'Objects hang before the eyes of the imagination, continuously representing ourselves to ourselves and telling the stories of our lives in ways which would be impossible otherwise', Susan Pearce, Museologist (Objects and Collections' 1993, p.47).
The Horse Hospital is located in a quiet mews in London’s Bloomsbury; the building has been barely altered since the 18th century and visitors still negotiate the stepped ramp built for sick horses. Since the early 1990s, The Horse Hospital has been leased by Roger Burton to house his massive ‘Contemporary Wardrobe’ streetwear collection and progressive exhibition venue. Amongst Roger’s many accolades are supplying authentic Mod costumes for Quadrophenia (1979) and designing Vivienne Westwood’s World’s End boutique. I met Roger in 1993 and attended the private view of his exhibition of Punk t-shirts, displayed on body bags that were hung on chains suspended from the ceiling. I had never experienced anything like it. I had a similar experience yesterday, whilst viewing The Museum of Sex Objects exhibition, which I had not intended to review.
Before entering the gallery visitors are advised (on a beautifully produced textile panel suspended from the ceiling) that, ‘The Museum of Sex Objects story is one of mystery and intrigue. Throughout the centuries, small groups of artisans have kept our stories of sexual subversion and identity alive.’
Deborah Sim - academic, theatre designer, art director and former Creative Director of Coco de Mer (erotic emporium) – is the current ‘Keeper’ and exhibition curator. In another text she highlights that, ’Charting sexuality’s cultural origins is not easy, with clues often locked away in old documents or institutions, their truth deemed too subversive at the time.' Sim has undertaken extensive research in the British Library, the archive of The Wellcome Trust and scouring old court records at the Old Bailey online. Her stated mission is to bring, ‘history’s blind spots into the light.’ She is present in the gallery and engages animatedly with visitors, adding further layers of meaning to the compelling objects, installations and textual narratives she presents.
The exhibition is divided into four core themes. ‘The Wall of Heroes’ comprises white cotton handkerchiefs decorated by individuals who want to share their historical or contemporary heroes of sexual emancipation, activism and innovation, or their own life experiences. ‘A Space of Peril’ explores sexual practices that commonly, and necessarily, take place out of doors. Objects include a case with a pile of ashes and scorched love letters; framed envelopes that contained blackmail letters to homosexual men and a painted bone china figurine of Gabriel Lawrence, attributed to one Thomas Tyler in memoriam of the male milkman murdered by the state in 1775 for being homosexual. 'Ode to Perversion' includes phallic and talismanic objects and ‘The Haunted Feminine’ explores, amongst other narratives, prostitution and how women were ‘tamed’ with the forced administration of highly toxic and addictive substances. I cannot quite believe my eyes at the objects on display and take many photographs. The personal narratives are heart-breaking, amusing and fascinating.
Overnight I ponder my visit and the impact it has made upon me; I can’t sleep thinking about it. I start to post on Instagram and check the date of the figurine of Gabriel Lawrence; the label states that it was ‘conceived in 1775’. What precisely does this mean? It is standard practice for a museum to provide a precise or estimated date. I have a slight sense of disquiet but don’t know why. But, I am distracted by the immediate and heartfelt responses to my Instagram posts.
This morning I phone ‘The Keeper’ and say I would like to review her show. I ask when the museum was founded and enquire whether she has been passed the mantle from a former Keeper – rather like Simon Costin who was entrusted with the Museum of Witchcraft by its founder. And, if so, when? After an unexpected (to me), pause, she says she wants to be straight with me. That, 'the objects are all a fiction...'. Sim has applied the same obsession to the crafting of the objects, seeking out the most highly skilled artisans who can make objects that look so ‘real’ in terms of make and the patina of age. I can’t believe my ears. I have been a curator for over 35 years, working with crafts and decorative arts, archival documents and flat artworks – as well as dress. It is my turn to pause… I don’t feel seduced, or deceived, and laugh. Now I am even more excited by the impact this show has made and explore the implications.
Sim is an obsessive researcher; her textual stories are ‘true’. But what constitutes truth, originality and authenticity, the qualities we have come to expect from exhibitions? I recall that one definition of originality is ‘judicious plagiarism’. Ultimately, everything humankind produces is subject to subjectivity and that includes written histories. And, likewise, museum displays and exhibitions are constructs. She has achieved something quite remarkable and achieved her objective. Visitors to her show, with its appealing title, have been exposed to stories of repression, cruelty, criminality, tenderness, love and humour. Stories that could so easily have remained in the files and between the covers. I have surprised myself by my response. How do I feel? Not sure I should have shared this; it is rather like revealing that Father Christmas and the tooth fairy ‘aren’t real’ – but what is? Part of me wishes I didn’t know. As part of that mission, The Keeper will be holding daily tours of the Museum’s realms.
Roger Burton is fighting to retain his lease on The Horse Hospital which expires December 2024. For more information and how you might help visit:https://www.thehorsehospital.com/stop-the-horse-hospital-from-closing