Göttinger Dämmerung

The Georg-August University, Göttingen is in a mess. That mess currently centers on the Forum Wissen. This is the new university museum scheduled to open at the end of May. As Der Spiegel has put it, the Forum Wissen took off as a Concorde and will land as a Cessna. Why? The fuss over the Forum Wissen is just part of a far larger problem at the university. How? And why should readers be concerned?

What is happening at the Georg-August University has three major consequences. First, it inhibits international scholarly collaboration. I understand that government circles in Germany want to foster collaboration to reduce the relative international isolation of German academia, notably in the human sciences. Second, only by international engagement can German universities compete effectively for the best faculty and graduate students. Without them the university will be of no more than provincial significance. Third, such engagement is an exercise of „soft power,“ creating networks of favor and obligation that enhance German influence in the world. The Georg-August University, once highly regarded, is turning its back on soft power, thereby damaging Germany’s prestige and international impact.

Before going into detail, I should explain my standpoint. It is necessarily limited. I teach at Bard Graduate Center in New York City, North America’s principal research institute for the interdisciplinary study of material culture. I moved there from Harvard University in 2012. I have been associated with the Georg-August University since 2013, but I remain an outsider. As a permanent fellow of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg (the Advanced Study Institute in the Humanities and Social Sciences of the university), I spent two months each spring in Göttingen between 2014 and 2019. I also visited at other times of the year for meetings and symposia. I was unable to come in 2020 and 2021 owing to COVID-19.

My knowledge of the German language is rudimentary and passive. I have never published on any German subject. I should point out that my Dutch mother and her family endured the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. They survived the mass starvation of the notorious „Hunger Winter“ of 1944-45. Born within ten years of the end of that war, I grew up in the United Kingdom with a deep-seated but rarely articulated visceral distrust of Germany and all things German. In 1991, I moved from Cambridge, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts. I became a US citizen.

As an outsider, my involvement in Göttingen university affairs has concerned the Forum Wissen, the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, and the professorship in the Materiality of Knowledge. I can only report my own experiences, and offer reasons why I think what is happening is so damaging, not only to the university but to Germany more widely.

The Forum Wissen is the brainchild of Ulrike Beisiegel who was president of the Georg-August University between 2011 and her departure in 2019 under pressure following the failure of the university in the national Excellence Initiative funding competition. Professor Beisiegel is a distinguished biochemist whose legacy project was to be an institution that would coordinate and use items from all the rich and varied university collections for interdisciplinary research and teaching, as well as present public exhibitions. The Forum Wissen is not intended to supersede the custodial functions of the existing collections. It will simply draw temporarily on those resources.

In certain respects, the Forum Wissen is to be a contemporary reconstitution of the first museum in the Georg-August University, the Royal Academic Museum, which opened in 1773. During the nineteenth century, the existing collections were fragmented into discrete entities in accordance with emerging academic disciplines. These were complemented by new disciplinarily defined collections. Today, however, much innovative academic research takes place at the intersections of disciplines rather than strictly within them. The most advanced universities are taking steps to coordinate their collections afresh as a necessary means of mobilizing them for interdisciplinary scholarship. Leaders include the University of Glasgow, and the University of Oxford.

At Glasgow, the university collections are under the umbrella of the Hunterian, founded in 1807. The collection is dispersed among various disciplinarily defined entities, but in 2016 the university opened the Hunterian Collections Study Centre where items from the entire range of collections can be used in conjunction with one another for research and teaching. Oxford University is to open its Collections Teaching and Research Centre in the spring of 2023. This, too, draws on the collections of the university’s museums, spanning the sciences, history of science, anthropology, and art.

Speaking to me of Harvard ’s museums and collections, the then president of the university, Drew Gilpin Faust, said that a university has to make use of all its resources as effectively as possible to gain and maintain a competitive edge. Those resources include its collections. With the Forum Wissen, Göttingen looked set to join the leaders in the mobilization of university collections of all kinds for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and teaching, thereby advancing its position in the academic world internationally.

