Charité Museum of Medical History

   - darkometer rating: 6 -
A very good medical museum in Berlin, Germany, that goes beyond just the display of icky specimens and also covers the evolution of treatments and the various apparatus used for them, as well as some darker aspects of medical history, e.g. under the Nazis. Certainly worth a detour for dark tourists when in Berlin, and a must-see for all those with a special interest in all things medical.  
More background info: The Charité is the oldest and one of the largest hospitals and medical universities in the world. It dates back to the year 1710 and has currently over 3000 hospital beds and some 13,000 personnel including research staff and well over 200 medical professors. The Charité has produced more than half of Germany's Nobel Prize laureates in medicine.
An early pioneer of modern pathology was Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902), who headed the pathology department at the Charité from 1856. He also founded the first incarnation of the museum, initially a pure pathological-anatomical collection, which first opened its doors to the public in 1899 and consisted of some 20,000 specimens, largely collected by Virchow himself. From the outbreak of WW1 onwards, however, the collection ceased being publicly accessible and continued to serve only research and university teaching. By 1939 the collection had grown to some 35,000 specimens.
The hospital – and with it the pathological-anatomical collection – suffered considerable damage as a result of Allied bombing raids during WWII, and less than 2000 specimens of the pathology collection survived.
The idea of a museum at the Charité was only revived after the reunification of Germany in 1990. In addition to simply displaying pathological-anatomical specimens, a more comprehensive approach was followed, which is reflected in the new name “Medizinhistorisches Museum” ('medical history museum'). This first opened in 1998.
Between 2006 and 2007, the museum underwent a substantial refurbishment, restructuring and expansion, to the form in which you currently see it. In addition there are always temporary exhibitions that usually change in half-yearly cycles.
What there is to see: The museum is on four floor, with the ticket office and museum shop on the ground floor, the space for temporary exhibitions on the first floor and the permanent exhibition on the two floors above that.
You can hire an audio guide, but I declined, as I deemed it unnecessary, given that I have no problem reading German. For non-German speakers, though, it might be a good idea to get an English audio guide.
That is because the texts and labels in the permanent exhibition are only partly bilingual – in a somewhat inconsistent, if not erratic, way. Sometimes there's a full translation of an entire panel into good English, sometimes only a very short summary, and occasionally nothing at all. At some display cabinets you can borrow laminated sheets with English explanations. This inconsistency may be a little frustrating at times for international guests who don't know any German (so using the English-language audio guide is recommended). The temporary exhibition I saw, on the other hand, was fully bilingual throughout, as far as I can remember.
Part 1 of the permanent exhibition concentrates on the various ailments of different parts of the human body, and is organized accordingly, i.e. by anatomy, literally from head to toe (though not necessarily in spatial order).
Obviously some parts are grimmer than others, though they all are a bit disturbing – just the fact that you learn how many things can go wrong with practically any part of human body, from brain tumours to deformed spines, from liver damage to venereal diseases and from tape worms to kidney stones – and everything in between.
A particularly dark section is the obstetrics part, and of course all those displays of deformities, such as cyclops, anencephalus, conjoined twins and various further, often pretty gross specimens in jars.
The effects of syphilis on bones is pretty drastic too – there are several skulls on display that are full of holes and withered-away parts that look as if the bone structure was simply dissolving … which is pretty much what syphilis actually does to bones, apparently.
One part with an especially dark connection is about plastic surgery and face reconstruction for those who suffered terrible facial damage in the trenches of WW1. It's a branch of medicine that suddenly found itself in high demand at that time and thus also made great advances. But I also learned that at the Charité they could already draw on a hundred years of experience in this department!
Another section of particular interest from a dark perspective is that on medicine in the Third Reich between 1933 and 1945, including the forced sterilizations of mentally ill people, the “euthanasia” programme (see T-4) and medical experiments at various concentration camps.
Part 2 of the permanent exhibition is more about medical procedures and equipment, and is hence less of the icky-medical sort. Its main part is organized around a dozen or so individual case studies, from ca. 200 years ago to (almost) the present day. This gives it a very welcome human touch, so it's not just about cold machines and medication, but personal stories are woven into the narrative.
In the modern section, one case concerns organ transplants, which I found the most captivating subsection here. Although the “Iron Lung!” is also quite impressive. The side room with displays of various smaller pieces of equipment and surgical instruments perhaps less so.
