Forget the pandemic. But not in this museum.

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Forget the pandemic. But not in this museum.

Dresden, Germany — Here’s a beautiful, blue glass bottle on a display case at the German Hygiene Museum, whose modesty belies its purpose. Created in 1904, it is a flask for tuberculosis patients to wear on the hip, so that they can spit out infectious phlegm with relative discretion. (In Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel “The Magic Mountain”, the residents of a sanatorium nickname the device Blue Heinrich.)

Using a pocket spittoon instead of spitting on the floor was once considered polite, before TB could be treated with antibiotics, explained Carola Rupprecht, head of the museum’s education department, on a recent visit, as that wearing a mask or coughing. Elbows are the point of etiquette during the current pandemic. “The idea was to take hygienic measures to avoid the spread of the disease,” she said.

Museum in the eastern city of Dresden, has long sought to escape The idea that it focused narrowly on medicine, and instead worked hard to promote itself as a “museum of the human and human body”, said its director, Claus Vogel, who worked on everything at the institute. Exhibitions have been staged. eat friendship

Part of this effort to rebrand comes from the German Sanitation Museum’s distance from its dark history of promoting eugenicist concepts of “racial hygiene” in the Nazi era. The museum has a keen ambivalence towards its own collection which causes it to approach certain health subjects with caution. But as the coronavirus has given disease prevention a new and deadly urgency, the museum is grappling with how to address what it is named after.

There are lessons to be learned from the museum’s hygiene-related holdings, Rupprecht said, especially in the history of medicine as to how often the same debate is repeated: Often, these debates are about privacy, personal liberty, and how best to communicate health information. way. To a suspicious public.

For example, the museum houses more than 10,000 posters related to the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases – some of which are now on display in permanent exhibits. They represent a wide variety of communication strategies, some dangerous, others playful: “Small encounter, big danger,” reads a poster from 1949, which depicts a man and woman dancing in an ominous shadow. Another poster from 1987 shows a sultry man in a raincoat and boots, superimposing the type, “Nice boys always wear their rubbers.”

Also in the permanent exhibition posters encourage people to get vaccinated against smallpox, the first disease for which there was an effective vaccine. “From the beginning, we had a problem with persuading people to get vaccinated,” Rupprecht said.

Smallpox vaccination was eventually made mandatory in many places, including parts of the United States and now Germany. “We are very happy today that smallpox doesn’t exist anymore,” Ruprecht said. “Because, in fact, millions, mostly children, died.” But this was achieved only by making vaccination mandatory, he said, which was as controversial at the time as the proposed vaccine mandate is today. The logic is still the same today. she added. “The main question is: what should be considered more important? The assumed protection of the whole society by vaccination, or the freedom of each individual to make his own decisions?”

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Few things are more frightening – one, because of their history. The museum’s famous “Transparent Woman,” is a clear, life-size model with arms raised up and limbs visible through the plastic. She is slim and classically beautiful. When visitors press the buttons on his feet, various organs light up. “It shows you in a very clear and simple way, where are the organs, the arteries, the nerves, the nerves,” Vogel said in an interview. “Everything is in perfect condition, you can explain it to the kids, they understand it right away.”

But the woman made him uncomfortable because of its use in the Nazi era, when he was on a high platform – what a healthy National Socialist should look like at a time when health was considered a civic duty. “It was like a statue,” he said, “without wrinkles, no age, no sweat, no tears, no blood, no disease, no pain.”

The museum, founded by mouthwash magnate Carl August Lingner, evolved from the International Hygiene Exposition, a 1911 carnival show that attracted 5.5 million visitors, attracted by novelties such as the opportunity to see bacteria through a microscope . Lingner founded the museum with the money raised from the program.

From the beginning, the museum’s programming had traces of eugenics, Vogel said, including the “Race Hygiene” section in the 1911 exhibition. Under the Nazis, the museum became an arm of a propaganda machine, and the idea of ​​race hygiene was central to the Nazis’ genocidal agenda.

An established scientific institution with a highly developed public outreach mechanism, the museum was a valuable tool for the Nazis in spreading false claims about Jews, people with disabilities, and other victims of the regime.

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

After the collapse of the Third Reich, the museum became a state institution in the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the eastern equivalent of West Germany’s Federal Agency for Health Education. Its aim was to promote a healthy socialist citizenship. After German reunification in 1990, the museum took a drastic turn from its previous incarnations, retaining its name but moving away from cleanliness as a subject, and expanding into other medical, historical and cultural areas.

Cultural historian Thomas Macho, formerly part of the museum’s advisory board, said, “They did not want to have too much connection to their past in the GDR and Nazi times.”

He said anti-Semitism and fear of foreigners were recurring themes in every pandemic, pointing to conspiracy theories involving Jews and an increase in anti-Asian rhetoric during the latest. “Even in the time of the Spanish flu, more than 100 years ago, we discussed the national quality of the flu,” he said. “Was it the Spanish flu? Or was it the Belgian flu, or was it the Flemish flu, or was it the Russian flu?”

At the same time that humans re-enact trends and arguments from prior health crises, Macho said, there is also a strange kind of cultural amnesia that makes learning from them difficult. Twice as many people died from the Spanish flu as those killed in World War I, he said, and yet one plays a bigger role in historical memory than the other.

“Why do we forget these things? Why would we know a lot about 1969 and 1970, but nothing about the Hong Kong flu, which was so important during those years? We’ll remember Woodstock and maybe Charles Manson , ”he said, but not a pandemic that has killed millions of people around the world. Macho said it makes it even more important for cultural institutions like the German Sanitary Museum to do some works of remembrance. forgetting it.”

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