Dresden’s Hygiene Museum is the Right Prescription

Museumsgebäude, 2012, David Brandt

Before you run for the hills, I should warn you this isn’t really a ‘Hygiene Museum’ at all: it’s more like the love child of the Science Museum and the Wellcome Collection (two brilliant London sights for curious tourists). In other words, this attraction is ten times more fascinating and approachable than its name, the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum, suggests.

For many of us, the word ‘hygiene’ conjures images of hand washing, medical scrubs and stern matrons, yet this in no way represents the current collection in Dresden. Admittedly in its earlier incarnations this was a place for teaching the masses about good health and cleanliness – in a 1930 report, Time Magazine called it ‘exemplary’ and ‘instructive’ for educating ‘lazy, ignorant, indifferent people’ – but now the aim is to spark curiosity, not lecture visitors.

Most of the early collection became dominated by Nazi ideals of racial purity as the 30s progressed, then a 1945 bombing raid destroyed most of Dresden city, along with huge chunks of the museum and its contents. A new version of the museum arose under the restrictive German Democratic Republic; today the building and exhibits are part of a post-unification Germany with a fresh new outlook celebrating all of human identity, without discrimination.

Hygiene Museum postcard, Dresden: man as a machine in body artwork
One of the many quirky postcards on sale at the museum. The body works in mysterious ways…

Body Basics

The permanent exhibition at the German Hygiene Museum, called Human Adventure (Abenteuer Mensch), is a mixture of anatomical models, studies on disease and illness, and exhibits that reflect our attitudes to our bodies, from our eating habits to how we style our hair. Whilst the signage is in German, the free audio guides or the cheap guided tours quickly fill in any gaps for non-German speakers – myself included. There are seven different rooms to visit, and it’s worth taking your time.

The first object to really grab your attention is the Transparent Man (Gläserner Mensch), a see-through model who has been ‘the symbol of this museum’ since 1930. He’s found at the start of the Human Adventure journey, along with the Transparent Woman (Gläserne Frau), exposing the incredible nervous system that our bodies rely on. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit a Bodyworlds exhibition, with Gunther Von Hagens’ plastinated corpses, you won’t be phased at all by these elegant plastic figures.

Body scan shows photographer in new light as X-ray
A photographer as seen through an X-ray.

Health and Survival

The iron lung in the Living and Dying room is a terrifying contraption, but it’s helped many people with polio to breathe properly. Even today there are still a handful of patients relying on treatment from the machine, because they were struck down with polio before vaccines were introduced. Surrounding the iron lung are exhibits linked to birth, growth and ageing.

Further rooms cover the similarly broad themes of Eating and Drinking (recently redesigned), Sexuality, Motion and Thinking. Whilst each area is designed to be appropriate for school groups, it isn’t dumbed down for adults: there’s still plenty to appreciate, and your synapses (or synapsen, as the signage told me) will be firing, especially in the fairly intense Thinking section.

Conference poster from 1911 with eye and columns sold as postcard at Hygiene Museum Dresden
A poster from the 1911 hygiene exhibition that started it all, attracting 5 million visitors to Dresden.

Cosmetic Touches

There are less cerebral displays, in case you need to lighten the mood, in the Beauty, Skin and Hair room. It’s easy to assume that 21st century living has seen us reach peak vanity, with our selfie obsessions and a tanning booth on most high streets, but the exhibition proves humans have long been body-conscious.

Beauty treatments on display are decades or even centuries old; there’s even a specialised teacup fitted with a moustache protector to preserve a gentleman’s carefully groomed whiskers. The German Hygiene Museum is lucky enough to have 2000 historical objects on permanent loan from the Schwarzkopf Collection (belonging to the Schwarzkopf hair care brand), some of which can be seen here.

Permanent Exhibition, Transparent Woman on table at Dresden Hygiene Museum
The Transparent Woman on display. Credit: David Brandt for DHMD.

Hygiene Museum: Final Diagnosis

Don’t be put off by the name of the museum, or the lack of English descriptions next to the displays, both of which seem to have confused a few lazy TripAdvisor reviewers. This is a genuinely absorbing museum and you don’t need to know much about biology or social sciences to appreciate what’s in front of you. Add the Hygiene Museum to your Dresden itinerary and you won’t be disappointed.

Visiting Note: Find the Deutsche Hygiene-Museum (German Hygiene Museum) at Lingnerplatz 1, Dresden; it’s one of the stops on the hop-on, hop-off bus tour. You can visit from Tuesday – Sunday and on public holidays between 10am and 6pm. Entry is €7, with a guided tour for €1.50 per person.

The current temporary exhibition, running until 19th April 2015, is called Roll Up, Roll Up: An anatomical waxwork cabinet meets art. Featured artists include Steve McQueen and Damien Hirst.