Poetry News

Fate of Aby Warburg Library + Lisa Robertson's Thinking Space

By Harriet Staff

Aby Warburg, Mnemosyne-Atlas

Perhaps you've read a new work by Lisa Robertson entitled Thinking Space, published by Brooklyn's lovely Organism for Poetic Research. If not, order it! After studying at the Aby Warburg Archive in London a year or so ago, LR wrote of the art historian and his relationship to the work of the baroque astronomer Johannes Kepler: "Warburg called the ellipse a space for thinking, and for him his library with its elliptical hub was a lantern, and it was an observatory."

We're thinking of it now because The Warburg Institute Library is in trouble! "In 2007, like a Dickensian villain, the university [of London] began self-parodically demanding enormous 'economic' space charges for the Warburg’s building—charges so large that the institute cannot possibly pay them. The only way for the institute to avoid these charges would be to move into much smaller premises and close its stacks, a decision that would destroy its essential character," reported The New York Review of Books in 2010. And "[o]n the shelves of the institute, the reader experiences the coincidence of opposites." More on Warburg's idiosyncratic ways of archiving/historicizing:

A visionary scholar, Aby Warburg was obsessed with cultural exchanges of all kinds and in all periods, and tinkered throughout his life with new ways to frame and display visual images, in order to reveal their interconnected meanings across time and space (he saw the vital importance of moving images, for example, long before most scholars). His unconventional tool for studying this shifting web of historical relationships was a picture atlas that remained in perpetual flux, and to which he gave the name Mnemosyne, or memory. (The project was unfinished when he died in 1929 and never published, though scholars have attempted to reconstruct versions of it.) For Warburg, cultural memory involved more than the stale invocation of tradition; it demanded heroic struggles with the forces of historical oblivion. In light of Warburg’s legacy, current threats to his institute’s very existence would apparently confirm Marx’s adage that great events happen twice, “once as tragedy, and again as farce.” It seems brutally ironic that the core of Warburg’s legacy is now under threat from the very university that helped ensure its survival.

Yes, you see, the library was incorporated into the University of London in 1944, after it was rescued from Hamburg in 1933 following Hitler’s rise to power. Now, The Independent writes that a high court is to decide its fate:

The dispute over the collection at the Warburg Institute – a research institution associated with the University of London – focuses on a trust deed signed by the University of London in 1944, when the collection came under its trusteeship.

The historic collection is described by the institute itself as “the most important library in the world dedicated to the afterlife of the classical tradition”. It is understood there have been tensions between the university and the Warburg’s independent advisory council for up to a decade over the issue of the latter’s independence, its management and the ownership of the collection.

The 1944 Trust Deed saw the university pledge to maintain the collection in perpetuity “as an independent unit”.

The university now wants the collection to remain part of the institution while the Warburg wants it to be entirely independent and free to move should it so desire.


Both sides are waiting to hear what the judge rules on exactly what the document, which is only just over a page, signifies. The Attorney General has insisted that after dialogue between the two sides failed, the dispute went to the High Court of Justice. The hearing ended last Friday and the judge is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

Originally Published: July 11th, 2014