Particularly painful is the University of London’s attempt to disperse the unparalleled collections of the Warburg Institute. Named for a supremely imaginative historian of art and culture, Aby Warburg, the institute began as his library in Hamburg, which was devoted to the study of the impact of classical antiquity on European civilization. The library was rescued from Hamburg in 1933, following Hitler’s rise to power, thanks in part to the help of British benefactors. In the midst of World War II, Rab Butler, president of the British Board of Education, decided that the institute must be kept in Britain, and that the only way to do this was to make it part of the University of London, which was in those days a great force for openness and innovation in British higher education.
In the age of austerity that followed the Blitz, the University of London saw Warburg’s library as a jewel to be cherished. An ugly but efficient home for the institute was built in Bloomsbury, and for decades the university took pride in supporting its work. In the new age of austerity, by contrast, the university, which now controls the funds once earmarked for the institute, is doing its best to destroy what it once helped to save. In 2007, like a Dickensian villain, the university began self-parodically demanding enormous “economic” space charges for the Warburg’s building—charges so large that the institute cannot possibly pay them. The only way for the institute to avoid these charges would be to move into much smaller premises and close its stacks, a decision that would destroy its essential character.
Read the full entry in the New York Review of Books blog.