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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Chair for the History of Science

Research Projects

→ Anke te Heesen

Susanne Schmidt

→ Mathias Grote

→ Lara Keuck (neé Kutschenko), Alfred Freeborn, Seraphina Rekowski, Christof Sendhardt  : Learning from Alzheimer's Disease (Homepage)

→ Eric Engstrom

 Arne Schirrmacher

→ Sophie Ledebur

Alrun Schmidtke

Julia Bärnighausen

Kerstin Pannhorst

Anne MacKinney

Christine Brecht

 Julia Heideklang

→ Jonas Kühne

Silke Körber


"To climb into other peoples' heads". Thomas Kuhn, the history of science and the interview

Anke te Heesen

The interview is popular. And media historians are beginning tentatively to turn their attention to the format of the published dialogue, albeit with a primary focus on the journalistic interview. Yet, for the historian of science and with regard to the scientific interview, this approach remains unsatisfactory. While the journalistic interview may well have provided a blueprint for its scientific counterpart, its analysis cannot explain all aspects of the probing insistence that characterizes most scientific interviews.

The history of the scientific interview remains thus to be written. This desideratum is addressed in an exemplary study of the project Sources for the History of Quantum Physics. During its three year term (1961-1964), this NSF-funded project undertook to collect and make accessible the diversity of existing written documents and living memories of the major advancements in early 20th century physics. The philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn was commissioned as project leader and with the assistance of John Heilbronn and Paul Forman he soon assembled the first collection of oral history-sources in the history of science. Since their formation in the 1960s, these Archives for the History of Quantum Physics, as they became known, have been acclaimed as a unique repository of sources and they have given rise to numerous studies in the history of physics. To date, however, they have not been analyzed from a historiographical point of view, even though some 100 interviews, Kuhn’s team collected impressively illustrate that the project would have been inconceivable without psychoanalysis and modern interrogation techniques.


The exhibition catalogue as a scholarly monograph

Anke te Heesen

The 1970s are a crucial decade for the history of modern exhibitions: Not only does the number of exhibitions held in this period increase rapidly, but exhibition themes also become more diverse and new forms of presentation find their way into these spaces.
This Sattelzeit of exhibition history saw the emergence of shows that brought together and interwove both historical and artistic approaches. These  ‘thematic exhibitions’ (H. Szeemann) not only set the agenda for exhibition events in the following decades but also brought forth a new format:  The catalogue gradually ascended to the rank of a scholarly monograph.



Picture credits: Cover of the "Kölner-Römer Illustrierten, Vol. I", edited by the Römisch-Germanischens Museum Cologne, 1974.



Commodity and value: A different history of fashion

Susanne Schmidt

“Fashion” refers to the latest style of clothing, but the term is also used to describe and evaluate changing social and ethical norms, cultural habits, patterns of behaviour, and even political attitudes and scientific theory. The book project explores the history and function of this ambiguous, broad notion of fashion in which the material and the conceptual intersect. It contributes to an understanding of fashion as an ethical, economic, political, and epistemological concept.

The project studies fashion as a catchword of modern social thought, asking for its emergence, development, meaning, and function in ethics and law, anthropology, economics, and in mass communication and survey research. Starting in the late nineteenth century, the spread of mass-produced ready-to-wear fundamentally redefined the value and status of clothing. In this context, fashion acquired special significance for understandings of human behaviour and the social institutions. At once commodity and social force, fashion was used as an indicator to determine the social condition and trace and visualise processes of change. In ethics and juridical theory, the main concern was with implicit norms and their variability. An emblem of mass consumption, fashion and standardized clothing also constituted a habitual point of reference in economics, where the focus was on consumption, not production, and on the impact of lifestyle on demand. Similarly, students of public opinion and mass communication looked to fashion as the “symbolic body” of an increasingly diversified public sphere: while “clothing” provided warmth and protection, “fashion” transformed bodies into signs and symbols.

Picture credits: Collection of paper patterns (C) Dahin/Shutterstock.com


Handbook science - Ageing, tempo and temporality in the history of the 20th century life sciences

Mathias Grote

Histories of the modern sciences have primarily examined the production of novel knowledge, in revolutionary or evolutionary ways, by way of methodical or instrumental innovation, or through cognitive, social, and economic factors. As a result, it seems to have largely escaped historians’ notice (or interest) that different layers of time have often coexisted in research and in the broader circulation of knowledge, for instance, when old and new instruments, modes of representation, or artefacts from different times coexist. This provokes the question of how far existing knowledge, in comparison to novel knowledge, has affected science even in the more recent past, which is dominated by ever-accelerating narratives of innovation. One may even suspect that, in certain cases, the maintenance of corpora of knowledge has had an impact on their development as well.

