»Sex Burns. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research and the Burning of the Books«





Sabine Rohlf



Medizinhistorisches Museum der Charité
7.5.2008 - 14.9.2008


Berlin. On May 10, 1933, Magnus Hirschfeld’s (1868–1935) works were burned on Berlin’s Opera Square. The works by the Jewish doctor and sexual reformer were hardly in line with Aryan ideas about the nation’s sex life: his model of »intermediate sexual stages« allowed room for homosexuality as well as for hermaphrodites or transvestites. He welcomed »racial mixing« as an enrichment of the diversity of human life. Nazi reaction was unequivocal: »We will not have our people demoralized, so burn, Magnus Hirschfeld!«

Now, this could be recounted as a tragic hero’s tale, but the exhibition »Sex Burns. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research and the Burning of the Books« in Berlin portrays its subject using a much less catchy combination of historical and artistic approaches. On a cardboard wall that meanders through two rooms in the Medical History Museum at the Charité University Medical Center, roughly a hundred text and photo cards inform the visitor about Hirschfeld’s work, about its context, persecution and destruction. A few historical exhibits and artistic contributions are scattered throughout the alcoves and spaces that the wall forms on its curving route.

A selection of free cards is available at the end of the exhibition instead of a catalogue. The curators Rainer Herrn and Eran Schaerf, who designed the exhibition along with Christian Gänshirt, would like visitors to choose cards according to their own interests, take them home and give them to other people, thus distributing them – an open and interactive form of reception. They want active visitors: there are no explanatory signs and no summaries; if you have a question, you yourself must read, choose, observe, listen and finally accept the fact that very little first-hand material is available – most of it was destroyed along with the institute.

The film »My Memory is Watching Me« by Schaerf and Eva Meyer poses the question of how remembering the destruction of Hirschfeld’s work functions, what images and reading material it uses to create and pass on realities. The film quotes Hirschfeld’s thoughts on identity, non-identity, diversity and memory, traces the imagery of Nazi propaganda, shows anti-Semitic Hirschfeld caricatures (as do the picture cards), as well as the media’s take on the destruction of the institute. With its sounds, its scenes of showing, hiding and reading aloud, the film underlines the materiality of texts and photos.

Images of the sexes are likewise at the center of the installation by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz. Hirschfeld’s research not only included the measurement of body parts or the exact description of sexual »intermediate stages,«, but also the photographic documentation of his findings. He had a huge collection of photographs, a collection he approached with a fastidious, at times problematic categorization but also with exuberant fascination. Boudry and Lorenz’s work shows a selection of those photographs and translates his collection frenzy into a film in which a bearded lady (performed by Werner Hirsch) watches the slide show of sexual anomalies and is torn between laughing and crying.

Arnold Dreyblatt and Henrik Olesen also look at Hirschfeld’s research in their work. Dreyblatt contributed three cryptic objects to a questionnaire Hirschfeld had distributed among metal workers and students, among them »samples,« a series of boxes with peepholes that force the visitor to assume the voyeuristic position that sex researchers take on. Olesen updated a display on intermediate sexual stages with new photographs. Boudry, Lorenz, Dreyblatt and Olesen refer to Hirschfeld’s biological positivism, but they also show the empathy, enthusiasm, and the excess of differences his works produced without resolving the discrepancy in one way or another.

Ulrike Ottinger created a memory room for Hirschfeld’s trip around the world, a trip which resulted in exile. Here, you can listen to the condensed version of a radio play, to be presented in its entirety at the finissage on September 14. It quotes Hirschfeld’s texts and his guestbook-in-exile, which is on display on the other side of the cardboard wall. Comments in the guestbook invite visitors to contribute – whoever can decipher a line or knows one of the people mentioned has the opportunity to write a note in Marita Keilson-Lauritz’s installation.

The exhibition turns the commemoration of a sexual reformer, rediscovered late and not without reservation, into a multi-layered affair: the tragedy of the institute’s destruction, his exile or the persecution of sexual minorities is accompanied by Werner Hirsch’s throaty, at times defiant laughter. The installations’ sounds refuse to be confined to the cardboard walls. Any feeling of unease the visitor may have in the face of Hirschfeld’s biological systematizations (which during the 1990s were virtually equated with the Nazis’ population policies) conflicts with his merits, both personal and concerning sexual politics, as well as with the Nazis’ radical reaction to him. The impulse to put Hirschfeld on a pedestal as an icon of gay resistance crumbles in view of the concept of an exhibition that emphasizes interaction and allows for contradictions. For people with prior knowledge, this approach works well, while it may be disconcerting for others – or it might encourage them to research early sexual sciences. You can’t ask for more.




Translation: Dagmar Breitenbach, Jennifer Taylor