Codifying Desire: Documenting and Exhibiting Collections of Sexuality

30 Sep 2021 - 08:30

by Nickita Maesela


Sir Zanele Muholi, one of South Africa’s most famous and most exhibited artists, and one whose work explores gender and sexuality, told me in an interview once that the people in her work Face and Phases (a series of portraits taken since 2006) are not her subjects as the photographer. Face and Phases is rather a collaboration of story sharing. I believe that this is a point to take note of in the documenting and exhibition of sexualities. This is not to confirm the heterosexualising of the word sexuality in general, but to acknowledge the importance of developing methods of thought from marginalised groups. This would be defying heternormative ways of thinking, which is why I introduced this piece with a queer artist. 

“What is important to me is how my work challenges and contributes to society and the place of Black LGBTQIA+ people within it,” said Muholi in an interview with the British Journal of photography (2020). 

Hannes Hacke is a research associate and curator at the interdisciplinary Research Centre for the Cultural History of Sexuality at Humboldt-University, Berlin, where he is currently working on the documentation, preservation and exhibition of a collection of erotic art. His talk dealt with three aspects of his ongoing engagement with the archiving and display of erotic art in museum settings. He spoke about the politics of labelling archival objects and the importance of politically correct language for labels of objects of an erotic nature. He spoke about the exhibition the ‘Eroticism of Things’, held at the Museum der Dinge, in Berlin, which explored the erotic aspects of museum objects. Finally he spoke about the politics that come with establishing a collaborative curatorial practise, in this case between sex educators and museum curators, and the tension that comes with this. 

“As Jennifer Tyburczy makes clear early in her book, the relationships between sex and museums have existed for centuries. In fact, although these connections have rarely been explicit – except before the eyes of historical and global elites – implicitly, all museums are sex museums”(Tyburczy, 2016:1). This is not something that is new but I would say the interrogation of elements like language, curation and institutional support for access to works that speak to sexuality, particularly marginalised sexuality, is included in the conversations at art museums today. Queer thinking in relation to a number of important and ongoing debates in the social sciences is not far from the conversations Hacke prompts through his work. “Navigating institutions, means engaging in a curatorial process that involves a lot of negotiation and addressing sexist language and heteronormativity,” explains Hacke. 

Searching for objects that are about sexuality in conventional or technical museums such as the Museum of Things is a challenge that Hacke has experienced. This is a museum with thousands of objects that has with very little to do with sexuality. When searching for marginalised sexuality descriptors in databases and online archives, little to nothing comes up, for instance. Hacke says this speaks to collection and selection practices, and moreover to language that is exclusionary. I think the issue of language also speaks to the insufficient records of many of the objects which has been the case in my own research on clay pots that were simply included in a collection called Northern Sotho pots at the Wits Art Museum. I also found this misattribution in cases of objects misspelled in Sepedi. There are layers to objects held in museum settings, such as labels and terms, that need to be addressed and museum practices of adapting and correcting such errors, that need to change. 

Hacke also speaks about new ways of exhibiting which is important. In South Africa there’s a hesitancy on an institutional level that speaks to a social level where people are scared to talk about topics like sexuality and gender and race and poverty.  I provide these examples to articulate the different marginalised communities excluded from these settings. I do think it is important we do not speak about different marginalised groups though. Without them in the conversation many Black Queer curators and artists would not have access to these institutions and be a part of these conversations and these exhibitions. 

For Hacke, new curatorial methods such as relabelling and collaboration between museum practitioners and sex educators are needed, in order to break the problematic ways of curation and exhibiting. In his work, like Queer Methods and Methodologies, he thinks about materiality in a way that is “surely attractive to those of a queer theoretical bent who are suspicious of essences, stable objects, and the fixed and self-contained subject positions of sexological truths”(Browne & Nash, 2010). Writing on the queerness of matter and things, Browne and Nash states that “matter and things are performative, provisional, indeterminate (despite their apparent material obduracy), and, in the case of artefacts, continually gesturing beyond themselves to their, often disavowed, constitutive outsides” (Browne & Nash, 2010). 

I wonder the types of responsibilities that are carried by researchers, curators and artists like Hacke, who carry the identities of being cisgendered, white and a man in the world that they are saying needs to be dismantled. Like the Black lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde (1984) said : “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Is this what she was talking about?  

I think seeing more Black Queer curators and artists being empowered in these institutional spaces will be helpful. It would mean not having to be faced with what Hacke spoke about regarding doing things differently, but rather having to face the fears of instating a Black Queer curator and the subsequent risk to the institution, like losing donors, which means losing money. Hacke didn’t speak directly about Black Queer curators or art practitioners but, as one myself, I think this further layers the conversation. A re-imagining and collaboration (an idea reiterated to me by Mabafokeng Hoeane, healer, historian, and cultural and heritage Conservator) is pertinent in the project of shifting mindsets, supplying access to resources, and disrupting gatekeeping.

View the discussion, here.

Read more about the exhibition 'The Eroticism of Things', as well as the online workshop, ‘Taking Museum Engagement on Histories of Sexuality and Gender Online’ organised by Hacke in July of this year. Forthcoming is another workshop titled 'Exhibitionism: Sexuality at the Museum' scheduled for December 2021. 


Nickita Maesela is an Honours in Curatorship student interested in re(imagining) time and spirituality through sonic portals like music mixing which she does as a DJ. She is also keen on collaboration and sharing stories of Black queer people in music and research and space.


British Journal of Photographs. (2020). Zanele Muholi; Art and Activism. Available from: [September 2021]
Brown, K., Nash, C J. eds. (2010) Queer Methods and Methodologies intersecting Queer Theories and Social Science Research. Ed. New York: Ashgate.
Dunn, TR. 2018. Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display. Michigan State University Press Review. 5(2): 125-127
Lorde, Audre. 1984. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114. 2007. Print.
Tyburczy, Jennifer. 2012. All Museums Are Sex Museums. Radical History Review 1 May 2012; 2012 (113): 199–211. doi: