Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Step Change Is Needed to Prevent Slide into Obscurity'

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

'Step Change Is Needed to Prevent Slide into Obscurity'

Article excerpt

Warburg chief David Freedberg tells Jack Grove how science can help 'world's weirdest library'

"The days of scholarship for its own sake are over." Those words might sound like craven and philistine kowtowing to the "impact" agenda, but David Freedberg (pictured), the new director of the Warburg Institute, is unapologetic.

To hear them uttered by the Warburg's chief will, however, surprise many of the academics who have visited its famous open-stack library in Bloomsbury's Woburn Square.

The institute, part of the University of London's School of Advanced Study, has long been regarded by many scholars as unashamedly high-minded and gloriously untouched by the need to make spurious cases for the relevance of its humanities research, which is largely centred on antiquity and the Renaissance.

But what has been seen by some as the Warburg's narrow focus and failure to engage more widely or demonstrate its relevance is no longer tenable, believes Freedberg, who has arrived this autumn from Columbia University, where he was Pierre Matisse professor of the history of art.

"We need to retain our commitment to the humanities, but show our relevance and acknowledge the world does not owe us a living," he says.

Forging closer links with scholars in the sciences and social sciences will help to restore the standing of the Warburg, which Freedberg fears has fallen sharply in the UK in recent times as the institute increasingly concentrated on Renaissance studies.

"People are very afraid that I am selling out to the sciences because they're getting the money," he says. "But they are getting the money because there is a sense of excitement [around science]."

Changing the institute's mindset had elicited some resistance as it is "a major step change for the institution", he admits. But the new outward-looking approach is needed to stop the Warburg's "slide into obscurity", he believes. "I didn't come over from New York to run a place just to satisfy the fantasies of a few people," he says of the Warburg's "abstruse, but high-standard" output in recent years.

Promoting an interdisciplinary approach is also consistent with the vision of Aby Warburg, the institute's eccentric founder, who collected works on wide-ranging subjects from astrology and folklore to magic and the history of science.

Regarded by many as one of the 20th century's intellectual giants, the scion of a German-Jewish banking dynasty used his family's vast wealth to establish one of the world's foremost libraries, which was moved from Hamburg to London in 1933 to escape Nazi Germany. …

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