Most museums have so little space that they keep most of their collections in storage. But the Berlin Medical Historical Museum has problems that are absurd. Its overflow has been completely piled into unsuitable make-shift housing, including a former stable that is prone to flash flooding, and a ramshackle lean-to under a railway arch that is filled with dust and dirt. Shakes by the rumble of trains, re-spreading the thick layers.

The museum used to face the Berlin Wall directly, but it now has a nice view to the spanking-new Central Station in the Spree and to the Chancellor of United Germany.

It belongs to the city’s historic medical school, the Charité, which had been reorganized five years earlier in a painful merger between the medical faculties of East Berlin’s Humboldt University – the original Charité – and the post-war Free University of West Berlin.

Charité’s ascension on the Western faculty is thanks to its long – if hindered – reputation, nurtured by scientific stalwarts such as nineteenth-century pathologist Rudolf Virchow, who conceived the cellular basis of disease.

Indeed, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Berlin was a hot bed of modern science in all disciplines, with Hermann von Helmholtz, Karl von Siemens and Emil Fischer pushing all possible boundaries. It has given Berlin many important collections of instruments, specimens and other historical scientific objects.

When the charity was restructured it received a mandate to establish scientific excellence – which it has done in good part – with a shrinking budget. But what about its legacy? It has done a wonderful job restoring the beautiful old building of the Medical Historical Museum, which now houses a fine display of the cream of its collection – not to mention an extravagant living room called ‘The Ruin’, which includes an area in which There has been a bombing.

World War II, now just the glass all around. Unfortunately this big investment is not enough. Its stored collections need a safe home. As a collection of old DDR instruments acquired after the fall of the Wall, which share the same primitive habitat. They are invaluable to historians of twentieth century technology.

To balance its books, the charity is selling its off-campus buildings, many of which have historical and financial value.

One of the most fascinating is the 1877 building on Dorothenstrasse, with its beautiful glass-roofed Anatomical Lecture Theatre, where pioneer microbiologist Robert Koch announced the discovery of the tuberculosis bacillus. Some of these buildings have additional important collections, including physical tools that are this week’s hidden treasures (see page 31). They also need new permanent homes.

To attract the best scientists, the charity must be able to provide them with generous laboratory space – contemporary science, of course, is a top priority. But inheritance should not be the default victim.

In autumn the Charité will have a new management team that will be wise to guarantee a small portion of its budget to protect the school’s illustrious past – which gave it the upper hand after Germany’s reunification.

The year 2010 marks the 300th anniversary of the charity, as well as the 200th anniversary of Humboldt University and the 100th anniversary of Koch’s death. This triple celebration should be a time to remember the debts of the past. Don’t let it erase you.

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