The body as exhibition object More than creepiness and desire

Interactive element at the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum in Dresden; © Sandra Neuhaus/DHM
Interactive element at the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum in Dresden | Photo (detail): © Sandra Neuhaus/DHM

Even the forefather of modern anatomy Andreas Vesalius relied on a striking setting for his depictions of the human body, irrespective of his scientific aspirations. Today the established German museums of medicine and anatomy combine the emotional and the rational.

Public presentations of the dead body are a phenomenon popularised by a master from Germany, anatomist Gunther von Hagens. It was he who conceived the exhibition Body Worlds, which has attracted more than 34 million visitors since 1996. Thanks to a special technique for preserving and presenting biological tissue called plastination, he can graphically present organs and complete dead bodies. Controversy is still ongoing, however, as to the epistemological value of his shows and their exhibits, which feature, among other things, a group of corpses playing poker or a corpse nailed to a cross. It would appear that the exhibition visitors are motivated by some unconscious drive, be it voyeurism, a desire to be scared, or simply an interest in seeing the inside of the human body.

Authentic medical sites

The Charité hospital’s Berlin Museum of Medical History, inaugurated in 1899, was based on an idea by the pathologist Rudolf Virchow of showing individual organs in various states ranging from healthy to sick to the final stage leading to death. This matrix spatialises illnesses and presents the stages in their development. It explains the human body and help experts and lay people to a better understanding of illness. On show alongside preserved anatomical specimens from genuine corpses, are models, moulages, instruments, illustrations and photographs outlining both the development of medical research and practice, and the state of being ill, being a patient, over a period ranging from about 1700 to today.

What is unusual about this museum is that it is part of a university hospital and therefore shows its exhibits in authentic medical sites: operating theatres, dissections rooms and hospital wards, thus lending them an additional aura. One aim of the museum is to reduce the emotional aspect and provide visitors with information. Whereas museums of cultural and technological history make everyday, sometimes even boring objects more exciting by the way they arrange or stage them, museums of medical history have to curtail the fascination of their exhibits. The presentation of dead bodies must be accompanied by a learning experience if it is to be ethically justifiable.

The relationship between doctor and patient

Clearly the Berlin museum together with the German Medical History Museum in Ingolstadt work primarily from the perspective of the patient. Both museums conceived the exhibition Praxiswelten. Zur Geschichte der Begegnung von Arzt und Patient (The history of the encounter between doctor and patient), on show in Berlin in 2014 and in Ingolstadt as of November 2015. The exhibition is the result of a research project and looks behind the scenes during the all too familiar visit to the doctor. It does this by means of medical files, instruments and illustrations, explaining how doctors throughout the whole of the modern era have collected, assessed and used their knowledge about patients for healing purposes. The holdings of the museum in Ingolstadt are highly appropriate for this because it has housed and continually expanded the largest collection on the history of medicine since the 1970s. Accordingly, one of its main objectives is to present the exhibits as resources for further training and for the history of medicine.

Man as a product of modern research

The Deutsche Hygiene-Museum in Dresden, more so than the medical history museums, is committed to the principle of communicating knowledge of the structure of the human body so as to contribute towards maintaining people’s health. This founding motif, dating from the early 20th century, governs the work of the museum to this very day. On the basis of its own experiences, however, among other things as a site of National Socialist propaganda about racial hygiene, the museum also critically questions this self-imposed mission. It presents our knowledge of man as a product of modern research and public debates, addresses the theme of the imperfect body and the relationship of the individual to his or her social and natural environment. Exemplary exhibitions to date are Images of the Mind. Bildwelten des Geistes aus Kunst und Wissenschaft (Images of the Mind in Art and Science, 2011), analysing depictions of the brain and thinking as products of art and science, and Reichtum – Mehr als genug (Wealth – More than Enough, 2013), exploring the issue of the impact of superfluity on human life. The visitors’ world of experience is always the starting point of the museum’s approach, and interactive elements and media installations are used so as to accompany those visitors on the way to deeper insight.