The future of historical college collections: making things speak

Reconstruction of a gigantic primitive whale, meteorites from the early days of the solar system, pathological samples from the time of Rudolf Virchow and a copy of an old Friesian song by Jacob Grimm: Two decades ago, the exhibition “Wunderkammern des Wissens” at Gropius Bau showed for the first time what had been hidden Nearly a hundred in the collections kept at the Humboldt University of Berlin (HU) were previously kept from the public.

After the end of the remarkably successful exhibition, Jürgen Melink, then-rector of Heliopolis University, asked: “Can’t Berlin also use these amazing treasures as an attractive attraction to the public?” There is now a Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed City Palace of Berlin, and the Humboldt Laboratory there – as a science fair for the universities and their distinguished collections – opens old collections with model objects and also with samples from the legendary HU sound archive.

Humboldt Lab is trying to bridge the fact that universities are now measured by indicators other than the number of items they hold. But with more than 1,000 scientific groups in German universities, there is still a lot to discover.

BBAW development project

Jochen Brüning, a mathematician and cultural historian at Heliopolis University, and Ulrich Raulf, the old director of the German Literature Archive in Marbach, and their team made it their mission to “tell this different history of research” – in a cataloging project for the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.


In the small volume “The Invisible Collection” just published, the researchers are now reporting an initial temporary state. They set themselves “a story that exposes interruptions, resistance, errors and perhaps also fruitful misunderstandings of investigative understanding,” Browning and Ralph write in the introduction.

The project “Archaeology for Research History” – funded by the Volkswagen Foundation – aims to provide as much an overview of German university collections as possible. The “origin and validity, type, number and condition of objects, use and storage” and, last but not least, the “fate and history of collections” are specified.

The Humboldt Lab at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin is an example of the use of university collections in new museum contexts.Photo: Philip Blume / HU Berlin

Do universities even need groups? Do you still need them? In any case, the collections, or at least most of them, have long since undergone a change in meaning from an educational group to support and clarify the teaching of a group of historical research objects.

This becomes especially evident in medicinal collections of sediments, which are three-dimensional representations of parts of the body that have undergone pathological changes. It mostly dates from the second half of the 19th century and has been neglected with the availability of detailed color photographs.

Save collectibles from oblivion

Antonia Hamm and Kesten Winning examined about 70 such medical groups as well as groups from other subject areas and were able to determine that the loss of objects’ original purpose can be compensated for by increasing importance in relation to “core” cultural norms and values.

“So far, at the latest, the collection will be converted into a museum, which is associated with preserving its holdings from rotting and forgetting,” the authors rule. This refers to the transition from the university to the museum. It is evident in the cast collections of antique carvings, which in the nineteenth century were almost standard equipment at the university.

A Valuable but Sensitive Heritage as well: Presentation of the Humboldt University Audio Archive at the Humboldt Laboratory.Photo: Philip Blume / HU Berlin

Recently, special courses and courses in the field of art history have been devoted to working with objects, not least in order to improve the professional preparation of subsequent work in the museum.

Mark Warish describes a stark example of sculptural actors in his seminal article on “Groups as Materials and Social Networks”. The great sociologist Max Weber and his wife Marianne owned a ‘Delphi chariot’ staff in their hospitable home in Heidelberg: “After her husband’s death in 1920, Marianne Weber gave this silent witness to numerous disputes, perhaps very interesting. The Archaeological Institute of Heidelberg, where He lived to this day silent.” Will the research project make him speak?

“Considering their true function in the service of academic research and teaching, many university collections can benefit from a certain degree of low accessibility and tangible physical importance of their objects,” notes Wurich: “From collections and archives, science can be taken as epistemological and makes the cultural process visible and tangible to the public.”

Irregular objects and massive material groups

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

In her contribution, Stranger Things from University Collections, Susan Ebersbacher demonstrates how rich the university’s treasures are and at the same time how difficult it is to access them as a whole. During the “Year-Old Archaeological Research Journey,” a qualified mineralogist came across individual artifacts whose original history and reception would likely require a separate research project.

Their finds range from a meteorite found in Siberia in the 18th century, the first scientifically described meteorite at the University of Hamburg’s Institute of Minerals, to a carved wooden fresco from the Maori Assembly House in New Zealand in the Ethnological Collection from the University of Tübingen.

Fabulous unique performances are also a cinematic member from 1931 in the Museum of Musical Instruments at the University of Leipzig or a papier-mâché teaching model of a horse purchased in 1874 in the domestic animal collection of the Central Journal of Natural Science Collections at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.

Some groups may struggle with new development due to their sheer size. At the Institute of Zoology and Evolutionary Research at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, for example, there is an archive of 500,000 X-ray films, created over three decades, that make visible vertebrate movements.

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

What should I do? “We have to show ourselves,” demands Ralf, “not only in the university audience, but also in the general bourgeoisie.” At last year’s symposium, which Hannah Petke wrote in the anthology, he stressed the importance of small administrations under threat of deletion. “We are the custodians of ancient knowledge,” says Ralph.

This, where the research project can be quantitatively summarized, can be found physically in the staggering number of over a thousand groups in German universities.

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