Beginning in the 19th century, the scientific handbook (vademecum or Handbuch) represents a medium for the storage and dissemination of the trusted core of a discipline or research field. Many handbooks can be found in sequential editions, forming a red thread through the development of their respective fields. Therefore, this genre is a suitable case in point to understand how scientists and other scholars, too, have coped with the problem of continuously expanding and changing bodies of knowledge. It is less the praxeological significance of the handbook (i.e. the manual, properly speaking) which is of interest in this respect, but its function as a tessellated, ordered canon of received trusted knowledge, which, however – and this was already known to Ludwik Fleck, was almost necessarily outdated by the time of its appearance due to the rapid development of science. This project studies the development of the scientific handbook since the late 19th century by looking at cases from the life sciences, more specifically from systematics or taxonomy, by looking at the heyday of the genre until the last decades of the 20th  century and finally into its reorganization in the age of the database.

Looking at the handbooks of systematics, which has been sandwiched in between natural historical and experimental traditions in the last century -- or so I argue -- may help to question innovation- and novelty-centred narratives of scientific development, and thereby also allow to critically reflect on concepts such as novelty, continuity, and duration with respect to knowledge.

Picture credits: Handbook knowledge. Volumes of Emil Abderhalden‘s “Handbuch der biologischen Arbeitsmethoden,” 1920-1939.


Membranes to Molecular Machines. Active Matter and the Remaking of Life.

see monograph

Mathias Grote

Today’s sciences tell us that our bodies are filled with a fleet of the molecular machinery that orchestrates all sorts of life processes. When we think, our brain cells’ “membrane channels” open and close, when we run, tiny “motors” in our muscle membranes spin, and when we see, the light operates “molecular switches” in our eyes and nerve. When we suffer from a disease, a doctor may prescribe us a pill “blocking” a specific part of such machinery. These examples also hint at the fact that a molecular-mechanical vision of life has become part and parcel of everyday practices around the globe, as much as it has become big business.

This book tells the story of how science and technologies have shaped this molecular-mechanical vision of life in the late 20th century, thereby adding a contemporary chapter to the philosophical problem of the relationship between organisms and machines that have been lingering since the days of Descartes. The concrete historical example provided by this book also allows us to put flesh on the bones of philosophical discussions on mechanisms, which often remain abstract and bound to a few textbook examples.

By following the unwritten history of cell membranes (an essential feature of life just as genes) this book explores how life’s molecular machinery was shaped by the experimental investigation – by taking life apart to its components and putting it back together, by re-making and modelling biological processes in the test tube.

After the postwar heyday of genetics, membranes became a next big thing around 1970, leading to a veritable “membrane moment,” in which fields such as bioenergetics, neurobiology or synthetic biologies moved centre stage, significantly reshaping the landscape of the life sciences and highlighting the relevance of chemistry to what this field is today.

Set in America, the UK and West-Germany of the 1970s and 1980s, the story of membranes and molecular machines involved a number of key institutions (such as the University of California at San Francisco, Cambridge’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology or the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Munich) and characters that were to shape their fields for decades. Biophysicist Richard Henderson, for example, shared a Nobel Prize in 2017 for his electron microscopy work on a “molecular pump” described in this book. Not least, this book also tells an astonishing episode of how 1980s scientists, tinkerers and tech-enthusiasts attempted to turn molecular machinery into working technologies such as “biochips” or “biocomputers,” which represents an early and unexpected chapter in the development of nanotechnologies. Currently, the history of membranes and molecular machines is highly relevant. This not least since optogenetics, a hotbed of activity at the crossroads of science, biotech and medicine, engineers the machine-like components of cells and bodies, setting out to change again how contemporary societies conceive of life and matter and how we act on both.

Picture Credits: Contemporary illustration of the cell as an ensemble of molecular machines. David S. Goodsell, The Machinery of Life, DOI 10.1007/978-0-387-84925-6_4, Springer Science & Business Media, LLC 2009, Fig. 4.1. Reproduced with kind permission.


