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Alfred Lichtwark, Inaugural Address as Director of Hamburg’s Art Gallery (December 9, 1886)

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The museums of the capitals have increasingly limited themselves to collecting material in a systematic fashion and preparing it for multiple uses. With increasing frequency, the teaching activities of museum officials took a backseat to their administrative duties and were recently ruled out altogether. At the Berlin museums, officials are permitted to engage in teaching only in exceptional cases; they are regarded as scientific administrative officials of a difficult discipline and as such are supposed to concentrate on their work. We lack the diverse educational institutions that a city like Berlin has at its disposal. In Hamburg, we have no university, no polytechnic, and no academy. If our art gallery understands its assignment properly, it is not only responsible for collecting works, making its treasures available, and thereby acting in a representative capacity in the noblest sense, it is also charged with developing a teaching organism that will inspire in various ways. It, too, has a share in the legacy of that old Hamburg educational institution, the Academic Grammar School, which once occupied the place of a university in the intellectual life of our citizenry. Using the overall organism [of the museum] as a framework, I would like to explain to you how these points can be understood in detail.

The activity of each museum administration is divided into three areas: It must provide for the conservation, the augmentation, and the utilization of the collections.

With respect to the first point, concern for the conservation of the collections, brevity may be permitted, since technical details will be of the least interest to you at this point. To the extent that our circumstances allow, we can take as our model existing facilities that have proven themselves over long years of use. This is particularly important with respect to the Kupferstich-Cabinet (engravings department), which, as you know, occupies a significant place among similar institutions in Germany. Our Kupferstich-Cabinet and all its facilities – like all collections of its sort until recently – operates at the level of a private collection that is touched only rarely and only by knowledgeable personnel. In its current state, it could not withstand public utilization for any length of time. The precautions taken to secure these valuable prints are most certainly inadequate. In this respect, a thorough reorganization is urgently needed. Up to now, limited visiting hours and other precautionary measures have prevented these types of collections from being utilized, and the public – and not only in Hamburg – has no idea that an inexhaustible source of artistic enjoyment is thus closed to it. After all, the holdings of the engravings department in question are not those large, unwieldy prints made by professional copperplate engravers after Old Master paintings and hung as wall decorations. It makes no sense to take such works from the walls for which they were intended and according to whose dimensions their pictorial effects were calculated. The folders of the Kupferstich-Cabinet include treasures of an entirely different sort. They are relatively small sheets that are meant to be held by viewers; their creators are not copy artists who merely reproduce the work of others, but are themselves great masters who carved the motif into the wood block with their own hands, transferred it to the copperplate or – in our century – the lithographic stone. Thus, these pieces are not reproductions executed by the hand of a stranger, but rather original works. In particular, it is impossible to appreciate our great Germanic masters, such as Dürer and Rembrandt, without knowledge of their personal engravings and etchings. In them, they put down their innermost thoughts. We will have to undertake a thorough reorganization of our engravings department at the very outset, so that each visitor can hold in his hand valuable engravings and original drawings (the individual pages of which are often worth many thousands) without damaging them. With respect to precisely this, various arrangements – whose details I beg to omit – have been experimented with in England, and they will prove immensely practical.

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