On 8 July 2022, the first section of the Deutsches Museum on Museum Island was reopened after being closed for more than five years. It has undergone the largest-scale renovation in the building’s almost hundred-year history. Visitors can look forward to 19 completely new exhibitions, featuring masterpieces of science and technology to admire in areas ranging from physics to robotics. Our author took a look around there.
When Ferdinand von Miller opened the Deutsches Museum on 7 May 1925, rigorous attention was paid to ensuring that visitors followed the prescribed path through the various departments. Today everyone is free to indulge in the world of science and technology at will, dipping into whichever section they like. There’s an enormous amount for people to see, learn and try out for themselves. For my first visit since the reopening, I picked out five departments where I spent three instructive and enjoyable hours:
“Chemistry is when things stink and go bang” – this is apparently how chemistry is differentiated from physics. I couldn’t really get a grip on either when I was at school. All that remains is vague memories of rubbing metal against dusty cat fur until it let off sparks. I regret not having been more open-minded back then, but my visit to the Deutsches Museum shows that it’s never too late to get excited about a subject. The display cabinets with their explanations in very clear language are a friendly invitation to delve into the world of science.
Chemistry is like a construction kit with atoms as building blocks, I read, and their blueprint is crucial to the properties of a substance. Hydrogen makes our hair blond, water doesn’t. Both consist of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but in different proportions. That makes sense to me. Right alongside I find the chemical construction kit in the form of an illuminated periodic table, complete with hydrogen and oxygen.
Chemistry is when things stink and go bang!
In the visitors’ lab I join a number of other non-experts to witness something of a small miracle: a mixture of two salts is ignited using an ice cube to emit a greenish jet of flame.
Chemistry shapes our everyday lives. For example, I find out that my running shoes owe their long-lasting support and excellent cushioning to the use of sophisticated synthetic compounds. The exhibition shows how scientific findings in the field of chemistry are put to effective use in food, industry and construction, but it also addresses the downsides such as environmental pollution from plastic waste.
One thing that particularly impressed me and gave me food for thought was a simple wooden table with various pieces of apparatus on it – something that had had a lasting impact on the world. It was at this table, on 19 December 1938, that the team led by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner were surprised to discover they had split an atom – something they did not even believe was possible given the state of knowledge at the time.
In the Musical Instruments department there is a demonstration of the workings of an organ that was built especially for the Deutsches Museum. When it first starts to play “Pomp and Circumstance” by Edward Elgar, the march sounds as if it were being played on a piano, but then the stops are pulled out and there is a huge build-up of sound. In fact I am moved to tears – not something I expected to happen here. Twice a day there are guided tours featuring live instrumental performances. Sound samples of 40 of the 250 exhibits are also available to listen to on the digital museum guide or the free Deutsches Museum app.
The museum also owns a precursor of the synthesiser – the so-called trautonium – used by Oskar Sala to produce the birdcalls and other eerie sound effects for Hitchcock’s horror film “The Birds”.
What is more, the Deutsches Museum owns unique musical instruments dating back to the 16th century, as well as the legendary specimen of the “Moog IIIp” synthesiser from the late 1960s which the Beatles are known to have used during the recording of “Abbey Road”. A little later, Giorgio Moroder acquired the instrument to record the legendary hit “I feel love” with Donna Summer at his Musicland Studios in Munich.
The museum also owns a precursor of the synthesiser – the so-called trautonium – used by Oskar Sala to produce the birdcalls and other eerie sound effects for Hitchcock’s horror film “The Birds”. A total of around 250 exhibits tell the story of musical instruments from the Renaissance to the present day. Finally, I take a peek into the depot, where you can gain an impression of what goes on behind the scenes.
What on earth is that – a shiny, glimmering mass rising up above our heads? It turns out to be a sculpture made of electrical scrap in the Electronics department. Stretching from floor to ceiling and appearing to whirl like a tornado, it is a pile of all the discarded parts produced in our fast-moving times. By the time tomorrow comes around, things that were all the rage a moment ago are suddenly yesterday’s news: mobile phones, the good old Walkman, gaming consoles, shavers, calculators, printers, screens – and would you believe it, my daughter’s brightly coloured children's cassette recorder is actually hanging up there, too! Clearly, I’m part of the problem!
What on earth is that – a shiny, glimmering mass rising up above our heads?