My experience as a museum curator and faculty member coordinating university collections at Harvard, and my subsequent responsibility at Bard Graduate Center to mentor faculty to use exhibiting as a research and teaching tool, came to the attention of the director of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Martin van Gelderen, and the director of the Center for Collection Development (Zentrale Kustodie) in charge of the nascent Forum Wissen project, Marie Luisa Allemeyer. They invited me to Göttingen for a ten day visit in June, 2013. After my first meeting with them, I wrote in my journal: „I’m trying to gauge what is expected of me. It seems that I am to be something of a holy fool as far as advising on the foundation of a university museum is concerned.“ They took me to various collections–some, such as the Ethnological Collection, very impressive–and made welcome introductions to colleagues.

Only a few of the university collections were open to the public, and then–inexplicably–only once a week on Sunday mornings. For the most part, I was unable to tell how the collections were used in research and teaching, but their displays certainly left something to be desired. Of one collection I wrote in my journal: „This kind of earnest, amateur treatment of objects is what the team concerned with forming the museum is up against.“ The sole exception was the Art Collection (Kunstsammlung) which was–and is–run by a professionally accomplished and energetic curator, Anne-Katrin Sors, who involves students in research and exhibition projects to a high standard.

Soon after my first visit, I was invited by the president to join the newly formed International Advisory Board of the Center for Collection Development, which had responsibility for the Forum Wissen project. I was also invited to join the Lichtenberg-Kolleg as a fellow, a position that gave me a two-month study visit each spring, and that later became permanent. In 2015, the president appointed me to the International Advisory Board of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg.

In the meantime, the university had pressed ahead with what the president, Professor Beisiegel, conceived as a necessary complement to the Forum Wissen, a new professorship in the Materiality of Knowledge (Materialität des Wissens). I was no more than an external advisor during the first search process in 2014. It was unsuccessful. (This happens.) The search was renewed in 2016 with a higher-ranking position on offer, and I was asked to serve on the search committee.

The dean of the Faculty of Philosophy chaired the first meeting of the search committee on June 22, 2016. I was told that the dean usually only chairs the first search committee meeting. A faculty member on the committee is elected to serve as its chair thereafter. Unusually, the position was contested between two committee members. There was a heated discussion, and the dean gathered his papers and threatened to walk out. We decided to vote. Slips of paper on which to vote were distributed around the table, color-coded according to status. When I received mine, I couldn’t suppress a giggle. Not only was the entire meeting dysfunctional, I had been struck by the paper slip handed to me. The dean asked me why I was laughing. „I’ve been handed a pink slip,“ I replied. „In America,“ I continued, „to get a pink slip means ‚You’re fired!'“ I think the resulting laughter broke the tension, but in retrospect the experience should have been a warning to me about the capacity of Göttingen faculty for self-regard and mutual antagonism–not that they are alone in this.

We went ahead with the search, and eventually appointed art historian Margarete Vöhringer. Her brief is to produce ideas for the use of the university collections in research and teaching. The duty of the professor is (as the university Website puts it) to „initiate and conduct interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research projects on the materiality of knowledge cultures“ with a focus on the material objects in the academic collections. This should be a leadership role, for one of the purposes of the Forum Wissen is to examine and present not just knowledge claims successfully generated within the university using material items, but the processes–sometimes successful, sometimes not–through which this happens. The professor of the Materiality of Knowledge has a key part to play in producing critiques of the uses of material items in knowledge claim production, and should stimulate other faculty to follow suit. It is clear that things have not turned out that way, possibly because Professor Vöhringer has faced greater resistance than anticipated.

The controversy surrounding the ousting of Professor Beisiegel from the presidency of the university following the failure in the Excellence Initiative competition in 2019 has been much discussed. The candidate favored by the Board of Trustees (Stiftungsrat), whose appointment was announced, was contested by the faculty whereupon he withdrew. The chair of the Board of Trustees resigned. Reinhard Jahn, the recently retired director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, was persuaded to serve as interim president for a year while the university sought to find a viable successor as president, and to repair its reputation following the débâcle.

