Bill Sherman is the new Director of the Warburg Institute. Displaced from Hamburg to London in the 1930s under the pressure of Nazism, the Warburg is a gift to London in perpetuity. In 1944 it became part of the University of London, and since 1994 the Warburg has been part of its School of Advanced Study for postgraduate teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences. Bill Sherman came to the Warburg from the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), where he was both Head of Research and Director of Collections. Before that Professor Sherman taught a wide range of Renaissance Studies for 20 years in universities in England and America.


Why did you move from the V&A to the Warburg?

I loved being at the V&A, because we never knew what its discipline was and the whole collection is utterly universal, but this place is the best of both of my previous spaces, a university space and a museum space.

What is your mission?

Our quite complicated mission is to combine postgraduate teaching and training with a unique resource for researchers of all levels interested in the movement of cultural forms, including the public. To do what a university can do well and what a museum can do well, and bring that together in an institute which has so much to offer anyone interested in cultural discovery or cultural explanation and exploration.

What do you teach at the Warburg?

The Warburg Institute has postgraduate Masters MA and PhD programs in the history and science of culture, and also art history and curating.

What is so special about the Warburg?

It’s a personal legacy from Aby Warburg, who lived and died in Germany. He was a member of a Jewish banking family, and created this pioneering research institute and library in Hamburg. So we have a personal library and a personal mission that we keep alive and reinvent.

“It’s up to the reader to find their own path through this extraordinary and valuable structure, like a great mysterious postmodern novel. ”

Aby Warburg in the centre, with his scholarly assistant Gertrud Bing (L) & his personal aide Franz Alber (R), Rome 1929

What interested Aby Warburg?

Art and science. Perception. The way in which the past shapes the present. The Afterlife — the nachleben in German — of antique images, gestures, myths, and stories in later periods. The way a painter in the Renaissance Italy is representing Juno or Apollo, or these resources that come down to them from the past. Or for me, a literature scholar by training, the way Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without Ovid, or for that matter Chaucer.

Is the Warburg best known for its library?

Yes, the Institute’s main engine is the stature of the library, its central resource, and for the innovative and influential field-shaping scholars associated with it in the 20th century, who it gave a home to.

Like who for instance?

In the first half of the 20th century maybe the most important European art historian was Fritz Saxl. He was the Director of the Hamburg Institute that Warburg created and was the first director in London. Saxl moved here with it. Ernst Gombrich served as Director here for many years; Erwin Panofsky who went to Princeton; and Michael Baxandall in art history, along with Gertrud Bing who served as Director in the 1950s; but also historians of the book, of magic, of cosmology. My single biggest influence is Frances Yates, associated for her whole scholarly career with the Warburg. Her famous books include ‘The Art of Memory’, one of the most important books in the field of Renaissance studies.

Why do people say the library is uniquely structured?

Some would say idiosyncratically structured! To allow people to follow cultural forms, it doesn’t follow any other library classification system in the world. Certainly not the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress. It follows Warburg’s ideas about how the world of books should be structured, the world of learning.

What is so unusual about this structure?

Each of its four floors is devoted to a very unique theme. There is no section of Renaissance Italy, which is so much of what his interests were, rather there is a floor for word, a floor for image, a floor for orientation as he called it, and a floor for action. It’s up to the reader to find their own path through this extraordinary and valuable structure, like a great mysterious postmodern novel.

What is so special about searching for knowledge in this library?

‘The law of the good neighbor’ was Warburg’s phrase, being that the book you need is often next to the one that you think you want. He wanted the library to be a browsing library. Everything is available on the shelves in order to allow the reader to browse, not to search but to browse.

How many volumes do you have?

370,000, and we continue to acquire. Forty percent of the books here are not in any other British library. The reason why we acquire a book and the reason why we put it where we put it is to facilitate discovery. Often a discovery that you don’t know you’re looking for.

“I’d like to bring refugee scholars, and also active artists and writers into this library, as equal participants.”

How many people are here?

About 30 people. It’s small.

What do you have to do in your new job?

