The Future of University Historical Collections: Making Speech Objects – Knowledge

Reconstruction of a giant primary whale, meteorites from the earliest days of the solar system, pathological specimens from the time of Rudolf Virchow and a copy of an old Frisian song by Jakob Grimm: two decades ago, the Wunderkammern des Wissens exhibition at Gropius Bau showed for the first time what about a hundred collections preserved at the Humboldt University of Berlin (HU) had hitherto hidden from the public.

“Couldn’t Berlin also use these incredible treasures as an attractive crowd attraction?” asked Jürgen Mlynek, then President of HU, after the completion of the extremely successful exhibition. Now the Humboldt Forum at the Berlin Reconstruction Palace and the Humboldt Laboratory there – as a scientific exhibition for universities and their excellence groups – opens old collections with exemplary objects and also with samples from the legendary HU archive.

Humboldt Laboratory is trying to overcome the fact that universities are now measured by indicators different from the number of facilities they store. But with more than 1,000 scientific collections in German universities, there is still much to discover.

A BBAW development project

Jochen Brüning, mathematician and cultural historian at HU, Ulrich Raulff, former director of the German Literature Archive in Marbach, and their team have done their part to “tell this different research story” – in a catalog project of Academy of Sciences and Humanities Berlin-Brandenburg.


In the thin volume of “The Invisible Collection” that has just been published, researchers now report on a temporary initial status. They have set themselves “a story that reveals the breaches, the resistance, the mistakes and perhaps even the fruitful misunderstandings of investigative understanding,” as Brüning and Raulff write in the introduction.

The project “An Archeology of Research History” – funded by the Volkswagen Foundation – aims to provide the fullest possible overview of the collections of German universities. It defines “origin and validity, type, number and condition of objects, use and preservation” and last but not least, “fate and history of collections”.

The Humboldt Laboratory at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin is an example of the use of university collections in new museum contexts.Photo: Philipp Plum / HU Berlin

Do universities need collections? Do you still need them? In any case, collections, or at least most of them, have long undergone a change in meaning from a teaching collection to support and illustrate teaching in a collection of historical research objects.

This becomes especially evident in the medical collections of moulases, the three-dimensional appearances of body parts that have undergone pathological changes. They date mainly from the second half of the 19th century and fell into disuse with the availability of detailed color photographs.

Preserving collections from oblivion

Antonia Humm and Kisten Weining examined about 70 such medical collections as well as collections from other object areas and were able to determine that the loss of the original purpose of the objects could be offset by an increase in importance in relation to “basic” culture. norms and values.

“At the latest, so far, a collection will become a museum, which is related to the preservation of its objects from decay and oblivion,” the authors judge. This shows the transition from university to museum. It is evident in the cast collections of antique sculptures, which in the 19th century were almost standard equipment in a university.

Valuable but also subtle legacy: A presentation of the Humboldt University sound archive at the Humboldt Laboratory.Photo: Philipp Plum / HU Berlin

Recently, special courses and courses within the subject of art history have been devoted to working with objects, no less in the interest of better professional preparation for later work in museums.

Marc Wurich describes a striking example of the sculptural caste in his basic essay on “Collections as Materials and Social Networks”. The great sociologist Max Weber and his wife Marianne owned the “Delphi Karioteer” caste at their hospitable home in Heidelberg: “After the death of her husband in 1920, Marianne Weber gave this silent testimony to the numerous disputes, perhaps very interesting for the Heidelberg Archaeological Institute, where he has lived to this day, is silent. ” Will the research project make it speak?

“Reflecting on their genuine function in the service of academic research and teaching, many university collections can benefit to some degree from low-threshold access and the concrete materiality of their facilities,” Wurich points out. archives, science can be seen as epistemic and make the cultural process visible and tangible to the public. ”

Irregular objects and giant collections of materials

However, the extent to which collections should remain in the university from this point of view or be transferred to a museum remains an open question, which, of course, can hardly be answered equally by all collections.

In her contribution “Irregular objects from university collections”, Susanne Eberspächer shows how rich the university treasures are and at the same time how difficult it is to access them as a whole. During her “one-year archaeological research trip”, the qualified mineralogist came across individual pieces, the history of the origin and reception of which would probably require a separate research project.

Their findings range from a meteorite found in Siberia in the 18th century, the first meteor scientifically described at the University of Hamburg Mineralogical Institute, to a wooden wall panel carved from a Maori meetinghouse in New Zealand. in the ethnological collection of the University of Tübingen.

Once fascinating are also a cinematic organ from 1931 at the Museum of Musical Instruments at the University of Leipzig or the papier-maché teaching model of a horse purchased in 1874 in the pet collection in the central journal for natural science collections in Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg.

Some collections probably avoid new development because of their gigantic size. For example, at the Institute for Zoology and Evolutionary Research at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, there is an archive of 500,000 X-ray films, built over three decades, that make vertebrate movements visible.

Curiosities can be found in a collection of the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, where 15 palm-sized stones with supposed fossils are preserved, which appeared in 1726 and were immediately recognized as forgeries. Not without being previously served as the subject of a dissertation written in Latin on these “figure lapides”.

What should I do? “We must show ourselves,” asks Raulff, “not only to the university public, but also to the general, bourgeois public.” At a symposium last year, about which Hannah Bethke reports in the anthology, he stressed the importance of small, delete-threatened departments. “We are the guardians of old knowledge,” says Raulff.

This, as can be quantitatively summarized research project, can be found materially in the amazing number of more than a thousand collections in German universities.

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