Object of the month: The Transparent Woman

3 December 2013

As part of our curious journey, Medicine Man is closed until spring 2014, but Medicine Now remains open as (un)usual. This month Jordan Blake takes a look at one of the standout pieces of the gallery and tells a story of war, scandal, horror and anatomy.

 The Transparent Woman, Medicine Now
[object Object]

The Transparent Woman, Medicine Now

When you visit Wellcome Collection, you are immediately assaulted by a vast array of medical oddities, artistic wonders and scientific curiosities. One such curiosity continues to astound and educate the public like her predecessors did before and has become one of the key features of Medicine Now and Wellcome Collection. I am, of course, talking about our wonderful Transparent Woman.

Made in 1980, but restored in 2006, and currently on a long-term loan from the Deutsches-Hygiene-Museum (DHM) of Dresden, Germany, our Transparent Woman is very self-explanatory: a literal transparent female model that allows visitors to gaze upon the body’s internal arrangements of its organs, skeleton, circulatory system and nervous system. In Medicine Now, the Transparent Woman can be found standing at the same height as the average human woman with her arms outstretched towards the heavens. Found atop a white platform, you might almost think she was some sort of deity of learning. This is believable when you talk to the public, who press the buttons at her feet and watch with wonder and hushed whispers as the organs inside her light up in an array of colours, prompting people to check on themselves subconsciously while being encouraged to learn more and press another button. However popular she is, she is also the product of a past marred by dark intentions and the skewed machinations of mankind; a past that very few know about, a past that tells a story of redemption and new beginnings all over the planet… a past we shall now explore.

We begin our story in the late 1920s, in the city of Dresden. Europe is still recovering from the ravages of World War I, while the USA is suffering from the fallout of the Wall Street Crash. Germany is now known as the Weimar Republic and is suffering from crippling debts brought on by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, as well as constant political strife from both the left and the right. It was in this climate that the DHM decided it was the right time to create something revolutionary and extraordinary – a fully operable and working model of the human interior. Dubbed the Transparent Man, it sought to educate the public on the human body, by depicting “the human body as a machine: understandable, immaculate and, if well cared for, durable.” [1] It was done without the need for public autopsies or preserved organs and encouraged people to exercise and eat healthily. The Transparent Man was such a big hit that the DHM commissioned another to accompany him. This figure was female, and she was the direct ancestor of our own Transparent Woman. Made out of a plastic (cellon) body cast of a woman in her mid-20s, plastic organs, aluminium bones and electronic wiring, she caused something a sensation as there was now a naked ‘woman’ on constant display to the public. Yet when compared with her male counterpart, she was every bit as successful.

In 1929 the Great Depression was further compounding the dire situation within the Weimar Republic. The DHM survived this, but 1933 brought about the darkest chapter in the history of the Transparent Woman, when a vile but charismatic ex-soldier and painter from Austria ascended to the rank of Fuhrer of the Third Reich and transformed the nation into a military powerhouse. The DHM was gradually brought under the control of the Nazi state, which implemented new methods of classifying human beings. Despite such measures being ridiculous by modern standards, “they provided rationales for colonialist and racist suppression and, in Germany from 1933 to 1945, prepared the way for mass murder driven by racial ideology. The [DHM] fully embraced and publicly imparted the thinking of ‘eugenics’ before 1945.” [2] It was extremely upsetting that the DHM was being used in such a manner, but it would also soon become another casualty of war when most of its collections and stores were very badly damaged during the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1944. The Second World War ended in 1945 with the surrender and subsequent partition of Germany between the Allied powers of the UK, the USA, France and the Soviet Union. Despite becoming part of East Germany, the DHM continued to manufacture transparent figures until the reunification with West Germany in 1989–1990.

