Visiting the Leprosy Museum in Bergen Norway

Visit the Leprosy Museum in Bergen Norway

Bergen Wooden Buildings in the sunset

In the late 19th century, Bergen in Norway had the highest concentration of lepers in all of Europe. To deal with the problem, the city constructed three separate houses for the diseased, where they could be cared for by doctors and researchers studying the epidemic in an effort to discover its cause.

Now known as Hansen’s Disease, today leprosy is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium Leprae, which causes symptoms such as loss of sensation, painful ulcers, skin lesions, and eye damage.

Most people think leprosy causes arms, legs, fingers, and toes to just break off. But it actually causes nerve damage, affecting sufferers’ ability to move their limbs. Frequent ulceration and long-term infections result in serious damage to fingers and toes, causing limbs to shorten. This is what started the myth that lepers lose entire body parts as a result of the disease.

Exploring the Leprosy Museum in Bergen

Inside the Bergen Leprosy Museum
Inside the Bergen Leprosy Museum

It was a gloomy, rainy afternoon when we decided to visit St. George’s Hospital, the oldest leprosy hospital now the leprosy museum in Bergen. The somber atmosphere created by the dreary weather seemed to be the appropriate setting for our trip to the building which has since been converted into a museum, detailing the harsh reality of the cruel disease which plagued so many people in Norway’s beautiful coastal city.

Set amidst weathered, wooden buildings painted in pale greens and greys, the museum (called “Lepramuseet” in Norwegian) sat silently, awaiting my friends and I to approach and discover the sad truth behind Norway’s leprosy outbreak. As we walked to the entrance, we were unaware of just how horrifically the former hospital patients suffered. Little did we know we were in for a sorrowful experience which would leave us in a melancholic mood for the rest of the afternoon.

As I walked into the museum, my eyes scanned the large, hushed room with dark wooden floors. The first floor of the main building broke off into multiple rooms on each side and there was a staircase which led to a second floor with more rooms displaying the terrible manifestation of leprosy, treatments and how lepers lived, all in great detail.

Because the museum was previously a residential ward for leprosy patients undergoing treatment, we got a realistic feel of how cramped the residents’ living quarters really were.

We were greeted by a lovely guide who offered us individual pamphlets providing information on each separate room in the museum. (The pamphlets are in multiple languages, so if you can’t speak Norwegian, you can still understand the displays.)

Beds inside the Bergen Leprosy Museum
A room inside the Leprosy Museum

There were a handful of other visitors in the museum, silently pacing from room to room, adding an air of mournfulness to the place. My friends and I, pamphlets in hand, slowly walked by the wooden walls of the museum, passing through each room, witnessing the progression of leprosy and how it was treated throughout time.

There was a complete absence of sound throughout the entire museum, as visitors read their pamphlets in silence and pondered the implications of the information they’d just absorbed. My friends and I gathered inside one of the small rooms which held a bed, some other furniture, and plaques on the walls describing the personal stories of the hospital’s former patients. We talked about the patients’ stories in muted whispers that pierced through the silence of the solemn surroundings.

Each room contained descriptions, sketches, pictures, to-scale models of leprosy-infected hands and treatment instruments. These gruesome details left me feeling sad and defeated by the end of our visit. I was really affected by the torment that the people had to endure during their infected days.

Hand models displaying the effects of leprosy
Hand models displaying the effects of leprosy

St. George’s Church

The museum offers a daily guided tour in English at 11:00 am, which includes entrance into St. George’s Church — a place of worship used by leprosy patients since they were unable to attend other churches. However, some churches, such as Fantoft Stave Church, was fitted with a “lepers door” to allow the diseased to attend. This door was constructed on the left side of the Church’s altar and was where lepers could come and receive blessings.

St. George’s Church opens once a day for a short time around 12:45 pm. If you don’t want to miss the church, be sure to contact the Leprosy Museum in advance or visit at 11:00 am so you’ll have time.

Sketch of a Leprosy Patient from Leprosy Museum in Bergen
Sketch of a Leprosy Patient

History of Leprosy Disease

Leprosy has plagued and instilled great fear in humans as far back as the ancient Egyptian times. In Europe, those infected with leprosy were shunned by society and forced to stand out so they could be avoided. Lepers were made to wear special clothing and ring bells to warn others they were close, causing those not infected to treat them with great disdain.

The disease is passed between human carriers through the air, but very few carriers actually develop symptoms. In the Middle Ages, the disease was commonly confused with other illnesses like herpes, skin cancer, and even psoriasis, resulting in many people being treated as lepers, cast away from society and forced to live in isolation in a leper colony.

Image of patient suffering from Leprosy at the Leprosy Museum in Bergen
Patient suffering from leprosy

Finding a cure for Hansen’s Disease

In 1873, Norwegian physician Armaur Hansen was researching leprosy and didn’t believe the disease was hereditary, as it was regarded at the time. He believed it was infectious and was caused by a bacterium transferred between carriers and therefore to stop the disease from spreading, the isolation of leprosy patients was vital. Confining the diseased was successful and leprosy began to decline in Norway following his method. Today, Hansen’s Disease is treated with multidrug therapy over the course of 6-12 months. Patients aren’t contagious once treatment starts, so the days of condemning people to isolation in leper colonies are long gone.

Even though modern media often makes leprosy look comical (for example characters saving their seat by leaving their leprosy-infected arm behind) I left the museum feeling awful. While it truly shows the horrendous effects of leprosy in a sensitive way, there’s no hiding from the harsh reality of the terrible disease. It’s a sobering experience that will leave you feeling awful for the people who suffered from leprosy in Norway.

Dark Tourism in Norway

History about diseases in the past and how the medical community advanced through the treatment, testing, and study of diseases such as Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) is a form of dark tourism. Not only does this history help educate us, it really demonstrates how far we have come by how we handle diseases and the people these diseases affect. If you are interested in reading more about dark tourism in Norway and the world. Be sure to check out the Dark Tourism section of my blog for further reading.

Visiting the Leprosy Museum

Address: St. George’s Hospital – Kong Oscarsgate 59b Bergen 5017

Cost: NOK 80

Guided Tour: NOK 20

English Tour: 11am daily

Hours: 11am-3pm from May 15th 2019 until August 31st 2019

Visit the Leprosy Museum in Bergen Norway and learn the history of leprosy, Hansen's Disease and how to visit the museum.
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Comments 4

  1. I was surprised to read that leprosy is still around. But its good that now its treatable.

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      Author

      I know, right! I wonder how common it is nowadays and we just aren’t aware of it because there are medications that take care of it easily.

  2. Jeremy: Ooooh! There’s a leprosy museum! And it’s in Bergen! *stares hopefully at me*

    I don’t know if this has ever come up, but Bergen is like top of Jeremy’s bucket/wish list. And because we’re super weird, the fact that this place exists has only reenforced his desire to go. Although not gonna lie, it’s moving it further up my list.

    Also, this article was so interesting. Count me among those who [previously] thought leprosy caused loss of limbs. I had no idea it was “just” shortening them! I think medical tourism (the history kind, not the getting procedures done abroad kind) is one of the most interesting facets of dark tourism. It always amazes me what things were like even 50 years ago. VERY glad to be alive now.

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      Author

      Yes!! Just another reason to go to Bergen. I mean it is the coolest city ever and I really want to go back! I really love it and would even move there if I could!

      I agree completely about medical tourism (history) being really interesting and cool. I find it completely fascinating how far medicine and the treatment of patients have come throughout history. It’s reasons like this that we are friends! We definitely need to go on a dark tourism trip someday together!

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