You push a button to see how ammonia is formed; then you take a whiff of its pungent odor. You walk down some steps and descend into the bowels of a salt mine, a submarine, or a ship filled with immigrants heading for the New World.
You measure what you weigh in kilos and you test your short-memory span. And all around you is the rattle of machinery, the sloshing of liquid, the clanging of hammers, and the metallic click-click of automation.
You're in Munich's German Museum of Masterpieces in Natural Science and Technology, the largest technological museum of its kind in the world. To see everything on display, you would have to walk 10 miles.
Born of the dreams of Oskar von Miller, himself an electrical engineer, the German Museum first opened its doors in 1925. Although all the explanations accompanying the displays are in German, there is an excellent guidebook in English available for less than $2. It lists the most important objects and artifacts in the museum, describing how the objects function, their history, and what they have meant to mankind and civilization.
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the museum can be visited by adults for $1. 75 and by students and children for about 60 cents.
Even though most of us know that we live in a highly technical world, we generally experience only the end product. The primary purpose of the German Museum, therefore, is to display objects that have played important roles in the development of natural science and technology and to explain this development to the layman through the use of original machinery, models and replicas, dioramas and do-it-yourself experiments. By following technological development through history, modern technology becomes less a mystery.
Another purpose of the museum is to impart the fact that the history of technology is intricately entwined with the history of our civilization. Visitors can't help but realize how much technology has shaped our lives and culture.
What makes the museum so fascinating and unique as well as interesting for adults and children alike is that it bridges the gap between theory and practice in learning. By pushing buttons, cranking gears, and moving objects, you are placed in the middle of the drama. You are not a passive observer, but rather, you are what causes the action. In that way, the museum subconsciously conveys the idea that you are a part of science and technology and that they touch your life everyday in everything you do.
In the chemistry section of the museum, for example, you can watch chemical reactions with the simple press of a button. You can watch the distillation of saltwater or the formation of fog. You can walk through a workshop of an alchemist of the Middle Ages or examine a model of DNA.
If you're interested in communications, you can follow the development of the telegraph, telephone, radio, and television. Would you like to see the steps in the development of a black-and-white print? What was Columbus's route to the New World? What does a moon car look like? What does the nervous system of a turtle look like? How about an original V2 rocket, the first motorcar by Benz in 1886, or a sundial from 1726?
All in all, there are 30 different departments to choose from in the German Museum. If you saw every display just one minute, you'd need a month of daily, eight-hour visits to see everything.
Some of the departments in the museum include vehicles; rocks and minerals; shipping; physics; musical instruments; aviation; glass technology; writing and printing; photography; textiles; and weights and measures.
As technology grows, the museum will expand, too. There is, for example, a new section on nuclear technology. A future department will center on computers.