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Secret museum

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When Europeans discovered the ruins of Pompeii in the mid-18th century they were forced to grapple with abundantly public images and objects commonplace in ancient Roman culture depicting sexual activities considered taboo to even discuss. Victorians systematically categorized the findings in “secret museums,” thereby setting the stage for the new genre of pornography. [Apr 2006]


A secret museum is a museum that is not accessible to the general public. Sometimes its very existence is denied. The most famous secret museum is the Secret Museum of Naples which is now open to the public, but was hidden from 1819 until 2000. It contains the erotic art of Pompeii. [Jan 2006]

Hidden and secret libraries

main article: hidden and secret libraries
Many European libraries possess a collection of erotic and pornographic literature. During the best part of the 20th century, these collections were kept in a private room, away from the general public. In France this collection was called L'Enfer and in Great Britain it was called The Private Case. Guillaume Apollinaire in France and Patrick J. Kearney in Great Britain were the first to catalogue these collections.

In German, these collections are called Giftschrank or Remota.

Musaeum Clausum

Musaeum Clausum (the Sealed Museum) also known as Bibliotheca abscondita is an inventory of remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living written by Sir Thomas Browne in his old age (an event from the year 1675 is referred to) was first published posthumously in 1684.

Like the encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Musaeum Clausum is a catalogue of doubts and queries, only this time, in true Borgesian style, in the form of extremely brief, thumb-nail descriptions of supposed, rumoured or lost books, picures and objects. Indeed, the 20th century Argentinian short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges himself once declared: "To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musaeum_Clausum [Feb 2005]

Secret Museum, Naples

The Secret Museum (or Secret Cabinet) in Naples, Italy, is a separate section of the Naples National Archaeological Museum containing erotic artworks from the classical period.

Ancient Pompeii was full of erotic frescoes, symbols, inscriptions, and even household items. The ancient Roman culture of the time viewed sexuality differently than most present-day cultures and its concept of obscenity was significantly different.

Excavation of Pompeii by archeologists with a conservative, Victorian mindset resulted in a clash of understanding.

To spare embarrassment by the erotic artwork, it has been locked away in a "secret cabinet", accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals." Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly a hundred years, it was made briefly accessible again at the end of the 1960s and has finally been re-opened in the year 2000.

As of 2005, the collection is held in a separate room in the Naples National Archaeological Museum and a sign on the door warns parents what is inside. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_Museum%2C_Naples [Jan 2006]

`Pornographic Collection' (1866) - Giuseppe Fiorelli
In February 1819, the heir to the Neapolitan throne, the future Francesco I (1825-30), visited the museum, by then transfered to the Palazzo degli Studi, with his wife and daughter. He suggested that `it would be a good idea to withdraw all the obscene objects, of whatever material they may be made, to a private room.' To this room, at first prosaically named the `Cabinet of Obscene Objects' and in 1823 more coyly the `Reserved Cabinet', only those people of mature years and sound morals would be admitted. According to a contemporary guidebook, when the collection was first installed it contained 202 `abominable monuments to human licentiousness'. Restricting access inevitably helped to promote the collection. In 1822 only twenty requests for visits were made; two years later these had increased to 300. By 1861, after decades of uncertainty, the Museo Borbonico, transformed as the National Museum of Naples, became a central feature of Garibaldi's Neapolitan cultural policy and provided the writer Alexandre Dumas, as director, with a short introduction to the museum world. Libertarian zeal drove the immediate publication in 1866 of a catalogue of the `Pornographic Collection', as it was called, compiled by Giuseppe Fiorelli. Despite obvious discomfort in the vocabulary used to describe the artefacts, with its over-reliance on obfuscatory Latin terms, the catalogue's arrangement forms the first nineteenth-century attempt at scientific classification of sexual material culture: the first experiment in the formalisation of the `secret museum' as a curatorial concept. The term `pornography' leapt into English usage as a direct result: Webster's Dictionary of 1864 defined it as `licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii.'

Although the nineteenth century invented pornography, it did not invent the obscene. If sex was to be regarded as something separate from the rest of human experience, then it was Christianity that effected that divorce, the very act of judgement creating and perpetuating the category of the profane. From the time of Augustine of Hippo (d. AD 430) the Church sought to police sex by private confession and public censure. From the sixteenth-century, sex and the print medium proved a powerful combination, and in the atmosphere of Reformation Europe a potentially subversive one. The Roman Catholic Church embarked on a policy of actively destroying prints with erotic scenes, many of which had an explicit satirical dimension. It is this context which has produced one of the earliest survivals of the censored image. -- [Apr 2005]

See also: Pompeii

The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (1987) - Walter Kendrick

  • The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (1987) - Walter Kendrick [amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Village Voice editor Kendrick (The Novel Machine) goes back to the erotic murals of ancient Pompeii and forward to the recent presidential commissions on pornography to demonstrate how public attitudes toward pornography and censorship have changed. PW noted that this is a "well-researched, nontitillating study of the phenomenon." -- Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc.

    Walter Kendrick traces the relatively recent concept of pornography - the word was not coined until the late 18th century - which became a public issue once the printing press gave ordinary people access to the erotica of the Greeks and Romans, the art and literature of the French enlightenment, and the poems of the Earl of Rochester and John Cleland's Fanny Hill. From the secret museums to the pornography trials of Madame Bovary and Lady Chatterly's Lover, to Mapplethorpe, cable TV, and the Internet, Kendrick explores how conceptions of pornography relate to issues of freedom of expression and censorship. --amazon.com

    See also: Walter Kendrick

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