Learning from Alzheimer's disease. A history of biomedical models of mental illness

(The Branco Weiss Fellowship - Society in Science)

Lara Keuck, Alfred Freeborn, Seraphina Rekowski, Christof Sendhardt

Alzheimer’s disease is featured in popular, political, and scientific discourses as one of the major medical threats for ageing societies. At the same time, there is considerable biomedical debate about what exactly should qualify as Alzheimer’s disease. This concerns not only particular questions about the differentiation between so-called normal and pathological forms of age-related cognitive decline. The biomedical controversy about Alzheimer's disease also relates to general debates on the validity of psychiatric classification. The existing scholarship has focused on the contested status and historical transformations of either the particular disease or general classification. So far, however, there has been no comprehensive historical and philosophical account of how shifts in understandings within biomedical research on Alzheimer's disease and changing approaches to psychiatric classification have influenced each other. Such an account is needed to gain a more contextualized view of the current debate about Alzheimer’s disease within psychiatry, the biomedical sciences, and society.

The evaluation of the model role of Alzheimer’s disease, its long history and many re-phrasings are at the heart of Dr. Lara Keuck’s research project at the intersection of history and the philosophy of biomedicine and psychiatry. She examines how psychiatrists, neurologists and biomedical researchers have framed Alzheimer’s disease—from its first description until today—not only as a specific illness but also as an exemplar for reasoning about general theories of mental disorder. Against this backdrop, Dr. Keuck contextualizes the development of current biomedical models of Alzheimer’s disease and brings together historical, philosophical and scientific readings of what it has meant to know something about and learn something from a disease.

To learn more about our project, please visit our homepage.

Picture Credits: Alzheimer. Krankheitsfälle des späten Alters. Verlag von Julius Springer in Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Judging, Healing, Punishing: Psychiatric Politics and Forensic Governance in Imperial Berlin, 1880-1914

Eric J. Engstrom

The project explores the multifaceted panoply of forensic-psychiatric entities in the Prussian capital prior to World War One. It is structured around three forensic spaces occupied by the criminally insane: the courtroom, the hospital, and the prison. The project analyzes the overlapping jurisdictions and regulative priorities governing the relationship between these three cultural spaces. It draws on an ensemble of legal decrees, administrative practices, expert and public discourses, as well as the historic traces of forensic-psychiatric subjects themselves to triangulate these spaces and understand what it meant to judge, heal, and punish the criminally insane in Imperial Berlin.


Picture Credits: SK Bern: Paul Klee, Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2. Bern 2000. Abb. 1454.



Hands-on History. Towards a History of Interactivity through looking at the development of the Science Museums and Centers

Arne Schirrmacher

The history of scientific-technical modernity as the formative culture of the Western world is both a history of experience and a history of transmission - and thus above all a history of media. Instead of looking at print media or audiovisual media, the project focuses on the
exhibition medium with its qualities of directness, materiality and interactivity. Since the French Revolution, the science museum has been set in motion time and again as a "political machine" to generate scientific images or to recruit engineers. Interactivity became the bait to catch the "technological citizen" and to commit him or her to participate in social agendas. Since the end of the 1960s, the interactive science centre has aroused new enthusiasm for the phenomena of science, but with its history and consequences, it did not take it as seriously. Today, in turn, citizens should discuss future paths with politicians in the "participatory museum" and thus help to legitimize them.

On closer inspection, it becomes soon apparent that the fashionable concept of interactivity is anything but well-defined; rather, it unites many, sometimes contradictory layers of meaning. In the framework of a Hands-on History, which considers the use of demonstration models and interactive forms of representation in science museums, exhibitions and science centres for the 20th century and pursues their mobility institutionally and geographically, the concept of interactivity will also be historicised. In this way, the discussion about the politics of display of individual objects or exhibitions will be expanded to include general mechanisms, and historical developments in the interlocking of the transmission media of science on the one hand and politics and society on the other will be revealed.

Picture credits: Drawing by Hugo Kükelhaus, Geräte zum Erleben von Naturgesetzen im Spiel konzipiert u.a. für die Weltausstellung 1967. Source: hugo-kuekelhaus.de


Knowledge of the Unknown. On the Emergence and Functional Logic of the so-called "Dark Figure" in the 19th Century

Sophie Ledebur

The “dark figure” is a term used in statistics to refer to hidden events that are nevertheless assumed to happen. In common parlance, it has enjoyed some success as a compelling argument in security policy. As a construct that expresses suspicion, it has the power to fan fear, encourage speculation, generate extrapolation and trigger research. The issue of hidden, unreported crime has been the object of “dark field” research (e.g. victimization surveys) in Germany since the early 1970s. Over the last two decades, in particular, darkfield studies have featured within large-scale research programmes aimed at optimising crime prevention. While there has been an upsurge of this work, the history of this “knowledge of the unknown” has remained largely in the dark.

