Reconceiving the Warburg Library as a Working Museum of the Mind Barbara Maria Stafford

Common Knowledge, Volume 18, Issue 1, Winter 2012, pp. 180-187 (Article)

Published by Duke University Press

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2010. and brief encounters in the hot pursuit of the receding link. single findings. who believed no cultural object or symbol system could be understood without a careful study of its appearance and its context. bites and bytes have become iconic. Common Knowledge 18:1 DOI 10. at 234. June 18. The synthesizing World Wide Web paradoxically breaks focused attention through short reports. In today’s consumption-wary economy. Nicholas Carr.1 That is.RECONCEIVING THE WARBURG LIBRARY AS A WORKING MUSEUM OF THE MIND Barbara Maria Stafford In a recent article published in Wired. “Chaos Theory. 2.” Wired.2 The baroque and endlessly ramifying network 1. By contrast. They shore up the popular rhetoric of sustainability — of achieving greater efficiency in using any resource. Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet has made “skimming” our dominant habit of thought. the Internet is simultaneously an interruption or distraction system as well as a connective net. including information.1215/0961754X-1456971 © 2012 by Duke University Press 180 .1 (1971): 225 – 36. “Aby Warburg (1866 – 1929) as Interpreter of Civilisation. Hans Liebeschütz. both reductivism and speed were alien to Aby Warburg. This brevity is itself a kind of marketing strategy — stripping away the supposedly extraneous parts of communication to arrive efficiently at their functional essence.” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 16.

51. Among the characteristics that make it so unusual is Aby Warburg’s spatialization of scholarship in unusual intersective objects. a convex-mirrored Domed Area. watercolors. Warburg was prescient in advocating a new understanding. and ideas. Warburg’s penchant for creating photographic and textual ars combinatoria interestingly resembles the earlier collecting habits of the founder of London’s Soane Museum. Currently under restoration. His comparative or relational theory of cultural practices aimed to discover how the combined natural sciences. models. Like the Warburg Institute.The Warburg Institute Library is a renowned book repository. dynamic forms they study. anthropology with myth. one that represents the rich. medicine with physiognomics. a Pompeian red Library Din3. 4. variegated. this Regency establishment possessed a novel. paintings. Erected in a series of campaigns between 1792 and 1824. Knopf. Books. multipurpose. and continues to allow it.4 181 . online appropriation. St a f f o r d • R e c o n c e i v in g t h e Wa r b u r g L i b r a r y a s a Wo r k in g M u s e u m o f t h e M in d of natural and sociocultural interconnections is both too complex and lengthy simply to outline. and drawings were evocatively set within intriguingly syncretic arrangements: a Basement Crypt.”3 He thus linked science with pseudoscience. and Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. casts. this institute for all things architectural is being refurbished and “improved” in an effort to “open” it up to new and broader publics. Complexity. Warburg was interested in replacing standard cultural characterizations “with a more spacious and nuanced conceptual framework. it is not unreasonable to suppose he would have countered by citing the oscillations and polarities associated with the electrical signals emitted by the nervous system. 2009). who in Unsimple Truths argues for a new epistemology (“integrative pluralism”) for biology and related “contingent” sciences. Sandra D. Akin to Sandra Mitchell. Had Warburg lived to witness the twenty-first century’s thinning of iconography. His lifelong search for mythopsychological evidence concerning the role played by memory in civilization acts as a useful foil to today’s global culture of instant messaging. 20 – 32. the Soane Museum owes its present appearance to the successive demolishing and rebuilding of three adjacent townhouses located on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. but its singular holdings — both word and image — have other functions as well. Unsimple Truths: Science. and the visual arts create rule-based representations for the multilevel. the social sciences. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. to function as much as a library as it does as a museum. Mitchell. academylike identity that allowed it. 2010). See David Shields. astronomy with astrology. and data manipulation. art with pathos. multicomponent. interdependent fabric of many levels and kinds of explanation that ultimately get integrated with one another into an effective interpretation. images. These rhythmic pulses present a biological countermodel to the fast techno-mashup or decontextualized pirating of rootless words.

