Alexander von Humboldt: A nomad and researcher in the focus of two projects

“Travelling Humboldt – Science on the Move” (AvH–R), based at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities; “Humboldt’s American Travel Diaries” (ART), based at the University of Potsdam and at the German State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation [Deutsche Version]

Studies on Alexander von Humboldt face new challenges and chances: Two projects are dedicated to the digitization, edition and research of those documents and texts that Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) wrote during his travels with the object of further investigation and documentation of his scientific understanding that is still unknown in many aspects.

Julius Schrader (1859): Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-–1859), Oil on canvas, 158.8 x 138.1 cm, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Julius Schrader (1859): Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-–1859), Oil on canvas, 158.8 x 138.1 cm, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Both projects pursue a transdisciplinary approach to one of the most prominent scientists, writers and philosophers of the nineteenth century. Their goal is to further unravel Humboldt’s understanding of nature and humankind as deeply intertwined with his experiences as a lifelong traveller.

While there still is much to learn about Alexander von Humboldt, there are also some aspects to disband: the separation of “Humboldt the scholar” versus “Humboldt the scientist” isn’t able to meet an approach that shows the inseparable linkage between nature and culture in Humboldt’s works; the historical fixation of Humboldt as last reminiscence of pre-modern science and his monumentalization as the “last polymath” can’t comply with his ways of practicing and linking the ever-expanding branches of modern sciences.

Based on the travel diaries, which in case of the Academy project include the diaries of Humboldt’s trip to the Americas (1799-1804) as well as those of his Russian Expedition (1829), both projects aim to show how movement and travel are clearly interdependent within Humboldt’s theory of knowledge and how his writing could show the possible path to a still up-to-date understanding and conceptualization of a dynamic idea of science.

Scholarly edition and research as a long-term project (Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities)

Since January 2015, the long-term project “Travelling Humboldt – Science on the Move” (Applicants: Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette and Prof. Dr. Eberhard Knobloch, project manager: Dr. Tobias Kraft) conducts the complete edition of all of Alexander von Humboldt’s manuscripts (travel journals, diaries, memoranda, publications in the visited countries and regions, correspondence) that deal with different topics at the interface between cultural and natural sciences and which were written during Humboldt’s extensive travels throughout the Americas, Russia and England, France, Spain and Italy. The project has been established at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities (BBAW) in the context of the Academy Programme 2015. Throughout the consecutive publications – both print and digital -, the long-term research and scholarly edition project will provide a comprehensive insight into the life and work of one of the most important cultural and natural scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Current activites by AvH-R (Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences).

Research as cooperative task (University of Potsdam / German State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation)

Three volumes of Humboldt's American Travel Diaries. © SBB-PK

Three volumes of Humboldt’s American Travel Diaries. © SBB-PK

The project “Alexander von Humboldt’s American Travel Diaries” (ART), funded by the German Federal Ministry of Research and Education, under the direction of Prof. Dr. Ottmar Ette and Barbara Schneider-Kempf, and coordinated by Dr. Julian Drews and Dr. Jutta Weber is a cooperation between the University of Potsdam and the German State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Between 2014 and 2017 both institutions harbor two sub-projects conducting the scientific and philological exploration and digitization of Humboldt’s American Travel Diaries. This joint project provides the scientific basis for any long-term examination of these documents as complex subjects of research that were written, amended and corrected by Alexander von Humboldt over six decades of his life.

News and facts about ART and the sub-projects “Genealogy, Chronology, Epistemology” (University of Potsdam) and “Conservation, Contextualization and Digitization” (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin SPK).

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