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Porn at the new york public library.

Porn at the New York Public Library.

The enormous erotica collections of the world’s finest institutions.

If picturing the owner of the world’s largest pornography collection, you are perhaps more likely to imagine an extremely indoors-y lifelong bachelor than an august educational institution. However, a lot of the world’s most prestigious museums and libraries hold massive collections of erotica.

People have created material intended to titillate for as long as they’ve been creating anything, and removing huge swathes of history does everyone a disservice. But that hasn’t stopped libraries and museums from coming up with ways to keep such items out of sight—bricked-up doors, elaborate administrative hurdles, and so on.  

The Triple-Star Collection, New York City

The New York City Public Library began classifying materials deemed to be pornographic with three asterisks towards the beginning of the twentieth century. This included everything from Playboy to fliers for massage parlors to smutty pulp novels. Part of the library’s remit is to document “life as it is lived”, so the collection grew thanks to staff members making excursions to sex shops and phone booths. The collection contains original artwork by Jack Kerouac and William Faulkner, as well as pornographic playing cards. It also bafflingly contains a first edition of Bambi—the book the Disney classic was based on.  

The Secret Museum, Naples

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD and destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, some of the artifacts that survived were slightly eyebrow-raising. There’s a statue of the god Pan having sex with a goat, for instance, that is something. There were erotic frescoes, statues of the enormous-penised god Priapus, lamps shaped like penises… While most of these were just part of normal Roman life, the social mores of the 19th century were different, and these works were placed under lock and key in the Gabinetto Segreto, or ‘secret cabinet’. The door was even bricked up for a few decades. The collection is now available to see, albeit kept in its own room.

Enfer, Paris


Enfer, meaning ‘hell’, is the name given to one section of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris dedicated to books “the reading of which is considered dangerous”. It began as a collection of fifty or so books, growing when material deemed scandalous was seized – it ballooned during the French Revolution when aristocrats fled the country and left their mansions and exotic literature collections behind, although a lot of the books within it were subsequently destroyed under Napoleon. Throughout the nineteenth century, accessing the collection required making a retailed, reasoned application to a committee. There are now close to 3,000 books in the collection, which is now defined more by the rarity or historical significance of the titles within it than their perceived immorality. 

The British Museum’s ‘Secretum’

When the British Museum acquired the Sri Lankan Statue of Tara in 1830, there were worries that despite it being a religious item, visitors to the museum would find its large exposed breasts and slender waist too sexy. It was kept hidden from public view in a room that became known as the Secretum, along with other artifacts that were deemed too salacious to be on display (including the collection of George Witt, a doctor who had accrued an enormous amount of Priapus-related paraphernalia). Collector Henry Spencer Ashbee left his collections of both erotica and Cervantes rarities to the library on the condition that they had to take both – they were much more interested in the Cervantes but found themselves in possession of a huge amount of cheap Victorian smut. However, from the 1960s onwards, all but a few pieces were put on proper display, with some transferred to the Private Case in the British Library. This collection contains works by the Marquis de Sade and the Earl of Rochester and has been bolstered by occasional massive gifts from committed historical erotica devotees. 

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