MIAMI BEACH, Florida — I’m in a dark room above a Miami Beach nightclub surrounded by penises.
No, I’m not at TWIST, the famous South Beach gay club with seven bars, two stories, and one ornately framed portrait of Ricky Martin, although that’s only a block away.
The penises I’m referring to are made of bronze, wood, ivory, glass, terracotta, even Swarovski crystals—and they’re all on display at the World Erotic Art Museum (WEAM) at the intersection of 12th and Washington Avenue.
As any resident knows and any visitor quickly discovers, Washington is South Beach’s nightlife stretch. With the famous Mansion Nightclub right next door, interminable lines of aspiring partygoers stretch past WEAM’s ground-floor lobby every weekend night.
For WEAM, which stays open as late as midnight on the weekends, the location is one of its biggest assets—and this is a place that has an 8-foot-tall fiberglass penis, so that’s saying something.
“When you’re standing in line [for Mansion] and you look over and see the World Erotic Art Museum, you say, ‘Let’s go wait there. The crowd will thin out,’” Robert Harbour, the staff photographer, explains at the start of an informal and pun-filled afternoon in the museum.
The museum’s name and location only occasionally lead to misunderstandings with visitors.
“I’ve had some folks come upstairs, go to the front desk and ask, ‘Where’s the naked women?’” says Harbour.
The word “museum,” it turns out, is not a euphemism. In lieu of a strip club, WEAM visitors find an impressive and diverse collection of over 4,000 pieces of erotic art dating from around 300 BC to the present.
Founded in 2005, the museum is the legacy of private collector Naomi Wilzig, the widow of famous Holocaust survivor Siggi Wilzig, who fled Auschwitz for the U.S. with nothing to his name and eventually became a millionaire philanthropist.
Siggi Wilzig passed away in 2003 and Naomi Wilzig passed away in April of this year, which gives Harbour’s story of the museum’s accidental origins a bittersweet air.
“She started collecting when her oldest son Ivan decided that he wanted to decorate his new apartment in Manhattan with some erotic art,” Harbour recalls.
Wilzig, who primarily collected fine antiques, had no idea what that meant so, naturally, she embarked on a 15-year quest around the world to find the best erotic art. As one does.
The resulting collection is an eclectic mix of cultures and times, much like Miami itself. Classical paintings line the main hallways but each room and alcove is built around a different theme or place: Asia, Africa, Central America, the Mediterranean, art nouveau, surreal art, and—because this is Miami Beach, after all—art deco.
If you’re looking for big names, there are works by Rembrandt, Picasso, Dalí, and Mapplethorpe, but the true charm of WEAM lies in the more humble, garden-variety erotica that Wilzig gathered from every corner of the globe.
From Japan, Wilzig collected shunga books, bound prints of sexual scenes that are rumored to have served as instructional material for newlywed nobility drom the 17th to 19th centuries.
From the Mediterranean, she obtained Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities including the fertility amulets and figurines that are some of the museum’s oldest pieces.
She left no stone unturned—especially the penis-shaped ones, like the revolving 25-pound Brazilian geode that occurred naturally in the unmistakable shape of a circumcised penis.
“She wore a sign around her neck in every language you can imagine that said, ‘Buying erotica,” says Harbour of Wilzig’s travels.
And she brought all of her spoils back to Florida. The museum itself is tucked away in a large former recording studio above The Cabaret South Beach—a “dirty little secret,” Harbour and I agree, in a ZIP Code that’s already full of them.
Between the classical paintings and the proliferation of dicks, it’s precisely the sort of high-low cultural mix that can only thrive in a place like Miami Beach. Literally.
“It was the only place that would take us,” says Harbour, laughing, when I ask how the museum got its start here.
Wilzig and company initially tried to display her growing collection elsewhere—most notably in St. Petersburg, Florida, near the Dalí Museum—but city governing bodies regarded the proposal as if the museum were an adult entertainment establishment.
