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Archive for the ‘museums’ Category

Curating Erotic Art: An Interview with Catherine Johnson-Roehr

In Interview, Kinsey, museums on September 30, 2013 at 4:51 am

In July 2000, Catherine Johnson-Roehr (CJR) became Curator of Art, Artifacts, and Photographs at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Nestled in Bloomington, Indiana, the Kinsey Institute is a leading organization for the study of sexuality. In this interview, Johnson-Roehr discusses the use of the collection, the ever-intriguing work of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the joys of curating an incredibly distinctive (not to mention sexy) collection of artwork.

PJP: The Kinsey Institute is in Bloomington, Indiana. Can you talk a little about location? In New York, it might be harder to get attention. The Museum of Sex is there, but of course the Museum of Sex also borrows items from the Kinsey for their displays.

CJR: Many people are surprised to find us in Indiana, but there’s a simple reason for it—Dr. Kinsey was a professor at Indiana University when he founded his institute for sex research here in 1947.  It would be much more expensive to run an operation like this in New York. We’re also so much a part of Indiana University. It’s hard to see how we might move away from this area. We do loan materials for exhibitions in New York and elsewhere, and we have had entire shows travel as well. Right now, I’m working on a request to send some photographs to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

PJP: Which photographs?

CJR: Five George Platt Lynes photographs. We do what we can to make it possible for people to see the remarkable materials that we have here.

PJP: As the curator, you of course want people to have access to the materials–but when a class comes in you may also worry about preserving them. How do you balance creating access with preserving the materials?

CJR: We do provide access for anyone who wants to do legitimate research using these materials. But it’s not completely open access. We require that anyone coming in to view materials has some sort of research agenda in mind. We just can’t accommodate a lot of people browsing. I also provide show-and-tell sessions for students.  I bring materials  out for the class to view  and we can talk about their significance for their course.

PJP: Is that because you want to project the privacy of some of the donors?

CJR: We do have some sensitive images. Some of our material actually came to us from police departments—it may have been a confiscated item. We may not know anything about the individuals in the photograph, or even who took the photograph or where. That image could still be useful for research; for example, it may illustrate clothing or behavior from a particular era. If a scholar is researching gay men in the 1920s, he or she may want to use a photograph from our homosexual male category to illustrate an article or book.

PJP: I know at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, Jerry Slocum, a collector of puzzles, has stayed really involved with the puzzle collection he donated. Does the Kinsey have any donors who stay connected to the Institution?

CJR: We do. One that comes to mind is Herbert Ascherman. He’s a photographer who has donated more than 1,500 of his own prints. He has had a long career, so he has given us recent work, as well as photographs taken over several decades. He’s done a lot of work photographing communities, such as the Leather community or LGBT couples and events around Cleveland where he lives.

Herb has donated a lot of his own work, but he’s also become very interested in helping us expand our vintage collection. He enjoys going to photography sales and conferences. He likes looking for old photographs. He’ll stop at antique shops and look for tintypes.  He’s given us some really wonderful examples of early photography—several daguerreotypes, as well as  tintypes, carte-de-visite photographs, stereo cards, and other examples of  nineteenth century photography. He’s someone who’s really helping us expand our collection in several ways. He’s also active as our advisor on photographic issues. Most donors aren’t quite that involved, but I’m still in touch with quite a few people.

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On Kinsey & Cataloguing Erotica

In Kinsey, museums, sexuality on July 26, 2013 at 10:27 am

Pamela Pierce

In 2004, I fell in love with Alfred Kinsey. Not the real one, of course, but the character played by Liam Neeson in the movie Kinsey. I didn’t even exactly love Kinsey the character—it was his work organizing and categorizing sexual behavior that I found enchanting. He had an earnest, obsessive devotion to cataloguing erotic experiences that I couldn’t help but admire. Asking questions about human sexuality and developing theories about the answers takes a certain amount of guts, wit, and determination—especially in 1940s-era Southern Indiana.

Seven years later, I started a Master’s in Library Science at Indiana University in Bloomington and began working at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Founded in 1947, a year before the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, the center strives to “advance sexual health and knowledge worldwide.” Its collection of over 100,000 photographs, novelty items, paintings, collages, and artifacts is part of accomplishing that goal. I have created cataloging entries for pillow books from Japan, British condoms celebrating the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton, and ancient scrolls detailing Chinese sexual practices.

I love cataloguing at the Kinsey because it’s my job never to judge. My first task there was to describe a large collection of confiscated San Quentin-created erotica. Inmates in the California prison created erotic images they could experience behind bars using watercolors, parts of mattresses, the backs of moral guidance pamphlets, crayons, and pencils. Their creations demonstrate how limitations can never squash our human capacity for sexual imagination.


While cataloging, I would sometimes pause at drawings of dogs and friendly kitties straight out of a cute animal catalog taking part in sexual situations. The proper cataloging term for this is “zoophilia.” Although the drawings sometimes surprised me, I catalogued everything as objectively as possible.

At first, my Excel sheet descriptions of these items weren’t explicit enough. At my job, it’s important to be as precise as possible when describing sexual acts while sticking to the Kinsey vocabulary. I had a particularly hard time with the artworks that were ambitious in the number of details they depicted. One of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to list or divide Tijuana Bibles, or eight-pagers. Tijuana Bibles were short graphic novels that often included characters like Popeye or Dagwood and Blondie engaged in activities not fit for the Sunday cartoon pages: Olive Oylin a ménage-a-trois with Popeye and Dagwood, or focusing on masturbation without the aid of spinach-enhanced Popeye. Many unusual questions emerged while I catalogued. Typing away at the office, I’d wonder, Does Olive Oyl’s self-pleasure deserve its own row on the spreadsheet?


After adapting to writing about sexually explicit artifacts as a volunteer, I became a paid Art Cataloger in my second year of work. For this position, I was given a list of often-used terms from the official Kinsey list. The Kinsey uses its own vocabulary to catalog items in the library and art collection. Some of the most common words and phrases include penis in art, breast in art, zoophilia, urolagnia, coitus, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexual tea rooms, and the stalwart phrase—women in art. I apply the “women in art” phrase to an image when I’m not sure how else to classify it. This usually means that there is an absence of a sexual act; the woman, not the pleasure, is the subject of the work. There is also a “men in art” phrase. I usually use that category in conjunction with images depicting men in leather or hyper-masculine images designed to create a specific fantasy. The sailor motif, I’ve discovered, has been popular for decades.

I’ve always found satisfaction in organizing items and creating order from chaos. At the Kinsey, I work to classify the undefinable. Kinsey wanted people to feel like they weren’t alone. The process of cataloguing the artifacts in his collection makes me feel like I’m continuing his mission: parts of human identities that might seem strange or even disgusting to some become normal to me.


Among my favorite items I’ve catalogued are a series of photos capturing highway rest stops in upstate New York. These black-and-white photos focus on the places where desire occurs. When I look at them, I think about what locations of desire say about the intimate moments that happened there. And I think back on the locations that exist within my own memory.

Many of the artists who created the items in the Kinsey’s collection are about lofty concepts like desire, love, and connection. The fantasies they depict can also construct reality, because erotic art doesn’t end with the people who create it. The people who look at our collection have the freedom to interpret the fantasies those images portray in the terms of their own, most private desires. And they can do that the way Kinsey would have wanted them to: without shame.

Pamela Pierce worked at the Kinsey Institute while she was earning her Master’s in Library Science from Indiana University. She currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area and works with students who have been in the foster care system.

Note on the images: All the illustrations in this post are from The Kinsey Institute (