Sex: A History in 30 Objects

Penn Museum Sex Exhibition

The Penn Humanities Form topic on SEX has inspired a variety of interesting and compelling events across campus. Tomorrow, October 17, the Penn Museum's exhibition Sex: A History in 30 Objects opens on the third floor of the museum, adjacent to the Greco-Roman galleries. This small, but powerful, show explores the different cultural and historical attitudes towards sex through 30 amazing objects and works of art representing every curatorial department. The exhibition challenges the viewer to think about ways that religion, society, biology, economic status, and gender identity, just to name a few, intersect with sex. What is most exciting for me, is that the exhibition is a reminder of how sex, which lies at the intersection between biology and culture, is in many ways a construct that is shaped differently by various societies with their specific cultural attitudes, social norms, and regimes of belief. 

The past few months, I worked as part of the curatorial team in preparation for this exhibition. The experience was both challenging and exciting, since all of us were responsible for conducting research on objects that, for the most part, are outside the scope of our expertise and academic focus. Yet the intimate interactions we had and the discoveries we made with each object proved to be rewarding. While I found every object to be fascinating, the Tekke Turkomen ak cherpy robe, dateable to the late 19th century, is by far my favorite piece: 

Ak Cherpy Robe, 99-24-1, Penn Museum

Ak Cherpy Robe, 99-24-1, Penn Museum

Displayed in the Sex and Being section of the show, the ak cherpy robe is an excellent example of how sex and gender identity are entangled with cultural traditions and rituals. Across what is modern-day Turkmenistan, the females of the Tekke people would embroider and wear these colorfully woven silk and cotton robes for various ceremonies.The robes were typically elaborately decorated with intricate floral and faunal designs. And since they were hand-woven, no two ak cherpys are the same. Furthermore, the base color of the fabrics signified the specific stage of the woman's life. While the Penn Museum's ak cherpy robe is white, which were exclusively for matriarchs and older women, other colors include dark blue or black, for very young women,  and yellow for married and middle-aged women. 

For more objects like this, visit the Penn Museum, and stay tuned as I will be providing object spotlights here throughout the month!