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World Perspective | CULTURE

Seeing the World Through the Eyes of the 'Imperfect'

Exhibit attacks prejudice toward the physically and mentally disabled with displays that span centuries of discrimination.

February 17, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DRESDEN, Germany — The subject being celebrated at the German Hygiene Museum is obvious to visitors even before they reach the exhibit. A wide, red-carpeted wheelchair ramp stretches majestically from the curbside to the main entrance.

"The [Im]Perfect Human Being" is an exploration into the life of the physically, mentally and emotionally challenged, spanning centuries of discrimination and exploitation while taking unique account of the gifts bequeathed by those considered by their contemporaries to have been flawed.

An ear horn used by Ludwig van Beethoven and the wooden wheelchair that transported President Franklin D. Roosevelt through his wartime leadership are displayed as poignant reminders that genius transcends physical limits.

A Swedish mental hospital patient's century-old needlework designs were recognized as blueprints for viable aircraft only after her death in 1955, demonstrate society's failure to heed insights obscured by disabilities or illness.

But the exhibition that fills the vast display rooms of the museum here, which despite its unusual name has been a popular venue for physiological themes since 1930, is more than a collection of artifacts of the "imperfect." It is a penetrating look at society's relationship with the disabled through the ages and a frontal assault on preconceptions and prejudices that persist.

Posters heralding a 1900 Barnum & Bailey "freak show" and photographs of 19th century mental patients held in nets are jolting in their brutal evocation of past behavior, as are the leather restraints, straitjackets, early electroshock therapy instruments and caged beds.

A separate exhibit on the Nazi extermination of the physically and mentally disabled recalls the systematic atrocities committed by a regime maniacally pursuing a vision of human perfection.

More subtle exclusions also are brought to the visitor's consciousness. In an interactive exhibit, an observer is invited to sit in a wheelchair and tune in to the muttered or unspoken thoughts of the ambulatory, as represented in videotaped comments by museum employees acting as social critics.

"What does it cost to build all these special crosswalks for so few?" one woman wonders. Another thinks, "How humiliating it must be to need help going to the toilet."

Some German media have criticized the exhibit as an excess of political correctness, but project developers brush aside those assessments and proudly report brisk attendance. As many as 1,000 visitors a day have seen the presentation since it opened in December, they say.

"We wanted to show how being disabled is part of human existence because we are all imperfect beings to a lesser or greater degree," said Petra Lutz, project coordinator for the exhibition, which runs through Aug. 12 and has become a favorite destination for school field trips.

The presentation is co-sponsored by Aktion Mensch, a private charity founded in the 1960s to aid children born with deformities caused by their mothers' use of the drug thalidomide.

An audio guide takes visitors through the artifacts, artworks, history and inventions, and, in keeping with the exhibition's focus, is available in versions for the visually and hearing impaired. A printed guide is provided in English.

Although the entrance hall is adorned with models of seeming perfection--pictures of Superman, Barbie, Marilyn Monroe and Olympic champions--the myth of the ideal human being is swiftly exposed and the more fragile reality inspected.

"Do You Have All the Cups in Your Cupboard?" an exhibit on communication asks, using a German expression akin to being "one brick short of a load" to elicit thoughts from those with disabilities about how they see themselves.

"Maybe one of mine is missing, but does that make my life any less worthy?" a woman with a severe stutter replies in one of the dozen taped responses.

"And you?" the observer is asked as his or her image appears on the screen and the sound of breaking crockery can be heard in the background.

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