At this juncture, the future of the Forum Wissen was uncertain. In spite of the extraordinary efforts of the director of the Center for Collection Development (Zentrale Kustodie), Dr. Allemeyer, and its International Advisory Board, insufficient funding was in place to open and sustain the Forum Wissen. Nonetheless, work went ahead converting the nineteenth-century Zoology Building for the purpose. As I was visiting Göttingen in December, 2019 for a symposium I had organized with Professor van Gelderen at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Professor Jahn and I arranged a discreet private meeting to discuss the prospects for the Forum Wissen. After our Sunday evening encounter in a hotel bar, I wrote in my journal: „Over gin-and-tonics we felt each other out. He seems prepared to be decisive in a cautious way, but needs the faculty on his side. I did what I could to make the case for the Forum Wissen. I think we established a rapport, though it’s hard to know.“

That Professor Jahn was prepared to be decisive when he was no more than a caretaker, and that he was prepared to defer to the loudest voices on the faculty, should have been clear warnings to me. Meanwhile, those faculty voices–and some among the senior administration emboldened by the departure of Professor Beisiegel–worked to sabotage the Forum Wissen. Departments feared a loss of control over „their“ collections (which would not be the case). Some faculty, otherwise sympathetic to the project, resented the position and budget of a mere administrator as director of the Center for Collection Development and the Forum Wissen, for it appeared to eclipse their own. And, as I have observed repeatedly firsthand, there is no one in the world more jealous of status than a German professor.

When the March 9, 2020 meeting of the International Advisory Board of the Center for Collection Development was canceled at the last minute, a number of us suspected political motives. In retrospect, although this cancelation was convenient for the opponents of the Forum Wissen, COVID-19 was to blame. The next meeting was held in a hybrid manner on September 28, 2020. I attended remotely. One important result of the meeting was an approach in the name of the International Advisory Board to the two Göttingen representatives in the federal parliament (the Bundestag) requesting financial support. Others worked behind the scenes. Tragically, within a month one of the representatives concerned, Thomas Oppermann, vice-president of the Bundestag, unexpectedly died. The Bundestag voted substantial funds for the Forum Wissen in his memory. Eventually, on further application by Dr. Allemeyer, all the necessary funding to complete and open the Forum Wissen in 2022 in a viable form was in place. This achievement is a testament to Dr. Allemeyer’s dedication and forbearance.

Professor Jahn stepped down as interim president at the end of 2020, but not before having precipitated a new scandal with even worse long-term consequences for the university than its continuing equivocation over the Forum Wissen. On the pretext of a small cut in funding to the university from the state of Lower Saxony, Professor Jahn informed Professor van Gelderen by letter that the Lichtenberg-Kolleg would be closed at the end of September, 2021. The Lichtenberg-Kolleg, founded in 2009, had swiftly become one of the most internationally distinguished units of the university. But as its international profile grew, detractors within the faculty emerged. Some resented that its resources were not more readily or even exclusively at their own disposal. They saw their own privileges diluted.

Two characteristics in particular made the Lichtenberg-Kolleg a target. The first was its foreignness. Its director was a Dutchman who delighted in mocking the pomposity of some of his fellow professors. Its fellows came from all over the world, and many were clearly not European. Among those whom it welcomed, the Lichtenberg-Kolleg sheltered scholars at risk. The majority of the nine members of the International Advisory Board were not European (two Israelis, two Americans, and an Indian). Although warmly embraced within the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, several fellows, both post-doctoral and senior, told me that as scholars of color they didn’t feel that they were welcome elsewhere in the university. The faculty of the university is overwhelmingly European and white–indeed, German–and although there are certainly students of color at the university–notably doctoral candidates–they form a tiny minority. Some in Göttingen saw the Lichtenberg-Kolleg as literally a „foreign body“ within the university.

