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Leprosy Museum, Bergen

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -

A small museum in the city of Bergen, Norway, where the pioneer medical scientist Armauer Hansen studied the disease of leprosy (and discovered its cause) in a local hospital-cum-leper-colony. Today it's a highly unusual and quite unique tourist sight. 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

  
More background info: Leprosy is a disease that carries with it an almost mythical degree of stigma, second only to the plague perhaps. It's been around for millennia and still persists today, though it has become perfectly treatable in modern times.
 
The mythical image of leprosy in public awareness includes the misconception that leprosy causes limbs to fall off. It doesn't, though it can cause severe deformations that can in turn lead to secondary needs for amputations in some cases. But it's not like fingers suddenly just dropping off. That's just a myth. Forget that right away.
 
The more crucial element of what made the mere word "lepers", i.e. leprosy sufferers, carry such a load of social stigma, is probably: a) the fact that it can be so disfiguring if it affects the face, i.e. if its primary "uglifying" symptoms show the most; and b) the common misconception of leprosy as a highly contagious disease, even an incurable one at that.
 
It is contagious, no doubt, but a lot less so than legend has it – and these days it is curable, especially if diagnosed in its early stages. It is not transmitted by touch, i.e. mere skin contact, nor is it sexually transmitted. Instead it is most likely passed on through respiratory droplets (though the exact path of transmission and incubation is still not fully understood).
 
Most people are even naturally immune to the disease – a proportion estimated as high as 95% … with only the remaining 5% displaying the prerequisite genetic predisposition for developing it in the first place. But that does not mean that it is purely hereditary either (as was long believed). It is rather a combination of both, apparently: genetic disposition and bacterial infection. Prolonged/intense contact of people prone to the disease with those who already have it, as well as poor hygiene are contributing factors in the spread of the disease especially in regions marked by poverty – which partly explains clusters of the disease throughout history, up to today: India and some of its neighbouring countries are "plagued" the worst by leprosy today (and at the same time this is where it is still most heavily stigmatized).
 
But ultimately leprosy is in actual fact much less fearsome a condition than legend has it. But legends die hard – and so the stigma persists to this day. It's even reflected in metaphorical figures of speech such "a social leper".
 
Leprosy thus remains a very "dark" topic. The mere concept of "leper colonies" triggers both deep, primeval fears as well as (for many at least) great pity for the poor inmates and their suffering. See also under Kalaupapa.
 
It was a Norwegian scientist called Gerhard Armauer Hansen who pioneered the study of leprosy and is credited with the discovery (in 1873) of the bacillus that causes it.
 
It is precisely this Armauer Hansen that the disease is these days named after, providing a less stigma-carrying, more "politically correct" term: Hansen's Disease. It is under this designation that leprosy is these days "officially" known as worldwide, though the informal reference to it as "leprosy" has not died out and remains the more commonly recognized one amongst lay people (which is why it is also still used here more frequently than its newer PC alternative).
 
Hansen, who was born in Bergen, carried out much of his research in the old St George's (St. Jørgen’s) Hospital in Bergen, which was used as a "leprosarium" (home for leprosy sufferers), housing over 150 lepers at the time. In the late 19th century it became a leading institution in the study of the disease.
 
Its last two patients died here in 1946 – 50 years after their original admission and ca. 500 years after the establishment of the hospital (one of the oldest in all Scandinavia).
 
Today the site is a museum, called Lepramuseet in Norwegian. It was established in 1970. It functions both as a medical science museum of sorts and at the same time as a memorial to the suffering of so many who had not only suffered from the bodily effects of the disease as such but also socially from humiliation and exclusion.
 
 
What there is to see: not all that much, but it's very moving. The museum is housed in the original wing of Bergen's old St George's (St Jørgen's) Hospital and you can see the tiny little rooms (more like cells) in which the patients lived. These are arranged on two levels around a central hall.
 
