One of London’s expansive resources of cultural and art history may face an uncertain future and is currently the center of controversy. Scholars and artists are rallying to save the Warburg Institute from its collection’s possible dispersal or its entire relocation overseas. The protests respond to legal proceedings taken last June by the University of London — the Institute’s trustee — to investigate the deed of trust it has held since 1944.
The Institute, whose archives focus on the Renaissance and has vast research material in the fields of philosophy, religion, science, history, and more, was originally an archive compiled by the German Jewish scholar Aby Warburg; smuggled out of Hamburg to London on a small steamer when Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, it was placed in the care of the University of London who signed the one-page, two-sided deed on November 28, 1944 in agreement with Eric Max Warburg (then a major of the US army), signing on behalf of his family. As specified in the deed through seemingly ironclad phrasing, the University is committed to “maintain and preserve the Warburg Library in perpetuity.”
Although the University claims it was merely seeking clarification from the High Court of the details of the trust, academics find the legal action suspect and are concerned that the University is challenging the terms of the wartime deed, which have remained unquestioned until now, according to a Guardian op-ed. The trial currently awaits judgment, expected to arrive in the fall.
A little over a month ago, Friends of the Warburg launched a petition asking the University “to withdraw their legal action and keep the Warburg Institute just as it is.” So far, the petition has received over 20,000 signatures, only a little over 4,000 short of its goal. Among its signees are art historian Martin Kemp, who argued for the library’s survival in an article published in Royal Acadamy.
“The cost of losing the Institute as presently constituted cannot be calculated in pounds. The international disgrace cannot be estimated in cash,” Kemp wrote. “The current exhibition in the library is devoted to ‘Laughter’. The only way for this not to be followed by weeping is for the University and all interested parties to promote the establishing of a long-term endowment that will prevent the greatest act of vandalism in Western academia of my lifetime.”
Alongside Kemp’s signature is support from British archaeologist Martin Kipple, Harvard professor Jeffrey Hamburger, and one user identified as “Wei Wei,” who wrote, “Warburg Institute, not only being one of the most important sources of humanist studies, is also an intellectual legacy of great value, a symbol of a memorable history. London University has the duty to protect its Integrity.” Various publications including the Guardian have identified the user as dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
Concern for the library’s preservation also stems from the fact that the Institute has been reporting substantial financial woes: its recent annual reports illustrate deficits reaching over £400,000 (~$667,000), and Kemp noted that the Institute consumes 60% of the University’s annual grant.
According to the Guardian, members of the Warburg family have expressed approval of the collection’s return to Germany or of its relocation to the US. This would also signal a loss of the library’s “open shelves” arrangement that increases the collection’s accessibility as well as its “distinguished staff of scholars and scholar-librarians,” mentioned by Professors Anthony Grafton and Jeffrey Hamburger in an article chronicling arguments between the Institute and the University over the collection’s maintenance that reach as far back as 2007.
The University, however, rejects the library’s absorption by another establishment: in a letter to Times Higher Education, University Dean and Chief Executive Roger Kain wrote:
The University of London has at no point recommended that the Warburg Institute’s unique collection be absorbed into Senate House Library (“Library saved from Nazis awaits its fate”, News, 19 June).
Under the university’s management over the past 70 years, the Warburg collection has grown substantially from the original 80,000 volumes to the 350,000 in the collection today. The last thing that the university wants is for this exceptional cultural resource to be merged or absorbed elsewhere.
The university is not seeking to challenge the validity of the 1944 deed of trust but is simply seeking guidance as to its meaning. The attorney general has indicated that a court hearing is his preferred course of action to clarify the deed, and the university respects this view.
In the meantime, the issue has inevitably bred jokes about the British education system, such as this nugget of a lede from 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.