Leibniz’s Funny Thought

Last night I went to the 25th annual Long Night of Museums in Berlin, where over 125 museums, galleries and archives are open until the early hours of the morning for live music, films and talks.

Lustgarten during the Long Night of Museums

As well as some Javanese gong music and a rendition of Philip Glass’s Dance 2 in the Berliner Dom, I went to an exhibition in the Altes Museum about a new cultural institution which will be housed in the reconstructed Berlin City Palace.

The Humboldt Forum exhibition, which opened last month, presents the vision for the forum from its three main users: the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin.

Humboldt Forum exhibition

The exhibition cites three historical examples as influences on the new Forum:

The conception of the Humboldt-Forum is informed by three historical examples:

  • The concept of a knowledge theatre as conceived by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz with regard to the Kunstkammer of the Berlin Palace is fundamental. For Leibniz, this collection, which marked the origin of Berlin’s museums, was a site that unified universally oriented collecting and research, exhibition and spectacle.

  • The second conceptual foundation of this unique project is constituted by the ideas of the Humboldt brothers: Their enlightening gaze at the cultures of the world as well as Wilhelm’s notions on education and museum-related politics.

  • Finally, recollections of the rich tradition of ethnological collecting in 19th century Berlin that culminated in the establishing of the Royal Museum for Ethnology by Adolf Bastian in 1873 refer to the collection history of the material that will constitute a large portion of the exhibits in the newly constructed City Palace.

The first of these, Leibniz’s idea for a ‘new sort of exhibition’ is laid out in a short piece from 1695 called Drôle de Pensée, or ‘a funny thought’, which was written after he saw a machine which ‘walked on water’ at an exhibition in Paris.

He says the exhibition would be a big undertaking, requiring significant capital and the assistance of ‘painters, sculptors, carpenters, watchmakers, […] mathematicians, engineers, architects, boat builders, fools, musicians, poets, bookbinders, typographers, engravers and others’, coordinated by two or three highly inventive directors.

He then launches into a long and fragmentary list of weird and wonderful attractions that could feature at the exhibition:

  • des Lanternes Magiques (magic lanterns)
  • des vols (flights)
  • des meteores contrefaites (artificial meteors)
  • toutes sortes de merveilles optiques (all sorts of optical marvels)
  • une representation du ciel et des astres (a representation of the sky and stars)
  • cometes (comets)
  • Globe comme de Gottorp ou Jena (a Gottorf globe)
  • feux d’artifices (fireworks)
  • jets d’eau (fountains)
  • vaisseaux d’estrange forme (vessels of strange shapes)
  • Mandragores et autres plantes rares (mandrakes and other rare plants)
  • Animaux extraordinaires et rares (extraordinary and rare animals)
  • Cercle Royal (royal circle)
  • Figures d’animaux (figures of animals)
  • Machine Royale de course de chevaux artificiels (royal machine with artificial horses racing)
  • Prix pour tirer (archery prizes)
  • Representations des actions de guerre (recreations of actions of war)
  • Fortifications faites, elevées, de bois, sur le theatre, tranchée ouverte, etc. (elevated fortifications made of wood, cut open, etc.)
  • Guerre contrefaite (artificial war)
  • Exercice d’infanterie de Martinet (infantry exercises of Martinet)
  • Exercice de cavalerie (cavalry excercises)
  • Bataille navale en petit sur un canal (small naval battles on the canal)
  • Concerts extraordinaires (extraordinary concerts)
  • Instrumens rares de Musique (rare musical instruments)
  • Trompettes parlantes (talking trumpets)
  • Chasse (hunting)
  • Lustres, et pierreries contrefaites (chadeliers and artificial gems)
  • Theatre de la nature et de l’art (theatre of nature and art)

