"He would have loved today, I am quite sure. He would have been proud, he probably would have been embarrassed . . .". These are the words of John Prag, Professor Emeritus of Archaeological Studies and grandson of Aby Warburg – the German art and cultural historian who founded the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg. Prag was thanking David Freedberg and Claudia Wedepohl, the organizers of a three-day conference held at UCL Institute of Education in London and hosted by the Warburg Institute (where I teach Medieval and Renaissance Cultural History) to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Warburg’s birth on June 13, 1866.
More than thirty distinguished speakers and an audience of 1,200 people from all over the world gathered over two-and-a-half days to pay tribute to and discuss Warburg’s "work, legacy and promise". Prag said that Warburg would have been thrilled by today’s technology. There is no doubt that he took a close interest in the momentous industrial and technological advances made during his lifetime. He was excited and fascinated by air travel, for example; but he also warned of the impact the telephone and telegraph would have on our sense of distance, and "the space for reflection" – the precious time in which we formulate a measured response to anything that prompts a reaction. Thinking of photography, Warburg feared that the human mind was in danger of being swamped by a sudden profusion of images. What would he have made of the spread of the internet and the omnipresence of mobile phones? The question was hanging in the air when W. J. T. Mitchell compared the simultaneous display of images in Warburg’s famous atlas of images, the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, with the world wide web.