It is a truism that every scientific effort begins with a collection (of data, specimens, artifacts, documents, literature etc.). The larger and more varied the collection, the greater its scientific value.
In the history of science, private collections have played an important role. Well before most of our present museums and academic institutions were established, members of the nobility and clergy, bankers, businessmen, explorers of every stripe as well as various idiosyncratic dilletantes and amateurs had started important collections, and many of these were eventually made available to scientists and a wider public. In the meantime, of course, official research institutes also began their own collections, an effort that continues to this day. All of this is common knowledge.
It is perhaps less well known that many valuable private collections were partially or totally destroyed by disapproving or uncompehending family members after the death of the collector. This has been especially true of collections containing erotic material. An unfortunate example is the destruction of notes and manuscripts of the explorer Richard Burton (1821-1890) by his widow, presumably because of their homoerotic content.
However, in early 1933 the sexually repressive new Nazi government, with the help of Nazi students, had the Institute plundered and its library publicly burned. All of its collections were lost, and the Institute was officially closed. Its Jewish staff physicians fled into exile. Its founder Hirschfeld died two years later in France.
When, in 1938, the German Nazi government annexed Austria in the so-called "Anschluss", another sexological institute was closed and its Jewish founder driven into exile. The Vienna Institute for Sex Research (Institut für Sexualforschung) had been established in the 1920’s by the author, publisher, and soccer enthusiast Leo Schidrowitz (1894-1956). He escaped to Brazil, but after the end of WW II, returned to Vienna and resumed his writing career, for example with a "History of Soccer in Austria". He did not reopen his Institute, however, and his prolific literary activity was cut short by his relatively early death. Fortunately, a large part of his substantial collection of erotic art, originally published in book form as a Picture Encyclopedia of Eroticism (Bilderlexikon der Erotik), was made available on DVD a few years ago.
It was not until 1947 that the American zoologist Alfred C. Kinsey (1894-1954) was able to found a new Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University and to start a new sexological library and collection, again with donations from many private sources. This collection, which keeps growing to this day, is now the largest of its kind in the world, containing a great variety of inoffensive material as well as "hardcore pornography" of every conceivable kind dating back to the earliest days of photography ("daguerreotypy"). Over the years, Kinsey’s collection has proved invaluable to scholars from many countries and many fields. (In the meantime, the institute has changed its name to the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.)
I myself was able to use the collection for two important exhibitions when I worked at the Kinsey Institute as a research associate. The first of these used uncontroversial, but very rare historical documents for 50 display panels illustrating "The Birth of Sexology in Berlin 1908-1933". The exhibition was first shown in 1983 at the World Congress for Sexology in Washington, D.C. and subsequently in several European countries and in China. The second exhibition used photos from the Kinsey Institute’s pornography collection for a show in Germany at the Munich City Museum (Münchner Stadtmuseum) in 1985 under the title "Das Aktfoto" - the world’s first comprehensive show of nude photographs. It included a separate section of "obscene" photography (closed to visitors under 18). Thanks to the Kinsey collection, I was able to contribute a chapter on "Forbidden Nudes - ‘Obscene’ Photographs 1850 -1950" to the large, illustrated volume that summarized this unique, pioneering exhibtion. (1)
Shortly thereafter, and partially in response to the two exhibitions, I received some historical, sexologically relevant documents and photos from some colleagues and then began a collection of my own. Over the years, I was able to collect a great variety of photographs, videos, letters, sexual diaries, audiotapes, newspaper clips, and artifacts and also obtained more private donations of such material. Some of it is of such delicate, personal character that it cannot be made available even to bona fide researchers without special precautions. Some "illegal" photographs had originally been seized by the police and were eventually made available to me by criminal courts who wanted them to be used for scientific puposes. A few years ago, I donated the entire collection, together with my books and papers, to the Central Library of Humboldt University (Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum), where it is now being kept under the name of Haeberle-Hirschfeld-Archiv.