WEAM would make an awkward neighbor for the Great Explorations Children’s Museum, the logic went.
Similar zoning restrictions and puritanical attitudes have kept erotic art museums few and far between in the United States.
The interactive-focused Museum of Sex has found a home in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, but it has nowhere near as much artwork as WEAM.
In fact, apart from the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas, WEAM has one of the only major collections of erotic art on display in the U.S.
Across the Atlantic, of course, erotica museums can be found in central locations in cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Barcelona, and Moscow.
In Paris, a giant vagina sculpture might be controversial but here, it simply wouldn’t happen. Erotic artwork can only seem to survive in America’s most sinful locales.
Even in the heart of Miami Beach with the notorious Club Madonna strip joint a few blocks down the road, WEAM is too risqué to appear on wayfinding signs despite a consistently high rating on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.
“Anything with the word ‘erotic’ on it scares the shit out of people,” explains Harbour.
Once inside, however, there’s nothing to be afraid of and plenty to gawk at. Come with a friend, come after a cocktail, and give yourself permission to giggle.
This may be a museum but it’s acceptable to laugh out loud when you round a corner and see 85 sculpted vulvas hanging from the wall, only one of them painted blood red. Wake up, Dorothy, you’re not in the Met anymore.
In one corner of the museum, there’s a hand-carved wooden carousel horse from late 19th century Germany that feels out of place amid the explicit art until Harbour shows me its massive erection.
“This one’s old enough that it might be where the term ‘woody’ came from,” Harbour jokes. I warned you about the puns.
A loving reproduction of the chair from Catherine the Great’s sex chamber is another focal point. The 18th-century Russian empress had a room filled with elaborate erotic furniture that has never been recovered, but a friend of Wilzig’s managed to re-create her chair from the only photographs of it to survive World War II.
The armrests are sculptures of masturbating women—not very comfortable, but the chair doesn’t seem built for lounging.
Ever wonder where the terrifying penis sculpture-slash-murder weapon from A Clockwork Orange ended up? No? Well, one of the only originals used in the film ended up here and, as Harbour showed me, it still rocks with the same eerie, irregular motion that it did when Kubrick’s hyperviolent protagonist first toyed with it.
The most formidable piece in the museum is a king-size four-post bedframe carved by a German roofer. Not only are the 8-foot-tall bedposts shaped like penises, there are 138 Kama Sutra positions carved into every surface.
“If you’re sleeping in this bed and you wake up in the middle of the night and you need inspiration, grab a flashlight and take a look,” says Harbour. “There’s bound to be something you like.”
And then there’s the prize of the museum: the gigantic gold-colored fiberglass penis set in front of some Lynchian blue curtains in a room all its own.
Harbour calls it “Golden Boy” and, until recently, it was one of the only items in the museum that could be photographed. It’s still the only item in the museum that can be touched: visitors are allowed to sit on Golden Boy, stand on it, hug it, probably even lick it if they want.
Its size has made it something of an Instagram sensation over the years so, if you want to see people from all over the world riding a giant golden penis, your desires are just a few taps of a smartphone away.
Harbour maintains that it is “the most photographed penis in the world besides Ron Jeremy’s.”
But between all of the tentpole pieces are lots of little treasures: two Eskimo tribal wands made from the penis bones of walruses with polar bear head carvings on the tips; a violin in the shape of a female torso that Harbour calls “the G-string” (har har); a wall devoted entirely to depictions of Lady Godiva and Peeping Tom; and another to the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan.
This is a strange, magical place for anyone with a dirty mind. But stepping out of the dimly lit spaces of the museum into the bleached Florida sunlight at the end of the afternoon, it’s hard not to feel like I was just somewhere I shouldn’t have been, somewhere illicit and clandestine.
And then a taxi passes with a “Club Madonna All-Nude” ad on top. I remember where I am and why the World Erotic Art Museum only ever could be here.