In the museum network, there are many famous collectors and collections: Nelson Rockefeller and his collection of “primitive” art, Henry Clay Frick and his collection of European art, J. Paul Getty and his questionable collection of antiquities. Perhaps the most unique collector in this network is Ralph E. Whittington, a relatively new player in the game, with his collection of pornography and erotica, which the Museum of Sex in New York City acquired in 2002. Whittington, a former Library of Congress archivist, has spent approximately the last 30 years collecting porn in the attempt to create a credible archive for this category of materials. Today, the collection consists of nearly 700 boxes, each full of objects that relate to a specific entry within the entire collection, all organized by Whittington and the system he devised to archive his materials, and approximately 300 large envelopes marked “Miscellaneous” kept in two plastic crates. The majority of the collection is still housed in the original boxes, only a small percent has been integrated into the rest of the museum’s collections and an even smaller percent is actually on display, and the boxes are kept in their own room on the third floor of the museum’s building on 27th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City. Basically, the collection isn’t getting a lot of action these days.
Although there is a lot of variation in the collection, there are three categories that encompass the majority of the entries: individuals, most of which are porn stars or other women in the sex industry in addition to a few individuals who are famous in mainstream popular culture like “Vanessa Del Rio” and “Jayne Mansfield,” respectively; fetishes, which include things like “Asian” and “Scatology”; and the niche – boxes that contain objects related to any number of things, like “Crash” and “Screw Magazine.”
According to Whittington himself, “The important thing is the diversity. That’s where my collection stands out” (Carlson). This statement is not only true about the different categories in Whittington’s collection, but also is applicable to the contents in each individual box. In the box labeled “Jenna Jameson #3” (out of three), you encounter a wide range of objects: the requisite DVDs expected to be attributed to a porn star, photos (including one that is signed), a copy of her auto(ish)biography, magazine cut-outs and articles, trading cards, and the anatomical models of Jenna’s mouth and pussy. In a box labeled “Shoe Dangle”, there are two videos and 16 photographs illustrating the concept of the shoe dangle, which is when a woman’s high heel shoe dangles on her toes, exposing her heel. Perhaps the strangest and most interesting box in the collection is “Porn Cereal Parody,” which contains four sets of four DVDs, 16 total, and four corresponding cereal boxes. To go with the Cheerios cereal box, we have the “Cherry Hos” DVD set, Frosted Flakes has “Frosted Facials,” Kixx has “Trixx,” and, although technically not a cereal, Cream of Wheat has “Cream of Meat.” And these are only three out of nearly a thousand boxes …
Inherently, a collection consists of any number of objects gathered together by an individual or group of individuals for any number of reasons. Collections can be thought of as assemblages. Jane Bennett, who follows the work of Gilles Deleuze, writes on the subject, “An assemblage is, first, an ad hoc grouping, a collectivity whose origins are historical and circumstantial, though its contingent status says nothing about its efficacy, which can be quite strong” (Bennett 445). The Whittington collection, and the way that the collector and the individuals at MoSex who decided to purchase the collection think about the collection, fits well within this definition. In an article in the Washington Post by Peter Carlson, Grady Turner, the curator at the time of the acquisition of the collection is quoted saying, “It’s an incredible time capsule of a period in American pop culture when pornography went from an under-the-table, plain-brown-wrapper kind of thing to the mainstream, where you could buy it in any community” (Carlson). It is clear that time and space are important components in the ways people think of this collection: it stands as a marker of a certain time period in the sex world. Carlson continues,
Whittington’s collection captures the era when court decisions made most pornography legal and the advent of the VCR took porn out of peep shows and made it a multibillion-dollar industry. ‘When there were technological changes and new genres emerging, Ralph was collecting it and cataloguing it,’ Turner says. ‘This is a collection you could not make now. It will be a primary source for historical research and a great repository of pop culture.’
It is clear that there is a strong intention of this collection: to serve as a marker of a specific time and place: the development of the sex industry in the 1970s through the present. But this is only one aspect of the assemblage and the collection.
Bennett continues, “An assemblage is, second, a living, throbbing grouping whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it” (445). Each object in the collection came into being for any number of reasons, and each box was then assembled because of one aspect that ties them all together, creating a coherence, but then that is again disrupted when the collection is seen as a whole. Most people who see the collection are shocked by its size, a fact that trumps the subject of each box. The entire collection becomes more impacting than each box. Back to Bennett, “An assemblage is, third, a web with an uneven topography: some of the points at which the trajectories of actants cross each other are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not equally distributed across the assemblage” (445). In addition to this point describing the entire collection, this point of the assemblage also relates back to the collection: some pieces were actually integrated into the museum collections and displays, while others are relegated to the Ralph Whittington room on the third floor. Also, some aspects of the collection are more known among the general public, so they have different types and levels of agency.
The assemblage gets further complicated when Bennett writes, “An assemblage is, fourth, not governed by a central power: no one member has sufficient competence to fully determine the consequences of the activities of the assemblage” (445). Despite some objects or boxes being better known to the public, there is no central entry that governs the entire collection. The only thing that could be said to unite the entire collection is that they are some way related to sex, and some of them are not even that explicitly about sex. Perhaps the tie that governs them is the collector himself, but, again, he is not explicitly apparent in each entry except for the fact that he collected them. And if Whittington really is trying to document a time period in American history relating to sex, as he is claiming, then there are entries in the collection that have no relation to him and his sexual preferences. And now that the collection is no longer in his possession, the Museum is another actant determining what this assemblage has the possibility to do and what it actually does. Today, the collection sits without use – so where does the agency lie? Is it in the fact that it even exists rather than what each individual box is, making the assemblage the primary agent? After working with this collection for the past three months, I can say without a doubt that the answer is yes. This collection does more just being in existence then it does in use (which may be because it is not really being used, but that is a formality).
There is no question about whether the last definition of an assemblage relates to the Ralph Whittington Collection: “An assemblage, finally, is made up of many types of actants: human and nonhumans; animals, vegetables, and minerals; nature, culture, and technology” (445). All materials and all people are equal parts in this assemblage; where else could you find “Candy Stripers” next to “Puffed Pussies”?
Bennett, Jane. 2005. The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout. Public Culture 17(3): 445-65.
Carlson, Peter. 2002. ‘King of Porn’ Empties Out His Castle: New N.Y. Museum Buys His 30-Year Collection. Washington Post, August 24: C01.