Reading and hearing about Museo Larco in Lima, Peru, caused high expectations, but actually experiencing it surpassed those expectations. Consider the museum basically divided between the cultural galleries, composed of gold and other metals, textiles, and ceramics; and the erotic gallery, a large space of two parallel rooms. These two major spaces are as definitively separated as the prophylactics and the baby food sections at Target.
That simile was deliberate. After spending a couple hours just within the cultures gallery of the museum’s main building, my 75-year-old Peruvian friend and I continued to the sexo sala, or erotic hall. We left the main building, walked down a ramp, across a wonderfully landscaped lawn, and to the other, smaller, one-story section.
What surprised me, though, was the reactions of Americans to the Sex Sala. It seemed as if a busload of small-town Midwesterners or Southern Christian fundamentalists– maybe they were missionaries!– had just been dropped before the space. Visually I could ignore them but the continual snickers and giggles pervaded my auditory sense. It was as if a pre-pubescent chess group had been given a glimpse of the high school girls locker room.
The museum space isn’t an exhibition of kinkiness. It’s an artful encapsulation of a culture’s view of the natural act. In that sense it’s not dissimilar to India’s Kama Sutra or African fertility vessels. The collection is beautiful, tender at times, romantic at others, even moral at others (such as the section of ceramics symbolizing the shame of catching STDs). Participants depicted in these sex pieces are enjoying themselves.
In this space are a large number of phallic and vaginal and mammary representations, to be sure. And yes, many of them seem to intentionally elicit playfulness, giggles. They may not be intended for children (and I don’t just mean minors), but they do allow us to see the humor that often accompanies loving sex. They illustrate the gender roles assumed by Peruvian culture through the ages. There are, in addition to illustrations of fellatio and fornication, mutual masturbation, animal sex scenes, and birthing scenes.
What’s more, the ceramic pieces are pragmatic, meaning, they usually were used for transporting/consuming fluids.
“Those sexual encounters between humans (as opposed to the gallery’s other depictions of sex betwixt humans and gods) which lead to procreation are associated with scenes representing the restoration of order or the commencement of the agricultural year,” according to the museum’s official book.
“This is the moment in which the fertilization, planting and first watering of the earth form the earthly manifestation of the sacred union between the god Ai Apaec and woman, thereby giving life to all human beings and other species, both animal and vegetable. This, in the world of the living, is reflected in sexual activity between men and women… In this world…animals also mate and reproduce, inserting themselves into the cycle of life.”
The gallery is impressively curated, its contents even more impressively preserved. The museum shop, something this writer can rarely pass up, carries a selection of copies of various pieces within the collection, something this writer did not pass by. Whilst decorating my living quarters in Lima it provoked no jokes or immature laughter. It is a curious thought, though, to ponder the reactions that arise once I move back to the States and decorate my house with it.
The museum opened in 1926 by Raphael Larco Hoyle, a 26-year-old Limeño who actually did the fieldwork to obtain the works contained in his museum. Most of the pieces in the collection are from the Moche and Chimú cultures. It is from these pre-Columbian cultures you can glean a definitive adoration of Peru’s history, an admiration of its rich culture beyond the food, the clothing, and their sense of hurry (or lack thereof). It was Larco, after all, according to the museum’s book, who defined the period during which these cultures developed and thrived. He spent the rest of his life writing theories about these cultures and Peru’s pre-Hispanic chronology in his books Épocas Peruanas and Perú.