Ever Heard Of The British Museum's Long-Lost 'Porn Room'?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 83 months ago

Last Updated 01 June 2017

Ever Heard Of The British Museum's Long-Lost 'Porn Room'?

The British Museum dates back to 1759, and has seen many incarnations; from the days when it would only allow 10 guests in at a time, to nowadays as the most-visited museum in the UK.

A former Secretum resident, the Bodhisattva Tara. Photo: Phil Rogers

In the Victorian era the museum contained a very special room for objects deemed too obscene or perverse to sit alongside the rest of the collection. Cupboard 55 was created in response to the Obscene Objects Act (1857), and designated the 'Cabinet of Obscene Objects'. It had another colloquial name: the porn room.

To enter the Secretum, one needed a special permit. This was given only to gentlemen who could prove they were of 'mature years and sound morals.' It's understandable that the prudish Victorian era was fertile ground for creating a Secretum, but what's more shocking is quite how long it lasted. Items were added as late as the 1950s.

We know why you clicked on this article. You want to know specifically which objects the Secretum held. Allow us to shed its secrets. There was this sculpture of a satyr engaged in sexual acts with a goat (still owned by the museum, currently not on display):

Satyr and goat. © Trustees of the British Museum

Then there was part of a temple wall, that featured lovers doing... what lovers do. That manoeuvre on the left side is altogether admirable; think of the hours of yoga spent to achieve such flexibility (again, currently not on display):

Fragment of lovers sculpture. © Trustees of the British Museum

Next is our favourite; a Roman terracotta lamp depicting a naked woman sitting on a crocodile. Except that the woman is actually sitting on an enormous human phallus emerging from the crocodile's tail. The British Museum suggest the woman might be an obscure caricature of Cleopatra (this one is on display at the museum):

Possibly Cleopatra. © Trustees of the British Museum

To us, it looks that it's more likely the doodle of a miscreant teenager. Imagine in thousands of years time, a discovery of exercise books from a boy's school. What they might see as an interesting relic of the past, might just be someone embarrassing their mate by drawing penises over everything.

And what of the Secretum now? A journalist headed down there in 2008, only to be disappointed. Cupboard 55 has mainly been filled up with objects relating to Judaica.

Even though the Secretum is dead, the British Museum still isn't averse to putting age limits on certain exhibits.

Read 7 interesting facts about the British Museum.