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Unfinished ‘map’ of cultural images online

Aby Warburg – whose early 20th-century emphasis on the power of recurrent images was eerily prescient of contemporary thought – died before he could finish his “Mnemosyne Atlas,” consisting of large panels of collages tracing the history of art.

Now, nearly 90 years after Warburg’s death, Cornell University Library, in partnership with Cornell University Press and the Warburg Institute of the University of London, has completed its online tour of 10 of the panels, with guided “pathways” written by prominent Warburg scholars, including Ben Anderson, assistant professor in Cornell’s Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies.

Work on the website began three years ago with grants from the College of Arts and Sciences and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“It’s true to the project as Warburg conceived it,” Anderson says. “Warburg was constantly changing and adding to the Atlas, and the website captures some of that dynamism. The interface allows visitors to zoom in and move within and between panels, producing a more active encounter with the images than still photographs can provide.”

Warburg, who died in 1929, was an eccentric but influential thinker. He’s long been considered one of the founders of modern art history, but recently has become the subject of renewed interest. Ten scholarly books about Warburg have been written in the last two years, according to a March 2015 New Yorker article about the Warburg Institute.

Says Kizer Walker, the library's director of collections: “The site offers a way to experience Warburg’s panels – which can be somewhat opaque – in a manner that’s fairly accessible. The website provides guidance in navigating the panels without losing the open-ended quality that makes them so fascinating and important.”

Walker is also managing editor of Signale, a book series for English-language scholarship about German arts and culture co-published by Cornell University Library and Cornell University Press in partnership with the College of Arts and Sciences. Working with the Warburg Institute, the partners built the site to complement a Signale book about Warburg’s Atlas by Christopher D. Johnson.

This story originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.