Why was there a new Kunstkammer in Berlin in 1800? This is the main question that Eva Dolezel asks in her learned and comprehensive volume on this strange institution. One normally associates the Kunstkammer with the age of slightly deranged Renaissance sovereigns, such as the Habsburg ruler Rudolf II, and not with the years that mark the emergence of modernity in many accounts. Yet, as Dolezel shows, the Kunstkammer in Berlin enjoyed a strange, if ephemeral, heyday in those years under the directorship of Jean Henry (1761–1831). In the 1790s, Henry reinstalled the former Kunstkammer in the Berlin palace, had its contents brought back to the building, enriched it with newly acquired collections, and wrote up a guide for visitors by 1805. The following year, the Napoleonic armies marched in, confiscated the collections, and the Kunstkammer was consigned to the dustbin of history.
Dolezel’s account, however, is not simply the history of a forgotten curiosity. She argues that the Berlin Kunstkammer offered a special and little-studied model for museums, which provides an unrecognized pathway from cabinets of curiosities to the institution as we know it today. Unlike the specialized museums of late eighteenth-century Paris, the Berlin Kunstkammer was a universal collection that promoted the unity of knowledge by exhibiting Ancient sculpture, ethnographic objects, specimens of natural history, curious artworks and the relics of Prussia’s past under the same roof. Dolezel’s first chapter is devoted to the reconstruction of the history of such collections. As she argues, this new type was different from the hodge-podge collections of the Renaissance that also presented a large variety of exhibits in the same building. The universal museum was an academic museum: its aim was to connect collections to institutions of research and teaching. Dolezel traces back this idea to Leibniz’s instructions for the establishment of an academy from the years around 1700 and, even more emphatically, to Leonhard Christoph Sturm’s Geöffnete Raritäten- und Naturalien-Kammern from the same years, which argued for the practical use of collections in the education of the noble students of riding academies. Leibniz’s and Sturm’s proposals found a fertile ground across Germanic lands and beyond. The newly founded Berlin Academy of Sciences could boast of significant collections amongst its walls, and a host of other institutions would take this form, such as Kassel’s Fridericianum, the St Petersburg Kunstkammer, the Palais des Sciences in Dresden, the Frankesche Stiftungen in Halle, and the collections of the newly established University of Göttingen. In all these cities, the collections were united with a scientific academy, a riding academy or a university to facilitate teaching and research. The Berlin Kunstkammer was going to be the culmination of this project, but then, the French came marching in.
Dolezel’s second chapter guides readers through the Kunstkammer as it looked like in 1805. She meticulously describes the contents of each room, focusing both on the exhibits themselves and the shelves on which they were shown, not ignoring the wall coverings and the arrangements for lighting, either. For early nineteenth-century visitors, a visit to the Kunstkammer started with Antiquities, medals, coins and cameos. They then wandered through the rooms devoted to naturalia, which were copious and impressive because of the recent acquisition of a variety of private collections, such as those of Johann Andreas Riemer and Marcus Elieser Bloch. Next up were the various artificialia, and especially a variety of exotic ethnographic objects, mostly from Siberia, East Asia, and the Pacific. Finally, the visitors’ attention was turned towards Berlin itself: the rich history of Prussia that only archeological finds and natural curiosities could illuminate. The documentary value of Dolezel’s work here is absolutely outstanding, especially in her examination of the collections’ development from 1700 to 1800, but some readers may wish for somewhat less detail on occasion, and a clearer focus on the overall effects of these transformations and of Jean Henry’s strategies of exhibition.
