Paul Stradins Museum of the History of Medicine
Those into the legacy of the Soviet
space age could go straight (but see access
!) to the much less stomach-churning space medicine section and skip or skim the rest.
More background info:
The name of the museum goes back to a surgeon, oncologist and medical historian of the name Pauls Stradiņš (1896-1958), who may not be well known in the West but was apparently a famous exponent of the medical profession in his homeland of Latvia
. He received various decorations both before and during the Soviet
era, and founded/directed various medical associations.
His own vast private collection formed the core of the museum when it was founded in 1957, just a year before its “father's” death (when it was named after him), but was only opened to the public in 1961.
It has grown substantially since then and now claims to be one of the three largest museums of its kind in the world … I have no way of knowing for certain whether that is true, but just going by my own experiences of the various medial museums
I have seen in the world so far, I am quite prepared to believe this claim.
Much more important than size, though, is the unique nature of so many of its outstanding artefacts – not just the “double dog” (see below
) but also its celebrated special exhibition about space medicine.
The latter is also of interest to people not normally so much into medical museums and will certainly appeal to anybody with an interest in all things space-related and also to those who generally have a taste for “Soviet
What there is to see: much more than most people (me included) would probably expect. The museum is spread out over four floors, with between four and eight rooms each, and most of them quite well filled. So to take it all in requires a fair amount of time.
If you want to skip and skim sections that you are less interested in, then note that you still have to follow the prescribed course through the entire exhibition (don't, like me, erroneously assume otherwise – see under access
!). If it's only the space medicine section right at the end you want to see, this means quite a bit of walking, corner-taking and climbing stairs until you finally get there.
But let's be good and go through the museum as they want you to. And that means starting with the “ethnomedicine
” sections. This has mock-ups of “medical” treatments in prehistoric times, some quite drastically depicted, and also some startling artefacts. (I found the deliberately deformed skulls from Russia
especially disturbing – and not just for contemporary political metaphorical avenues this concept may invite ...)
But this section also featured a lot of mythological stuff like shamans, witchcraft and such like that would today fall under the heading “esoteric” and to me are quite boring, really. So I moved on fairly quickly.
On the next floor a side room branches off that contains a special exhibition entitled “Corpora Nova”. This has various mannequins manipulated in such a way that they display various medical aspects, ranging from individual internal organs, little screens that show backlit images of icky venereal diseases to a sliced-up dummy and one mannequin wearing a dress made out of condoms!
The regular exhibition continues opposite with a mock-up of a pharmacy from the Middle Ages and a section that looks more like a torture museum, as it consists largely of mock-ups with dummies being subjected to one form of corporal punishment or another. These were “medi-evil” times indeed!
This was of course also the time of the Black Death – the plague. And the largest display is a mock-up scene of hooded men painting a large “P” on a door, protected by face-masks and gloves. Disturbingly another body hangs upside down next to them.
Further along as we enter the era of the Renaissance, there's a large display of a cloister hospital (or hospice?) dormitory with dummy doctors, nurses and patients apparently relying more on rosaries and the Bible than on medical treatment as such.
There is also another pharmacy mock-up, this time already looking noticeably more sophisticated than then “medi-evil” equivalent earlier. Gone are the dried spiders, snake skins and magic potions, now there are scales and distilling apparatus and such “hi-tech” gear of the day.
The next section concentrates on the rapid development of medical study and teaching, with several medicine departments appearing in various of the world's most established universities. One pioneer even has a whole room dedicated to him: Louis Pasteur.
A somewhat disturbing section contains items such as straightjackets and chastity belts, but you also see the medical technology on display getting more and more modern as we head towards the 20th century.
One new hi-tech development from the early part of last century was that of X-rays, and this is represented by quite a lot of spooky-looking technical gear. But it is also documented how naively this new but potentially quite harmful technology was used at first.
Then comes the single most disturbing display, and at the same time one of the most famous ones in the whole museum – and as such a “highlight” of sorts! – the “double dog”.
To explain: what you see is the taxidermy of the result of an unbelievable experiment
performed by the Soviet
pioneer Vladimir Demikhov
. First the head and front portion (including both front legs) of a small dog were surgically severed. This was then “mounted” onto the body of a (whole) other, bigger dog. The smaller dog's head and legs were then “wired up” to the “host” dog's nervous system and blood supply. That way the freak-like double-headed canine creature could actually be kept alive for a while, according to some sources for an unbelievable 38 days! Both heads were apparently functioning, but of course only the larger dog was breathing and only its heart was pumping blood through both of them … that is until the obvious rejection reactions eventually kicked in and the two-headed dog(s) died. It was then stuffed and in 1988 given to this museum (and at a time it was even a touring exhibit).
