Recently retired as president of Ortho Pharmaceuticals Inc, Canada's leading supplier of family planning products - Skuy has devoted the past 30 years to building up a collection which begins with a verse from the Bible: "And Onan knew that the seed should be his: and it came to pass when he went in unto his brother's wife that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother." (Genesis 38.9). So dedicated is he that this week he interrupted a holiday in Jordan and Egypt - leaving his wife behind - to attend the 600-item collection's first ever visit to the UK.
In his search for antique items and authentic reproductions for the Toronto- based museum, Skuy's ingenuity and patience have been almost limitless. The bone from the right half of a black cat - a medieval amulet worn round the neck to ward off conception - took 10 years and four vets to track down. Dried weasel's testicle (another amulet, this time strapped to the thigh, and not to be confused with dried beaver testicle, brewed by New Brunswick Inuits into an alcoholic potion full of ovulation inhibiting testosterone) was delivered after a two-year wait. "I needed a hunter from northern Ontario who offered me ferret first of all, which is closely related to weasel," says Skuy, who is a little sunburned from the Middle East, white-haired and sporting a brown large-checked shirt and casual slacks. "I hung out for weasel - it said weasel in the book and I wanted weasel."
Another of his proudest acquisitions is a plug of wax from the ear of a mule (another medieval amulet). "There are no mules in Canada that I know of," explains Skuy. "I had to go to our medical director in Mexico. Then there was the problem of not only getting the mule but getting the wax out of the ear of the mule." Success came not with a stun gun but creativity and a couple of mule-friendly colleagues. "Apparently," notes Skuy "it's not difficult for people who work with mules."
Busy as he was as company president from 1973 (he joined as a sales representative in 1961) and with no acquisitions budget for the museum, Skuy even found time to track down a sample of elephant dung - used not as a husband repellent but as a blocking agent cum spermicide in India circa 1,000BC. "We didn't have an elephant in Toronto when I wanted it," he says, "so I had to wait for the circus to come by." However, he did delegate the acquisition of crocodile dung (used in the same way by contemporary Egyptians, probably with more success thanks to the sperm-unfriendly acidity of the product). "We went to the zoo and found that crocodile faeces have to be collected from the water and it took them about three months."
The biggest section of the collection, housed this week in the peaceful jungle of Regent's College, in Regent's Park, where I was momentarily confused by signs for the "Seeds Workshop", is devoted to IUDs - though the casual observer may take them for cases of squiggly contemporary jewellery. As Skuy explains: "IUDs are interesting. Most of them have never reached the marketplace."
Here, too, is a collection of smartly labelled Chinese contraceptives, including the daily pill, the male pill, the post-coital pill, the once- a-month pill, the paper pill, the injectable pill .... Other highlights include a cabinet of "futuristic" methods, ranging from the shiny white "personal contraceptive system," which seems to be the Psion personal organiser of ovulation prediction, to Nineties eco-friendly "rice paper", via the contraceptive pellet, Yoon Falope ring band, drip pill, valve implant, Gossypol, ear ovulation sensor, Unidose, Hulka Clip and bio-adhesive contraceptive gel.
Sadly, I can offer no explanation of these fascinating products, since Skuy has eschewed the contextualising social history style favoured by modern museums in favour of the Victorian junk shop approach. "Emergency War Applicator" says the label adjacent to a mysterious brass object, with no clue to whether it was manufactured out of unexploded bombs or specially to cope with an influx of hunky GIs. "A spider," announces another. "Ancient Practices," comes just below. There is no text to explain the history and consequences of China's one-child policy, nor the rise and fall of the Pill, nothing about the relationship between medieval "witches" and contraceptive expertise. At best, the explanations are frustratingly brief. "In order to facilitate the introduction of the bag," reads a notice in the female condom section, "flaps were added. This was not a good idea."
In his defence, Skuy explains that he and his colleagues, Walter Masanic (museum director and Ortho's director of public affairs) and recently- retired assistant Heather Bennett (museum curator), are always on hand to answer questions. But frankly, my tour with Heather - in the style of "This is a selection of vaginal insertion methods" - doesn't bode well.
Skuy's favourite item in the collection is a cervical block: :"It looks like a little block, like a large dice about an inch square. It was given me by a doctor in New York City. It's made of wood. It was inserted into the vagina in the hope that one of the indentations would cover the cervix. A piece of string was attached to withdraw it. It was described as 'an instrument of torture' because of its bulkiness and awkwardness." Skuy interprets this as "a story of motivation of creativity and probably equality". His understanding of the fascinating social significance of his collection leaves a lot to be desired.
One gets the feeling that Skuy - who has two children, three grandchildren and is a personal fan of the Pill and IUD - is simply a contraceptive trainspotter; indeed he also collects handcrafted owls. Why owls? "One of those fun things. Owls are interesting and the first ones I got were handcrafted. The point of it really is that I like to collect things. There's no greater satisfaction in finding the item, it's the search as much as anything." Apparently, he is not alone. "There are some people I know who have collected intrauterine devices [IUDs] because it's like stamps - they're interesting shapes and sizes."
Retirement notwithstanding, Skuy's search for objects continues. "What I would like to have is an authentic chastity belt," says Skuy. "I only thought about it in the last year, so the search has only just begun. I may have to end up getting a reproduction. I could live with that but I would love to have the real thing."
The History of Contraception Museum is open free of charge, to Saturday 1 June, from 10am-5pm at the Knapp Gallery, Regent's College, Inner Circle, Regent's Park, London NW1.Reuse content