Both internationalism and cosmopolitanism elicit hostility in some circles. The second distinguishing characteristic of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg was its cosmopolitanism in a particular sense. It is common knowledge that „cosmopolitan“ in some mouths is a code word for something else, something about which just about every German, I believe, is rightly sensitive. The director of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Professor van Gelderen, a highly distinguished intellectual historian, leads the Anne Frank Research Project to produce a scholarly edition of Anne Frank’s writings. There is no single Holocaust victim more famous or beloved worldwide. It is worth recalling that Anne Frank was murdered in Lower Saxony. Allied to the Anne Frank Research Project at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg was the research cluster, Modern Jewish Studies. This was a collaboration between the Lichtenberg-Kolleg and the Göttingen Academy, which funded fellowships named for Moritz Stern, the first Jewish full professor at a German university. Shortly before he received the Professor Jahn’s letter announcing the abolition of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Professor van Gelderen had announced an academic-yearlong residency invitation to one of the most celebrated intellectual historians in the Atlantic world, a champion of the role of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza in the Enlightenment, professor emeritus at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, Jonathan Israel. Professor Israel is not Israeli, but two of the distinguished members of the International Advisory Board were.

Put together, an ugly picture emerges. This is not a matter of racism and antisemitism as individual personal belief, and I want to be quite clear that I am not accusing anyone who targeted the Lichtenberg-Kolleg of being personally racist or antisemitic. The fault is systemic or structural. Those responsible for the plan to liquidate the Lichtenberg-Kolleg failed to anticipate the construction that anyone considering the circumstances could justifiably place upon their proposal. Had they done so, they would never have behaved in this way. Professor Jahn would never have dared to date his letter to Professor van Gelderen peremptorily informing him of the imminent closure of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg as he did. He dated that letter November 9, an anniversary I need hardly explain to a German readership: the pogrom and orgy of destruction known as Kristallnacht. Göttingen’s synagogue was among the thousands destroyed. The failure to behave in a manner that takes such factors into account is the epitome of systemic or structural racism: the implementation of policies and institutional practices that work in various, often mutually reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. In this case, they worked together to perpetuate overwhelmingly white faculty privilege.

The illness of the chair of the International Advisory Board of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Björn Wittrock, rector emeritus of the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, propelled me to assume that role at a crucial time immediately following the Kristallnacht anniversary letter from the interim president. The Board sent a letter of protest signed by nearly every fellow and former fellow from all over the world to the Presidential Board of the university. We lobbied the university faculty, the Board of Trustees, and the politicians. Supportive pieces appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Jüdische Allgemeine, and on Deutschlandfunk. Donors rallied to make up the budget shortfall to preserve the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, notable among them two elderly Holocaust survivors.

Metin Tolan, a physicist and administrator from the Technical University, Dortmund, became president of the university in April, 2021. He did nothing to prevent the closure of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg the following September. He also appeared oblivious to the difficulties faced by the Forum Wissen. During the hybrid meeting of the International Advisory Board on October 28, he showed his complete lack of understanding of the Forum Wissen, treating the Board with undisguised contempt. For him, the Forum Wissen is to be an empty vessel passively containing triumphalist accounts of scientific achievements by university faculty. It is not to produce nor to nurture knowledge claims through facilitating and conducting research along unfamiliar transdisciplinary lines using the university collections, far less present failures and questionable modes of conduct and inquiry. Unlike at the Ghent University Museum, there is to be no Museum of Doubt (the title of its director, Marjan Doom’s recent book on the museum). Unlike at the Hunterian of the University of Glasgow, there is to be no position of Curator of Discomfort to explore questions about the university’s unsavory past as complicit with colonialism and Nazism. Professor Tolan acceded to the suggestions of those within the senior administration and the faculty who wish the Forum Wissen to fail.

In what looks like a fit of spite, but was actually a move calculated by a colleague on the Presidential Board, he demoted the director of the Center for Collection Development and the Forum Wissen, Dr. Allemeyer. She had already ceased to report directly to the president, as she had while Professor Beisiegel was in charge. Instead, she reported to a vice-president whose hostility to the project was well-known to the Board. Now, she was to slide a further three rungs down the ladder. She was to report to the head of special collections of the Göttingen State and University Library, who in turn reports to the library director. This ridiculous arrangement trivializes the project intolerably. Placed in an untenable position, Dr. Allemeyer resigned.

A number of us had been advising Dr. Allemeyer to prepare an escape route for some time, so I was greatly relieved when she was appointed to the directorship of the rapidly expanding Open-Air Museum (LWL-Freilichtmuseum), Detmold from September, 2022. It seems unlikely that the university will find a successor of Dr. Allemeyer’s stature, just as it was unable to find a successor to the university presidency of Professor Beisiegel’s caliber.

