Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum

September 15, 2011


Another museum that we initially visited in Berlin because it was next to our temporary accommodation is the “Berliner Medizinhistorisches Museum”, or the Berlin Medical History Museum. Situated on the campus of the Charité hospital, it has a most fascinating history:

The Charité in Berlin, founded in the early 18th century, is one of the largest university hospitals in Europe. When Rudolf Virchow, a world famous pathologist of his time and considered by many to be “the father of modern pathology”, took over as Chair of Pathology at the Charité in 1856, he inherited a collection of around 1,500 pathological and anatomical specimens from his predecessors. Virchow continued collecting and preparing specimens – his motto was “Kein Tag ohne Präparat” (no day without a specimen) – and by 1896 the building in Berlin Mitte had become too small to hold them all, so an extension was built, including a five-storey museum. The bottom two floors of the ‘Pathlogical Museum’ displayed the “Schausammlungen” (show case collection) for the interested public, while the top three floors were reserved for the study and teaching collections, and included a lecture theatre. Between the opening of the museum in 1899 and his death in 1902, Virchow added 23,066 specimens to the collection (including the original 1,500), which represented almost all of the illnesses and diseases known at that time. His successor continued his work at the museum, but the public facing part closed in 1914 as it was becoming too costly to run, and only the parts for medical education were kept open. In World War II, the building was badly damaged and the collection heavily depleted. In the 1980s, the Charité pathologists wanted to resurrect the museum in the spirit of Virchow, and the preparation of specimens increased to even out the losses from the war. But it was not until after the German reunification in the early 1990s, that the focus shifted from restoring the collection to creating a new museum, which finally opened its doors in 1998. 
(translated and adapted from the German museum interpretation panels)

The pathological and anatomical specimens are still at the heart of the collections, but the museum also covers the history of medicine from the 1700s until today. Two floors are dedicated to their permanent collection, “Dem Leben auf der Spur” (on life’s trail), including the bombed out ruins of the former lecture theatre which is now a unique event space. The lower level covers an overview of pathology, surgery and internal medicine; the development of new specialisms and subjects; the history of anatomical theatres and museums; and tools of the trade. This is also where the pathological collections – the ‘things in jars’ – are displayed. The exhibits are ordered systematically by body parts and corresponding illnesses, e.g. skeleton & rickets, brain & tumours, skull & hydrocephaly, muskuloskeletal system & arthritis, digestive system & stomach ulcers, liver & cirrhosis, skin & melanoma, respiratory system & tuberculosis, heart & heart attack, sexual organs & prostrate cancer, kidney & kidney stones, circulatory system & thrombosis. The upper level, which we didn’t see in as much detail as the boy was getting fed up, includes a look at laboratory experiments, techniques and developments e.g. bacteria and serums, endoscopic and X-ray techniques, and ultrasound, as well as the history of medicine during the period of National Socialism.

We did, however, see the temporary exhibition (we actually started our visit here) “Who cares?” – the double meaning is intentional – about the history and everyday life of nursing. The historical part takes you on a journey from the pre 1800s, through the two world wars and the political upheavals of the late 20th century to the current day, and includes a look at the role of churches and religious communities in the development of nursing. Objects range from Roman nursing implements, bloodletting bowls and a first teaching manual from 1574, through rosaries and hymnals, to nursing magazines, advertisements for trainee nurses and membership badges from professional organisations. There’s also a gallery of occupational clothing and uniforms as well as portraits of people from different nursing professions. ‘Everyday life of nursing’ covers everything from medical education and training, medical and nursing activities, and time or lack thereof in caring for patients, to topics such as nutrition and excretion, personal hygiene of patients, and safety. Objects include e.g. catheters and bed pans, oxygen masks and infusion equipment, protective gloves and bio-hazard containers, as well as a collection of wheelchairs through the ages. The exhibition is showing until 8 January 2012.

This is a wonderful gem of a museum, and I was therefore sadden to read, shortly after our visit, that it’s been earmarked for closure. I really do hope it doesn’t come to that, so that next time you’re in Berlin you can go and discover it for yourself!


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