NYT: Loss of Eden in London?

 

 

Scholars Fear Loss of Eden in London

Warburg Institute Threatened by Funding Woes.

By Rachel Donadio, October 10 2014.

The Warburg Institute here has trained generations of scholars, who liken its world-renowned library of Renaissance and post-Classical material to an intellectual paradise. Now many scholars fear for the Warburg’s future over a funding dispute with the University of London, which has housed the collection since 1944, after it was moved from Nazi Germany.

In recent years the Warburg has had to pay the university, which is state-run, an increasingly large percentage of its annual budget to maintain the Bloomsbury mansion that it calls home. Warburg defenders fear this will push the institute into financial ruin, putting it at risk of closing its stacks or even relocating and splitting apart its collection — a move that the prominent British art historian Martin Kemp recently wrote would be “the greatest act of vandalism in Western academia of my lifetime.”

In a statement, Maureen Boylan, the university’s deputy secretary, said that the university had “never recommended that the Warburg Institute’s unique collection be merged with another collection, absorbed elsewhere, or relocated.”

But the Warburg’s fate remains uncertain, including whether it will continue to keep its stacks open, allowing scholars to browse freely, a rarity in European libraries.

The current and two previous directors of the institute declined to comment ahead of a High Court of Justice ruling, expected as soon as this month, that should clarify the university’s financial obligations as trustee to the institute under the terms of the 1944 trust deed.

But more than 22,500 people have signed a petition at Change.org, “Save the Warburg Institute!,” calling on the university to keep the collection intact and preserve the “intellectual legacy” of Aby Warburg. That German banking scion amassed it in Hamburg starting in the late 19th century after, as the story goes, making a deal at 13 with his 12-year-old brother, Max, to cede his stake in the family bank in exchange for all the books he wanted for the rest of his life. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, four years after Warburg’s death, the collection was moved to London. It was entrusted to the University of London in 1944 as the Warburg Institute, which also grants advanced degrees.

Warburg organized the collection according to a unique classification system, meant to create connections between disciplines by organizing the books by theme rather than author and allowing scholars to browse freely rather than request individual titles.

“Navigating the library was much more than just about conducting research, but also an intellectual journey,” Emily J. Levine, the author of “Dreamland of Humanists,” about the Warburg’s origins, wrote in an email. In Hamburg, the collection was used by, among others, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and the art historian Erwin Panofsky, whose interdisciplinary approach shaped a generation of scholarship in their fields.

If the university decides to dismantle the collection, Ms. Levine and others have proposed that it be returned to Hamburg.

Since moving to London, the collection has grown from 80,000 volumes to more than 350,000, many of them rare. It specializes in Renaissance art and iconography; the history of science, magic and religion; medieval and Renaissance literature; and the preservation of classical tradition from 1200 to 1700. The institute also has a large collection of photographs of art and artifacts.

“It’s hard to work in any other library once you’ve worked in the Warburg,” said Noga Arikha, who has a Ph.D. in history from the institute and is the author of “Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours.” “It’s all about finding the books you didn’t know you were looking for.”

Scholars hope that won’t change.

“The basic idea is that the university is demanding the Warburg pay an enormous rent,” said Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University professor of history at Princeton, who has worked in the library for decades and has been one of the Warburg’s most vocal defenders. Mr. Grafton said he had been told that the university had proposed that the institute save money by closing its stacks, a move he said would radically disfigure its character.

“Open stacks is a basic principle of the Warburg,” Mr. Grafton said, adding that he had no direct knowledge of talks between the Warburg and the university.

Asked if the university had proposed that the Warburg close its open stacks, Ms. Boylan said the university had no comment.

Even if the library stays intact, cuts to British state university funding are certain to affect the institute, which has a staff of 24 and lacks its own long-term endowment. In 2012-13, the last year for which there are audited figures, the university provided 1.8 million pounds (about $2.9 million) of the Warburg’s £2.8 million ($4.5 million) in funding, in addition to covering the £250,000 operating deficit on a £3 million operating budget.

In the Warburg’s 2012-13 annual report, Peter Mack, then the director, wrote that “the financial situation of the institute continues to cause us concern.” He added, “We remain vulnerable to the increasing levels of charges imposed upon us by departments of the university.”

And that has scholars worried. “What risks being lost is a unique place, which has been essential to the study of the medieval and Renaissance and Baroque and Enlightenment worlds, and also the connections,” Mr. Grafton said, “between the West and the Islamic world, and Asia, the ancient Near East. People talk as if transnational and global history were new, but those were part of the Warburg from its inception.”

See Rachel Donadio, Scholars Fear Loss of Eden in London, The New York Times, October 10 2014.