Deutsches Röntgen Museum

August 2, 2011


Have you ever heard of the town of Lennep in Germany? No? Well, you should have, because it’s home to the Deutsches Röntgen Museum. I first visited several years ago, when the museum was still a little old fashioned in its presentation, though even then the subject matter itself was no less interesting. Then, on my last visit two years ago, they were in the middle of a major renovation, which sounded very promising and I looked forward to re-discovering the museum once the renovation was complete. We visited again over Easter, and I was not disappointed. The ‘new’ Röntgen Museum can only be described as a gem. If you think a museum about the history of x-rays and their inventor can’t be very interesting, or very big, think again!

“Welcome to the German Röntgen Museum, the home of x-ray history. Good to see you! (…) Be prepared for a lot of experiments and thrills of discovery!”

Thus you are welcomed by the audioguide, which continues in the same enthusiastic and engaging manner. And there is indeed lots to discover, and to do, as the museum is quite interactive throughout.

Click on the thumbnails to view the images at full size.

The ground floor of the museum is dedicated to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen himself. First up, you enter a room which is set up to represent the Nobel Prize ceremony hall. Here you are introduced to who Röntgen and Nobel were, how the nomination system works, and what the prize means today. And you can even give your own speech at the podium lectern to a big round of applause.  The next exhibit focuses on Röntgen’s relationship with the Swiss alps, which were a source of inspiration to him. He was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and a panorama stretched around the room shows the vantage points from which he took his pictures which you can view via a model of his camera. After you then “step through the curtains into the lab”, you see a replica set up of Röntgen’s original experiment and learn about the circumstances surrounding the discovery, including how x-rays are generated and why they were given that name (x being the mathematical symbol for the unknown, though in German they are referred to as ‘Röntgen rays’). It was probably a coincidence that the phone on the wall rang just as the audioguide relayed that “the news spread like wildfire around the world”, but I was pretty impressed anyway. Even more impressive was the x-ray simulator, which can tell left from right and estimates the position of your hand and fingers (though it gets confused when to try to hide your thumb to trick it^^). To round off the story of Röntgen’s life, you get to explore a replica of his study, including a calendar with key events from his life, and objects to discover behind doors of his bookshelf. Anyone listening to the audio guide gets a little extra reward, as the anecdote that his wife left daily chocolates for her  husband, is followed by the invitation to “help yourself!” – cautiously lifting the lid of the box on the desk we were pleasantly surprised to discover there really were chocolates inside! Finally, a video screening of a fire place, underlines the fact that all of Röntgen’s papers were burned after his death, as stipulated in his will, leaving behind nothing but the formula for x-rays.

The vaulted cellar, which next and covers the basic principles and pioneer period of x-rays, starts with a section about fairgrounds. This may seem a little odd, until you learn that x-ray machines became popular fairground attractions. Oblivious to the dangers of overexposure, people could let themselves be x-rayed as often as they liked, e.g. to see if their shoes fit properly when buying new ones in a store, with an original machine on display that you can step up to (though no longer in working order!) There are also screenings showing x-ray films of people and animals, and a simulated photo booth where you can have your x-ray passport photo taken for a mere 50 cent. Adjacent to the fairground display is the ‘cellar lab’ with displays about anatomy (including a half dissected ‘body’), a darkroom explaining how x-ray pictures are made, and a recreated treatment room complete with x-ray photographs to examine on a lightbox. Other activities in the cellar lab include a digital  x-ray pinball game, where you fire electrons with a cathode gun to knock out other electrons attached to an atom. Depending on your score you receive various interesting facts about x-rays as a reward. Another touch screen lets you choose between various games, including a quiz challenging you to sit your final test for your ‘Röntgen Diploma’. To be honest, the quiz was quite long and quite difficult, and you had to start over every time you got a question wrong, but never one to give up we went through it about seven times until we got them all right, spurred on by the promise that we would receive a password at the end that could be exchanged for our ‘diploma’ at the ticket desk on our way out (alas, despite all the time we spent on the quiz, yes, you’ve guessed it, we forgot to ask for out diploma as we left…) Oh, I almost forgot the cloud chamber, which was the husband’s favourite bit, where you can watch radiation, i.e. the finely charged clouds that are all around us, happening ‘for real’.

Via a tunnel you then make your way into the adjacent building, where you step into a reconstructed field hospital – complete with sound effects of the trenches – to learn about how x-rays are used in war situations. This is followed by an interactive ‘Röntgen Bus’, which marks the entrance to the section on -rays used for therapy and other medical purposes, including a reconstructed dental surgery and waiting room. The final section, on the second floor, houses the collection of historical x-ray related instruments as well as the use of x-rays in studying mummies and in the art world, namely to aide with restoration and to identify fakes from original paintings. On your way out you pass a timeline which neatly sums up the history of x-rays, and your visit.

The museum’s interpretation is delivered on three levels – the audio guide, which comes in German, English, and a German kids version; the wall monitors, which give you general information relation to the objects on display in the show cases; and the in depth stations, which take you further into the subjects via additional information and historical views. If I had any criticism to make, it would be that I would have liked an explanation or overview of what X-rays are earlier in my visit, rather than jumping right in with the Nobel prize (after all, it’s not the Nobel museum), but I guess they are just so proud that Röntgen was the first ever Physics recipient. Another minor quibble is that although all the touchscreens include English, the instructions to select English are in German and the icon is not obvious. If you have the English audio guide it’s explained to you, but otherwise it’s a bit of trial and error. I was a bit anxious actually about all the interpretation being so touchscreen dependent, what if there’s a software failure or a power cut? But as I say, these weren’t major issues and in no way detract from the fact that this is a fantastic museum. Based on previous visits, we naively thought that an hour would be plenty of time to see everything. We ended up spending almost two hours there, and that was with rushing through the last two sections to see everything before they shut. I don’t know what I was expecting, but we had a brilliant time – it was interesting, engaging, interactive and time just flew by. Exactly the kind of museum visit you want to have. I was therefore shocked, on chatting to the lady at the information desk, to discover that they had an average of 30 visitors a day, rising up to maybe 100 on a good day at weekends or during holidays. I just wanted to run out and shout to the whole world about this place. Which I guess I am doing via this blog post. So, if you are ever near Lennep, make sure to schedule in a stop at the Röntgen Museum!


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