Institute of Sexology: Racy sex exhibition builds ORGASM MACHINE and invites public to try it
Sean Connery, Kurt Cobain, JD Salinger, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs all tried out “orgone energy accumulators” – now you can too!
What I saw in my imagination was a space-age capsule filled with glowing orbs, throbbing with cosmic energy and giving off good vibrations.
What I actually found looks like a wardrobe lined with tin foil and a kitchen table nailed to the floor.
It certainly doesn’t look like the crowd-pulling exhibit in a blockbuster show about sex.
But I’ve got a feeling that, once the buzz gets out, this wooden box will have visitors coming from far and wide… though possibly not in the way they are hoping.
Welcome to the pleasure dome. Or, if you prefer, the naughty cupboard.
This odd contraption is an “orgone energy accumulator” designed in the 1940s by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, “father of the sexual revolution.”
He thought the cure for all society’s ills was for everyone to have frequent orgasms.
And he believed a mysterious atmospheric force could be concentrated in a metal-lined box so a person sitting inside would be charged up to experience the heights of sexual pleasure. Imagine a kind of greenhouse for Meg Ryan moments.
Now historians at the Wellcome Collection have recreated, at their “Institute of Sexology”, the very box which inspired the Orgasmatron in Woody Allen’s futuristic comedy Sleeper, the Excessive Machine that Jane Fonda overloaded in sci-fi film Barbarella and even a song called Orgone Accumulator by psychedelic rock band Hawkwind.
What’s more, they hope visitors will try it out for themselves!
Opening this month in a newly revamped health museum in London, the exhibition will explore the study of sex and the work of “sexperts” such as Sigmund Freud, Marie Stopes, Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson.
Objects on show include paintings, carvings and photos of sex in every conceivable (and inconceivable) position. There are bizarre sex aids and advice leaflets, including one which explains how to repair a contraceptive cap with a bicycle repair kit.
So I’m confused when curator Honor Beddard tells me “This isn’t really a show about sex. It explores all the other issues around sex, morality, love, family, gender, reproduction, health and politics. Many of the exhibits are very explicit though, so we do need to warn people of that.”
The posters for Sexology invite visitors to come and “undress their minds”.
And while there’ll be no stripping off allowed in the orgone box, the curators must have debated the possibility of, erm, “Lewd behaviour?” asks Honor, brightly.
“We’ll just open the doors and see what happens. “Some may come looking for titillation – but there are a lot of books here too, so they might end up bored.”
The orgone accumulator (early version pictured above) wasn’t up and running when I looked around (phew!), but do the curators think it actually works?
“There’s no reason why it shouldn’t,” says Honor.
“We’ve built it to the Reich Trust’s exact specifications. It doesn’t vibrate or anything. People just sit in it and are supposedly suffused with energy, a general sense of well-being. And there is a hole in the door so we’ll be able to see people’s faces.”
In the 40s Albert Einstein tested an orgone box and decided it was a bit potty. But America’s bohemians jumped on the idea.
Authors JD Salinger, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs all climbed into the closet in search of sexual liberation. Actor Sean Connery had one during his James Bond era, but never said if it took him to oh-oh-heaven.
The late rock star Kurt Cobain also tried out an orgone box – presumably in pursuit of Nirvana.
But visitors to the Institute of Sexology need to think outside the box to get the most out of the fascinating show.
Take the story of Margaret Mead, an US anthropologist asked by the British government for help handling the “cultural sensitivities” between American GIs and British women during the Second World War.
Honor explains: “With so many American soldiers in Britain the dating rules were suddenly skewed. In America a date was a very casual affair so the more dates the guys went on, the better.
“In Britain it wasn’t like that and if a woman got asked on a date she thought it was going to lead to something else.
“In America, if a man went in for a kiss, the woman refused. That was the courtship ritual. But in Britain a women would think, ‘Brilliant, he really likes me, we’re going to get married’ and kiss him back.
“So the American thought, ‘She’s easy’ and began trying to get out of the invitation to meet her parents over tea.”
Meade produced a pamphlet called The American Troops and the British Community to try and clear this romantic minefield.
Of course we’re still having trouble with mating rituals today.
Honor says: “There is a huge issue with teenagers sexting, a rising rate of sexually transmitted infections in the over-50s, and 80% of us still seek advice on sexual matters from our GPs. Sex is still not talked about as an integral part of our health and wellbeing.
“We are bombarded with sexual imagery through our TVs, computer screens and mobile phones and everything appears more open.
“Yet while we in the West take our sexual freedom for granted, being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is still illegal in almost 80 countries, and in at least five of those it is punishable by death.
“I hope visitors will go away saying, ‘I thought I was very liberal and open-minded, but actually I’ve barely scratched the surface.
“There’s a whole world out there… maybe I need to reassess my views.’”
- The Institute of Sexology is at the Wellcome Collection, London NW1 (wellcomecollection.org ) from Nov 20 until Sep 20, 2015.