Eugenics exhibit makes stop at Andy Warhol Museum
The Andy Warhol Museum is currently hosting Deadly Medicine, which is a traveling exhibit put together by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that depicts the eugenics movement in Nazi Germany. The Warhol is Deadly Medicine’s first stop on a five-year tour of museums throughout the country.
“The next venue for the exhibit is the Center[s] for Disease Control at Atlanta,” said Susan Bachrach, curator of special exhibitions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Deadly Medicine is set to appear at a wide variety of locations, each of which has its own method of interpreting and contextualizing the exhibit.
“The Warhol, I thought, took a very interesting, creative approach,” Bachrach said.
Last week, the Warhol incorporated Deadly Medicine into its Art, Science & Ethics Program series, which included a number of talks and lectures exploring the modern implications of eugenics.
Applying the Darwinian mantra of “survival of the fittest” to humans, eugenics asserts that allowing individuals with “weak” genes to reproduce is detrimental to the human species.
According to a September 22, 2006, Holocaust Museum press release, proponents of eugenics can employ both “positive” and “negative”
measures to control gene propagation.
On the positive side, a government can make efforts to improve the health and birth rate of a population by discouraging birth control and encouraging citizens to start families while young. Negative methods, such as sterilization laws for the disabled and mentally ill, involve an attempt to remove “weak” genes from the population.
The eugenics movement gained momentum in Germany after the country’s loss in World War I. Social and political unrest inspired many to turn to science for stability. The Weimar government, a democracy, promoted positive methods of eugenics.
The 1933 rise of Nazism also brought about negative measures of eugenics, which became part of a more extreme eugenics movement.
Eugenics is not unique to to to Germany. Other countries, including the United States, passed sterilization laws in the early 20th century.
“However, only in Nazi Germany was eugenic sterilization implemented on a mass scale, and only there did it pave the road to mass murder,” stated Bachrach in the press release.
Nazi eugenics sterilized an estimated 400,000 mentally ill or disabled Germans. In addition, the regime murdered approximately 5000 ill or disabled minors, as well as 200,000 mentally ill adults.
The Nazis carried out these murders through starvation and lethal injection, also utilizing gas chambers, which were later instrumental in the genocide of the Holocaust.
“How did that happen? And where did individual values and responsibilities lie in the midst of that?” asked Jessica Gogan, assistant director for education and interpretation at the Warhol. She said that these questions are important to following up on eugenics in Germany.
The White Space and White Coat Gallery in the fifth floor of the Warhol suggests that a possible explanation may be the abuse of authority by doctors within society. The installation contrasts the white coats worn by doctors with the white walls of contemporary art museums. According to the exhibit, whiteness represents a change in the form of both art and medicine.
Doctors once wore dark-colored suits, and art galleries once featured colored walls on which works hung from floor to ceiling. Starting in the late 19th century, however, white lab coats and white gallery walls became the norms of their respective fields.
According to the exhibit, whiteness also established a sort of transcendence in art and medicine. White coats emerged in medicine when hospitals, rather than households, became the primary domain of treatment. Within a new and unpredictable environment, white coats provided a way to separate doctors from their patients.
In art, on the other hand, the expansive whiteness of gallery walls acts as a neutral background for the abstract, experimental art characteristic of the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition, it helps to establish the gallery as distinctly separate from the external world and influences such as business and politics.
Standing in this fifth-floor installation, University of Pittsburgh bioethics professor David Barnard gave a lecture called “The Cultural Authority of Medicine — for Good and Ill” last Thursday. Barnard examined the role of doctors throughout time, beginning with the ancient Greek physicians, which was the time of Hippocrates.
In particular, Barnard compared the text of the Hippocratic Oath, which was also on display in the White Space exhibit, to the actions of doctors in Nazi Germany. Doctors who had sworn to, as the oath says, “be the good of the sick to the utmost of [their] power,” were also largely responsible for creating the technology used in gas chambers.
“We suspend our own judgment and defer to the judgment of some others,” Barnard explained, discussing the authority of doctors. According to Barnard, white coats, coupled with the emergence of specialized tools such as X-rays and stethoscopes, elevated the role of doctors to an elite and specialized status.
The public’s trust in doctors is still evident today, he explained. Whereas ancient Greeks thought it unethical to treat the terminally ill because it went against nature, modern society often expects its doctors to attempt to overcome the unnatural.
Overall, Deadly Medicine portrays a reminder of what results when the authority of medicine oversteps its bounds.
“It was [in Washington] a very, very successful exhibition,” Bachrach said. “I think the content was powerful and the design was beautiful.”
A version of the original Washington, D.C., exhibit, by the same designer, is currently on display in the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden.
The Hygiene Museum, now a host to this grim reminder of the past, was once a tribute to German eugenics.
“We begin with a model from that museum,” Bachrach explained, referring to the “glass man,” a model of the human anatomy depicting the ideal of superior genes.
The German Deadly Medicine exhibit has the intention of refuting strands of anti-Semitism, Neo-Nazism, and Holocaust denial in Europe.
“We’d never traveled an exhibit abroad, and we certainly hadn’t done one in Germany,” Bachrach continued. “So that was very, very exciting.”
Correction: A paragraph after the second paragraph originally stated "In addition to Atlanta, Deadly Medicine is set to appear at Gonzaga University, the University of Miami, and the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum." This information was incorrect and has since been removed from the article.