was a polymath. Imagine the Warburg Library in all its specialness and peculiarity as a variant of the house museum. one conceptually resembling another notable London institution: that of John Soane. I would agree with Rowland. certainly. unfeasible to imagine ambitious collections of this type — formed by inspired collectors whose unique mentality is a central component of what makes them significant — in any space or context but their own. libraries and museums aspire to motion: they stimulate a rush of interest. “God’s Librarians: The Vatican Library Enters the Twenty-first Century. 2011. Photo credit: Derry Moore 182 ing Room. these effects included books. and photographs. requiring them: “It’s not just that they have these [precious] things. I am inviting readers of Common Knowledge. this civilization. at the same time. Daniel Mendelsohn.” New Yorker. foster immersion 5. Aby Warburg. . playing cards.COMMON KNOWLEDGE Figure 1. By nature. Notwithstanding the difference in scale. posters. and the Shakespeare and Tivoli Recesses. Ingrid Rowland’s comment about the distinctive character of the Vatican Library also seems apt for these two intimate places of learning that manage to transcend their physical confines while.”5 It is. although the tangible effects of their multidisciplinary research ended up housed within small domestic interiors. to entertain an analogy. to name just a few themed rooms (Figures 1 – 5). postage stamps. It [the Vatican Library] has this kind of space. prompt user participation. In Warburg’s case. 29. then. By courtesy of the trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum. like Sir John Soane. January 3. prints. but also caricatures. The stretch of their minds was great.

shaped by the quest to make manifest the genealogy of human thought.?” New York Review of Books. Anna Somers Cocks.in an extraordinary environment. and sculpture.” New York Review of Books. To be sure. the Soane Museum possesses its own personal as well as esoteric period character — stocked as it is with architectural volumes recording changing eighteenth-century perspectives. September 30. “Move the Warburg to L.bloomberg . and encourage the categorization or ordering of things. Warburg used similar broad strokes when dedicating his Library to every aspect of classical learning and its later receptions. Rowland. See. Photo credit: Derry Moore 18 3 .6 (2010): 858. Like the Soane Museum. Saved from Nazis. “The Warburg Institute Is Fighting for Its Life. October 14. possessing its own hermetic period character. archaeological ruins vital to the history of taste. Also see Ingrid R.com/news/2010 – 07 – 20/warburg-institute-saved-from -nazis-battles-bureaucrats-martin-gayford. July 20.6 This analogy is not farfetched. By courtesy of the trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum. St a f f o r d • R e c o n c e i v in g t h e Wa r b u r g L i b r a r y a s a Wo r k in g M u s e u m o f t h e M in d Figure 2. the Warburg Library makes provision for hands-on. painting. recently. D. 2010. For a fascinating discussion of spatial connections in a museum setting.” Art Newspaper (July – August 2010 . 2010).” Bloomberg News.A. and Grand Tour landscapes. published online July 20.” Journal of Architecture 15. 7. 2010. “Warburg Institute. Faces Bureaucratic Threat. Martin Gayford. see Zamani and John Peponis.7 6. www. Soane desired that his home and collections be preserved for the larger benefit of “amateurs and students” in architecture. “Save the Warburg Library. 2010: this letter was written in response to Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger. “CoVisibility and Pedagogy: Innovation and Challenge at the High Museum of Art.html. open access to rare primary and secondary texts and assorted visual materials — and no doubt this is one compelling reason for arguing that its holdings should be maintained with their distinctive identity as an interrelated ensemble. But the Warburg Institute Library is equally personal.

as I have been arguing. Given the growth of the Digital Humanities Project. image. I propose. 2010. July 21.typepad. earlier statements made in this growing polemic to the effect that the Library “ought to be left as it is” thus remain unpersuasive. Photo credit: Geremy Butler But the Warburg Institute has already been assimilated into the University of London’s School of Advanced Study. the Kindle phenomenon. action. artintheblood.” Art History Today. there are budgetary as well as intellectual arguments to be made for conserving the collection intact. and the rise of other interactive technologies. What intrigued Warburg was less this or that disciplinary fragment or piece of data and more 8.com/ art_history_today/2010/07/warburg-goes-to-war. It is not only university funding but also the Warburg Library’s aims and objectives that need refreshing. and so the holdings of the Warburg Library now face physical incorporation into the London Research Library Services.COMMON KNOWLEDGE 18 4 Figure 3. Charles Hope.html. orientation) as a living and working example of an interconnective system housing other ordering systems side by side on its shelves.8 Indeed despite the economic downturn and university downsizing. that a convincing case can be made for the Warburg Institute Library and its unique classificatory scheme (word. as cited in “Warburg Goes to War. Taking up the gauntlet. first. These. require a shift in perspective. By courtesy of the trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum. .