Talk of a (usually big) ‘dark figure’ plays its part both in the horror inspired by an unfathomable abyss and in the promise of ready-made solutions. The epistemic status of this construct caught in a limbo between knowledge and unknowledge has been underdetermined. In German, the term ‘Dunkelziffer’ (‘dark number’) was coined in 1908. However, concerns about a disconnect between actual incidents and the ability to capture the facts date back to the late 18th century. The history of the dark figure avant la lettre is explored by analysing selected themes drawn both from the health sector and from crime policy. Questions are asked about the historical circumstances that made unsecured knowledge become an object of attention and opened up fields of intervention. Contemporary quests targeting activities at the heart of public life that were believed to be shrouded in danger cannot be seen in isolation from techniques for mapping unknown territories. These methods were seen as a new way to render the ‘essence’ of social collectives visible. The project focuses on uses of the construct of (un)knowledge and on the demands and policies set in motion as a result. This dynamic relationship enables us to cast light on state practices of governance from a perspective of (un)knowledge. The research aims to contribute to a history of social governance by examining techniques that reference danger.

Picture credits: C.P.T. Schwencken: Aktenmäßige Nachrichten von dem Gauner- und Vagabunden-Gesindel, sowie von einzelnen professionirten Dieben, in den Ländern zwischen dem Rhein und der Elbe, nebst genauer Beschreibung ihrer Person. Cassel 1822, S. 645.


The myth of gatekeeping: Paul Rosbaud and the lure of international science publishing, 1927-1963

The dissertation project investigates the tension between science and the book market historically, thus contributing to current debates in the history of science on the relationship of science and the marketplace. Focused on the figure of the publishing consultant in the academic book trade in the middle of the 20th century, the freelance consultant’s decidedly ambiguous position is analysed as a means to assert scientific as well as commercial interests. Starting from the science publisher Julius Springer Verlag and its pre-war consultants, the focus will be on the consulting career of chemist Paul Rosbaud, who lived in London after 1945 where he was active in the Anglo-American scientific publishing book trade and worked for Pergamon Press, North-Holland, Oxford University Press and Wiley Interscience, among others.

Picture credits: Poster Historikertag 2018/ Alrun Schmidtke.



Visual Bureaucracies – A History of Knowledge of Art Dealing around 1900 (working title)

Julia Bärnighausen

The dissertation project explores a series of photographs attributed to the Galleria Sangiorgi in Rome and recently rediscovered in the decorative arts section of the photo library of the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence – Max-Planck-Institute. On account of their strikingly complex materiality and their revealing visual qualities, they open up a trans-temporal network of different actors, including the photographs themselves as historically shaped and mobile “photo-objects”.

The Galleria Sangiorgi was founded by the Italian entrepreneur Giuseppe Sangiorgi (1850–1928) at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome in 1892. It soon became one of the world’s largest and most successful art-dealing and auction houses. Today it is almost unknown amongst historians and art historians. Like many of his contemporaries, Sangiorgi kept a workshop where the antiquities from his collection were reproduced for sale. The photographs, which were used as reference copies, communication devices and samples, circulated amongst collectors, art dealers, artists and photographers inside and outside the gallery and between its representations in New York, Paris and London. Through partly unknown itineraries they were spread across different archives. A large holding of both photographs and drawings deriving from Sangiorgi has been preserved at the photo library of the Fondazione Zeri in Bologna. The Florentine photo-archive constitutes yet another (epistemic) layer in the sedimentation of these documents, which took on a whole new set of meanings within the context of an art-historical image collection.

The thesis attempts to reconstruct the history of the Sangiorgi family and their gallery as well as examine practices of art-dealing around 1900. This work will be underpinned by a series of interviews and archival research in Italy, France and Germany as well as in the USA and in the UK. Above all, the case study aims to uncover the epistemological potential that lies within photographs if they are not only considered as images but also as material and “three-dimensional” objects with their own biographies.

Picture Credits: Mirror (1st h. 18th c.), albumen print on cardboard, unidentified photographer (Galleria Sangiorgi, Rome), around 1900, 26 x 13,7 cm (cardboard), inv. no. 615786, dep. ”Kunstgewerbe” in the photo library, Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut.