 The Transparent Woman, Medicine Now
[object Object]

The Transparent Woman, Medicine Now

It was a good four years before employees of the DHM were able to make their way to West Germany, but some did – in particular, “Franz Tschackert and his son, who were medical artists and technicians…In 1949, they succeeded in establishing workshops in Cologne (British Zone) for a new Health Museum for Western Germany.” [3] This museum was formerly the Deutsches Gesundheits Museum, but it is now the Köln Krankenhaus Museum. One of their first productions was a Transparent Woman known as ‘Juno’.

Arriving at the now-defunct Cleveland Health Museum in the USA via London in 1950, costing US$15 000 (about US$125 000 today) and being one of the first constructions in West Germany, Juno was a big success. After arriving, her first public appearance occurred on 13 November, at the Museum’s 10th Anniversary Civic Luncheon. [4] Taking pride of place in the museum, a local Cleveland housewife, a Mrs Chris Gordon, was chosen to voice the new piece. Launched just in time for the museum’s tenth anniversary, the figure was a hit, delighting adults and children alike while encouraging them to discuss the body. A contest was held in the Cleveland Press to come up with a name for the new attraction: “other classical names submitted were ‘Electra’ and ‘Daphne’…‘Claire d’Illume’, ‘Translucy’, ‘Visibella’, ‘Lucid Lil’, ‘Muttering Myrtle’ and ‘Luminous Lu’…‘Cassie, the Lassie with the Glassy Chassis’.” [5] The winner was eventually ‘Juno’, named after the Roman goddess of women and the equivalent of Hera. She took pride of place in the Cleveland Health Museum until 2007 (by then it was known as Cleveland Healthspace) when the museum was closed. Nonetheless, Juno found a new home in the Health Education Classroom of the neighbouring Cleveland Museum of Natural History. She continues to delight visitors, and figures show she had over 2 million visitors by her 40th anniversary in 1990.

Another West German Transparent Woman found its way to Australia in 1954. On arrival, “one customs official was so offended by the nature of the exhibit that she almost never made it into the country.” [6] Eventually, the figure, destined for the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, went on public display at the Victoria State Theatre in Sydney, as a result of both of the public demand to see such a piece of technology and the museum lacking the necessary funds until 1954. Men and women were not only segregated but nurses were on hand when women visited, in case anyone fainted in shock of seeing the figure! Over the years though, the general shock subsided and by the mid-1970s, both trained medical staff and museum staff were using the ‘woman’ to teach health issues and sex education.

Even though the days of Nazism and Communism are gone from Germany, our own Transparent Woman can still be perceived as controversial. She was made in the twilight years of East Germany, a mere nine years before the collapse of the state. She serves as a reminder of the darker days when she was used to promote totalitarian ideals that strike horror and disgust into people whenever they read about the atrocities and actions committed in the names of Nazism. Despite this, she has developed into a powerful learning tool, one that the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney summed up in its launch booklet in 1954 – “THE TRANSPARENT WOMAN provides us with the means towards a greater understanding of ourselves – so necessary to our well-being and healthy living. There is a great difference between just being alive and being alive and healthy. It is the responsibility of the individual to keep his body healthy so that he may live a useful and successful life.” [7]

She has definitely proven herself to be one of the most interesting and mysterious objects within Wellcome Collection and without her, Medicine Now would not be the same.

I wish to give thanks to Wellcome Collection, the Powerhouse Museum of Sydney, Australia, the German Hygiene Museum of Dresden, Germany and the Archives of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, USA for all of their help, expertise and knowledge into researching the different forms and models of the Transparent Woman and her turbulent history.

[3] Takacs, G. Juno, The Transparent Woman: Background Information. Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, USA: 15th January 1989, page 4.

[4] Takacs, G. Juno, The Transparent Woman: Background Information. Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, USA: 15th January 1989, page 3.

[5] Martin, D. Juno: Symbol of all Women. The Board of Trustees of the Cleveland Health Museum, Cleveland, USA: 1952, page 7.

[7] The Transparent Woman. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, Australia: 1950-1954.