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In Berlin, the Art of Sex

By Marianna Beck and Jack Hafferkamp
The Washington Post
Sunday, April 18, 1999; Page E04

Rather quietly over the past several years, Europe has seen a blossoming of new museums devoted to a subject that would send American curators ducking for cover. From Barcelona to Copenhagen, museums devoted to the history and subcultures of human sexuality have enshrined everything from ancient fertility icons to contemporary sex toys. Some are becoming major tourist attractions.

In booming Berlin, the Beate Uhse Erotik-Museum attracts a quarter of a million visitors annually and ranks among the city's top five museums by attendance.

Berlin's Erotic Museum is the idea of Beate Uhse, the septuagenarian whose name has been a household word in Germany since the 1950s. It was then that Uhse opened the world's first shop devoted to "marital hygiene," ultimately championing the right to sell contraceptives. Today she heads what her publicity materials say is the world's largest sex-related merchandising business, an empire that includes a mail-order division, video and publishing sections, retail stores and, since 1996, a museum devoted to the art and history of sex.

The collection of more than 5,000 artifacts from around the world tends toward the classical, with a lot of Asian and Indian erotic miniatures mixed in with carved phalli from Bali, African fertility masks, 2,000-year-old Peruvian drinking vessels, and plenty of more recent expressions related to human sexuality. The objects are interpreted in German, English and French.

Aside from the garish retail shop, the museum has a quiet, comfortable feel. The only mood-jarring elements are the occasional life-size dioramas meant to explain certain topics--fetishism, masochism, sadism--in visual form.

An impressive Asian section includes fine examples of Japanese shunga art, with its outsize genitalia, by Utamaro, Harunobu and others. Also noteworthy are the Chinese "Wedding Tiles"--18th- and 19th-century paintings on silk that had a sex education role.

Among temporary exhibits, which change regularly, the museum recently closed a show of works of major Weimar-era artists. In the 1920s, Berlin flourished as one of the most avant-garde cities in Europe, and the work of these artists clearly conveys an intense, even visceral sexual energy. These days, Berlin is as hip as ever, and the Beate Uhse Erotik-Museum is a testimony to the city's enormous range of cultural attractions.

The Beate Uhse Erotik-Museum is at Kantstrasse and Joachimstallerstrasse (Charlottenburg) near the Zoo train station. Open 9 a.m. to midnight. Admission: $5.50. Visitors must be over 18.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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