Figure 4. especially. as those who have 9. “Ideas Are in Things. On that basis alone. (His motto. Ernst Gombrich. including. after all.4 (1987): 363 – 85. the contemporary Warburg Institute should be known as the Hippocampal Institute! What is Warburg’s lifelong pursuit of the traces of classical antiquity and its transmissions — reflected in the intuitive connections sparked by the associative arrangement of the books and objects he collected — but an early neural-network model of the growth of connectivity? He wanted to understand how humankind learned to learn and continues to learn and remember. His fascination with Kulturwissenschaft. Edgar Wind. memory. and Hilaire Graham. stemmed from a deep desire to understand the biological and psychological preconditions of human creativity. then I suggest that we begin in terms of the Warburg experience and show how irreplaceably important it is. Recall too that the Archives of the Institute contain working papers of other great modern synthesizing systematizers of cultural symbols.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 14.9 That experience. If we articulate a new rationale for the Library. St a f f o r d • R e c o n c e i v in g t h e Wa r b u r g L i b r a r y a s a Wo r k in g M u s e u m o f t h e M in d 185 . and concepts: among them.”) The task of historical retrieval was to gather those enduring remains persisting in the face of changing mentalities and to collect the primal types of cognitive order that have survived despite their gradual evolution. one that involves redesigning it in concept. or the science of culture. Photo credit: Derry Moore how they all intellectually hung together. Julienne Hanson. their telling shapes and shifting parts. was “Mnemosyne. methods. Yates. and Frances A. Fritz Saxl. By courtesy of the trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum. Bill Hillier.

” New Yorker. By courtesy of the trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum. In 1865 the Englishman William Stanley Jevons. . Photo credit: Derry Moore 18 6 undergone it can attest. a lengthy trajectory of systems of order and organization. their templates. thus increasing demand and counteracting whatever savings we would expect from increased efficiency. 78 – 85.COMMON KNOWLEDGE Figure 5. Paradoxically.10 As a result. where. through efficiencies meant to conserve energy. a diminished consumption of these decontextualized materials would result. 2010. that would be lost. See David Owen. total energy consumption actually rose. as no other experience in the contemporary world does so well. Predictably. in his book The Coal Question. improved efficiency in the production of a resource lowers the relative cost of its use. makes visible. Whatever tem- 10. what would realistically happen if the Warburg’s books and photographs were dispersed throughout the London Research Library. If the volumes and their attendant images get dispersed. or otherwise absorbed — in the name of efficiency — these myriad shapes of order will be lost exactly at the moment when we most need their guidance. Efficiency. leading to the unintended effect that the number of houses air conditioned all summer long vastly increased. rather than diminished. Take the case of American refrigeration. we may ask. their models. drowned. showed that there was a general and hitherto unnoticed problem with efficiency gains. those possible shapes of interactivity. is not all it is cracked up to be. in the name of efficiency and cost cutting. Following Jevons’s lead. This “Jevons Effect” is central to current debates spanning everything from energy conservation to educational programs. It is the cognitive richness. Jevons importantly underscored the paradoxical inefficiency of supposed efficiencies — an unlooked-for effect amply documented not just in the present but in the history of past civilizations. driving costs up again. “The Efficiency Dilemma. moreover. costs got pushed down at every level of production. those latent subshapes still lingering in the modern unconscious. December 20 and 27.

To that end. for they are fundamentally about system building. Further. that the current pressures on the Warburg Library expose uniquely well the unexamined fallacies in our culture’s ubiquitous rhetoric of efficiency. that the Library be represented to the university and the public as a kind of house museum. Third. Ultimately. with all the intimate adjacencies expected of such institutions. The Warburg Library can be validly redescribed as a multistory gallery. The Soane Museum might well be used as a point of comparison in the London context. Second. • R e c o n c e i v in g t h e Wa r b u r g L i b r a r y a s a Wo r k in g M u s e u m o f t h e M in d 187 . it is worth remembering. and finally. geared to fewer books and more ebooks). the costs of locating and retrieving it would be greater. when even a single volume gets called up (problematic in a distributed library system. higher costs would inevitably return since unused materials are reckoned as more expensive to store and maintain than materials that are frequently used.St a f f o r d porary economic “improvement” would occur through consolidation would be offset by decreased research efficiency. first. In sum. it should be emphasized that the Warburg’s performative system of shaping information complements and reinforces the content of the materials in its collection. and on occasion mentioning with some emphasis. or what today we would call the science of informational complexity. since both the Soane and the Warburg had founders who created distinctive syncretic systems. the grouping and structuring of variable data. The intellectually demanding categorization of books and photographs at the Warburg Library obliges one to move among the shelves just as the visitor to the Soane Museum follows an intricate network of visual connections. fostering visual and mental cross views resembling the combinatorial prospects operating inside the Soane Museum. what the Warburg Institute Library needs is not a reorganization but a cogent redescription. my proposal is.

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