The Museum for Contraception and Abortion, Vienna

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.

Figure 1: The Frog Test, a biological indicator for pregnancy used until the 1970s.

Figure 1: The Frog Test, a biological indicator for pregnancy used until the 1970s.

 

Figure 2: A domestic scene from the museum with tell-tale kitchen table.

Figure 2: A domestic scene from the museum with tell-tale kitchen table.

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).

Figure 3: An advertisement for the ‘Schallwäscher’, a precursor of washing machines invented by Bosch; it was taken off the market when it was found out that women applied the electrical device to their pregnant bellies in order to abort. The caption reads ‘Useful in every household’…

Figure 3: An advertisement for the ‘Schallwäscher’, a precursor of washing machines invented by Bosch; it was taken off the market when it was found out that women applied the electrical device to their pregnant bellies in order to abort. The caption reads ‘Useful in every household’…

Figure 4: Another Advertisement with the caption ‘This will make her happy’.

Figure 4: Another Advertisement with the caption ‘This will make her happy’.

 


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.

Figure 5: The pill that changed the world. (All images in this article courtesy of MUVS, Vienna)

Figure 5: The pill that changed the world. (All images in this article courtesy of MUVS, Vienna)

Address: Mariahilfer Gürtel 37, 1150 Vienna, Austria

Website: http://en.muvs.org/

Useful Links: https://www.facebook.com/eMUVS

Map:

The Zentralfriedhof, Vienna

Zentralfriedhof in Wien, Austria

Zentralfriedhof in Wien, Austria by <a href="by Tobi_2008. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The Zentralfriedhof (cemetery) on the edge of the city is a place of pilgrimage for many visitors to Vienna. It has a special section of Ehrengraben (honor graves) where Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, and many Viennese Burgermeister are buried. There is a scientist among them, however, Ludwig Boltzmann, interred in Section 14C. Being placed in this company is a singular tribute, considering that his peer group in Austria did not seem to like him too much for most of the time when he was alive. The tombstone itself bears the inscription “S = k log W,” Boltzmann’s famous equation linking entropy to the world of atoms and molecules. (How many tombstones in the world carry equations?) Other members of Boltzmann’s family are buried with him, up to his grandson, his last male descendant, who was killed in the war in 1943 in Smolensk.

Sigmund Freud Museum, Vienna

Sigmund Freud House and Office, Vienna - Austria

Sigmund Freud House and Office, Vienna - Austria, by Emmanuel Dyan. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Another place of pilgrimage, for the many admirers of Sigmund Freud from all over the world, is the old Freud house on Berggasse 19, which was both his home and the seat of his practice. It has now been converted into a museum, which contains Freud’s consultation room, restored to its erstwhile state. In the entrance hall we find his familiar walking stick and hat, and throughout the museum items are numbered, and corresponding text and commentary is provided by mimeographed guidebooks (available in all major languages), which one can borrow as one walks through the rooms of the house. A printed book with much the same text and copies of some of the photographs is available for purchase.

Part of the exhibit deals with the revolting events of Freud’s last years. There are photos of brown-shirted Nazis burning Freud’s books, a picture of his house defaced with paint, to label the occupant a Jew, and, finally, photos of him as a frail old man, over eighty years old, forced to flee for his life. Four of his sisters, it might be noted, did not leave when he did and died in the holocaust of the concentration camps. This view of the unspeakable depravity of the Nazis is particularly chilling because we know the victim almost as if we had met him in person and we know him to have been innocent of any evil intent. Probably unintentionally, the exhibit focuses on how little we really understand about human psychology, the very field with which Freud was clumsily attempting to grapple. The holocaust was engineered by the legitimate rulers of supposedly civilized countries, and most of the German and Austrian populations unquestionably acquiesced to some degree. How could that happen? Freud would not have been able to explain it, but neither can the professional psychologists of today. We can only hope that it won’t happen again, but no scientific evidence exists to buttress that hope.

Just a few steps away from Berggasse 19, adjacent to Roosevelt Platz, is Sigmund Freud Park, with a statue of Freud. Another monument, erected in 1977, is in the outskirts of the city, in a place called Bellevue, where Freud used to like to take walks. It bears an inscription, which declares: “Here, on July 24th 1895, the secret of dreams revealed itself to Dr. Sigm. Freud.” It is strange to think that we can here identify (so, at least, they tell us) the very instant when the inspiration came that would soon radically alter the popular image of men and women of themselves.