Leading academics and artists, including the art historian Martin Kemp, archaeologist Martin Biddle, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and historian Lisa Jardine, are accusing the University of London of breach of trust over the future of a unique library, smuggled out of Germany as the Nazis rose to power.
Despite denials from the university, they believe that the Warburg Institute is in danger of losing its independence within the university, and at worst of having its collections broken up.
Jardine, a former trustee and fellow of the institute, said: “The Warburg Institute is the jewel in the humanities crown of the University of London, which continues to foster the very best of European scholarship. I have been lucky to have worked in the institute since my 20s and the thought of the University of London losing it is heart stopping.”
Kemp, a world authority on the work of Leonardo da Vinci, said: “I have worked in libraries all over the world, and as a tool of discovery, the Warburg is the most valuable I have ever discovered.”
Now housed in its own handsome building in Woburn Square, London, the library was originally the vast collection reflecting the eclectic intellectual interests of a German Jewish scholar, Aby Warburg. His treasures were brought from Hamburg to London in the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power, shipped in two small steamers paid for by the textile millionaire Samuel Courtauld, founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art.
The collection had several temporary homes in London before coming into the care of the university. It is best known for art history books and photographs ‚Äď one of its most famous directors was the art historian Ernst Gombrich ‚Äď but it also encompasses science, astrology, magic, the history of ideas and of the classical tradition.
The emblem carved in stone over the door symbolises the breadth of its interests and collections: taken from a 15th century woodcut of the interactions of the four elements of the world which originally illustrated a 6th century text by Isidore of Seville, which in turn quoted from a 4th century text by St Ambrose.
The protesters are suspicious of a legal action launched by the university ‚Äď the result is due in the autumn ‚Äď seeking to clarify the terms of a trust deed signed in 1944 which committed it to caring for the collection “in perpetuity”.
Members of the Warburg family are understood to have indicated that they would be happy to return the collection to Germany, or transfer it to the US, in order to preserve its independence.
The Warburg is believed to be running at a substantial deficit, which critics believe is largely because the university increased the buildings charge for its premises some years ago.
It is seeking a new director to succeed Peter Mack, who was appointed in 2010 on secondment from the University of Warwick where he is professor of English and comparative literary studies.
The university, in a brief statement, defended its record and said that it had no intention of breaking up the collection. “The University of London has at no point recommended that the Warburg Institute’s unique collection be absorbed into Senate House Library.
“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. We await the decision of the court in due course.”
However an online petition pleads with the university “to keep the Warburg just as it is”. It has attracted more than 17,500 signatures, including Kemp, who commented online: “The legal action is a historical breach of trust of the very highest order. The institute is the spiritual home for all who care about the history of culture.
“For London university to achieve what Hitler could not is beyond belief.”
Biddle called the Warburg “the world’s finest library for the study of ideas in image”, and added: “As the latest attack by the administration of the University of London on books and print-based research, the threat to the Warburg demands an answer to the question: ‘who guards the administrators themselves?’”
Ai, currently confined to Beijing by having his passport confiscated, also signed, writing: “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.”
The petition has also been signed by scholars across the world including the US, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, China, Australia and Israel.
Anna Somers-Cox, editorial director of the Art Newspaper, called the university “Gradgrinds” who did not understand the value of their treasure. “The London university is simply breaking faith. They shouldn’t be destroying something but helping it to raise funds internationally, which given the fame of the Warburg should not be difficult.”
She said the collection, where almost all the books are on open stack shelving, has unique value as it is. “It does not censor the thought of the past: if Newton was an alchemist as well as the father of experimental physics, you don’t sweep this fact under the carpet, but look to see how it contributed to his thought; astrology may be unscientific, but people in the past believed in it and painted pictures about it,so if you study it you find out what it meant to them.”
The trust deed, signed in November 1944 by the university and Eric Warburg, then a major in the US army, on behalf of his family, survives on a single sheet of cheap wartime paper, typed on both sides.
It lists the contents of the library as “about eighty thousand books and a large collection of photographs”. It states: “The University will maintain and preserve the Warburg Library in perpetuity in accordance with this Deed and will accordingly as soon as possible house the same in a suitable building in close proximity to the University centre at Bloomsbury and will keep it adequately equipped and staffed as an independent unit.”
Apart from the value of the collection, described by Kemp as “the world’s greatest research engine”, many of those who signed the petition feel it deserves specially gentle treatment because of its unique history.
Amos Benvered wrote from Jerusalem: “The Warburg Institute library is one of the free world’s treasured memorials to its victory over Hitler’s barbaric hordes. Destroying it would be like chopping the head off a major statue that graces one of London’s squares.”