Exhibiting Challenging Art at the British Museum – Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

Educational efforts within the museum are often perceived to focus on children, families, and school groups because the most visible and unique educational programs are games, apps, and activity stations intended for these groups. But what role does museum education play in the adult museum experience, especially when museums are dealing with difficult subject matter? To find out, I visited a temporary exhibition at the British Museum, Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

This exhibition showcases the museum’s large collection of shunga paintings and prints. Shunga is essentially erotic art so most pieces displayed explicitly depict sex, which would be considered “obscene” under most Western pornography laws, and certainly aren’t the kind of high art that a museum visitor expects to see in an institution like the British Museum. Substantial educational support would be necessary in order to establish the shunga as culturally significant works of art rather than only functioning as titillating pictures.

Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow) Kitagawa Utamaro, 1788 © Trustees of the British Museum

Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow)
Kitagawa Utamaro, 1788
© Trustees of the British Museum

Although Western society is quickly moving past restrictive obscenity laws  in the case of art, there was still an age restriction (and an intimidating security guard) put in place at the British Museum. The anti-censorship educator in me disagreed with this, but the first people I encountered on my way to the exhibition were giggling teenage boys loitering around the exhibition’s gift shop so I was actually relieved that I was spared that particular annoyance. In fairness to the museum, it is likely that there would have been a much greater backlash against displaying erotic art if there was not an age restriction in place.

Triptych (Women sewing) Kitagawa Utamaro. ca. 1795 © Trustees of the British Museum

Triptych (Women sewing)
Kitagawa Utamaro. ca. 1795
© Trustees of the British Museum

Even as an adult, it is a bit shocking to see these explicit images in these traditional, hallowed museum halls. But you get accustomed after seeing a few, and honestly, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal! The shunga displayed did not depict sex in a way that was obscene or degrading in any way, but as a mutually enjoyable activity between consenting partners. I personally found it much less disturbing than the violent war imagery or gruesome crucifixions that can be seen in art museums everywhere.

Sode no maki (Handscroll for sleeve) Torii Kiyonaga, ca. 1785

Sode no maki (Handscroll for sleeve)
Torii Kiyonaga, ca. 1785
© Trustees of the British Museum

The main goal of the exhibition seemed to be to establish shunga within its cultural context, relying heavily on wall text to do so. General wall labels described the use of shunga as instructional pieces for young couples, collecting practices of both men and women, and the general acceptance of shunga and sex in samurai-era Japan. Special emphasis was placed on the acceptance of homosexuality, an issue that is currently hotly debated in Britain. One section also focused on censorship of shunga, which began in Japan around 1700. This censorship was not because of the sexual content of the images, but because they often portrayed high-ranking members of society mingling with the lower classes and inspired gossip. Shunga only began to be harshly censored in the 1900s, as Japan became increasingly influenced by Western culture.

The object labels also helped place the shunga images in a cultural context by explaining the scene depicted, often drawn from a legend or famous historical figures, and translating the Japanese text that often accompanied the image.

Suzuki Harunobu, ca. 1765-1770 © Trustees of the British Museum

Suzuki Harunobu, ca. 1765-1770
© Trustees of the British Museum

This exhibition highlighted the humor with which the artists approached their work. Rather than being seen as very serious act, sex is seen as playful and silly, often putting the figures into compromising situations; most of the text in the images is a conversation between partners, hoping that they won’t get caught. In one memorable print, a woman has seen her husband with another woman and prepares to throw a snowball at the pair to cool their ardor (shown above). Shunga artists took great pleasure in parodying serious artistic or scholarly works, including erotic versions of the famous Tale of Genji and a popular Confucian advice book for young wives. After a few giggles, this humor throughout the gallery helped everyone relax and enjoy a challenging exhibition, and I love when museums break out of their very serious keeper-of-high-culture role – laughing at the art museum is always a good thing!

An amusing poem found on a wall of the British Museum in Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

An amusing poem found on a wall of the British Museum in Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

Although I approached this exhibition with some trepidation (and a lot of awkwardness), it turned out to be enlightening, funny, and really enjoyable, largely because of the helpfulness of the information provided. What do you think about museums displaying explicit or challenging art? Do you have any ideas that could improve exhibitions like this one?

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3 thoughts on “Exhibiting Challenging Art at the British Museum – Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art

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