Insects as a Global Commodity: Collecting Specimens in early 20th century Taiwan

Kerstin Pannhorst

The project takes a closer look at the practices of collecting, processing, and trading insects in early 20th century Taiwan, specifically the entanglement of practices surrounding research specimens and specimens collected for the decorative arts. In the „field“, in this case, the mid-altitude mountains of central Taiwan, diverse actors competed for specimens: Some desired insects for taxonomical and biogeographical descriptions, others for research into economically relevant species, and yet others for the production of decorative objects. The dissertation explores whether scientific and artisanal practices stabilized each other, leading to mass production of insect artefacts and insect knowledge.

Early in the 20th century, Hans Sauter, a German entomologist and collecting entrepreneur based in Taiwan, collaborated with the first director of the German Entomological Museum in Dahlem towards the „mass-fabrication of knowledge“ about Taiwan's insect world. Tens of thousands of carefully packaged insects collected in the Japanese colony Taiwan were sent along global trading routes towards the goal of a successive publication of a „complete fauna of Formosa“. In the same period, Yasushi Nawa, a Japanese entomologist and entrepreneur, sent scores of insect collectors to the island. The animals served both for research into injurious and beneficial species and for the production of decorative objects such as paper fans or postcards made using butterfly specimens. He sold butterfly decorative art via mail order and in department stores in Japan and abroad. Fleas, beetles or butterflies became resources that were accumulated, traded, and turned into artefacts – into „authentic“ representations of nature for research purposes or into aesthetic commodities.  The project follows the insects from the field to the natural history museum respectively the department store. It focuses on the entanglement of the highly specialized practices involved and on the economies behind the global circulation of these fragile materials.

Picture credits: Packaging materials used by Hans Sauter to send Lepidoptera from Taiwan to Germany in the early 20th century. Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, coll. Lepidoptera and Trichoptera. Photo by Kerstin Pannhorst.


Registering Nature: writing practices in the collection and commerce of natural history objects in Berlin, ca. 1770–1850

Anne MacKinney

The dissertation investigates within the context of early nineteenth-century natural history collections various forms of the list (inventories, specimen lists, catalogues, etc.) and the ways in which these documents mediated interactions between diverse people, things and institutions. The Berlin Zoological Museum, from its establishment in 1810 and through its first four decades of expansion under the director Martin Hinrich Lichtenstein, is the institutional and temporal focus of the project; still, the forms and functions of lists in the Berlin museum will be compared to those in Berlin’s earlier, eighteenth-century natural history cabinets as well as in other European natural history collections of the nineteenth century. The project studies how the act of writing lists of natural objects helped travelling naturalists and collection keepers define their roles—albeit in very different ways—within an increasingly complex, heterogeneous community of natural historical practitioners. Furthermore, it follows the paths of lists that moved between collections, the Prussian state bureaucracy and a consumer market for natural historical objects. Both the ways in which lists helped define the values (monetary, scientific or cultural) of the objects they referenced and the ways in which lists shaped the relationship between the scientific-academic community, the state and the public in early nineteenth-century Berlin are central questions addressed in the dissertation.


Picture credits: Bestand: Zool. Mus., Signatur: S I Illiger I: Innere Einrichtung des zoolog. Museums 1810-13, Bl. 80.


The site of hygiene exhibitions: Placing Dresden 1911 in the history of knowledge

Christine Brecht

While hygiene exhibitions can be traced back to the 1870s, most historians have situated them in the context of the twentieth century’s health education and body politics, especially in the German case. Thus, the fact that these object lessons addressed and involved not only lay audiences but also a whole range of scientific experts remained largely unacknowledged.

Highlighting the Internationale Hy-gieneausstellung Dresden 1911, one of the greatest exhibitions of its genre at the time, the project explores the historical contingencies and meanings of both modes of knowledge presentation, mass instruction as well as science communication. It focuses on the specific actors and practices of exhibiting and thereby raises the following questions: How were scientific instruments and objects to be shown and seen in the different sections of Dresden 1911? Which modes of display – old and new, commercial or museological – were at stake? Where did the exhibits come from, be it their disciplinary, institutional, national or colonial points of origin? In which ways did scientists (e. g. bacteriologists, food chemists and industrial hygienists) participate, whether as exhibitors, curators, commentators and/or visitors? Besides substantial written record the project draws on selected photographs, maps, drafts and other graphical materials in order to place Dresden 1911 in the larger history of the presentation of scientific knowledge in exhibition spaces.

Picture credits: Laboratory exhibit in the nutrition hall of the Internationale Hygieneausstellung Dresden 1911. Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden, Sammlung, DHMD 2001/196.60.