This head (or rather: half-body) transplant was undoubtedly a sensational, breakthrough success on one level, certainly in purely experimental scientific terms, and perhaps even a milestone in the history of transplant surgery (though it is hard to imagine a real practical application for this sort of operation). But on another level it is also a display of truly Frankenstein-like hubris that raises all kinds of moral questions, and not just for animal-rights campaigners.
My wife at least (who does happen to love dogs – which didn't help) was completely and utterly horrified by the whole story. And I am sure that others will see it the same way, while more science-y, medically-minded visitors may be rather fascinated by the fact that such an operation had actually been possible. I personally found myself caught right in the middle between these extremes, both fascinated and appalled in somewhat similar measures.
Next to the glass case with the two-headed dog sits an ancient TV set of sorts, apparently a very early Soviet
model, with a tiny tube screen with a magnifying lens suspended in front of it. If you've seen the Terry Gilliam film
“Brazil”, this sort of contraption will look strangely familiar.
On this screen runs a loop video featuring another “Dr. Frankenstein”, namely the American
neurosurgeon Robert White
, who in the same fashion transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another and who calmly and factually talks about how it was all done. It is chilling. (Monkeys, rather than dogs, tended to be the test animal of choice in the USA
in general; see also the space medicine section below!)
Some of the Soviet-era apparatus on display looks rather scary too, and some pieces have a certain 1950s-ish science-fiction character about them, such as the big iron lung that looks almost like a space capsule or mini-submarine.
Apart from all the medical machinery, there are also medical specimens on display, including those floating in glass jars in formaldehyde as well as dry ones, such as the skeleton of a deformed child.
One dummy child in a chair looks like he's about to be deliberately deformed, brutally mutilated even. But it is in fact only a depiction of a tonsillectomy about to begin. But the straightjacket and the metal-wire mouth-tongs do look quite “medi-evil”.
And speaking of evil: smokers should take good note of the two jars containing specimens of a non-smoker's lung and a smoker's lung side by side – and they should ask themselves: do you really want to look as black as a freshly tarmacked road on the INSIDE?!?
In another jar floats the sad specimen of a baby displaying one of the most severe birth defects that there is: anencephaly
(the absence of most of the brain and the skull around it – a “flathead” – which means no chance of survival … cf. Narrenturm
The final room of the museum takes us off the Earth and into space, sort of. It is indeed about what is called space medicine, but much of the actual medical research involved obviously takes place on Earth.
But you can also marvel at (Soviet) dog spacesuits, (American) monkey spacesuits and some human dummies in spacesuits too. The space monkey and the space dog look more like taxidermy (yet again).
To my amazement I found that at least in the case of the dog this was actually true – and the dog in question had actually been in space and returned alive! This was Chernushka who was sent into space in a Vostok capsule in March 1961, just prior to Yuri Gagarin's pioneering first manned space flight.
In contrast to some earlier space-flight experiments with animals, Chernushka was not “sacrificed” (like her more famous predecessor Laika – the first mammal in space) but brought back to Earth unharmed. This was not done out of sentimentality, naturally, but because the Soviets wanted to give the re-entry procedure a “live” test before sending humans up. When Chernushka died years later (I presume of natural causes) she was stuffed and eventually given to the Paul Stradins Museum in 1969.
There are also various human spacesuits, photos, models and various other bits and pieces. But I found the most intriguing display cabinet that with space food
, not all in tubes, but also tins. Some of the latter looked uncannily like the Soviet products I saw stacked up in pyramids in otherwise bare and depressing shop windows in Leningrad
on my only trip to Russia
when it was still the Soviet Union
(in the late 1980s).
Not everything in this section is from Soviet times, there are also a few American
bits, including a model of a space shuttle (Discovery). But the main attraction here does lie in all the Soviet space-age retro appeal. I found it irresistibly fascinating.
The space medicine section also stood out in this museum as one that had the best language coverage for foreign visitors: in addition to Latvian all explanatory texts and labels were also translated into English and Russian.
Elsewhere in the museum some labels are in Latvian and English, but many others in Latvian only, but in this case that doesn't matter too much, since so much of what you see in this museum kind of speaks for itself anyway.
Overall this is one of Riga
's best specialist museums and possibly even one of the best of its type
anywhere in the world. I was certainly very positively surprised. The space medicine section alone, though comparatively small, is worth the trip. But other parts are also truly fascinating … if you can handle this kind of thing. It's not for everyone.
But for anybody with even just a passing interest in medicine it is a must-see museum. Also for anyone interested in the Soviet
just towards the northern end of the former bastions that separate the Old Town of Riga
from its newer centre. The address is: 1 Antonijas iela.
Access and costs: not difficult to get to, inexpensive.
Details: The museum is housed in a stately mansion (dating from 1879) overlooking Kronvalda Park and Kalpaka boulevard, but the entrance is at the back off a little side street called Antonijas iela.
