It's culture - and it's sexy

Europe's largest collection of erotica is owned by a 76-year-old woman who used to be a Luftwaffe pilot. Now she's put it on show at a new museum in Berlin - for over-18s only. By Imre Karacs
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Size obviously does matter to Beate Uhse. The 76-year-old former Luftwaffe pilot, and owner of the biggest chain of sex shops in Germany, can now also boast the largest collection of erotica in Europe, maybe even the world. Erected to mark the 50th anniversary of her empire, the four-storey block housing the new Erotic Museum stands at a busy junction between Berlin's Zoo station and the bustling Ku'damm. For DM10 (about pounds 4.50) visitors over 18 can marvel at the paintings, wood carvings and writhing porcelain figures spread over four floors. Pensioners get cut- price tickets.

Tourists and Berliners have been flocking here since the opening last month. Although a few middle-aged men seem to spend an indecently long time in front of the video screens, most of the visitors are couples, who tend to leave the building in a passionate embrace. There are, of course, plenty of dirty movies to watch, but by and large the exhibition tries hard to avoid gratuitous smut. "I am the guardian of erotica in the Western world," Ms Uhse declares modestly. Her intention, she says, is not to make even more money out of sex, but to illustrate that "eroticism is at the root of all cultures".

If the exhibits are a true reflection of cultural development, then there is no doubt that the Japanese, Chinese and Indians in the 18th and 19th centuries were extremely advanced civilisations. They must have been great athletes, too. The top floor is taken up with paintings and statuettes of contorted figures in positions that would test the supple limbs of a modern-day Olympic gymnast. The Japanese enjoyed the widest variety, but the prize for sheer physical achievement must go to the man in the middle of an Indian painting who manages to excite four women simultaneously, using nothing more than his hands and feet.

The Orient may have become more prudish since then, but at least one clever Japanese invention is still offering pleasure to millions of housewives around the planet. The prototype dildo, from 19th-century Japan, is the object of veneration in the middle of the room. "Very rare," says a sign underneath. Made of tortoiseshell, it is of rather modest size but its construction is ingenious. As the enclosed instructions reveal, two hollow balls are inserted into the tube. Inside them are balls made of heavier metal, which "roll around and produce a vibratory sensation". No batteries required. Compared with this piece of inspired engineering, the rough- hewn wooden instrument made in Munich at the same time looks primitive.

But Europe would soon catch up. Judging by the range of lithographs and paintings on display, France led the way, with a burst of imagination during the belle epoque which shamed the Orient into submissive obscurity. Photography and then the dawn of cinema brought new enlightenment. Films of the era can be viewed in the museum's auditoria, to the delight of the dirty mac brigade. Heaven knows what got our forebears excited, but they did seem to be confused about their religion, at least on the evidence of those movies. Priests and nuns, nuns with nuns, and, in one picture, a remarkably well-proportioned Santa Claus and a buxom angel perform various manoeuvres in front of the cameras. Keeping the wings out of the way was not easy.

While the French were elevating carnal love to an art form, the cerebral Germans were busy turning sex into a science. "Berlin - birthplace of sexology", proclaims a sign above the museum's shrine dedicated to its pioneer, Magnus Hirschfeld. He it was who founded the first Institute for Sexology in Berlin in 1919, but much of his knowledge went up in flames when the Nazis singled out his books for burning. Hirschfeld died in 1935, his sexual revolution overthrown by Hitler's regime. "The Nazis didn't believe in explaining things to people," says Ms Uhse. "All they wanted women to do was produce babies."

But the age of darkness that followed did have one beneficiary: Beate Uhse, daughter of a Prussian officer, who married a Luftwaffe squadron leader. During the war she was herself a test pilot and delivered Messerschmitts and Fokkers to the front line. As the Russians advanced on Berlin, leaving her parents and husband dead in their wake, Ms Uhse flew out with her two-year-old son to a village near the Danish border still under German control. That was her last mission. Germans were soon after banned from flying and Ms Uhse, completely broke, needed to find a new vocation in a hurry.

The local women were terribly ignorant about family planning, and they would come to her for advice. "They asked me some strange questions: `Do I get pregnant by kissing on the lips?' And `Does the baby come out of the navel?'." In this land of the blind Ms Uhse was destined to become queen. "I remember my mother, who was a doctor, telling me about the days of the month when women couldn't become pregnant," she says. So she did a little research of her own and wrote out by hand a small pamphlet explaining the rhythm method. A printer agreed to produce 32,000 copies for five pounds of butter, and Ms Uhse was in business.

Soon she was selling condoms - strictly to married couples only - and books that grew more explicit as the years went by. In 1962 she opened the world's first sex shop, offering everything from pornographic literature to latex dolls. The company, still based in a sprawling building in the town of Flensburg, today has 600 employees and makes so much money that even its owner does not know how much she is worth.

Her next big project is multimedia. On the ground floor of the museum, visitors can test out their computer skills, clicking a mouse with a steady hand to bring up or enlarge an erotic image. Another machine plays a CD- Rom entitled Sex Maniacs, while a third runs The Modern Sex Atlas, which claims to be able to answer all your questions, however off-beat they might be. And when the customers tire of the information revolution, they can rejoin the sexual kind, popping into the Beate Uhse shop on their way out to stock up with the latest gadgets.