As I mentioned to Professor Tolan during the October Board meeting, the Georg-August University is clearly a university in decline. It had a chance to become a leader in an exciting emerging field of interdisciplinary scholarship, mobilizing the university’s extensive collections to explore the materiality of knowledge. It might have developed a position as a cosmopolitan institution by following the lead of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg in welcoming top-rate non-German speakers, both junior and senior, as visiting scholars, as faculty, and as graduate students, regardless of gender orientation, nationality, or race. It might have contributed further to German soft power by creating networks that enhance German influence in the world. Instead, it has alienated a considerable number of influential people in all corners of the globe. My own further contribution might have been to promote collaboration on innovative projects, such as exhibitions, between the Forum Wissen and Bard Graduate Center. This would have given the Georg-August University a prestigious platform in New York, thereby furthering all three vital aims: lessening isolation, attracting top scholars and students, and enhancing soft power. That is not going to happen now. In consequence, Göttingen slumps further into regional complacency. Its senior administration and predominantly white and privileged faculty are characterized by what a friend, who is an internationally renowned professor of psychology to whom I described these circumstances, unhesitatingly termed narcissistic inertia.

There is one bright spot. In a ceremony in Göttingen on February 9 this year, the university returned iwi kūpuna (partial skeletons of ancestors) that had been stolen by a German anthropologist from burial grounds in 1897 to a Native Hawai’ian delegation. This move was a consequence of a research project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, Sensitive Provenances: Human Remains from Colonial Contexts in the Collections of the University of Göttingen. I have served on the Advisory Board of the project since its inception in 2018. These skeletons are not the only ones to be found in the university. There are plenty of skeletons in its cupboards. They date from the Enlightenment era of its foundation in 1737 (the era of race theorist, Johan Friedrich Blumenbach as well as of natural philosopher, Georg Christophe Lichtenberg), and from the dark days of the university’s shameful complicity with the Nazi regime. As was clear during the repatriation ceremony of the iwi kūpuna, Sensitive Provenances, associated with the Center for Collection Development and the Forum Wissen, is facilitated by Dr. Allemeyer. What will happen after her departure?

Not only is the Forum Wissen in serious trouble even before it opens, and the Lichtenberg-Kolleg closed, the two international boards that oversaw them have been dissolved. Members only learned of the dissolution of the Board of the Center for Collection Development (and the Forum Wissen) after its new chair, the distinguished historian of technology, Helmuth Trischler, had sent the university president a searching letter following the October, 2021 meeting. And no one has actually taken the trouble to inform the members of the International Advisory Board of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg that it no longer exists.

There is a lot of money involved in all this: millions of euros in grants from the federal and state governments. What is becoming of these funds? My final piece of advice to anyone who wants to investigate the disgraceful dysfunction of the Georg-August University further is to follow the money.

I am grateful that during my years of association with the Georg-August University, I was able to do a great deal of academic work, thanks to the support of the Lichtenberg-Kolleg. I made invaluable contacts with fellow visitors from Brazil to Morocco, Turkey to India. I also formed friendships with excellent Göttingen faculty and administrators, from secretaries to the president of the university. I enjoyed being in Göttingen, and came to feel comfortable there. But of all the academic and personal rewards I accrued, the most important was that for the first time in my life, I felt the heavy weight of distrust of Germany and things German that I had inherited as trauma from my Dutch mother and grandparents slip from my shoulders. This was a blessing indeed. But the events of the last two years have reluctantly brought me face to face with the systemic iniquities and inequities that still stain German society.

There is a saying in English that the pot should not call the kettle black. This means that the criticisms a person makes of others could equally well apply to themselves, so that person should keep quiet. You may say that as I am an American, I–part of the pot–should not call the kettle–Germany–black. But just because the pot is black–which I fully acknowledge–does not mean that the kettle is not black, too. It is. No amount of polishing and burnishing that German society has attempted, for the most part in good faith, has removed the deepest tarnish. We see this clearly as the Georg-August University fades into its twilight.