Pandemics are forgotten. But not in this museum.

DRESDE, Germany – In a display case at the German Hygiene Museum is a pretty blue glass bottle, the delicacy of which contradicts its pu...


DRESDE, Germany – In a display case at the German Hygiene Museum is a pretty blue glass bottle, the delicacy of which contradicts its purpose. Manufactured in 1904, it is a bottle that tuberculosis patients must wear on their hip, so that they can cough up infectious phlegm with relative discretion. (In Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel “The Magic Mountain,” residents of a sanatorium nicknamed this device Blue Heinrich.)

Using a pocket-sized spittoon rather than spitting on the floor was considered courteous at a time when tuberculosis could not be treated with antibiotics, Carola Rupprecht, head of the museum’s education department, explained in a recent report. touring, just like wearing a mask or coughing into your elbow are points of etiquette during the current pandemic. “The idea was to take hygienic measures to prevent the spread of the disease,” she said.

The museum, in the eastern city of Dresden, has long sought to escape the idea that it is narrowly focused on medicine and that it has rather worked hard to present itself as “the museum of the human being and the human body”, said Klaus Vogel, its director, who organized exhibits in the institution on everything from food to friendship.

Part of this rebranding effort comes from wanting to distance itself from the dark history of the German Hygiene Museum of promoting eugenic conceptions of “racial hygiene” during the Nazi era. The museum has a deep ambivalence towards its own collection which leads it to approach certain health topics with caution. But as the coronavirus has given disease prevention a new and deadly urgency, the museum is wondering how to approach the very thing it is named after.

There are lessons to be learned from the museum’s collections related to hygiene, Rupprecht said, particularly about how often the same debates recur throughout the history of medicine: to a skeptical audience.

For example, the museum has more than 10,000 posters relating to the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, a handful of which are now on display in the permanent exhibition. They represent a wide variety of communication strategies, some threatening, others playful: “Small encounter, great danger,” reads a 1949 poster, which shows a man and a woman dancing in a threatening shadow. Another poster, from 1987, shows a sultry man in a raincoat and boots, above the “Good boys always wear their rubbers” type.

The permanent exhibit also contains posters encouraging people to get vaccinated against smallpox, the first disease for which there was an effective vaccine. “From the start we had a hard time persuading people to get vaccinated,” Rupprecht said.

Vaccination against smallpox was eventually made mandatory in many places, including parts of the United States and what is now Germany. “We are very happy today that smallpox no longer exists,” Ruprecht said. “But this was only achieved by making vaccination compulsory,” she added, which was controversial at the time, as are the proposed vaccination mandates today. The arguments are always the same, she added. “The main question is: what should be considered the most important? The supposed protection of the whole of society by vaccination, or the freedom of each individual to decide for himself?

Some objects are heavier – one, because of its history. The museum’s famous “Transparent Woman”, a clear, life-size model, has arms raised and organs visible through the plastic. She is slim and classically beautiful. When visitors press buttons at his feet, different organs light up. “It shows you in a very clear and simple way where the organs, arteries, veins, nerves are,” Vogel said in an interview. “Everything is in its place, we can explain it to the children, they understand it right away.

But the woman makes him uncomfortable, he said, due to its use in Nazi times, when she was on an elevated platform – a model of what a Healthy National Socialist at a time when health was seen as a civic duty. “It was like an idol”, he said, representing “the perfect human being, without wrinkles, without age, without sweat, without tears, without blood, without disease, without pain”.

The museum, founded by mouthwash tycoon Karl August Lingner, was born out of the International Hygiene Exhibition, a 1911 carnival spectacle that drew 5.5 million visitors, drawn by novelties like the possibility of observe bacteria under a microscope. Lingner created the museum with the money he raised through the event.

There were traces of eugenics in the museum’s programming from the start, Vogel said, including a “running hygiene” section at the 1911 exhibit. Under the Nazis, the museum became the arm of a propaganda machine, and the idea of ​​racial hygiene was at the heart of the Nazi genocidal program.

An established scientific institution with a highly developed public awareness apparatus, the museum was a valuable tool for the Nazis in disseminating false allegations about Jews, people with disabilities, and other victims of the regime.

This legacy was a “very heavy thing to take on,” Vogel said. “You have to wear it all the time. “

After the fall of the Third Reich, the museum became a state institution in the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and became the eastern equivalent of the West German Federal Agency for Health Education. Its aim was to promote healthy socialist citizenship. After German reunification in 1990, the museum took a difficult turn from its previous incarnations, retaining its name but avoiding hygiene as a subject and expanding into other medical, historical and cultural fields.

“They didn’t want to have too many ties to their own past during the GDR and the Nazis,” said Thomas Macho, a cultural historian who previously served on the museum’s advisory board.

He added that anti-Semitism and fear of foreigners were recurring themes in every pandemic, pointing to conspiracy theories involving Jews and a rise in anti-Asian rhetoric during the latter. “Even in the days of the Spanish flu, over 100 years ago, we discussed the national quality of the flu,” he added. “Was it the Spanish flu? Or was it the Belgian flu, or was it the Flemish flu, or was it the Russian flu?

As humans piece together trends and debates from past health crises, Macho said, there is also a strange kind of cultural amnesia that makes it difficult to learn from them. Twice as many people have died from the Spanish flu than in World War I, he said, and yet one plays a much larger role in historical memory than the other.

“Why do we forget these things? Why will we know so much about 1969 and 1970, but nothing about the Hong Kong flu, which was so important during those years? We would remember Woodstock and maybe Charles Manson, ”he said, but not a pandemic that has killed millions of people around the world. This makes it even more important for cultural institutions such as the German Hygiene Museum to do some of the commemoration work, Macho said. “We always forget about pandemics. “

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Newsrust - US Top News: Pandemics are forgotten. But not in this museum.
Pandemics are forgotten. But not in this museum.
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