery, capable of being inexpensively implemented year on year across the region. We worked with sex education experts across Devon and Cornwall to develop the Talking Sex resource, which is currently being trialled in 40 schools in Devon and Cornwall.

The project continues to have beneficial impact across the educational, arts and voluntary sectors:

1) On MUSEUMS and MUSEUM PRACTIONERS - the six South West hub museums (in Bristol, Cheltenham, Bournemouth, Exeter, Plymouth and Truro), enhancing: their role in social change and public engagement; the confidence of museum staff in exploiting their collections; contribution to national Revisiting Collections methodology (RCM, Truro’s Revealing Collections case-study) which the Collections Trust now uses to guide Museums across Britain.
2) On EDUCATION PROVIDERS, participating schools and colleges (e.g. Truro College, West Exe Technology College; Exeter Academy of Sound and Music; City College Plymouth; University College Falmouth; Exeter College) changing the implementation of statutory requirements to provide Sex and Relationship Education, integrating work with historical objects into mainstream classes and feeding directly into coursework (e.g. soundscapes, drama, dance, film, commedia del arte, mask work and animated film).
“We have to deliver SRE targets…[but] it’s hard. This provided a new way…The objects are surprising... They facilitate discussion, they make it okay to talk about sex…We’ve never found a better way to do it. It was a revelation. ….” Rev Hammer, Academy of Music and Sound, Exeter
3) On CHARITIES AND PUBLIC SERVICES who developed creative projects engaging with historical objects to better address the needs of vulnerable young people (e.g. The Bourne Academy, Bournemouth’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, Platform 51 and Exeter Foyer (helping the homeless and excluded); X-plore LGBT Youth Group; Age Concern): “The end result was brilliant. The confidence built in individual young people has helped us [as a youth service] a great deal.” Hannah Jordan, Youth Worker
4) On PARTICIPANTS: feedback from young people, as well as from teachers and youth-workers suggests a beneficial impact on (c. 1000) participants in various projects: ‘The historical objects opened our minds to new ideas. It made us be more mature in the way we thought about sex. We all discovered things about ourselves. It was refreshing.’ Alex, young participant
5) On the GENERAL PUBLIC who engaged with the results of these creative projects. Audience testimony revealed through surveys and recorded interviews, demonstrate the positive impact of the showcase events and exhibitions including 20,000 visitors to the Royal Cornwall Museum during the Revealing Collections Exhibition, 12th July – 17th September 2011, 150 people who attended the Lust in Translation, launch event, National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth, 6th May 2011 (see website). We envisage similar impact on the 150,000 projected visitors to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum for the Sex Objects exhibition in 2013.
6) On SEX EDUCATION POLICY MAKERS: who developed the Talking Sex Pack, attended its launch at a PHSE conference in Truro in June 2011 or evaluated its potential for region-wide implementation in July 2011. Three regional co-ordinators of PHSE and SRE in the South West: Neil Davidson (Bristol), David Hampshire (Cornwall) and Annette Lyons (Devon) are co-ordinating the piloting of the Talking Sex pack in 40 schools in Devon and Cornwall and disseminating the methodology by presenting it to head-teachers and governors, running sessions at conferences such as the Cornwall Annual Governors conference.



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