Some are bare, others have been reconstructed to look like they did at the time. Some are personalized to link with an individual patient's story. Other cells/rooms contain period medical equipment. Yet others tell the story of leprosy in Norway in the form of text-and-image panels, with an obvious focus on this particular place, St Jørgen's Hospital.
 
The medical side is obviously also explained in good detail. Some of the more graphic illustrations, especially the images of patients displaying the infamously disfiguring symptoms, are indeed somewhat disturbing. But you never get the impression that any of this has any "voyeuristic" or "exploitative" element. Still, the images can be shocking for the uninitiated. This is also true for the wax models ('moulages') of patients displaying the (differences between the) main two types of leprosy.    
 
The texts are all in Norwegian only, but at the reception desk you can borrow a brochure with English translations to guide you through the exhibition. The quality of the translations is mostly very good.
 
Adjacent to the old hospital ward proper is the hospital chapel, a pretty little wooden gem of a church building, reached through an almost hidden doorway. It's very atmospheric – especially in the context of its role as the hospital chapel for the lepers who resided next door to pray and sing hymns in. But what must they have thought about their God's inertia with regard to their plight …
 
On the other side of the ward there are a few more side rooms, in particular an old kitchen. One rather bizarre exhibit here is what looks like an early improvised wheelchair – literally a regular chair placed on a little cart with wheels under it.
 
By the reception desk at the entrance a few books and other items are for sale, ranging from souvenir postcards to serious medical books.
 
All in all, the Bergen leprosy museum is a very unusual site to visit, quite moving and educational at the same time. A sobering counterpoint it may be but I'd highly recommend it to any visitor to this otherwise so pretty little city.
 
 
Location: in a courtyard in the eastern part of the old centre of Bergen, Norway, between Kong Oscars Gate (No. 59) and Marken.
 
Google maps locator: [60.3916,5.3327]
 
 
Access and costs: slightly hidden, but not too difficult to find; mid-price level (for Norway).
 
Details: there are two ways of accessing the museum. The gate with the official address of the building is at 59 Kong Oscars Gate, you have to pay close attention to spot the small sign for the museum under the archway of the former St George Hospital ("St Jørgen's"). The steeple of the hospital church can serve as a useful landmark. The back entrance from the south, through a cobbled backyard branching off the pedestrianized area of Marken street, was somewhat better signposted when I was there, probably because tourist traffic is heavier here than on Kong Oscars Gate.
 
Opening times: seasonally only, between mid/late May and end of August, daily from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
 
Admission: 60 NOK (students 30 NOK, children free … if you actually want to take any kids to such a disturbing place at all …)
 
 
Time required: between something like 20 and possibly up to 60 minutes, depending on how intensely you are prepared to study the explanatory texts provided … and how deep your medical interest is.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: see under Bergen.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see under Bergen. In the more immediate vicinity of the museum the Bergen Cathedral, called Domkirken, stands out (even literally) – a squat stone edifice with a steep steeple, the inside of which features some intricate stone masonry. The cobbled courtyards outside the museum lead south to one of the pleasant pedestrianized older quarters of Bergen. And the fish market and the old Bryggen Hanseatic quarter are also within walking distance.
  
  
 
  • at the former St Jorgens hospitalat the former St Jorgens hospital
  • entrance and signentrance and sign
  • entrance from the other sideentrance from the other side
  • in the courtyard of the former hospitalin the courtyard of the former hospital
  • leprosy museum 1 - insideleprosy museum 1 - inside
  • leprosy museum 2 - medical cabinetleprosy museum 2 - medical cabinet
  • leprosy museum 3 - room of a patientleprosy museum 3 - room of a patient
  • leprosy museum 4 - images of patientsleprosy museum 4 - images of patients
  • leprosy museum 5 - wax modelleprosy museum 5 - wax model
  • leprosy museum 6 - passageway to the chapelleprosy museum 6 - passageway to the chapel
  • leprosy museum 7 - the chapelleprosy museum 7 - the chapel
  • leprosy museum 8 - upstairsleprosy museum 8 - upstairs
  • leprosy museum 9 - kitchenleprosy museum 9 - kitchen

 

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