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  • Museum Review: Berlin Museum of Medical History
  • James M. Edmonson

Medical museums that inspire by example are lamentably few in number. A shining exception is the Berlin Museum of Medical History, which despite its comparative youth has set a high standard for such institutions. Its benchmark is set high not just by the caliber of artifacts and specimens, but also by its success in contextualizing those objects. Individually arresting or intriguing items that catch the eye or inspire a shudder gain enhanced meaning by well-conceived and well-presented displays. (As chefs say, presentation is everything.) Rather than recreate the look of an old medical museum, the Berlin Museum of Medical History uses its collection to show how a new scientific approach emerged and shaped the healer’s mission.

The Berlin Museum of Medical History opened in 1998 in the Pathological Museum built a century earlier to accommodate the pathologic-anatomical specimens amassed by Rudolph Virchow from deceased patients at the adjacent Charité Hospital. Virchow presented this collection to visually demonstrate the course of particular diseases, and to elucidate specific indicators and mechanisms of disease in cellular pathology. Principal audiences for this museum included students attending Virchow’s lectures, who could then deepen their understanding of disease phenomena, and laypeople interested in “looking beneath the skin” and thus developing a new understanding that informed individual behavior in relation to health and disease. The Virchow museum’s public galleries fell on hard times during World War I, and thereafter they served chiefly only a student population, albeit in a much less inspired manner following its founder’s death in 1902. Bombing in World War II further sealed the fate of the museum.

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Figure 1.

Berlin Museum of Medical History. Image courtesy of James Edmonson.

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From these ashes rose the Berlin Museum of Medical History. The façade of Virchow’s building survived, but it has been reconfigured within to showcase surviving specimens from Virchow’s collection. It goes beyond this, however, to “enter the world of the sick who have turned to medicine in the face of a threat to their health in hopes of help with their recovery.”1 Within the main introductory gallery, visitors learn about the scientific study of nature beginning around 1700, with a focus on how anatomists and pathologists delved into the body to fathom its structure and function. It further explores how new perceptions shaped clinical care and treatment through the early twentieth century, that period when medicine indeed became “modern.” Social and political dimensions are included, most arrestingly in gallery presentations of medicine’s twisted course under National Socialism in the 1930s and 1940s.

Perhaps the gallery that most moved and impressed me was a hospital ward featuring ten installations, each devoted to a particular disease or medical event (birth, wartime trauma, etc.). Each began with the case history of a Charité patient and thus brought a distinctly personal element to the interpretation of the medical past. Each installation stands on a platform roughly four feet by twelve feet. At one end a waist-high panel presents the patient’s story, at times very poignantly, via period clinical records, ephemera, and personal effects. At the other end one finds a taller glass vitrine with pertinent instruments, related medical treatises, and associated medications. Between stands a medical or surgical furnishing— obstetric chair, hospital bed, military field litter—related to the infirmity, injury, or malady presented. Label copy in English and German contextualizes each story succinctly and informatively. From a conceptual, visual, and design standpoint, it all works superbly well.

In addition to the excellent permanent galleries, the Berlin Museum of Medical History hosts periodic temporary exhibitions and programs that connect its historical collections to contemporary audiences, both lay and medical. When I visited in 2011, an exhibition on nursing titled “Who cares?” was on display and was done in a fashion equal to exhibits in the permanent galleries. In summary, I would heartily commend the Berlin Museum of Medical History to my colleagues in the AAHM. No future visit to Berlin would be complete without seeing it.

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