A Morality Tale: The Warburg Institute and the University of London

Aby Warburg (1866-1929)

The private researcher dreams of having the limitless resources to create the personal research library. For Aby Warburg (1866-1929) the dream was a reality. A member of the famous family of wealthy German bankers, it was not the world of finance that appealed to Warburg but rather the art of the Renaissance and the manifold ways in which the classical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome had been expressed culturally and intellectually throughout history, influencing and shaping the thought and culture of Europe and beyond. Backed by family money, he built his own impressive collection of books. Warburg’s library gradually attracted like-minded scholars, becoming the hub of a growing circle of researchers. One of these scholars, the art historian Fritz Saxl (1890-1948), was instrumental in turning an essentially private library into a fully-fledged research institute. Initially attached to the University of Hamburg, the rise to power of the Nazis led to the institute’s relocation to London in 1933.

The Warburg Institute emblem

In 1944 the Warburg Institute was incorporated into the University of London with a guarantee that the university would maintain its library and preserve its independent status as a research institute in perpetuity. As a result of this apparently far-sighted decision, the University of London has been associated with one of the world’s great centres of research on cultural and intellectual history. Many important scholars have been associated with the institute—Ernst Cassirer, Erwin Panofsky, Henri Frankfort, Ernst Gombrich, Frances Yates, D.P. Walker and Anthony Grafton to name but a few—and for serious students of the classical tradition the resources of the institute are an essential aid to research. The institute has a thriving postgraduate and postdoctoral research culture, and is particularly noted for its support of young scholars (among which I was once one). The Warburg library is characterized by its unique and brilliant classification system designed to enable interdisciplinary research across art, history, literature, philosophy, theology, and much else besides; it now holds more than 350,000 volumes, over 98% of which are on open access shelves, and among them are a large proportion of rare and otherwise hard-to-find books. In addition, the institute is home to a photographic collection of more than 400,000 images.

Realistic aspirations to be considered among the world’s leading universities would encourage, it may be supposed, the University of London to nurture and support an institute with the excellence and impressive international reputation of the Warburg. Yet for years the university has effectively been undermining the institute. In particular, it has failed to honour the original trust deed between the University and the Warburg, and it has charged exorbitant rates for library space that have left the institute running at a large deficit. Faced with threats to its very existence, it is hardly surprising that relations between the university and the institute have long been strained, nor that occasional rumours circulated about the possible return of the Warburg to Germany. Matters finally came to a head in the High Court this year as the University of London legally challenged the terms of the trust deed—and lost. The judgment of 6 November rules in effect that the university has been in breach of its obligations to the institute for many years. The university has put a brave face on this, claiming that it is ‘pleased’ with the judgment; the fact that it has sought and obtained permission to appeal against the judgment, ready it would seem to spend further huge sums of money in court rather than in constructive discussion, suggests an unusual use of the word ‘pleased’. (On the legal battle and the High Court judgment see the Guardian article from 10 August 2014, the Times Higher Education Supplement report from 6 November, the press release on the Warburg Institute website, and an essay by Charles Hope in the London Review of Books, volume 36 number 23, 4 December 2014, pp. 32-4.)

The saga is a dispiriting reflection of modern academia. Universities, colleges and many departments are increasingly run in ways that resemble the world of corporate business; senior management, as well as many heads of department, focus on budgets, assets, profit and loss. Business models and strategies rather than scholarly and intellectual culture are the new order within the university and many of its departments. The research and scholarly value of the Warburg Institute, obvious to those of us who work on cultural and intellectual history but almost impossible to quantify on the accountant’s spreadsheet, counts for little alongside the narrow but ‘measurable’ productivity and outputs so beloved of current policymakers and university management. The University of London, it would appear, regards the Warburg Institute as a potential asset, but not in ways that demonstrate an understanding and fostering of the research culture that has been, and still is, at the heart of the institute’s international reputation.

There was a time, and not that long ago, when the university was an institution that protected and valued research and scholarship; it understood that academic work could not be reduced simply to figures on a balance sheet. The change in university culture over the last two or three decades is illustrated by another story involving the University of London. In 1956 a set of the earliest folios of Shakespeare was bequeathed to the university library, with the condition that they would be housed there permanently. The value of such a bequest would have been understood not only by literary scholars, but also by university management, for its contribution to the research culture and reputation of the university. How does modern university management value this bequest? At £3-5 million and an asset to be auctioned off. Due to a public outcry from scholars, the University of London abandoned its plans to sell the folios (see the Guardian, 5 September 2013), so for now at least the folios, like the Warburg Institute, are safe—but precariously so given the mindset of modern university management.

Who would confidently place faith in the university to nurture research and scholarship in the humanities today? Aby Warburg was fortunate enough not to have to rely on institutions to support his research. It would hardly be surprising if, alongside the respect and admiration in which he is widely held by scholars, there is also a fair degree of envy.

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