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How the Kinsey Institute is showcasing its diverse artistic materials on human sexuality

Feb 15, 2021

The Kinsey Institute is taking its Facebook and Instagram followers on a special gallery date every Wednesday.

Each week, a unique artistic material from the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections is shared, along with a brief description of its historical significance, its cultural impact or the inspiration for its creation. The goal of the #ArtWednesday posts is to highlight various items available in the collection, spark conversations, inspire creativity and connect with different audiences.

A black-and-white image of swimmer Greg Louganis in profile, seated with one knee up
As seen on the Kinsey Institute’s post on Feb. 10, 2020, this Herb Ritts photo of Greg Louganis was taken between his Olympic appearances in 1984 and 1988. Louganis won a total of four gold medals, but he lived in abject fear that it would be revealed that he was a gay, HIV-positive man.Photo courtesy of Kinsey Institute

“I want people to think about the way that sexuality and sex appear in material culture,” said Rebecca Fasman, the Kinsey Institute curator behind the posts. “I want people to be able to think critically about the messaging we’re getting as a society versus what is physically around us all the time. I want people to like what they’re looking at, to find some meaning in it and to find some connection.”

Fasman hopes the posts can serve an educational purpose while also acting as a creative jumping off point for people to be inspired to start their own projects.

“I think the ability for people to look at something another human made and maybe understand the choices that they made in order to make that thing is really special,” Fasman said.

Each post features a different piece of artwork that tells a different story about the history of human sexuality. Past images have featured Manuela Picq’s portraits of mothers breastfeeding their children, Eugene Atget’s documentary photographs of a brothel in Versailles and Japanese ceramic figurines called Hakata dolls. The diverse posts reflect the wide variety of materials available in the collections, which owe their origins to Alfred Kinsey.

Ceramic Japanese figurine of a sleeping cat
As seen on the Kinsey Institute’s Jan. 13, 2021, post, Hakata dolls are brightly painted ceramic figurines from Fukuoka, Japan, that date back to the 17th century. Erotic Hakata dolls, which feature a sexually explicit scene hidden from plain view, gained popularity during and after World War II.Photo courtesy of Kinsey Institute

“When Dr. Kinsey was going to teach a course in 1938 about human sexuality from a scientific standpoint, he realized that there was little to no data on this,” Fasman said. “So, he started collecting material culture related to human sexuality.”

The collections grew over time and now include Kinsey Institute archives, artifact collections, works on paper, paintings, sculptures, textiles, photography, film, video, audio, commercially produced sex toys, pamphlets and educational materials. The materials vary in time period and geographic origin.

“We can show with this collection the huge, long legacy of humans who have existed across the whole spectrum of human sexuality,” Fasman said. “Our grandparents, our great-grandparents and our great-great-great-grandparents were all getting down sexually in ways that we think of as pushing the envelope. I think every generation thinks that they’re very avant-garde and doing cool new stuff sexually, and though there are technological advances that make that true, this is something that as a species we have always experimented with, played around with and expressed ourselves through.”

Aside from demonstrating the ways that humans have explored sexuality throughout history, the social media posts are often dedicated to lesser-known artists and stories.

Woman in a bikini sits on a beach lifts a barbell overhead in one hand
In this Kinsey Institute post from Aug. 19, 2020, Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton lifts a barbell with one arm. In the late 1930s, she became a staple at the outdoor weightlifting gyms at Muscle Beach and quickly developed a following. Stockton created a sea change for women in the world of bodybuilding.Photo courtesy of Kinsey Institute

“We have a lot of really big names in our collection, but so many of the other pieces were made by people who could not be open about their sexuality or this aspect of the work that they made for fear of persecution, being imprisoned, being fined or facing violence,” Fasman said. “Those things are still very much a big issue today, especially the violence part, especially with Black trans folks. So I just want to, as much as possible, provide platforms for people whose stories maybe don’t get as much attention as they should.”

The idea to start doing the Wednesday art posts came to fruition early in 2020, just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kinsey Institute was laying out a social media calendar for year, looking for new ways to connect to its audiences and reflect the variety of its work.

“This decision predated COVID-19, but it actually turned into a pretty substantial anchor for Kinsey’s social media platforms,” Fasman said. “It’s been a really cool and relevant way to engage with people as fewer options were available for us to connect.”

The posts only feature the digitized items in the Kinsey Institute collections, which is about one-quarter to one-fifth of its holdings, Fasman said. New materials are being digitized every day, but the process is time consuming.

A man stands on stage in undergarments
As seen on the Kinsey Institute’s Aug. 5, 2020, post in an image taken by Pam Spaulding, a man performs in Mr. Boo’s nightclub in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1975.Photo courtesy of Kinsey Institute

“One thing that has happened with COVID-19, a really good thing, is just underscoring how deeply necessary digitization is and how much people want that,” Fasman said. “We’re really heartened by that. For people who work with collections, we understand the importance of having a digital twin to a physical object, so we’re excited to have new audiences experience our collection and maybe become researchers, scholars or donors in some way.”

Onsite appointments to see the collection are unavailable due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the collections staff are hopeful for the day when visitors can walk their halls again. The Kinsey Institute also has plans to open a gallery in honor of its 75th birthday, which will be celebrated in 2022.

“At the very latest it’ll open in early 2022, but possibly before then,” Fasman said. “This will be a space where people can come see the collections in person and have more engagement with staff members. If they want to see certain items, we can work with people both in that space and in the adjacent reading room. We’re just really excited to be able to have a physical presence in ways that also allow people to engage with our materials. It’s something we’re really looking forward to, so be on the lookout.”


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Jamie Cesanek

News and Media Intern

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