Making an exhibition of yourself

There are museums devoted to teddy bears, musical boxes, piggy banks - so why not sex? Unsurprisingly, it's in Amsterdam. Lyndsay Russell joined other culture lovers

I don't know whether to laugh, or to take notes," grinned student Charlotte Sever as she wandered around the famed hall of learning.

In London we have the V&A, in Paris there's the Louvre, in Madrid the Prado, and in Amsterdam ... the Sex Museum.

Do I hear a snigger? Please, show some respect. Who are we to judge the rich heritage of others? Every Dutch guide book proudly reads: "No visit to Amsterdam is complete without a trip to the Sex Museum."

So, in pursuit of higher learning, I flew across the water to its hallowed portals. Located on a busy street, it was easy to identify. "Venus Temple", it stated above the entrance. Ah, a tabernacle of knowledge dedicated to the Olympian goddess of love. In the ticket hall, her marble statue stood erect. However, not as erect as the satyrs peeking out behind some Roman pillars. I was appalled. The sculptor obviously had no concept of proportion.

Reverently, I handed over the entrance fee to a sinister-looking doorman. His manner - as rough as a pimp. How clever. No doubt he was a top performance artist illustrating "Street Soliciting in Post Modern Society". Such authenticity.

Ahead lay a corridor walled by glass cases. I peered into the first. "Erotic Antique Roman Seal", announced the plaque. It was ingrained with a lesbian orgy. Or was it? Hard to tell with all the flowing tongues.

Opposite, a tableau of shop-window mannequins caught my eye. "Sado-Masochistic apparel" proclaimed the description. Oh, good. The museum's "Costumes Through The Ages" section. Unfortunately, most of the clothes must have been worn away with time. All that remained on their bodies were a few leather straps.

The next exhibit was a contemporary work of art: a public telephone kiosk stating "Telephone Sex". Inside was a red phone with three buttons marked with British, German and Dutch flags. Rather like the translation machines you find in historic cathedrals.

I pressed the Union Jack. "I've been sitting on the bed waiting for your call," said a deep female voice. "Can you give me your credit card number?" Before I could squeak a word, a man's voice answered the question.

The tape of their ensuing conversation mainly consisted of ohhs from "Miss BT" and frustrated groans from the man. "Run your fingers across my body," husked Miss BT. Unable to get the Yellow Pages advertisement out of my mind, I hung up in hysterics.

Passing 14th-century chastity belts on the landing, the next floor contained a statue of Marilyn Monroe posing in classic white-dress-standing-over- a- street-vent. I pressed a button and her skirt flew up. By now, I was surprised to see she was still wearing knickers.

In the cabinets on the other side of the room, authentic precious objects were on display. An ancient Roman phallus, a hermaphrodite bronze statue and an assortment of fascinating erotic pottery and tools. Here, middle- aged couples, grannies and teenagers studied the exhibits knowledgeably. It was back to V&A-style respectability.

I walked along a wall display of "Erotic Photos Through The Ages", amused by the Victorian dirty postcards. But with every decade, the photos became more and more explicit. By the time I hit the 1970s, it dawned on me that I was studying spreads from Mayfair next to a complete stranger.

The next room proved even more shocking. Two 10ft penis-shaped seats dominated the surroundings: resting benches for weary scholars. On the wall, a television screen announced "The History of the Blue Movie". An impassive travelogue voice described how stone-age cave paintings were the first erotic drawings (illustrated by a still photograph of someone doing something very strange with a bison).

We travelled through time to silent movie clips of the 1920s, then on to the first talkie. By the time we'd reached the Eighties, there I was again, staring hard porn in the face with a bunch of mesmerised strangers.

"Lemon or milk?" asked the curator, Monique Formalla, genteelly pouring her tea. We were sitting in a top floor office more cluttered than the Old Curiosity Shop.

Removing an "Ancient Egyptian Dildo" from behind my cushion, I eyed her curiously. She was gorgeous. Weren't curators supposed to be old men in pebble glasses? Instead she had the kind of looks that steamed them up.

How does a nice girl like her get into a field like this?

"It was my father's dream," she answered, "there are museums on teddy bears, musical boxes, smoking, even piggy banks. One day he thought, `Why not sex?' ''

He opened it12 years ago. She joined him when she was 21. "It's a big advantage being a woman curator. When I go to auctions [the part of the job she loves the most] dealers are far more keen to sell the erotic side of their collections to me than to some dirty old man."

Do boyfriends think her a "dirty old woman"?

"I hate telling them what I do. But in fact, the job involves serious research."

Did any of her exhibits make her feel embarrassed?

"Oh yes. The Bizarre Sex Room. I think it's awful and scary. I never go in there."

Good grief. Expecting Madonna, I'd found myself interviewing Olivia Newton John.

For those of you curious enough, the Bizarre Sex Room contains, er ... very, very bizarre sex. Still, Monique justified: "There's nothing here that hasn't been depicted through Greek murals, or cave paintings. The only difference is, these are real photos."

To calm customers' complaints I suggested they put up a display tablet explaining this thesis. "Great Idea! Write it, and we'll put your name on the plaque."

Taking a sip of tea, I shook my head, and gently declined the compliment.

The Sex Museum, Damrak Street, Amsterdam. Open 10am to 10pm every day (including bank holidays), 10am to 6pm (Christmas Day). Admission: about £3.00.

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