Alexander von Humboldt

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Forscher, Sammler, Pflanzenjäger – unterwegs mit Humboldt & Co.

Ausstellung vom 7. Juni bis 22. September 2019

Die Ausstellung wurde vom Verband Botanischer Gärten anlässlich des 250. Geburtstags von Alexander von Humboldt erstellt. Viele Pflanzen in unseren Gärten, die wir heute für alltäglich halten, wurden vor allem im 18. oder 19. Jahrhundert von Botanikern, Ärzten, Missionaren oder Gärtnern aus unterschiedlichsten Teilen der Erde nach Europa gebracht. Neben einem geschichtlichen Rückblick über die wichtigsten Pflanzenentdecker – zu denen auch der Würzburger Philipp Franz von Siebold gehört – werden deren abenteuerliche Reisen, Motive und Pflanzenfunde beschrieben.

Klassischerweise ging es neben dem Sammeln von gärtnerisch-botanischen Neuheiten in der Kolonialbotanik vor allem um die Rohstoffsicherung für das Mutterland. Die Ausstellung behandelt deshalb auch aktuelle Aspekte wie Artenschutz, Biopiraterie oder Nagoya-Protokoll.


Book review: RUPKE, N. A. Alexander von Humboldt: a metabiography

Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main: 2005. Pp 320; illustrated. Price £22.80. ISBN 3-631-53932-0 (hardback).

Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) was one of the greatest scientist-explorers of the nineteenth century. His early worldwide fame was based on his travels in tropical Spanish America with Aimé de Bonpland from 1799 to1804. The results were published in 30 folio volumes over the years 1805 to 1834. Humboldt’s narrative of these travels (Relation historique) was never finished but ended with the third volume at the beginning of their trek along the Andes in 1801. Of crucial importance to Humboldt’s reception in the English-speaking world was the translation of this narrative by Helen Maria Williams. Rupke’s book is not a biography, although it gives much biographical information. It is what is now called a ‘meta-analysis’ of the many biographies written on Humboldt, hence a ‘metabiography’. Rupke decided to deal mainly with the already enormous German literature on Humboldt and the result is a very interesting overview of the changing views on Humboldt in the different phases of the political history of Germany. So Humboldt was successively annexed as a liberal democrat before the Empire period, later as a Wilhelmian and Weimar Kultur chauvinist and an Aryan supremacist of National Socialism. In the wake of the Second World War he was for East Germany an antislavery Marxist, for West Germany a cosmopolitan friend of the Jews. After the Wende Humboldt became a founding father of environmentalism, a pioneer of globalization and an early gay liberationist. If one thing becomes clear from this study it is that the final and definitive Humboldt biography is unlikely to be written. Rupke discusses Humboldt’s diplomatic activities on behalf of the Prussian crown, his proto-feminism apparent from his scientific correspondence with women and his relationship with technology and industry in the person of Werner von Siemens (1816–1892). A feature hardly mentioned in German biographies but a defining feature in the British is his role as a mountaineer, who had nearly climbed what at that time was believed to be the highest mountain in the world, Mount Chimborazo. This and the publication of his Personal narrative (1814–1829, abridged in Penguin Classics in 1995) established Humboldt’s fame as a brave and romantic explorer of South America.It has been taken for granted that Humboldt was a brilliant and many-sided scientist, even if not a specialist, but there has never been unanimity in the appraisal of his worth as a scientist. His science has been selectively cited and variously interpreted. For most German biographers it was a problem that Humboldt lived the first part of his productive life as a writer in Paris and published in French. They therefore turned his book Kosmos, Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (five volumes published between 1845 and 1862), written in German, into the signifier of his writings. They also wrongly stated that Kosmos originated with his Kosmos lectures at the University of Berlin during 1827 to 1828, a fact denied by Humboldt himself, it was rather the product of his travels in Peru.Rupke sees the task of a metabiography as primarily the exploration of the ideological embeddedness of biographical portraits and he has been highly successful in his response. It will be interesting to see what further metabiographies this book might inspire.GERHARD C. CADÉE

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