When I visited there was nobody there in the entrance area nor in the caretaker's booth, so I headed straight up the main staircase to the top floor (I often do that in big museums, rather working my way top-down than bottom-up). There I opened the only door there was and found myself right in the middle of the space medicine section.
However, this is the section you are supposed to finish at, and the door I used was not intended as an entrance (though it was ajar).
Hence my sudden appearance through this door utterly confused a museum attendant who was just in the middle of showing a couple of other visitors around. She came up and explained in an at first very mystifying and convoluted way that I absolutely HAD to start on the ground floor, whether I liked it or not. She was quite insistent and so I obeyed.
One reason was obviously that I was supposed to pay first – and when I arrived back downstairs I was already eagerly awaited by another attendant ... who had been absent earlier but must have been informed of my “misdemeanour” in the meantime.
She relieved me of the small admission fee (I swore – truthfully! - that I would have paid straight away if only there had been anybody there to give the money to when I arrived) and in doing so she also pointed out that the exhibition followed a pre-given course that nobody was supposed to deviate from.
OK, I thought, it is after all a museum founded in the times of the Soviet Union
so this strictness is probably just a leftover from that era.
But I soon found out there was also a very physical reason: the course snaked through the rooms and the four floors along a path that did not use the main staircase at all, but its own stairs at the end of each floor.
So the upshot is that you have no option but walking through the entire length of the museum exhibition, even if you're only interested in the sections on the top floor.
Opening times: Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thursday when it stays open until 7 p.m.; closed Mondays and Sundays as well as every last Friday of the month!
Admission: 2.13 EUR (students, seniors 1.42 EUR).
Guided tours cost 9.96 EUR per group (of max. 25 pax).
Photography is free but there's a charge for (amateur) videoing of 4.27 EUR.
Time required: depends on visitors' general interest in all things medical. Insiders and those with a serious medical interest can probably spend a whole day in here. But for most normal mortals, something between one and two hours should presumably suffice. I seem to be at the upper end of the latter category, having spent ca. an hour and three quarters in this museum, having concentrated mostly on the modern and space medicine sections but only skimming the older ones.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
As an institution of its type
, the Paul Stradins museum stands pretty much alone in Riga
, but the city has plenty of other dark attractions, including several other museums in the vicinity that are about Latvia
's (recent) history
. Three of these are located in the Old Town, namely the Museum of the Popular Front
, the War Museum
, and the Barricades Museum
And the high-profile Occupations Museum
, which is currently still located in its temporary premises on Raiņa boulevard, will soon join the Old Town museum portfolio again as well when it moves back to its original premises near Rātslaukums.
For more see under Riga
Combinations with non-dark destinations: At the time I visited the museum (April 2014) it also had a temporary special exhibition that at best marginally touched upon any thing medical. It was about amber – the gold of the Baltic Sea.
Of the many impressive displays, what stood out for me was the pieces of amber that had whole mosquitoes embedded inside them (“Jurassic Park” fans take note!). Also fascinating was a woman's dress made entirely out of amber stones. But I cannot say for how long this exhibition will be on (or whether it still is now).
The location of the medical museum makes it ideally suited to be combined with an exploration of some of the best sections of Riga
's famous art nouveau
(Jugendstil) architecture. Elizabetes, Strēlnieku and Alberta iela are all just a few blocks away to the north-east.
And not much further in the other direction, also within easy walking distance from the medical museum, is Riga
's other primary tourism draw: the Old Town
- Stradins museum 01 - medical museum
- Stradins museum 02 - very early medical procedures
- Stradins museum 03 - deliberately deformed skulls
- Stradins museum 04 - medieval remedies
- Stradins museum 05 - sliced man
- Stradins museum 06 - bodily insights
- Stradins museum 07 - condom dress
- Stradins museum 08 - the dark ages
- Stradins museum 09 - hospice
- Stradins museum 10 - early pharmacy
- Stradins museum 11 - straightjacket
- Stradins museum 12 - deformed skeleton
- Stradins museum 13 - early X-ray machines
- Stradins museum 14 - iron lung
- Stradins museum 15 - double dog
- Stradins museum 16 - one transplanted on top of the other
- Stradins museum 17 - Dr Frankenstein explains
- Stradins museum 18 - Soviet hospital hi-tech
- Stradins museum 19 - modern medicine section
- Stradins museum 20 - tonsillectomy
- Stradins museum 21 - anencephaly
- Stradins museum 22 - non-smoker vs smoker lung
- Stradins museum 23 - space medicine section
- Stradins museum 24 - space dogs
- Stradins museum 25 - dog spacesuit
- Stradins museum 26 - space monkey and space-monkey suit
- Stradins museum 27 - cosmonaut
- Stradins museum 28 - space food
- Stradins museum 29 - amber with mosquito