Historians of medicine and science are most likely aware of Vienna’s Josephinum, the Fool’s Tower, the Sigmund Freud Museum and potentially even the history of medicine-themed sightseeing tours that are offered in the city – all of which are testimony to the fact that Vienna knows how to capitalise its rich medical legacy. There is one museum, however, which is seldom openly advertised, despite or potentially because of its eye-opening and contentious subject matter: the Museum for Contraception and Abortion.
Being probably the only one of its kind worldwide, it is unique in tackling a topic heads on that at best divides opinions, at worst sparks violence, but in any case forces the visitor to place related arguments into a much larger context. Since debates on abortion and contraception tend to focus mostly on the life and death of the unborn, the museum extends this focal point by looking at the historical, political, international, cultural, and domestic contexts in which contraception and abortion have taken place until the present day. It shows unflinchingly what women throughout history have done to their bodies to end unwanted pregnancies, and what happens in societies in which abortion is made legal or illegal (a whole map, for example, features the development of so-called ‘abortion tourism’). The museum also provides an interesting historical overview on the use of contraception, from the earliest recorded in ancient Egypt to the introduction of the pill in the 1960s, and modern ‘vasectomy lotteries’ in third-world countries. One can browse through abstracts of hundreds of novels that dramatise contraception or abortion since the 18th century, and short films from the 1920s to the present day are used to illustrate the development of attitudes towards sexuality and procreation (interestingly, the 1920s appear more progressive in this respect than our modern attitudes).
The most harrowing part of the museum is a corner set up as a domestic kitchen scene, containing the tell-tale kitchen table on which many illegal abortions took (or still take) place. Next to this table a visitor will find a strange-looking electrical device which turns out to be the latest invention by the household company Bosch in the 1950s. A precursor of the modern washing machine, called ‘Schallwäscher’, its electrical vibrations were meant to help housewives do the laundry more easily. Bosch, however, was eventually forced to take this device off the market when it turned out that desperate pregnant women would apply, what was lovingly called the ‘Waschbär’, to their bellies, causing internal bleeding. What sent an additional chill down our spines was an original 1950’s advertising brochure for the Schallwäscher, casually placed on the kitchen table, which depicted a husband carrying the device and other wrapped-up Christmas presents – the caption stating that “This will make her happy”…
Visiting this museum was certainly a highlight, albeit a chilling one, because it made us aware of the vast political and social implications of attitudes towards birth control. That contraception and abortion can be politically instrumentalised with devastating consequences is, for example, shown in the recent book by Mara Hvistendahl (Unnatural selection, 2011) on population control programmes in the developing world, including forced abortion and gender selection. In any way, in this museum, contraception and abortion are elevated to topics that infuse the historical and cultural matrix of countries worldwide, which makes the visitor see more than one side of concurrent debates.
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