I instantly have this sense of a guilty conscience about our throwaway society, set through with brief surges of nostalgia. And I regret having thoughtlessly dumped the Apple computer I typed my master’s thesis on 30 years ago. Today, this very same computer can be viewed at such places as the Pinakothek der Moderne (art gallery) in the Neue Sammlung – The Design Museum. Here at the Deutsches Museum you can see the Apple-I – the computer that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak constructed in the garage belonging to Jobs’ father, thereby laying the foundations for the billion-dollar Apple Group.
The Recycling section in this department shows what happens to the rest of the gigantic mass of equipment that didn’t make it into the sculpture. All in all, the exhibition provides an overview of the development of electronic technologies over the past 100 years, also highlighting the impact this has had on society: from the light switch to the pacemaker, from the smartphone and the car to the power plant.
The journey through the human body starts with a huge walk-in head with themed islands around it featuring the eyes, ears and teeth. The tour continues to a heart on stilts, where you learn interesting facts about the cardiovascular system, and then on down to the limbs and joints. I love it: as with the other exhibitions, the renovation and remodelling has resulted in enormous clarity and an easily comprehensible layout. The exhibition construction, the exhibits themselves, the explanatory panels and the media tables – everything is inviting, self-explanatory and at no point overwhelming. Young visitors have Milla the Owl to guide them through the exhibition on a special children’s trail.
The theme of this particular exhibition should be of burning interest to most visitors. It shows the ways and means developed by pharmacy and medical technology since the mid-19th century to heal illness and maintain health as effectively as possible. The exhibition features the incubator from Berlin’s Charité hospital which Robert Koch used to discover the tuberculosis pathogen in 1881, as well as the tiny ampoule containing the very first mRNA-based vaccine against the coronavirus that was to bring about the decisive turnaround in the pandemic. Another absolute cutting-edge highlight of medical technology: a robot that can insert stents into a human body to dilate the blood vessels of the heart. The robot carries out the surgery while the doctors simply guide the procedure from the screen.
Gentlemen! This is no humbug.
At many of the stations you can slip into the role of a doctor yourself. When I do a trial of strength test rather like a fairground “high striker”, I’m amazed how much effort it takes to pull a tooth due its solid anchoring in the jaw. Another device gives me a highly magnified view of the mole on the back of my hand, and there is one station I find particularly original where I can virtually try on a pair of spectacles dating back to the 1960s. They actually don’t look at all bad on me!
The exhibition also documents the first surgical procedure conducted under anaesthesia on a patient by English surgeon John Collins Warren in 1846. “Gentleman! This is no humbug,” he is said to have announced to the audience of experts present – after the ether had had the desired effect. What a blessing for humanity!
From the bisons our ancestors painted on the walls of their caves and Gutenberg’s letterpress printing through to present-day emojis: all these phenomena reflect the human need to exchange information. For this kind of communication to work, people have to agree on what the images, characters or scripts mean. The exhibition Image, Writing, Codes demonstrates and explains the different signs and media that man has used to transmit messages from the very beginning to the present day, also featuring the major historical upheavals. One highlight is the printing presses dating from the mid-19th century onwards including the “Planeta” of 1925, with regular demonstrations of the latter providing ample evidence of its speed.
From the bisons our ancestors painted on the walls of their caves and Gutenberg’s letterpress printing through to present-day emojis: they’re all an expression of the human need to exchange information.
As I peruse a panel of smileys, I think to myself that Whatsapp and Co. are the most commonly used tools for communication today. What is peculiar nowadays is how you feel you almost have to make a written appointment before calling someone. Rather than spending a whole day deciphering what is meant by some cryptic WhatsApp message, why don't we simply activate the call function and speak our minds? And I’m not just talking about teenagers here.
Encryption and decipherment techniques from antiquity to the present day are another major theme of the exhibition, featuring many an object with a fascinating story to tell. For example, what at first glance appears to be a rusty typewriter is in fact a very rare Second World War encryption device known as “Schlüsselgerät 41”. It was found by treasure hunters using metal detectors in the woods near Aying outside Munich and was originally used to secretly share information relevant to military operations. A multimedia presentation tells visitors about the entire history of the find, the mystery surrounding its function and the historical background.
And that brings me almost to the end of my own little tour of the new Deutsches Museum during which I explored a quarter of the new exhibitions. As I leave, I resolve to return soon to see the rest of the departments and attempt to capture my enthusiasm in a concluding sentence. Here it is:
at the new Deutsches Museum, you can sense in almost every detail of the exhibitions how much the curators care about creating enjoyment and invoking a deeper understanding of the world of science and technology.
Tip: If you have a München Card or München City Pass you can save a lot on admission – and the ticket for public transport is included if you wish.