To make the place secure, after a few years of tense relationships between the Institute’s members and the University within which it sits. Also between the different kinds of scholarship that get done here. I want to first make a firm foundation, because that’s what it deserves and needs.


Part of it is the building renovation project. This whole building will be closed for a year and a half, and we have a university building that we will move into, so that the functions of teaching and research will not be interrupted. And I’d like to bring refugee scholars, and also active artists and writers into this library, as equal participants. Some of the most interesting work coming out of this institution has been in the fields of fiction and visual art and curation.

Are you a natural home for refugee scholars?

The Warburg Institute would not exist in London if it hadn’t been for the turbulent forces of the 20th century that displaced so many great scholars and resources. Now those displacements of course are happening elsewhere. I want to remake it a home for displaced, endangered, exiled scholars and scholarly resources.

How will you do this?

Yesterday we received our first ever ‘scholar at risk’, a Syrian scholar who has joined us for two years. Working with CARA, the Council for At-Risk Academics, is a very important project for this institution to embrace and expand. There is a lot of scope for scholars understanding and transmitting culture that they can no longer do in their home.

Warburg Institute Entrance Door, late 1950s

Warburg Institute Reading Room at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, between 1936 and 1957.

A fairly recent image of Warburg’s Zettelkästen (index card boxes), held in the Archive

Portrait of Aby Warburg, 1929

Warburg Institute Reading Room, late 1950s

The panels (of a Bilderreihe dedicated to the Afterlife of Ovid’s works) in the KBW Reading Room in Hamburg, 1927.

“A bridge is one path. I don’t want a bridge. I want the labyrinth.”

Questions posed by Aby Warburg about how the past changed the present are not frozen in the past. How is the Warburg Institute coming to terms with the digital age?

Digital culture and digital forms of reproduction and communication are doing work that Aby Warburg imagined before digital. A few meters up the road by King’s Cross we have the British Library and right next to it now we have the Alan Turing Institute, the biggest new institute, devoted to data and digital culture.

What can the Warburg learn from the Turing and what can the Turing learn from the Warburg?

The Turing will not be looking at past forms of organization. They will be looking at their neighbour Google, because the Google Cultural Institute office is also right up there by King’s Cross. They’ll be looking at search engines. But how does a browsing library like this teach us to search, store, and order the past in a different way? How does a library like the Warburg teach new engineers of information about different ways of ordering and finding, or exploring the world of information? I think that’s a very important question.

Do you want the Warburg to create a bridge between the old world and the new world?

A bridge is one path. I don’t want a bridge. I want the labyrinth. I want people to find their own bridge and make their own bridges, and a library or a search engine are structures that enable you to make those paths yourself. That’s what we need. We need to make it usable so that people can make their own bridges. I also want it to give people the training, so that not anybody who goes onto Google can learn what you learn from studying here.

What is the difference between the Warburg Institute and the Courtauld Institute?

The Courtauld Institute is devoted fundamentally to art history, its disciplinary home. It also has space for display, although after our building renovation I hope we will also have the ability to put on exhibitions, because that important role of curation at the moment does not have an outlet in this building.

Is London still a competitive intellectual capital?

Yes. Another mission for this institution is to continue to build bridges with Britain and Europe. The Warburg now means more to Germany and Italy than it does to Britain. This summer I met many German museum directors who had trained here and they all said, “Ah now the V&A is a great museum, but the Warburg, that’s a special place.”

Who pays for the renovation of the Warburg Institute’s home in Woburn Square?

A combination of roughly two thirds University and one third our own fundraising.  We have barely begun to tap into private support, and it’s the moment to ask. There are a number of very important foundations who could and should support the work of an institution like this, as long as we do our job of showing them why it matters. It needs to be kept alive, as many cultural institutions do, by the philanthropy that is available in the world. 25,000 people signed a petition to save the life and legacy of the Warburg. That’s a good platform to build on.

Does neglect for the humanities in the education of a young person nowadays worry you?

There’s a massive danger in that, and keeping this place as a bastion, as an ark, is very important. The future facing work is very challenging, but many people are absolutely passionate about this place, and that’s a commodity in its own right.

London, October 27, 2017


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