Pandemics Get Forgotten. However Not at This Museum.

DRESDEN, Germany – In a showcase of the German Hygiene Museum, there is a pretty blue glass bottle, the grace of which belies its purpose. Made in 1904, it is a bottle for tuberculosis patients that is worn on the hip to allow them to spit out infectious mucus with relative discretion. (In Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain”, published in 1924, the residents of a sanatorium call this device Blauer Heinrich.)

Using a spittoon instead of spitting on the floor was considered polite at a time before tuberculosis could be treated with antibiotics, Carola Rupprecht, head of museum education, recently explained during a tour, as was wearing masks or coughing up Elbows are etiquette points during the current pandemic. “The idea was to take hygienic measures to prevent the disease from spreading,” she said.

The museum in the east of Dresden has been looking for escape for a long time The idea that it focused closely on medicine and instead worked hard to apply as a “Museum of Man and the Human Body,” said Klaus Vogel, its director, who has shown exhibits on everything from Essen at the institution to friendship.

Part of these efforts to rebrand can be traced back to the fact that one wants to distance oneself from the own dark history of the German Hygiene Museum, to promote eugenistic ideas of “racial hygiene” in the Nazi era. The museum has a deep ambivalence about its own collection, which leads it to approach some health issues with caution. But as the coronavirus has given disease prevention a new and deadly urgency, the museum is struggling to address exactly what it’s named for.

Lessons can be learned from the museum’s hygiene-relevant holdings, said Rupprecht, in particular about how often the same debates recur in the history of medicine: These debates are often about questions of privacy, individual freedom and the best way to communicate Health information to a skeptical public.

For example, the museum has more than 10,000 posters on the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases – a handful of which can now be seen in the permanent exhibition. They represent the most diverse communication strategies, sometimes threatening, sometimes playful: “Small encounter, great danger”, it says on a poster from 1949, which shows a dancing man and a woman in an ominous shadow. Another poster from 1987 shows a sultry man in a raincoat and boots above the writing “Good guys always wear their rubber bands”.

The permanent exhibition also features posters calling for people to be vaccinated against smallpox, the first disease against which an effective vaccine was available. “Right from the start we had a problem getting people to vaccinate,” said Rupprecht.

Smallpox vaccination eventually became mandatory in many places, including parts of the United States and what is now Germany. “Today we are very happy that smallpox no longer exists,” said Ruprecht. “Because millions, mostly children, really died.” However, this was only achieved through the introduction of mandatory vaccination, which was controversial at the time, as are vaccination mandates proposed today. The arguments are still the same She added. “The central question is: what is more important? The supposed protection of the whole society through vaccinations or the freedom of each individual to decide for themselves? “

Some objects are more polluted – one because of its history. The museum’s famous “See-Through Woman”, a clear, life-size model, has raised arms and organs that are visible through plastic. She is slim and classically beautiful. When visitors press buttons at their feet, various organs light up. “It shows you very clearly and simply where the organs, arteries, veins and nerves are,” said Vogel in an interview. “Everything is in the right place, you can explain it to children, they understand immediately.”

But the woman worried him about its use in the Nazi era, when she was standing on a raised platform – a model of what a healthy National Socialist should look like in an era when health was considered a civic duty. “It was like an idol,” he said, and represented “the perfect person, without wrinkles, without age, without sweat, without tears, without blood, without disease, without pain”.


Sept. 1, 2021, 4:51 p.m. ET

Founded by mouthwash magnate Karl August Lingner, the museum emerged from the International Hygiene Exhibition, a carnival-like exhibition from 1911 that attracted 5.5 million visitors, attracted by innovations such as the ability to view bacteria through a microscope. Lingner founded the museum with the money he raised at the event.

According to Vogel, there were traces of eugenics in the program of the museum from the beginning, including a section entitled “Racial Hygiene” in the 1911 exhibition. Under the Nazis, the museum became the arm of a propaganda machine, and the idea of ​​racial hygiene was at the center of the genocidal ones Nazi agenda.

As an established scientific institution with a highly developed public apparatus, the museum was a valuable tool for the Nazis in spreading false claims about Jews, the disabled and other victims of the regime.

Understand US vaccination and mask requirements

    • Vaccination rules. On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people aged 16 and over, paving the way for increased mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies are increasingly demanding vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally permissible and have been confirmed in legal challenges.
    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in public places indoors in areas with outbreaks, a reversal of the guidelines offered in May. See where the CDC guidelines would apply and where states have implemented their own mask guidelines. The battle over masks is controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • College and Universities. More than 400 colleges and universities require a vaccination against Covid-19. Almost all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for educational staff. A survey published in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandatory vaccines for students but are more supportive of masking requirements for students, teachers, and staff who do not have a vaccination.
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and large health systems require their employees to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, due to rising case numbers due to the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their workforce.
    • New York City. Proof of vaccination is required by workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances, and other indoor situations, though enforcement doesn’t begin until September 13. Teachers and other educational workers in the city’s vast school system are required to have at least one vaccine dose by September 27, with no weekly testing option. City hospital staff must also be vaccinated or have weekly tests. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would make coronavirus vaccinations compulsory for the country’s 1.3 million active soldiers “by mid-September at the latest. President Biden announced that all civil federal employees would need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular tests, social distancing, mask requirements and travel restrictions.

This legacy is a “very difficult thing,” said Vogel. “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 an eastern equivalent of the Federal Office for Health Education. Their aim was to promote a healthy socialist citizenship. After German reunification in 1990, the museum turned away from its previous incarnations, kept its name, but shied away from the subject of hygiene and expanded to other medical, historical and cultural areas.

“They didn’t want to be too closely connected to their own past in the GDR and Nazi era,” says Thomas Macho, a cultural historian who was previously a member of the museum’s advisory board.

He added that anti-Semitism and the fear of foreigners are recurring themes with any pandemic, suggesting conspiracy theories with Jews and a surge in anti-Asian rhetoric recently. “Even in the times of the Spanish flu, more than 100 years ago, we had the discussion about 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? “

At the same time as people reenact the trends and debates from previous health crises, there is also, Macho said, a strange kind of cultural amnesia that makes them difficult to learn from. Twice as many people died from the Spanish flu as in the First World War, he said, and yet one plays a far greater role in historical memory than the other.

“Why do we forget these things? Why will we know a lot about 1969 and 1970 but nothing about the Hong Kong flu, which was very important in those years? We’d remember Woodstock and maybe Charles Manson, ”he said, but not a pandemic that killed millions around the world. Macho said it was all the more important for cultural institutions like the German Hygiene Museum to do some of the work of remembrance. “We always forget about pandemics.”

Comments are closed.