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A Visit to the German Hygiene Museum

Underneath the pompous illusions of class or caste, we all share an essential animal trait: we have bodies. And our bodies are gross. To believe otherwise is simply a matter of fooling yourself by not looking too closely.
Al Burian
Κείμενο Al Burian

Germans have had a curatorial interest in hygiene since at least 1911, when the Dresden-based mouthwash magnate Karl August Ligner organized the first International Hygiene Exhibition. The concept of germs had just caught on in the public consciousness, and Ligner was attempting to drum up demand for his product. But the overwhelming success of the exhibition led him to realize that there was massive public interest in the topic, and so the German Hygiene Museum was founded in 1912. The museum still exists, and continues to be very popular, attracting about 300,000 guests a year. Its blocky white exterior may or may not intentionally be reminiscent of a colossal bar of soap. “The word hygiene had a more holistic meaning at the time that the museum was founded,” explains a woman working at the Museum’s ticket counter. “People think they’re going to see displays of toothbrushes. There is not one toothbrush in the whole museum!” Not even one? This does sound like a radical re-conceptualization of what I know as hygiene.


The acceptance of pathogenic theories, along with early 20th century advances in medical technology (like X-ray machines, which allowed doctors to examine the inner workings of the body without dissection), fueled public interest in physical health, in the form of the modern-day fixations on cleanliness, diet, nutrition, and exercise. But as the German body cult of the 1920’s slid with precarious ease down a treacherous slope to theories of genetic superiority, the museum became a major propaganda arm of the Nazi party, disseminating an ideology of “racial hygiene.” After being firebombed along with the rest of Dresden in World War II, the museum re-opened under communist hygienic standards in 1967, re-vamped itself again in 1990, and the current permanent exhibit has been on display since 2004. The museum now posits itself as a "forum for science, culture and society."

The permanent exhibit is divided into seven rooms. Room one contains an archaic X-Ray machine, about the size and complexity of a 1950s super-computer. On a pedestal in the center of the room is one of the museum’s main attractions, the glass woman. This is a human skeleton, posed with arms extended and head slightly raised, in a gesture of supplication to some intelligent designer above, while wrapped web-like around the bones are the blue, red and yellow tendrils of the circulatory and nervous system. The whole thing is encased in the glass form of a well-proportioned young lady. It’s hard to convey the illusion in a photograph, but seen in person, depth perception lets your eyes shift focus so that you can gaze from the surface of the translucent skin to the various layers within– it feels like having X-ray vision. The empty space within the glass, the air between bones and skin, is what is particularly hygienic about this illusion: what is missing is the meat and blood that would usually be crammed in there, filling the arms, legs and torso like a well-packed sausage. The bones, the coiled intestines, the glass membrane of skin, are all just the armature for hauling around this grotesquely animate sack of blood and flesh. Thinking of it that way makes me feel, for a brief moment, like throwing up.


Room two takes us to the beginning of life, in the form of a collection of fetuses unmatched outside of an American pro-life rally. Fetuses everywhere, modeled, sculpted, photographed, X-rayed, back-lit and blown-up, swimming in briny preservative fluids. A tour guide is leading a small group through the room and stops in front of the display, asking in a chipper voice: “At what point does human life begin? Anyone? Does anyone have an answer to this question?” Maybe it’s just my American upbringing, but this makes me nervous. I can’t imagine a museum guide in the United States throwing out a question like that to a random audience of non-pre-screened citizens. “We get a lot of children coming through the museum,” the guide tells us. “Every school in Dresden shuttles their kids through here at some point. You wouldn’t believe the answers that children come up with to that question.”

In the center of the room, the other end of the spectrum is represented by a gleaming, polished iron lung—the end of life, a man-made anti-womb. Next to the iron lung is a display featuring a set of impediments so that young people can simulate the effects of aging: goggles and ear muffs replicate sight and hearing loss, while a wooden splint forces the wearer’s posture into imitation of a crooked back. Vibrating hand-clamps replicate shaky, arthritic fingers. I watch an elderly lady strap her grandchild into all of these devices at once, and then nod with satisfaction as the kid hobbles blindly about.


Having covered birth, decrepitude and death, what else is left? Food, of course. Room three features the glass cow, similar in construction to the glass woman. When you do the “imagine the meat” trick on the glass cow, the results are even more unnerving than on the woman: you involuntarily find yourself dividing the lumbering mountain of flesh before you into hamburger patties. One cow equals a lot of burgers. Elsewhere in the room, an interactive sculptural display depicts a cornucopia, spilling forth a flood of edible animals. The animals are all touch-sensitive and when you press them a nearby screen presents you with a recipe. Some of these are exotic (mealworms over spaghetti, or a recipe for broiled horse), though endangered species, such as chimpanzees, do not come with a recipe. A medieval torture device of some sort, tucked in the corner, turns out on closer inspection to be an old-fashioned dentists’ chair; a chilling reminder of the lack of toothbrushes in this exhibit.

The next room covers sex. This includes a somewhat gratuitous display of idealized female body types from around the world (computer-composited from men’s magazines and displayed for no apparent reason), a mannequin wearing a rubber-fetish “gimp” outfit, as well as the expected sculptural depictions of oozing and blistered genitals ravaged by STDs. I am reminded of the tour guides’ earlier assertion about the number of children and school classes who pass through this museum. In fact, the displays do an ingenious job of staying just presentable enough to qualify as educational, while at the same time conveying the most X-rated information you can possibly infer. The only aspect noticeably not covered in the museum is the far end of the digestive spectrum: there is a room dedicated to food but not to excretion. Perhaps this topic exceeds the limits of curatorial presentability.

The displays up to this point are still generally at a 1:1 scale, and it is only after we leave the sex room that the museum shifts focus, and the displays begin to revolve around sculptural depictions of things blown up to gargantuan proportions: a giant eyeball, a giant brain, Ebola and HIV viruses magnified to the size of basketballs, a fruit fly shown at 500 times normal size, hairy legs and all. A dust-mite is magnified 4,000 times, eyeless and with a beak-like pair of tusks for a face. It looks like a particularly hideous HR Giger creation, and the thought that there are thousands of those things crawling around in my eyelashes right now is almost too much to bear. Rooms five (“learning,” with the giant brain) and six (“movement”) pass by in a blur.

The final room, however, ends things with spectacular flourish. The topic is “beauty, skin and hair,” and the walls are hung with portraits of 18th century German nobility. Pre-hygienic, these primped poseurs would hide their lice-infested scalps under white powdered wigs and douse their scabby, unwashed bodies in flour and perfumed oils rather than go near running water. These were pre-industrial capitalism’s version of the one percent: the self-righteous upper crust of society, looking down on the peasants by the river. Meanwhile, these dukes and counts were as filthy and rancid as garbage-eating street people. From the vantage point of our 21st century nostrils, hygiene is the great equalizer. Underneath the pompous illusions of class or caste, we all share an essential animal trait: we have bodies. And our bodies are gross. To believe otherwise is simply a matter of fooling yourself by not looking too closely.