Botanics in the Making (1500–1700): Communication and Construction of the Botanical Science in Early Modern Europe

Julia Heideklang

The dissertation project explores small forms within the context of botanical scientific writings in early modern Europe (1500–1700). A central premise of the project is the strong interdependence between scientific texts, on the one hand, as literary products under specific aesthetic and economic constraints and on the other hand the authors’ efforts to position themselves within both a literary tradition and their contemporary scientific community. The form and content of early modern scientific texts—and in particular their paratexts—are deeply shaped by contemporary scientific discourse; at the same time, they shape that very discourse. Despite their seemingly marginal position, in fact, paratexts play an important role as epistemic catalysts in defining the botanical science and strengthening its independence in the early modern era. The project will analyze a selection of representative botanical works, especially the historiae and Kreutterbücher, paying attention to title pages, dedicatory epistles, dedicatory poems and other prefaces and their relationship to the larger work. The project thereby aims to offer deeper insight into the communication strategies, literary composition and forms, by which early modern authors shaped their readers’ perception of their writings. More broadly, it seeks to understand the development of botanical science’s self-conception and how this self-conception, in turn, was conveyed to those in- and outside the scientific community.

Picture credits: Title-page of Andrea Cesalpinoʼs De plantis libri XVI, Florentiae: Apud Georgium Marescottum 1583. (digitised by Zentralbibliothek Zürich: NB 721; http://dx.doi.org/10.3931/e-rara-37940)


Promoting the West. The Expositions of the US Exhibition Section in Germany, 1945-1960

Jonas Kühne

This research project studies the American exhibition program in Germany after World War II. It examines the expositions of the US Exhibition Section between 1945 and 1960. Despite their diversity in form, content and visual appearance they served a common objective. They facilitated the orientation and activation of the German audience in favour of a capitalist consumer society. They, on the other hand, intended to integrate the Federal Republic of Germany into the community of values of the transatlantic West during the early Cold War period.

The study is focusing on three main points. First, the US Exhibition Section is described as a transnational curatorial organization, which neither had the purpose of collecting and presenting like a museum nor was it a part of performing or visual arts. For a better understanding of this kind of expositional work, this section will look into the organizational history, the transatlantic actor-network as well as the production conditions under which the exhibitions were put on display.

Secondly, six illustrative exhibition ensembles will be examined at the level of design, content and reception: the travelling exhibition program in the American Information Centers (1947-49), the Marshall Plan exhibitions (1950-52), the Berlin-based expositions “ATOM” (1954), “Kleider machen Leute” (1955) and “Unbegrenzter Raum” (1956), and the trade fair booth on US agriculture at IKOFA in Munich (1958).

The exhibition analyses shall thirdly help to answer the following questions: How did the political environment of the Cold War shape the exhibitions? Against this background, how did the West and East German audience perceive them? Which influences of the history of exhibitions before 1945 are reflected in the examined expositions? How did they adapt and refine preceding curatorial experiences? How did the US Exhibition Section shape the subsequent development of exhibiting in West Germany?

Picture credits: US Exhibition Section staff members with models of an agricultural exhibition, ca. 1947/48, Nuremberg, Germany. Estate Claus-Peter Groß, photographic collection Kunstbibliothek, SMB.


A modern symbolic language in the "century of the eye": Otto Neurath’s "international picture language" and the democratisation of knowledge in illustrated non-fiction books

Silke Körber

The interdisciplinary research project studies the relationship between the development and promotion of a new symbolic language and the origin of illustrated non-fiction books as an instrument of knowledge transfer during the 20th century: Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) was created by the social scientist and philosopher Otto Neurath (1882–1945) with a view to a “democratisation of knowledge”, respectively a method of “humanising” scientific information. Within this research project, Neurath’s picture education is interpreted in the context of the “scientific world view” as put forth by the Vienna Circle. According to Neurath this “scientific world view” was supposed to form the basis of an egalitarian concept of modern society. Later his approach could be described as a form of integrative encyclopedianism.

Neurath’s work and influence in the field of museum education have been thoroughly examined as well as his international scientific cooperations and publications. But he did not advance his aim via these channels exclusively.

During his exile in Great Britain he cooperated with Jewish émigrés and leftist intellectual publishers from Vienna and Berlin. Driven by the desire for content that was both objective and rational they developed “integrated” text-image structures that were visually modern and semantically closely linked. In order to do this, they established creative practices in specialised teams and specific organisational and economical structures. In the course of the internationalisation of the book market after 1945 and by using successively improved production techniques to produce visualised subjects in high-quality the publications eventually reached the mass market.

Picture credits: Otto and Marie Neurath Isotype Collection, University of Reading.