In San Francisco, the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a private graduate school, has assembled a very extensive sexological library together with a great amount of erotological material and what is probably the world’s largest collection of "pornographic" films. It covers every conceivable form of sexually explicit content from all periods of film history - starting with the very first silent "stag films" through every decade of the 20th century to the present. However, the library and the erotological and film collections are available only to the Institute’s students and to invited researchers.
In the early 1980’s, when I lived in Europe as a visiting professor, a famous German author put me in touch with two private collectors who specialized in illustrated pornographic books. The first of these was a wealthy, retired Swiss businessman, who had bought important items from another, apparently very vast collection assembled by the great Swiss-French actor Michel Simon (1895-1975) and auctioned off after his death. The Swiss businessman had then acquired many more rare items on his own. He showed me, among other things, the exquisitely bound and designed sexual diary of a well-known 19th-century French writer, who had documented his sexual exploits in North Africa with detailed comments and corresponding photographs. Another item was a very obscene, hand-illustrated satire on Hitler, Göring and other Nazi leaders. All books in his collection were unique originals and had considerable artistic and historical value.
The second collector was an elderly, highly educated German, who had amassed what was probably the world’s largest historical collection of this kind in the world. Because of its sheer size, it had to be kept in two different locations in different cities. Eventually, I was granted the privilege of visiting him at both addresses, where I found the book cases reaching up to the ceiling and covering every wall of every room. For a trained philologist like myself, the impression was overwhelming. This all the more as the books were of the highest quality, many of them hand-illustrated by famous artists. I especially remember a whole book entirely hand-written in beautiful script and brilliantly illustrated. I was also able to inspect several large-format, leather-bound pornographic volumes printed in Paris shorty before the French Revolution. These heavy, magnificent tomes with their elegantly designed texts and most exquisit etchings on the finest paper, must have cost a fortune even in their own time. I have never seen books of a higher technical quality anywhere else. Apparently, the French ancien régime had supported a whole industry of exclusive luxury printing and binding, and much of it was openly, clearly, and deliberately "pornographic". Quite obviously, the whole German collection had an enormous material value, quite apart from its importance for our cultural history. However, as the owner explained to me, it was not possible to have it insured. Its only protection was the fact that the outside world did not know about it.
For me, it was also interesting to discover that the Swiss and the German collector knew each other. Indeed, they told me about a third collector in Southern France who possessed an equally large number of illustrated pornographic books. I was also given to understand that there were still other collectors around the world who shared the same passion. It seemed therefore, that there was a "secret brotherhood" of collectors, unknown to traditional scholars.
As far as I know, neither the Swiss nor the German collection was ever made available to researchers. Unfortunately, after my return to the US, I lost touch with both collectors. Later attempts to reach them proved futile. I must now assume that they are no longer alive. I can only hope that their collections were kept intact after their death and not sold item by precious item by their surviving family members.
An important collector of sexologically relevant art was the German Marxist cultural historian Eduard Fuchs (1870-1940). Although this was not his main interest, he used his vast collection of caricatures and other illustrations to produce six great volumes of an "Illustrated History of Morals" (Illustrierte Sittengeschichte) and a commercially very successful "History of Erotic Art" (Geschichte der erotischen Kunst). Fuchs kept his collection in his own, large home in Berlin and used it for many other publications, mainly about historical caricatures. In this field, he was a highly respected pioneer. However, when the Nazis took over the German government in 1933, Fuchs was forced to flee to Paris, where he died before the conquering German troops arrived in 1940. His collection had already been seized by the Nazi authorities, who sold parts of it abroad. The rest has been lost.
Interestingly enough, during this entire period and for many more years, Paris harbored another important collection:
Just as the actor Michel Simon had assembled a large number of erotica, so had the openly homosexual French writer Roger Peyrefitte (1907-2000). Based on this collection, the German art collector D.M. Klinger, presumably adding material of his own, founded an online erotic art museum, The DMK Collection – a Virtual Erotic-Art-Museum. He also published numerous books on the history of erotic art. Strictly speaking, therefore, his art collection is no longer entirely private. In some way, the case resembles that of the already mentioned Schidrowitz and Fuchs collections. Similar, if smaller, erotic art collections are now easily found in the internet. Many offer reproductions of their pictures, sculptures, and/ot photos for sale.