The temporary exhibition that was on at the time I visited (June 2018) happened to be a very dark one – namely about the exact nature of death and how to determine it. Apparently that isn't quite so straightforward, even these days, as a case of somebody declared brain dead demonstrates who woke up hours later, as if coming back from the dead!
The widespread fear in the 19th century of being buried alive by accident and all the contraptions designed to alleviate this fear were a topic here too. For instance the various bells-on-strings and other alarm mechanisms that could be activated if you suddenly woke up six feet under. But see the chapter on the Vienna Funeral Museum for why these mechanisms were pretty much nonsensical.
One item on loan from that museum in Vienna was on display in this exhibition too: a “Herzstichdolch”, i.e. a special dagger for administering a stab through the heart – to make sure you're really dead before being buried. You can still demand that in your will in Austria!
Of course, by the time you read this there will probably be another temporary exhibition on display. They seem to change with quite some regularity (half-yearly, normally).
Not actually part of the museum as such, but accessible from it, is the ruin of the old lecture hall of the medical university. This was largely destroyed in WWII and left in ruins, but has now been given a new roof and the space inside is used as an event location – for congresses, seminars, receptions and other festivities (but no weddings!). During the museum opening hours and when no event is going on, you can walk inside through a door to the side of the main exhibition.
All in all, I found this museum a worthy addition to Berlin's otherwise rather different dark-tourism portfolio. Beyond the expected gruesomeness of many of the specimens on display, I especially enjoyed the broader scope and in part more personal angles in this museum compared to some other institutions of its type (e.g. the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia or the Narrenturm in Vienna). Definitely worth seeing if you are halfway interested in the medical side of dark tourism.
Location: on the western edge of the large Charité hospital complex just north of the government quarter and east from the main train station of Berlin, Germany.
Google maps locator: [52.5262, 13.3744]
Access and costs: not too difficult to get to; adequately priced.
Details: The easiest way to get to the museum is to first head to the main train station (Hauptbahnhof), which is also on various S-Bahn (regional metro train) lines as well as the U55 metro, plus several bus and tram lines. From there you can walk it: head east along Invalidenstraße and then turn right once you've crossed the bridge over the canal and proceed along Alexanderufer until you get to the museum entrance on your left. It's less than half a mile. Even closer is the tram stop Invalidenpark (lines M5, M8, M11) on Invalidenstraße – from there first walk west, then turn left and proceed as above. Alternatively you can also use bus line 147 that goes up Luisenstraße and get out at Charité or Schumannstraße/Charitéplatz and walk though the hospital complex to the museum (it should be signposted).
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and to 7 p.m. on Thursdays and Saturdays. Closed Mondays.
Admission: 9 EUR
An optional audio guide is available (in German and English) and costs another 3 EUR.
Under 16-year-olds are allowed in only when accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
No photography allowed.
Time required: depends on how deep your interest in all things medical is. I spent about an hour in there, paying close attention to only a select part of the exhibition while just skimming other parts.
I'm sure real experts or fans of these things could spend several hours in here examining all that is on display in full depth.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Dotted around the premises of the Charité hospital are also several memorial sculptures organized along a “REMEMBER memory path” that you can explore by means of a special app – see gedenkort(dot)charite(dot)de. Some of the stations along this circuit also cover dark aspects such as persecution of scientists in the Nazi era or their abuse of sciences, including medicine.
The closest other site of dark-tourism interest outside the Charité grounds is the Invalidenfriedhof (cemetery) and its relics of the Berlin Wall. It's just a 10-minute stroll along the embankment of the canal leading north from the Charité. A bit further north still is one of the few remaining watchtowers of the former border, at Kieler Eck.
More traces of the Wall can be found nearby, in particular at the main Berlin Wall memorial site at Bernauer Straße, as well as the Ghost Station exhibition at Nordbahnhof, less than a mile east from the Charité along Invalidenstraße.
A similar distance south of the Charité, across the River Spree is the Reichstag and a bit further on the Brandenburg Gate and one of the Soviet war memorials.
To the south-west, the Tränenpalast and Friedrichstraße Station are also within a similar walking distance from the Charité.
See also under Berlin in general.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The most iconic landmark of Berlin at the very heart of the city is the Brandenburg Gate, which is just about a mile away from the Charité. The whole government complex as well as the Unter den Linden boulevard are also amongst Berlin's prime tourist attractions that are nearby.


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

Cookies make it easier for us to provide you with our services. With the usage of our services you permit us to use cookies.
More information Ok Decline