Trendswatch: the birds and the bees - Museums Association

Trendswatch: the birds and the bees

Jonathan Knott finds museums are branching out into sex education
Jonathan Knott
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London’s British Museum began holding relationship and sex education workshops for secondary school pupils last month. The hour and a half cross-curricular sessions are designed to complement in-school sessions. Led by an artist, students focus on one of four themes: LGBT; pornography and consent; gender and transgender identity; or body image.

The project springs from a growing awareness of the role museum objects can play in encouraging young people to discuss sensitive topics. Melany Rose, the museum’s education manager for schools and young audiences, says objects are powerful tools for breaking down barriers.

“In museums, we know that objects are great conversation starters,” Rose says. The museum will offer these workshops for at least a year. Rose hopes to make them a permanent part of the venue’s offer and to introduce sessions for primary schools.

The venture follows a pilot scheme focusing on LGBT issues in February that worked with 30 schoolchildren from London at the museum over two days. The activities were based around objects such as the Ain Sakhri lovers figurine, a carved stone from c.9,000 BC depicting two entwined figures.

“We passed around a handling replica of the Ain Sakhri and had a discussion about it,” says Rose. “Who are these two figures? Why do we naturally assume that they are male and female? Could they be two males?”

Busts of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his male lover Antinous were also discussed, as was a limestone relief of two Roman women holding hands. Rose says learning about same-sex relationships in the ancient world gave participants a broader perspective.

“One student said to me, ‘I didn’t realise this was going on all these years ago and that it’s not something new’,” she adds.

Similar work has taken place in other museums, including through a project run by the University of Exeter, titled Sex and History. The initiative, which began in 2008, explores the role that historical objects can play in encouraging discussions about sex and sexuality. It has worked with museums in south-west England, including the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, on a range of work such as exhibitions and activities for young people aged 14 and upwards.

Jen Grove, a postdoctoral researcher at the university who works on Sex and History, says historical objects provide distance, making it easier to have difficult conversations. “People start talking about the historical culture and then move quite naturally to contemporary issues and attitudes.

Grove says that gaining a historical perspective also encourages people to think critically about how ideas about sexuality are created. The project has used a chastity belt to start a discussion on consent and control. During the activity, students learned that the objects were not thought to be genuine medieval artefacts, but were part of myths created in the 19th century. “By revealing this, we can discuss how the Victorians constructed their concept of the medieval,” Grove says.

Sex and History has produced material to help schools and charities teach sex education using images of objects. Staff working on the project at the university have also created a similar scheme, Sex in Six Objects, which included workshops for young people at institutions such as the Freud Museum in London and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.

Grove says the team is always interested in collaborating with museums on new approaches. “We are open to developing different models,” she adds.

Objects of desire

“Sexuality has been central to history in terms of identity, politics and social hierarchies, so it is important that we allow people to explore it with that kind of scope within themselves and also outside of themselves, in wider society. It’s great to be able to do this somewhere like the British Museum, where visitors come to learn about the history of human civilisation. Some young people are happy to talk about themselves and some aren’t comfortable doing that, so talking about these issues through objects is a great way to depersonalise it. Students were surprised by some of the objects discussed – either because of their explicit nature or because the museum was uncertain about what they represented.”

Chloe Cooper is an artist educator at the British Museum

Jonathan Knott is a freelance writer

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