Exhibition opening “There is something. Cancer and Emotions” in the Museum of Medical History

Intervention exhibition in Virchow’s dissecting room

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Berlin, 11 July 2023

What emotions does the diagnosis of cancer trigger in those affected? Does fear predominate or do other feelings such as anger, shame and loneliness or hope, courage and confidence also play a role? These are the questions addressed in the exhibition “Da ist etwas. Cancer and Emotions” of the Berlin Medical History Museum (BMM) of the Charité. Emotions are presented as subjective and personal feelings as well as being viewed in their respective social context. The exhibition is sponsored by the German Cancer Aid and the German Cancer Foundation and can be seen from 12 July 2023 to 28 January 2024.

Cultural-historical exhibits, scientific objects and interactive media stations as well as film interviews are used to make visible how strongly feelings are shaped by social norms and moral concepts. The tour illustrates this change and invites visitors to reflect on their own feelings and their cultural imprint.

Six exhibition modules look at various individual questions. For example, the exhibition asks why patients (FRG and GDR) were not informed of their cancer diagnosis as late as the 1970s. The exhibition also looks at how the increasingly successful cancer therapies have changed people’s feelings about cancer. The exhibition then leads into three stations with various interviews. Patients, relatives and nursing staff have their say, as do oncologists, psychooncologists and cancer counsellors. They talk about “getting well from cancer”, “living with cancer” and “dying from cancer”. The interviews convey contemporary perspectives on cancer and emotions and also open up perspectives for the future.


Prof. Dr. Thomas Schnalke, Director of the Berlin Medical History Museum of the Charité: “With ‘cancer’, a shock hits the bones. For those affected, the diagnosis is often a judgement. For medicine, the clinical picture is an imposition. The exhibition intervenes in Rudolf Virchow’s dissecting room and supplements the view of the organs with what is crucial: the shock, the experience and life with the disease.”

Gerd Nettekoven, Chairman of the Board of the German Cancer Aid Foundation: “The founding of German Cancer Aid – in 1974 – took place at a time when cancer was largely dealt with in a taboo manner. One of the most important concerns of our organisation was therefore to contribute to the destigmatisation of cancer in society. I am convinced that the exhibition – whose creation we as German Cancer Aid were happy to support and promote financially – will further raise awareness for an open approach to cancer.

Dr. Johannes Bruns, member of the board of the German Cancer Foundation: “Especially in the case of cancer, the way in which the therapists behave towards their patients and deal with their emotions has a decisive influence on the self-esteem of those affected and thus also on the success of the treatment. This exhibition sharpens the view for the emotions in dealing with the disease cancer in the course of time. Anyone working in oncology should definitely not miss it.”

Prof. Dr. Angelika Eggert, Director of the Clinic for Paediatrics with a focus on oncology and haematology: “Good and comprehensive cancer treatment today consists not only of high-tech precision medicine, but must above all also take into account the diverse emotions and stresses that a cancer diagnosis triggers in everyone involved: in the affected patients and their relatives, in their entire living environment, but also in the treatment team.”

Private lecturer Dr Bettina Hitzer, medical historian, initiator and scientific advisor of the exhibition: “Feelings were long considered ahistorical. Today, it has been recognised how strongly feelings are culturally shaped and thus historically changeable. This insight sheds a completely new light on the history of diseases such as cancer. Feelings played an important role here, but one that has received far too little attention up to now. At the same time, looking back into this complex past opens up perspectives for dealing with cancer today.”

Dr Anne Schmidt, historian and curator of the exhibition: “On the tour through the exhibition, visitors encounter cancer like many patients: first in the context of information campaigns, later in conversations with doctors, then during therapies. The tour informs about different and changing perspectives on the connection between cancer and emotions since the end of the 19th century. The focus is on the experiences of people who developed cancer and those of their relatives.”

Lecture series

The first of four lectures in the lecture hall ruins of the BMM will take place on Thursday, 7 September, 6 p.m. s.t. on the topic of cancer research – new approaches. The panel discussion with Prof. Angelika Eggert, Prof. Ulrich Keilholz and Prof. Susanne Michl will be moderated by Prof. Thomas Schnalke. Further dates of the lecture series at https://bmm-charite.de/ausstellungen#veranstaltungen. Admission is free.