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Warburg Institute, Saved From Nazis, Faces Bureaucratic Threat

Aby Warburg
Aby Warburg. A descendant of a Hamburg banking family, Warburg is the founder of the Warburg Institute. Source: Warburg Institute via Bloomberg

A great cultural foundation that was saved from the Nazis is now under threat from a different, more insidious menace: the bureaucratic policies of modern British higher education.

The Warburg Institute at London University is renowned throughout the scholarly world for its remarkable library, founded over a century ago. Yet today its existence as an independent entity is in doubt, and may be decided in court.

The story is a long and sad one. “Everybody has a feeling of disbelief that we have got to this point,” the director of the Warburg, Charles Hope, said in an interview. “The university has said that it wishes to change the Trust Deed, according to which the Warburg was originally handed over to the University of London in 1944, and is talking to its lawyers -- and we are talking to our lawyers.”

The founder of the institute was Aby Warburg (1866-1929), the descendant of a Hamburg banking family and an intellectual with a brilliance that led him to be compared to Sigmund Freud by art historian Ernst Gombrich.

Warburg’s originality lay in seeing that art had to be understood in the context of the whole society from which it came. To this end he formed a library devoted to “the study of the science of culture,” especially the ways in which the heritage of classical Greece, Rome and other early civilizations had metamorphosed in the centuries that followed. Rare volumes on magic, the discoveries of Galileo, Arabic treatises on algebra, astrology and the lives of saints all found room on his shelves.

Nazi Menace

As the fame of his library grew it attracted other creative thinkers and in time was affiliated to Hamburg University. With the advent of the Nazis, it became clear that, since it was regarded as a Jewish institution the Warburg would have to leave Germany. This transfer, at the invitation of farsighted U.K. patrons, was carried out in the nick of time. A fortnight later, and its fate would have been decided by Joseph Goebbels.

Fortunately, the library continued safely in London. In 1944, it was incorporated into the University of London, to be - - according to the Trust Deed -- maintained and preserved “in perpetuity” as “an independent unit.”

Since the 1950s it has occupied a specially constructed building in the Bloomsbury area of London. The library has grown to 350,000 from 80,000 volumes, arranged according to Warburg’s unique system of interconnecting ideas (and the complementary photographic collection now contains more than 300,000 images).

Among these book stacks generations of distinguished thinkers have pursued unexpected connections and written important books. These include Gombrich, the art historian Michael Baxandall, and Professor Anthony Grafton of Princeton, a highly regarded scholar of the humanities.

‘Book Depository’

Researchers continue to beat a path to the Warburg, though perhaps not for much longer. As Grafton wrote recently in the New York Review of Books, the academic administrators of London “seem bent on turning the Warburg Institute from a unique research center, its open stacks laden with treasures uniquely accessible to all readers, into a book depository.”

The problems are various. University of London policies decree that all libraries come under common management, and the Warburg has been merged into a combined “School of Advanced Study.” Subsequently the University changed the way that it allocated costs for rent.

“The consequence of this was that whereas historically we paid between 20 percent and 30 percent of our grant for our premises, we now pay more than 60 percent,” according to Professor Hope. “It has plunged us into an annual deficit of half a million pounds ($765,000) out of a turnover of 2 million pounds that is completely unsustainable.”

The costs can only be reduced by destroying the character of the library. This seems to conflict with the terms of the original gift, that the institute would be maintained “in perpetuity.” As Hope insists, “there is an overwhelming scholarly consensus that it ought to be left as it is. You can get further in a week in the Warburg Library than in a month elsewhere.” To lose this unequaled source of inspiration and discovery would be a cultural disaster.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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