Humboldt Forum exhibition

  • Luter (lute)
  • Nager (swimming)
  • Danseur de cordes extraordinaires (extraordinary rope dancer)
  • Saut[s] perilleux (perilous somersaults)
  • Faire voir, qu’un enfant leve un grand poids avec un fil (seeing a child lifts a great weight with a piece of string)
  • Theatre Anatomique (anatomical theatre)
  • Jardin des simples (medicinal garden)
  • Laboratoire (laboratory)
  • des petites machines de nombres (little number machines)
  • tableaux, medailles, bibliotheque (pictures, medals, a library)
  • Nouvelles experience d’eaux, air, vuide (new experiments with water, air, vacuums)
  • la machine de Mons. Guericke de 24 chevaux (Guericke’s machine with 24 horses)
  • l’operation de transfusion, et infusion (operations of transfusion and infusion)
  • Item pour congé on donneroit aux spectateurs, le temps qu’il fera le lendemain, s’il pleuvra ou non ; par le moyen du petit homme. Cabinet du pere Kircher. (Item for visiting spectators who would be told the weather the next day – whether or not it was raining – by a small man. Office of father Kircher)
  • l’homme qui mange du feu etc. s’il est encor en vie (the man who breathes fire, etc. if he is still alive)
  • la lune par un telescope aussi bien que d’autres astres (the moon and astral bodies by telescope)
  • un beuveur d’eau (a water drinker)
  • des machines, qui jetteroient juste, sur un point donné (machines which project things at a given point)
  • Des representations des muscles, nerfs, os, item machine representant le corps humain (representations of the muscles, nerves, bones, a machine representing the human body)
  • Insectes de Mons. Schwammerdam, Goedartius, Jungius. (insects belonging to Schwammerdam, Goedartius, Jungius.)
  • Myrmecoleon (an ant-lion)
  • Disputes plaisantes et colloques (funny and colloquial disputes)
  • des chambres obscures (a camera obscura)

Humboldt Forum exhibition

  • Peintures qui ne se voyent que d’un costé de certaine maniere, et d’un autre de toute autre (paintings which show one thing from a certain angle, and from another angle something different)
  • Rejouissances publiques (public celebrations)
  • Des grotesques peintes sur du papier huylé et des lampes dedans (grotesque pictures on oiled paper with a lamp inside)
  • Ballets de chevaux (ballet of horses)
  • Machine des arts (artificial machines)
  • Force du miroir ardent (force of a burning mirror)
  • Feu Gregeois de Callinicus (liquid fire)
  • Jeu d’Echec nouveau d’hommes sur un theatre. Comme dans Harsdorffer (game of chess, young men on a stage, like in Harsdorffer)
  • Auffzüge à la mode d’Allemagne (procession in the German style)
  • d’autres especes de jeux en grand (other kinds of great games)
  • une comedie entiere des jeux plaisans de toutes sortes de pays (an entire comedy of fun games from all different places)
  • une nouvelle espece de jeu utile (a new kind of useful game)
  • Comedies des metiers; une pour chaque metier, qui representeroit leur adresses, fourberies, plaisanteries, chef d’oeuvres, loix et modes particulieres ridicules (comedies of different occupations, showing the aims, deceptions, amusements, main works, laws and ridiculous peculiarities of each one)
  • Dragons volans de feu, etc. (fire breathing dragons etc.)
  • Moulins a tout vent. Vaisseaux qui iroient contre le vent (windmills, ships that can sail against the wind)
  • Instruments qui joueroient eux mêmes (instruments that play themselves)
  • Carillons etc. (carillons)
  • Machine de Hauz d’une cavalerie et infanterie contrefaite, qui se bat (the machine of Hauz of an artificial cavalry and infantry which is fighting)
  • L’experience de casser un verre en criant (the experiment of breaking glass by shouting)

Humboldt Forum exhibition

The piece goes on to describe the potential value of the proposed exhibition – saying it would stimulate and instruct people with beautiful and amazing sights. It would become a clearing house for all inventions and a theatre for all things that can be imagined (un theatre de toutes les choses imaginables). People would be awed and inspired, and the whole enterprise would have ‘good and important’ consequences.

He then returns to the detail of the exhibition, suggesting it could be spread out across a city or in different rooms in a palace before going on to discuss mirrors and pipes, dancing, pygmy ballets, fountains, lakes, sea battles, marionettes, shadows, somersaults, apparitions, small figures, and so on – all accompanied by music and singing. If its anything like Leibniz’s vision the new Berlin palace sounds like it will be incredible.

Humboldt Forum exhibition

For more see:

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  1. Posted September 3, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    For the next Lange Nacht der Museen we should pull off one of these:



  2. Posted September 8, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to it. Especially that new useful game. Will it be Sudoku, do you think?