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A betrayal of trust? The Warburg Library under threat

Published 8 August 2014

One of the the world’s foremost academic resources, London’s Warburg Institute Library, is under threat, 80 years after being saved from the Nazis. Martin Kemp argues vehemently for its survival.

  • From the Autumn 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Each year 3,000 people travel to Woburn Square in London to enter the world’s greatest research engine dedicated to the intellectual and artistic legacies of Greece and Rome. This is to say nothing of some 12,000 downloads of material accessed each month online. As we enter the Warburg Institute Library we see a circular emblem inscribed in pale stone above the door. Taken from an early printed edition of the seventh-century bishop Isidore of Seville’s book On the Nature of Things, it represents the four diverse elements of earth, water, air and fire, the four seasons and the four temperaments, gathered together within a system of cosmic equilibrium. Our step is quickened by the anticipation of journeys of discovery that will lead us beyond the predictable.

    The library is like no other. Its treasures, ranging across many centuries, are held in an open-access system in which things of a kind belong together through natural cultural affinity rather than subjection to the modern classifiers’ mechanical taxonomies. If I want to find out about Leonardo da Vinci, I don’t have to visit different libraries of art, engineering, medicine, geology and so on. If Leonardo lambasts alchemy, I climb the stairs to find shelves that present a living bibliography of the subject in and before the Renaissance. If I want a crash course in images of the Salvator Mundi, so that I might better understand Leonardo’s recently discovered painting, I go to the photographic collection to sample its multitudinous wonders arranged by subject matter.

    The Warburg is where I encounter things I did not know existed. But maybe no more. The Library and its Institute was founded by Aby Warburg (1866-1929, above, second from left), an art historian and cultural visionary, born to the great Jewish banking family in Hamburg. The library escaped inevitable dissolution by the Nazis and was transferred to London in 1933-34 on a little steamer that carried 531 boxes of intellectual provisions on two trips back and forth. The Institute had been promised safe haven by a group of avid supporters, including Lord Lee of Fareham and Samuel Courtauld.

    On 28 November 1944 a trust deed was drawn up with the University of London, which acknowledged the Institute’s ‘worldwide reputation in its special fields of culture and research’. The University as trustee undertook to ‘maintain and preserve the Library in perpetuity’ and house it ‘in a suitable building in close proximity to the University centre at Bloomsbury’, and to keep it ‘adequately equipped and staffed as an independent unit’. Under this dispensation the Institute has served as a powerhouse in humanities research, not least through its internationally renowned staff and directors, among whom art historian Ernst Gombrich is its biggest public name.

    The terms of the trust deed seem unambiguous, but the University has been questioning its obligations. Its first move was to levy a huge increase in the sum the Warburg is charged for the building, which now consumes 60 per cent of its annual grant. According to a complex formula that is typical of institutional accounting, the Institute currently receives an annually variable sum in compensation for part of the charge. The Institute’s recent annual deficits range from £125,000 to almost £420,000, effectively ensuring financial ruin. The University argues that it is not charging rent but imposing a building-specific service charge across its estate. We await the results of a 10-day trial held in June, involving the University of London, the Attorney General and the Advisory Council of the Warburg Institute.

    The basic issue is, of course, cost and income-generation. The University, which lost a significant part of its business with the independence of Imperial College, appears to be cutting back on its remaining obligations. But there are costs other than those identifiable on an accountant’s sour balance sheet. The cost of losing the Institute as presently constituted cannot be calculated in pounds. The international disgrace cannot be estimated in cash. 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.

    Martin Kemp is Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at Trinity College, Oxford University. He has been a Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, the V&A and the British Museum.

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