Pandemics Get Forgotten. But Not at This Museum.



DRESDEN, Germany — In a display case at the German Hygiene Museum here is a pretty, blue glass bottle whose daintiness belies its purpose. Manufactured in 1904, it is a flask for tuberculosis patients to wear at the hip, so they could spit up infectious phlegm with relative discretion. (In Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel “The Magic Mountain,” residents of a sanitarium nickname this device Blue Heinrich.)

Using a pocket spittoon rather than spitting on the floor was considered courteous at a time before TB could be treated with antibiotics, Carola Rupprecht, the head of the museum’s education department, explained on a recent tour, just as mask-wearing or coughing into your elbow are points of etiquette during the current pandemic. “The idea was to take hygienic measures to avoid 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 has worked hard instead to promote itself as “the museum of the human being and of the human body,” said Klaus Vogel, its director, who has staged exhibitions at the institution on everything from food to friendship.

Part of this effort to rebrand comes from wanting distance from the German Hygiene Museum’s own dark history of promoting eugenicist conceptions of “racial hygiene” in the Nazi era. The museum has a deep ambivalence toward its own collection that causes it to approach some health topics with caution. But as the coronavirus has given disease prevention a new and lethal urgency, the museum is grappling with how to address the very thing it’s named after.

There are lessons to learn from the museum’s hygiene-related holdings, Rupprecht said, particularly about how often the same debates recur throughout the history of medicine: Often, these debates turn on questions of privacy, individual freedom and the best way to communicate health information to a skeptical public.

For instance, the museum has more than 10,000 posters relating to the prevention of H.I.V. 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 one poster from 1949, which shows a man and woman dancing in an ominous shadow. Another poster, from 1987, shows a sultry man in a raincoat and boots, above the type, “Good boys always wear their rubbers.”

Also in the permanent exhibition are posters encouraging people to get inoculated against smallpox, the first disease for which there was an effective vaccine. “Right from the beginning, we had a problem persuading people to be vaccinated,” Rupprecht said.

Smallpox vaccination was eventually made mandatory in many places, including in parts of the United States and what is now Germany. “We’re very happy today that smallpox doesn’t exist any more,” Rupprecht said. “Because, really, millions, mostly children, died.” But this was only achieved by making vaccination compulsory, she added, which was controversial at the time, much as proposed vaccine mandates are today. The arguments are still the same, she added. “The main question is: What is to be regarded as more important? The assumed protection of the whole society by vaccination, or the freedom of each individual to decide for himself?”

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

But the woman makes him uneasy, he said, because of its use in the Nazi era, when it was on an elevated platform — a model for what a healthy National Socialist should look like at a time when health was considered a civic duty. “It was like an idol,” he said, representing “the perfect human being, with no wrinkles, no age, no sweat, no tears, no blood, no illness, no pain.”

The museum, founded by the mouthwash magnate Karl August Lingner, grew out of the International Hygiene Exhibition, a carnivalesque 1911 show that drew 5.5 million visitors, attracted by novelties like the chance to view bacteria through a microscope. Lingner established the museum with the money he raised from the event.

There were traces of eugenics in the museum’s programming from the beginning, said Vogel, including a “race hygiene” section at 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 apparatus, the museum was a valuable tool for the Nazis in spreading false claims about Jews, disabled people and other victims of the regime.

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

After the fall of the Third Reich, the museum became a state institution in the socialist German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.) and became an Eastern equivalent to West Germany’s Federal Agency of Health Education. Its aim was promoting a healthy socialist citizenry. After German reunification in 1990, the museum took a hard turn away from its previous incarnations, retaining its name but shying away from hygiene as a subject, and expanding into other medical, historical and cultural fields.

“They didn’t want to have too much connection to their own past in the G.D.R. and Nazi time,” said Thomas Macho, a cultural historian who was previously part of the museum’s advisory board.

He added that anti-Semitism and a fear of foreigners were recurring themes in every pandemic, pointing to conspiracy theories involving Jews and a rise in anti-Asian rhetoric during the latest. “Even in times of the Spanish Flu, more than 100 years ago, we had the discussion of 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 that humans re-enact the tendencies and debates from prior health crises, Macho said, there is also an odd kind of cultural amnesia that makes it difficult to learn from them. Twice as many people died of the Spanish flu than were killed in World War I, he said, and yet one plays a vastly bigger 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 during those years? We would remember Woodstock and maybe Charles Manson,” he said, but not a pandemic that killed millions around the world. This makes it even more important for cultural institutions such as the German Hygiene Museum to do some of the work of remembrance, Macho said. “We are always forgetting pandemics.”


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