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Warburg Institute

The Warburg Institute
  • 1900 (1900), as the Warburg Library
  • 1921, as the Warburg Institute
  • 1944, affiliated to the University of London
Parent institution
School of Advanced Study, University of London
Director David Freedberg
Location London, England, United Kingdom

The Warburg Institute is a research institution associated with the University of London in central London, England. A member of the School of Advanced Study, its focus is the study of the influence of classical antiquity on all aspects of European civilization. In 1944, the collection was moved to London as part of the University of London. Recent financial deficits have led to attempts to merge the collection into the University of London.


  • History 1
    • Hamburg 1.1
    • London 1.2
  • Building 2
  • Organisation 3
  • Students and faculty 4
  • Directors of the Institute 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9



The Institute was formed in Hamburg, Germany, from the library of Aby Warburg (1866–1929), a student of Renaissance art and culture, and a scion of the wealthy Jewish Warburg family.

As an art historian, Warburg had become dissatisfied with an aestheticising approach to art history and was interested in a more philosophical and interdisciplinary approach. While studying the culture of Renaissance Florence, he grew interested in the influence of antiquity on modern culture, and the study of this second life of the Classical World became his life work. In 1900 he decided to establish the Warburg-Bibliothek für Kulturwissenschaft,[1] which became an enormous private library, built around this question and funded privately—Warburg "famously forfeited his right to a share of his fortune on condition that his younger brother Max would buy him any books he required".[2][3]

Warburg was joined in 1913 by the Vienna art historian Fritz Saxl (1890–1948), who in 1921 transformed the library into a research institute,[4] later affiliated to the University of Hamburg. Neo-Kantian Philosopher and professor at the newly founded University Ernst Cassirer used it, and his students Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind worked there.

The original Warburg Library building in Hamburg is now a research institute, Warburg-Haus Hamburg.[5]


In 1933, under the shadow of Nazism, the Institute was relocated to London, where, with the aid of Lord Lee of Fareham, Samuel Courtauld, and the Warburg family, it was installed in Thames House in 1934. The Institute moved to the Imperial Institute Buildings in 1937. In 1944 it became associated with the University of London.[4]

Ernst Gombrich in 1959. From 1976 to 1990, J. B. Trapp was Director, and from 1991 to 2001, Nicholas Mann. In 1994 the Warburg became a founding institute of the University of London's School of Advanced Study.[4]

Recent directors have been Charles Hope (2001 to 2010),[4] Peter Mack (2010 to 2014)[6] and David Freedberg (from July 2015).[7]

In 2011, legal action was started by the University of London together with the Institute's Advisory Council about their disagreement regarding the meaning of the 1944 deed of trust that granted the University the collection; the pledge "to maintain and preserve the collection 'in perpetuity' as 'an independent unit'" is problematised by the institute's annual deficit, estimated at half a million pounds.[2] Several students and scholars who had used the Warburg resources or studied there protested this planned merge. A petition on to save the Warburg's independence was started by Brooke Palmieri, a student of University College London after working on her PhD. thesis at the Warburg. In only two months, the petition had almost twenty five thousand signatures.[3] In recent years, the University has charged a proportion of its total estate expenditure to the Warburg Institute; as a result, the finances of the once solvent Institute have been strongly affected. In November 2014, a judgement established that the University's conduct in this regard was not acceptable.[8]


Entrance to the Warburg Institute in Woburn Square

The Institute occupies a large building in the University of London's Bloomsbury campus in the central London Borough of Camden. Built in 1957, and adjacent to the University of London Student Union, Birkbeck College, School of Oriental and African Studies, and Christ the King Church, the building is also the home of the studio of the Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London.

The Warburg Institute maintains a research library of more than 350,000 volumes. These volumes, except for a small number of rare and valuable books, are kept on open shelves and are accessible to all. The Institute also holds a large photographic collection and the personal archives of Aby Warburg. The Institute is notable for its unusual and unique reference system: the Institute's collection is arranged by subject according to Warburg's division of human history into the categories of Action, Orientation, Word, and Image. The photographic collection holds the valuable archive of the Image of the Black in Western Art.


In addition to its primary purpose as an academic reference library, the Institute accepts a small number of graduate students each year. The Institute awards the degrees of Master of Arts in Cultural and Intellectual History (1300–1650), Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy; the first is a one-year degree with taught and research components, the MPhil is a two-year research degree which would usually be expected to lead onto a PhD with further study, and the last is a three-year research degree.

The emphasis of these programs is on developing interpretative skills in a number of different academic subjects, which follows from the Institute's interdiscplinary mission. Considerable attention is devoted to improving language skills and knowledge of primary sources; the Institute believes that these areas are unjustly neglected by aspiring academics in order to focus on secondary scholarship and critical theory. The MA program is one of the few non-Classics graduate programs in the United Kingdom which requires fluency in Latin.

Students and faculty

Scholars associated with the Warburg Institute include Ernst Cassirer, Rudolf Wittkower, Otto Kurz, Henri Frankfort, Arnaldo Momigliano, Ernst Gombrich, Erwin Panofsky, Edgar Wind, Frances Yates, D. P. Walker, Michael Baxandall and Anthony Grafton. The current group of scholars continues the Institute's tradition of interdisciplinary research into history, philosophy, religion, and art. The permanent staff includes a number of academics and graduate students who hold short and long-term fellowships. Due to the small number of staff, students, and regular users, the Institute prides itself on a friendly and informal teaching and research atmosphere.

Together with the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Institute publishes The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, an annual publication of about 300 pages.[9]

Directors of the Institute

See also


  1. ^ "Aby M. Warburg" at the Aby-Warburg-Stiftung website (in German). Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  2. ^ a b Grove, Jack (19 June 2014). "Warburg Institute: library saved from Nazis awaits its fate".  
  3. ^ a b "The World’s Weirdest Library". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-10-25. 
  4. ^ a b c d "History" at The Warburg Institute website. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  5. ^ "Warburg-Haus Hamburg" (in German). 2006. Retrieved 25 June 2014. 
  6. ^ "Peter Mack, Director and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition at the Wayback Machine (archived July 3, 2014), originally at The Warburg Institute website.
  7. ^ Distinguished international scholar David Freedberg appointed Director of The Warburg Institute
  8. ^ Warburg Institute Press Release (6 November 2014) at the Wayback Machine (archived November 8, 2014), originally at The Warburg Institute website.
  9. ^

Further reading

  • Catalog of the Warburg Institute Library. 1961 – via Hathi Trust. 
  • Gombrich, E.H. (1970). Aby Warburg : an intellectual biography : with a memoir on the history of the library of F. Saxl. London: Warburg Institute. 
  • Guardian. The Warburg Institute is fighting for its life, July 2010
  • NY Review of Books. Save the Warburg Library, 2010
  • Guardian. Academics fear for Warburg Institute's London library, August 2014
  • Hope, Charles (4 December 2014), "Charles Hope writes about the battle over the Warburg Institute", London Review of Books, retrieved 2 December 2014 

External links

  • Warburg Institute website
  • Graduate Studies website
  • The Warburg Institute Iconographic Database
  • "The World's Weirdest Library" at The New Yorker

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