X-rated collecting: Part-1

The Science Museum might not be the first place you think of when you hear the word sex, but we’ve got lots of artefacts from all over the world designed both to titillate and to treat sexual dysfunction and infertility. Some even claim to cast a love spell (Brian Cox watch out – I have the power…).

To add to this collection we’ve been working with Jonathan Roberts, lecturer at Mount Saint Vincent University, to make some new acquisitions. Jonathan’s been out collecting love, sex and fertility medicines for us in the markets of Accra, Ghana’s capital.

The first thing you notice about stalls selling sex medicines, Jonathan says, is the immense diversity of treatments that both male and female patients can choose from.

Alongside traditional West African treatments, vendors are selling Christian and Islamic faith medicines, as well as pharmaceuticals like real Pfizer Viagra and fake Chinese “Vigra”.

The stalls are like display cases for many different medical cultures. (Credit: Jonathan Roberts).

West African medical systems tend to be pluralistic. Practices and treatments encountered from different cultures are selectively absorbed, and re-invented in parallel with traditional African practises to meet the specific health needs of African communities.

Jonathan adds, this fusion of medical cultures reflects to a great extent the power of African patients. Patients to an extent self-diagnose their problem in order to make choices about which medical system is most appropriate to them or which treatment they believe will be most effective.

Comfort Owusu, the trader the medicines were purchased from (Jonathan Roberts).

Researchers like Jonathan are investigating how patients are making such choices – which has profound implications for improving health services.

Of course collecting these medicines poses some difficult issues for us Curators. Explicit imagery on the boxes, for example, makes real or virtual display problematic (even these photos needed lots of editing to be usable!).

But without preserving these items, evidence documenting this fascinating period of cultural and medical hybridisation in West Africa will disappear.

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