The third chapter addresses the issue of historical transformation, and Dolezel explains how one could re-organise an eclectic early modern collection by employing new systems of classification. While the Renaissance Kunstkammer divided exhibits into the broad groupings of naturalia, artificialia and scientifica, this no longer applied in 1800. The Berlin Kunstkammer did not have any scientific instruments, which were removed instead to the Academy’s observatory. Even more importantly, the concept of artificialia underwent a transformation. Henry found the old, artful, Renaissance rarities dusty and outdated, and instead placed an emphasis on objects of Antiquity, which had clear historical value. In addition, he introduced two new types of artificialia: the ethnological collection of orientalia, as well as the historical, archeological relics of the homeland. Dolezel points out the political significance of the section of antiquities, artworks and natural rarities of Brandenburg, which helped pursue historical research, provided material for the self-representation of Frederick William III, and encouraged the formation of a national identity. Dolezel says less about the political and ideological functions of the Berlin ethnographic collections, which differed from those in other major cities. In St Petersburg, the ethnographic collections stemmed from the Russians’ interests in their Siberian colonies; in Halle, they were governed by the Frankesche Stiftungen’s strong connections with the Tranquebar mission; while in Göttingen, the main driver was Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s anthropological research. While Brandenburg had strong colonial interests in the seventeenth century, these petered out somewhat in the eighteenth century. If anything, the ethnographic objects, which partly came from Georg Forster’s voyages with James Cook, could cater for the interests of those who were enraptured by the recent wave of accounts of Tahiti in the late eighteenth-century.
If the first half of Der Traum vom Museum provides a detailed description of an attempt to organise a universal museum, the last section subtly deconstructs the project by shedding light on the practical impossibility of combining scholarly research and the education of the masses in the spaces of a palace. Dolezel uses the example of Joachim Eugen Müller’s impressive relief map of Switzerland to illustrate how serious Jean Henry was about using the museum to educate the larger public. This paedagogical attention to matters of display was not a novelty for the universal museum. It was already present in Renaissance Kunstkammern, and spread everywhere by the eighteenth century. Dresden had its model of the Temple of Solomon, St Petersburg had the Gottorf Globe, and the Frankesche Stiftungen in Halle could take pride in their large armillary sphere. Like the relief map of Switzerland, these models impressed viewers by their sheer size. They contributed more to enhancing modes of display, and less to research. Or so scholars and academics claimed. Dolezel’s last chapter is an exploration of the various attacks the Berlin Kunstkammer received from competing institutions of scholarship in the period. Members of the academy complained incessantly how much attention lay visitors received at the Kunstkammer, which limited the access of those who wanted to study in detail the extensive ichthyological collections of Marcus Elieser Bloch, for instance. Some even proposed that these collections be moved to the Academy’s anatomy museum, where they could be better integrated into the world of research. And when it came to minerals, in turn, the Royal Mineralogical Collection also found the Kunstkammer its rival, and planned to appropriate the relevant specimens to enrich is own holdings. As this chapter reveals, the Berlin Kunstkammer may have had universal ambitions, but it was not the only museum in town in the period. The various institutions rivaled each other in their ambitions. Their main mode of interaction was ruthless competition, and not happy collaboration. It is in these last chapters that Der Traum vom Museum really comes to life, revealing the place of the Kunstkammer in the larger, highly complex field of collecting in the Prussian capital.
Der Traum vom Museum is the definitive account of the Berlin Kunstkammer, and sheds new light on the development of museums by focusing on the universal collection. It builds upon and complements in important ways the groundbreaking work of Debora Meijers on the collections of Vienna. Dolezel’s argument is highly convincing and her account is gripping even though the frequent retrospective sections that return again and again to Kassel, Halle, or Dresden, appear somewhat repetitive after a while. Dolezel leaves implicit some of the larger implications of her argument, which one hopes she will tease out in later publications. The readers never receive a full account why Henry opted for the rooms of the Berlin Palace to create a universal museum, and not another site; and more could be said about the actual research that the Kunstkammer’s collections facilitated. Dolezel emphasizes that the model of the Berlin Kunstkammer served as an inspiration for later developments in the nineteenth century, and discusses the Humboldt brothers’ similar interests in research and education, which raises the possibility of curious connections between Henry’s work and the development of Humboldtian science. And for this reader, whose research does not focus on German history, it would have been useful to provide more detailed comparisons with the English, French and Italian developments in the period. In sum, this is an important book that will be essential reading for historians of collecting, and also for all those who want to know more about the historical development of the museum landscape of Berlin and Germany.