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Sex museums are on their way to being as commonplace as wax museums, so it would be easy to mistake the for just another racy tourist trap--especially since the Erotic Museum (to use its English name) is located near the fleshpots of Pigalle, a neighborhood that has been known for hanky-panky since the days of the Can-Can.
But don't sell the Erotic Museum short: Despite its name and its immediate neighbors, the Musée de l'Erotisme is a serious museum, and it's worth visiting during a pilgrimage to Sacré-Coeur, the Moulin Rouge nightclub, and other attractions in Montmartre.
The Erotic Museum was founded by Alain Plumey and Joseph Khalifa, two Parisians who assembled a vast collection of erotic art and artifacts in the 30 years that preceded the museum's opening in 1997. The two men turned a former cabaret into seven stories of galleries, some devoted to permanent displays and others featuring temporary exhibits of art and pornography.
On the lower floors, you'll see the erotic world's answer to the Louvre or the British Museum: Nepalese temple carvings, Aztec fertility idols, ceramic pornography from China, and such oddities as a yak oil lamp from Tibet ("The flame is burning in the vagina of the tigress"), Japanese wooden sandals with phalli protruding from the soles, and Thai utensils for cracking betel nuts between simulated male and female genitalia. Pre-20th Century European exhibits tend to emphasize Satan and anticlerical themes.
Upstairs, you'll find an early 20th Century porn movie where a skinny man and his hefty female companion are performing the same sorts of things that Paris Hilton and her boyfriend did in their bedroom, but in black and white rather than color.
Floors 3 and 4 are devoted to temporary exhibitions. On the fifth level, you'll find a nice assortment of nudes and tableaux (most of them more tasteful than racy) and some interesting black-and-white photos of nude models in artists' studios during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
The most fascinating part of the Erotic Museum--and a good reason to visit even if you've seen one artificial yoni or lingham too many--is the extensive gallery of brothel photos, drawings, and documents from the late 19th Century until 1946, when bordellos were closed down by the French government. Exhibit labels in French and English describe the role that brothels once played in French life. (The labels also contain a few surprises, such as the fact that the Prince of Wales, Charlie Chaplin, and Cary Grant sampled the Paris brothel scene.)
The Erotic Museum serves--or services--a diverse clientele. During my visit on a Saturday morning, my fellow patrons were respectable-looking singles and couples who ranged in age from early 20s to late 60s. If you're embarrassed by the idea of a visit to a sex museum, don't be; the other guests are as likely to be from a church group as from the Fraternal Order of Overt Perverts.
The Musée de l'Erotisme is at 72 boulevard de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement, just east of the Place Blanche at the southern edge of Montmartre. To reach it, take Métro line 2 to Blanche and walk a short distance east of the square on the north side of the boulevard (in the direction opposite from the Moulin Rouge). The museum is also within walking distance of Pigalle (Métro line 12) and Place de Clichy (Métro line 13).
The Erotic Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. Tickets at the door aren't cheap, but you can get a discount voucher at the museum's Web site.
Don't be intimidated by the sex boutiques and strip clubs in the neighborhood: The boulevard de Clichy also has supermarkets, a Monoprix department store, restaurants, and plenty of other businesses that don't involve bare flesh or sexual transactions. You're likely to see more tour groups than drooling lechers on the street, along with middle-class French parents pushing strollers or walking their children home from school.
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