In recent years, newspapers and television stations have often reported the arrest of individuals or whole groups of individuals alleged to have collected thousands or even tens of thousands of photos and/or videos of "child pornography". As a rule, the police does not share such collections with sex researchers, and thus one can only speculate about the actual content and character of these collections and the motivation of the collectors.
One is on firmer ground when it comes to less controversial subjects. Sexologists know, for instance, that, even in the past, some fetishists, transvestites, and sadomasochists had collected images reflecting their particular erotic interests. Indeed, some of these collections have found their way into university archives like that of the Kinsey Institute. Such formerly private collections are not necessarily "pornographic" or even erotic in the usual sense. For example, a certain fetishist may find photos of a woman in a fur coat or in high-heeled boots sexually stimulating, while most other people have no interest in them at all. However, pictures like these are still important for sex research, because they reveal much about the erotic predilections of the collector. Thus, they enable us to gain a better understanding of certain sexual minorities and the enormous variety of human sexual behavior.
Today, in the age of the internet, one can assume that special collections of this kind continue, since they have become so much easier to start and to expand. On the other hand, it is also possible that many individuals, who formerly would have become collectors, no longer consider it necessary, because the internet has already done the work for them. After all, a considerable number of "regular" internet "porn sites" now offer an almost unlimited supply of erotic images. For the convenience of the user, the sites very often provide special search options or are already divided into a number of different "search categories". This way, almost any sexual inclination can quickly find the desired material. In other words: The internet itself constantly provides access to vast collections of "pornographic" pictures and videos of many kinds, so that the individual, no matter what his erotic taste, no longer has to start a collection of his own. Much of this material is freely accessible and constantly being updated and expanded. As a result, some internet "porn sites" have thousands or even several hundred thousand - in some cases several million - visitors daily.
We are therefore dealing here with a new phenomenon - the globalization of pornography. Where, in the past, there had been a multitude of separate, individual private collections, we now also have a single, permanent, enormously large public reservoir of erotic material from which anyone, at any time, can choose according to his personal preference. Thus, the line between public and private "pornography" is increasingly becoming blurred. This all the more, since countless "amateurs" are now filming themselves during sexual activity and then make the films available world-wide on freely accessible public internet platforms.
In the meantime, many universities and research institutes have accepted donations of formerly controversial collections, for example those of "gay activists", i.e. prominent figures in the homosexual rights movement. In the USA , one can name Cornell University which now holds the papers of the late David Goodstein, publisher of "The Advocate", a leading "gay" magazine, Yale University and its papers of Larry Kramer, a prominent "gay" activist, writer and playwright, the University of Minnesota and its "Tretter collection", named after its donor, the "gay" activist Jean-Nickolaus Tretter. These are just a few examples, but there are many others.
Some very large "gay and lesbian" collections are privately managed, but have become publicly accessible, such as ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles and a corresponding collection at the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library. Again, these are just a few examples, because there are many more. This is also true for Europe, where we have a number of "Gay/Lesbian" collections in several countries. The most prominent of these is perhaps the Schwules Museum (Gay Museum) in Berlin with its regular exhibitions. In the same city, the Magnus-Hirschfeld-Gesellschaft has collected material relating to Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexology, which has been shown in Europe and in the US, and is now online. Also in Berlin, a large lesbian library and archive called "Spinnboden" is publicly accessible and maintains its own web site. Similar collections exist in other European countries.
As a rule, however, these collections do not contain any erotica
or material that could be considered "pornographic" under current legal
standards. This is also true of the Archief Edward Brongersma in
Amsterdam. The well-educated, well-situated donor had, throughout his life, a strong
personal and academic interest in pedophilia and hebephilia. Thus, he was able
to amass the world’s largest collection on the subject. However, after his
death, the police raided his house and witheld a large amount of material as
"child pornography" before it turned over the rest to the Dutch International
Institute for Social History. Because
of this unfortunate turn of events, researchers remain deprived of a unique and
very valuable resource that could help them gain a better understanding of this
currently often discussed subject matter.