Presented to Coincide with the 2015-2016 Penn Humanities Forum on Sex, Exhibition Uses International Collection to Offer Broad Survey of Diverse Cultural Concepts

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PHILADELPHIA, PA October 2015—Sex, sexuality, and gender identity are perennial hot-button issues in the news. With today’s headlines trumpeting views about same-sex marriage and the sanctity of marriage, gender bender fashions, gender diversity in the workforce, and gender inequities in the boardrooms, are we living in age of revolutionary views on sex?

In some ways, perhaps not.

Statue of Venus, circa 150-100 BCE; Benghazi, Libya. The goddess of sexuality, beauty, and love is shown wringing out her long hair as she is born from the white foam of the sea. The Benghazi Venus is one of 30 artifacts in SEX: A HISTORY IN 30 OBJECTS, on view at the Penn Museum October 17, 2015 through July 31, 2016

A small new exhibition at the Penn Museum, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016 Penn Humanities Forum on Sex, taps into the Museum’s international collection of art and artifacts to offer a broad survey of some of the diverse ways that human beings in societies across continents and throughout the millennia have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity. SEX: A HISTORY IN 30 OBJECTS runs from October 17, 2015 through July 31, 2016.

“Anthropologists quickly learn that ideas about human sexuality and gender differ greatly across cultures and through time, and a society’s material culture can offer clues to understanding diverse perspectives,” noted Lauren Ristvet, Associate Curator of the Near East Section and curator of SEX: A HISTORY IN 30 OBJECTS. “We wanted to use this small show, not to tell it all—that is impossible—but to invite guests to consider how societies and cultures weave sex and sexuality into the fabric of their world views.”

The exhibition explores several themes around the broad topic of sex: Love and Sex; Beauty, Desire, and Attraction; Religion and Sex; Gender Diversity, Gender and Society; and Initiation and Ceremony.

Objects come from many times and regions of the world, including ancient Iran, Greece, Rome, New Guinea, Egypt, Sierra Leone, India, Tibet, and North America, and each object has a story of its own. On view are late Roman period bronze pendants, one shaped as a phallus, one a vagina, not associated with eroticism but rather meant to offer protection. A Native American Lakota pipe bag is decorated with an image of the Double Woman, a powerful, ambivalent figure who, through dreams, has the power to transform men into winkte, members of the Lakota two-spirit, or third gender. A “love stick” from Tol Island, Micronesia, used by men, would be shown to a woman, an intended partner, then poked through the wall of her thatched house by night to elicit her acceptance or rejection.

A Focus on Sex, Sexuality, and Gender

Pipe bag, circa 1880, Great Plans, United States. This pipe bag is decorated with an image of the Double Woman, a powerful, ambivalent figure in Lakota mythology and religion who, through dreams, has the power to lead women to promiscuity and transform men into winkte, members of the Lakota two-spirit, or third gender. The pipe bag is one of 30 artifacts in SEX: A HISTORY IN 30 OBJECTS, on view at the Penn Museum October 17, 2015 through July 31, 2016

In addition to this special exhibition, the Penn Museum’s Second Sunday Culture Films series, also produced in association with the 2015-2016 Penn Humanities Forum on Sex, focuses on Gender Across Cultures. Contemporary documentaries are screened at 2:00 pm in the Museum’s Rainey Auditorium, with special guest speakers and Q&A following the films. Upcoming programs run November 8, December 13, February 14 and March 13, and all films are free with Museum admission donation. A full schedule is online.

The Penn Humanities Forum is a program of the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. A full schedule of the 2015-2016 Penn Humanities Forum on Sex is available online, and features acclaimed scholars and artists from around the world. Many events are held in the Penn Museum.

Images, top to bottom: Statue of Venus, circa 150-100 BCE; Benghazi, Libya. The goddess of sexuality, beauty, and love is shown wringing out her long hair as she is born from the white foam of the sea. The Benghazi Venus is one of 30 artifacts in SEX: A HISTORY IN 30 OBJECTS, on view at the Penn Museum October 17, 2015 through July 31, 2016 (photo: Penn Museum); Pipe bag, circa 1880, Great Plans, United States. This pipe bag is decorated with an image of the Double Woman, a powerful, ambivalent figure in Lakota mythology and religion who, through dreams, has the power to lead women to promiscuity and transform men into winkte, members of the Lakota two-spirit, or third gender. The pipe bag is one of 30 artifacts in SEX: A HISTORY IN 30 OBJECTS, on view at the Penn Museum October 17, 2015 through July 31, 2016 (photo: Penn Museum).


About the Penn Museum

The Penn Museum (the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology) is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 350 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage.

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