DRESDEN, Germany — In a show case on the German Hygiene Museum here’s a fairly, blue glass bottle whose daintiness belies its objective. Manufactured in 1904, it’s a flask for tuberculosis sufferers to put on on the hip, so they may spit up infectious phlegm with relative discretion. (In Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel “The Magic Mountain,” residents of a sanitarium nickname this system Blue Heinrich.)
Utilizing a pocket spittoon fairly than spitting on the ground was thought of courteous at a time earlier than TB could possibly be handled with antibiotics, Carola Rupprecht, the pinnacle of the museum’s schooling division, defined on a current tour, simply as mask-wearing or coughing into your elbow are factors of etiquette in the course of the present pandemic. “The thought was to take hygienic measures to keep away from the unfold of the illness,” she mentioned.
The museum, within the Japanese metropolis of Dresden, has lengthy sought to flee the concept it’s narrowly centered on drugs, and has labored onerous as an alternative to advertise itself as “the museum of the human being and of the human physique,” mentioned Klaus Vogel, its director, who has staged exhibitions on the establishment on every part from meals to friendship.
A part of this effort to rebrand comes from wanting distance from the German Hygiene Museum’s personal darkish historical past of selling eugenicist conceptions of “racial hygiene” within the Nazi period. The museum has a deep ambivalence towards its personal assortment that causes it to strategy some well being subjects with warning. However because the coronavirus has given illness prevention a brand new and deadly urgency, the museum is grappling with tackle the very factor it’s named after.
There are classes to study from the museum’s hygiene-related holdings, Rupprecht mentioned, notably about how usually the identical debates recur all through the historical past of medication: Usually, these debates activate questions of privateness, particular person freedom and one of the simplest ways to speak well being data to a skeptical public.
For example, the museum has greater than 10,000 posters regarding the prevention of H.I.V. and different sexually transmitted ailments — a handful of which at the moment are on show within the everlasting exhibition. They symbolize all kinds of communication methods, some threatening, others playful: “Small encounter, nice hazard,” reads one poster from 1949, which exhibits a person and lady dancing in an ominous shadow. One other poster, from 1987, exhibits a sultry man in a raincoat and boots, above the kind, “Good boys at all times put on their rubbers.”
Additionally within the everlasting exhibition are posters encouraging folks to get inoculated in opposition to smallpox, the primary illness for which there was an efficient vaccine. “Proper from the start, we had an issue persuading folks to be vaccinated,” Rupprecht mentioned.
Smallpox vaccination was ultimately made obligatory in lots of locations, together with in elements of the US and what’s now Germany. “We’re very comfortable at the moment that smallpox doesn’t exist any extra,” Rupprecht mentioned. “As a result of, actually, tens of millions, largely youngsters, died.” However this was solely achieved by making vaccination obligatory, she added, which was controversial on the time, a lot as proposed vaccine mandates are at the moment. The arguments are nonetheless the identical, she added. “The primary query is: What’s to be considered extra vital? The assumed safety of the entire society by vaccination, or the liberty of every particular person to resolve for himself?”
Some objects are extra fraught — one, due to its historical past. The museum’s well-known “Clear Lady,” a transparent, life-size mannequin, has arms uplifted and organs seen via plastic. She is slender and classically lovely. When guests press buttons at her toes, completely different organs mild up. “It exhibits you in a really clear and easy means, the place the organs are, arteries, veins, nerves,” Vogel mentioned, in an interview. “Every little thing is in the fitting place, you may clarify it to youngsters, they perceive it instantly.”
However the lady makes him uneasy, he mentioned, due to its use within the Nazi period, when it was on an elevated platform — a mannequin for what a wholesome Nationwide Socialist ought to seem like at a time when well being was thought of a civic responsibility. “It was like an idol,” he mentioned, representing “the right human being, with no wrinkles, no age, no sweat, no tears, no blood, no sickness, no ache.”
The museum, based by the mouthwash magnate Karl August Lingner, grew out of the Worldwide Hygiene Exhibition, a carnivalesque 1911 present that drew 5.5 million guests, attracted by novelties like the possibility to view micro organism via a microscope. Lingner established the museum with the cash he raised from the occasion.
There have been traces of eugenics within the museum’s programming from the start, mentioned Vogel, together with a “race hygiene” part on the 1911 exhibition. Below the Nazis, the museum grew to become an arm of a propaganda machine, and the concept of race hygiene was central to the Nazis’ genocidal agenda.
A longtime scientific establishment with a extremely developed public outreach equipment, the museum was a helpful software for the Nazis in spreading false claims about Jews, disabled folks and different victims of the regime.
This legacy was a “very heavy factor to tackle,” Vogel mentioned. “It’s a must to carry it on a regular basis.”
After the autumn of the Third Reich, the museum grew to become a state establishment within the socialist German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.) and have become an Japanese equal to West Germany’s Federal Company of Well being Schooling. Its goal was selling a wholesome socialist citizenry. After German reunification in 1990, the museum took a tough flip away from its earlier incarnations, retaining its title however shying away from hygiene as a topic, and increasing into different medical, historic and cultural fields.
“They didn’t need to have an excessive amount of connection to their very own previous within the G.D.R. and Nazi time,” mentioned Thomas Macho, a cultural historian who was beforehand a part of the museum’s advisory board.
He added that anti-Semitism and a worry of foreigners had been recurring themes in each pandemic, pointing to conspiracy theories involving Jews and an increase in anti-Asian rhetoric in the course of the newest. “Even in instances of the Spanish Flu, greater than 100 years in the past, we had the dialogue of the nationwide high 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?”
On the identical time that people re-enact the tendencies and debates from prior well being crises, Macho mentioned, there’s additionally an odd sort of cultural amnesia that makes it troublesome to study from them. Twice as many individuals died of the Spanish flu than had been killed in World Warfare I, he mentioned, and but one performs a vastly larger function in historic reminiscence than the opposite.
“Why will we overlook this stuff? Why will we all know lots about 1969 and 1970, however nothing in regards to the Hong Kong flu, which was crucial throughout these years? We’d keep in mind Woodstock and possibly Charles Manson,” he mentioned, however not a pandemic that killed tens of millions around the globe. This makes it much more vital for cultural establishments such because the German Hygiene Museum to do a number of the work of remembrance, Macho mentioned. “We’re at all times forgetting pandemics.”