“A Visit to the Depot” – Tweetup at the Medical History Museum

August 16, 2013

Germany

Earlier this week, I took part in yet another museum tweetup (#MuseUp), this time at the Medical History Museum here in Berlin. I’ve written in detail about the museum before, and although it didn’t make my Top 5 list for Berlin, it’s definitely in my Top 10 and got a mention in my recent Berlin Museum City Guide. This visit was extra special though, because we got a guided tour around the museum from the director himself, Prof. Thomas Schnalke, and in the context of the #MuseUp we were allowed to take photographs, which is usually not permitted*. Here are some photographic impressions of the event:

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Rudolf Virchow (1821 – 1902) is considered by many to be the father of modern pathology, and it was for his vast collection of pathological and anatomical specimens that the original museum was built. His study has been recreated in the permanent exhibition.

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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. Exhibits include everything from medical manuals and old medicine bottles, to tools of the trade, often accompanied by graphics showing their usage (see below).

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One very interesting collection shows a series of illnesses and afflictions represented by wax masks, which were all cast from real people. This model shows a case of conjunctivitis in a newborn, where the bacterium is passed on by the mother, and a bottle of silver nitrate used to treat it.

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The specimen hall exhibits around 750 examples from the museum’s vast pathological collection. Specimens are arranged by body parts and illnesses, alongside models showing where and how they would have functioned (see below). Some came from operations, e.g. tumour or growth removals, where the patient survived, but the majority came from deceased persons. Word of warning: many of these exhibits are not for the faint hearted, especially the final aisle, which includes deformed foetuses and babies – though there is still plenty to see in the rest of the museum, which covers three floors.

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Virchow insisted that his museum have a lecture theatre to teach students. The museum was badly damaged in the War, and unlike the rest of the museum, the bombed out lecture theatre was not fully rebuilt. It now serves as an event space and also acts as an exhibit in itself, maintaining a link to the original museum. One of the window hangings, which keep out damaging light whilst allowing peeks over to the Charité hospital compound, show a different kind of theatre – an 18th century anatomical theatre.

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One of the museum’s claim to fame, is that they have the world’s largest collection of gall stones! Some of the gall stone specimens make you wince in pain just from looking at them. The Damien Hirst style display of the gall stones (see below) is intentional. Gall stones as art?!

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As well as the permanent exhibition, we also took a tour around “Visite im Depot” – a temporary exhibition showing both a replica of wha the museum’s collections depot looks like, as well as highlighting some of the most curious and interesting objects and their stories. Such as this syringe, which was used to treat Emperor Wilhelm II in 1894. It seems collecting souvenirs from celebrities is nothing new :)

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This anatomical teaching model from around 1930 is enlarged six times and completely dominates the room!

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This object looks quite unassuming but tells an interesting story. It’s a spool of silk thread used for eye operations such as cornea transplants from the early 1960s until today. The interesting thing about it? It was ordered from a stocking manufacturer and originally used to produce black mourning stockings!

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These large tissue cuts of a brain from 1963 almost look like art!

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And finally, here’s a mock up of the museum’s depot, with lots of interesting things to discover.

As I said at the beginning, this is one of my favourite museums in Berlin. Even if you have visited other medical history museums elsewhere before, it’s still worth a visit, and with up to five special exhibitions a year, there’s always something new to discover. And just in case you’re wondering, all the main text panels are in English as well as German, so there’s really no excuse not to go.

Many thanks to Prof. Schnalke, and also to Beate Kunst who led the other group round, for their time and for welcoming us to their most wonderful museum!

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*For those who are bound to ask, the ‘no photography’ policy is due to the large number of human remains (the pathological and anatomical specimens) on display. In a small guided group like ours it is possible to remind people what can not be photographed for ethical reasons, but since it is impossible to monitor this on a day-to-day basis, a blanket rule is in place. 

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