A Museum You Likely Never Heard Of

Aby Warburg (second from left) was the spirit behind the iconographic studies that dominated much of twentieth-century art history. CREDIT COURTESY THE WARBURG INSTITUTE At f

Aby Warburg (second from left) was the spirit behind the iconographic studies that dominated much of twentieth-century art history. CREDIT COURTESY THE WARBURG INSTITUTE

We mention and link to museums, and museum exhibits from time to time. For reasons related to our love and belief in libraries as essential institutions worthy of our civic support; but also related to our interest in entrepreneurial conservation.

Weird museum? Count us interested:

At first, the library of the Warburg Institute, in London, seems and smells like any other university library: four floors of fluorescent lights and steel shelves, with the damp, weedy aroma of aging books everywhere, and sudden apparitions of graduate students wearing that look, at once brightly keen and infinitely discouraged, eternally shared by graduate students, whether the old kind, with suède elbow patches, or the new kind, with many piercings.

Only as the visitor begins to study the collections does the oddity of the place appear. In the range-finder plates mounted on the shelves, where in a normal library one would expect to see “Spanish Literature, Sixteenth Century” or “Biography, American: E663-664,” there are, instead, signs pointing toward “Magic Mirrors” and “Amulets” and “The Evil Eye.” Long shelves of original medieval astrology hug texts on modern astronomy. The section on “Modern Philosophy” includes volume after volume of Nietzsche and half a shelf of Hume. The open stacks—exceptional in any gathering of irreplaceable books—are, in the European scheme of things, almost unknown. In the Bibliothèque Nationale, in Paris, the aim seems to be to keep as many books as possible safely out of the hands of people who might want to read them. In the Warburg Library, the books are available to be thumbed through at will.

History is here, ancient and local. An old edition of Epictetus, opened, turns out to bear the bookplate, complete with glaring owl, of E. H. Gombrich, perhaps the most important of modern art historians, who directed the Warburg Institute in its high period, in the nineteen-sixties. Beside each elevator bank, a chart displaying, in capital letters, the library’s curious organization helps guide the bewildered student: “FIRST FLOOR: IMAGE,” “SECOND FLOOR: WORD,” up to “FOURTH FLOOR: ACTION-ORIENTATION,” with “ACTION” comprising “Cultural and Political History,” and “ORIENTATION” “Magic and Science.” Mounted in the stairwells are uncanny black-and-white photographic collages of a single female type—a woman dancing in flowing drapery—that is seen in many forms, from classical friezes to Renaissance painting.

It is a library like no other in Europe—in its cross-disciplinary reference, its peculiarities, its originality, its strange depths and unexpected shallows. Magic and science, evil eyes and saints’ lives: these things repose side by side in a labyrinth of imagery and icons and memory. Dan Brown’s hero Robert Langdon supposedly teaches “symbology” at Harvard. There is no such field, but if there were, and if Professor Langdon wanted to study it before making love to mysterious Frenchwomen and nimbly avoiding Opus Dei hit men, this is where he would come to study.

Begun at the start of the last century, in Hamburg, by Aby Warburg, a wealthy banker’s son, the Warburg Library has been often expanded, but the original vision has never really been altered. It is a vast and expensive institution, devoted to a system of ideas that, however fascinating, are also in some dated ways faddish, and in some small ways foolish. Warburg, who died in 1929, spent part of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals—at one point, he lived in fear that he was being daily served human flesh. Yet he was the spirit behind the “iconographic studies” that dominated art history for most of the second half of the twentieth century—the man who reoriented the scholarly study of art from a discipline devoted essentially to saying who had painted what pictures when to one asking what all the little weird bits and pieces within the pictures might have meant in their time.

In the past several years, the Warburg’s future has been fiercely contested. It is in some senses a small and parochial struggle, right out of Trollope’s Barchester novels, and in others about something very big—about the future of private visions within public institutions, about what memory is and what we owe it, about how to tell when an original vision has become merely an eccentric one. It is the tale that has been told, in another key, about moving the Barnes Foundation from Merion to Philadelphia, and about expanding the Frick Collection, in New York. The question is what we owe the past’s past, what we owe the institutions that have shaped our view of how history happened, when contemporary history is happening to them.

The fight over the future of the Warburg Institute came to a climax in the past few months, but it started seven years ago, when the Warburg Institute and then the University of London began to seek legal counsel in order to clarify the terms of the trust deed that, in 1944, as the Second World War raged, had brought the institute into the university. Last year, the university initiated a lawsuit, thinking to “converge” the Warburg’s books into its larger library system, and to continue charging the Warburg a very large fee for the use of its building. Warburg-shaped scholars sought to rally the academic community in the pages of journals and on humanities Listservs. “If the university’s plans succeed,” the Princeton historian Anthony Grafton and the Harvard art historian Jeffrey Hamburger wrote, in The New York Review of Books, “the institute will have to abandon Warburg’s fundamental principles, lose control of its own books and periodicals (many of them acquired by gift or by the expenditure of the institute’s endowments), and shed, over time, the distinguished staff of scholars and scholar-librarians who train its students and continue to shape its holdings. . . . A center of European culture and a repository of the Western tradition that escaped Hitler and survived the Blitz may finally be destroyed by British bean counters.”…

Read on here.

2 thoughts on “A Museum You Likely Never Heard Of

  1. Pingback: Museums, Libraries, And An Innovative Hybrid | Raxa Collective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s