We are proud to house the Nachlass [or working papers] of the pioneering historian of art and culture, Aby Warburg (1866-1929). One of the most important parts of this collection is the material related to Warburg’s visit to the Pueblo villages in the American Southwest during 1895-96. The physical artefacts he acquired to document the artistic, symbolic and ceremonial cultures of those communities were donated by 1902 to the Museum of Ethnology in Warburg’s home town of Hamburg (now the Museum am Rothenbaum, Kulturen und Künste der Welt [MARKK]). But his extensive archive of research notes, unpublished writings and documentary photographs moved to London—along with his comprehensive library on the history of culture—when the Nazis came to power in 1933.

In 1970, the Warburg Institute’s Director Sir Ernst Gombrich could observe that ‘more has been published in English on this episode in Warburg’s life than on any other aspect of his work…and Warburg’s own lecture about his experience among the Indians is the only one of his writings which is available in English.’ More than fifty years later, interest has only grown and the photos from the journey are among the most requested items in our entire collection. The images featuring Warburg himself have by now been circulated so widely that they have to all intents and purposes entered the public domain. At the same time, it has become increasingly clear that some of those same images are problematic and even troubling when viewed from a Pueblo perspective.

The historic exhibition of Warburg’s Pueblo collection (on display at the MARKK from March 2022 to January 2023) provided an opportunity not just to reunite the objects with the archives but also to work in cooperation with the museum’s curatorial experts, who made contact with the representatives of the Pueblo communities visited by Warburg in order to ensure that all materials were described, handled and displayed in an appropriate manner. We are grateful for the trust and advice of Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa (Director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office), Joseph H. Suina (former governor and member of the Tribal Council of Cochiti Pueblo) and Joseph R. Aguilar and J. Michael Bremer from the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of San Ildefonso Pueblo. All reviewed the materials proposed for display in the Hamburg exhibition and requested that a number of ‘culturally sensitive’ objects and images should not be shown.

Out of respect to these wishes, we agreed with the curators of the exhibition to withhold these items from both the display and the catalogue: in the words of MARKK Director Barbara Plankensteiner, ‘we are responding to the concerns of many Pueblo and Native American Nations in their efforts to regain interpretive authority over their own culture after centuries of colonialism.’

Following the exhibition, and in the spirit of cross-cultural understanding, we at the Warburg Institute have entered into a period of collaborative research on the Pueblo materials in our care.

Our policy

While we work with experts on and representatives of the Pueblo communities visited by Warburg, we have placed a moratorium on photography, reproductions and permissions for all material identified as culturally sensitive, i.e.,

- All photographs showing the Hemis Katsina Dance at Oraibi/Orayvi (taken by Warburg) including portraits of Warburg.

- All photographs showing the Snake Dance at Walpi (acquired by Warburg).

- Drawings with the following catalogue numbers: Warburg Institute Archive [WIA], III., III.47.1.13, fols 6-7, III.47.1.14, fols 1-2.

 Individuals or institutions wishing to reproduce these specific materials now do so without the approval of the Warburg Institute. Furthermore, they take upon themselves an obligation to understand the nature of the concerns of the people represented in Warburg’s archive: we have provided a full reading list on the subject below.


The material gathered by Aby Warburg has tremendous value, for the history of Pueblo cultures as well as for the history of Warburg’s scholarship. As custodians of these sources, we have an obligation to both histories. This means acknowledging and addressing the differences between them and, above all, to squaring the unbridled thirst for knowledge that was one of Warburg’s highest aspirations with the strict protocols around secrecy and differential access to knowledge (particularly concerning matters of ritual) that have long been an integral part of Pueblo cultures.

This process has the potential to do more than advance our knowledge of Warburg’s engagement with Pueblo cultures. It represents an opportunity to produce new perspectives on the nature of photography, a fuller appreciation of archival records as cultural property and a deeper understanding of the politics of knowledge itself.

We thank everyone for their patience and invite their participation.

The standard editions of Aby Warburg’s Pueblo writings and images:

Chávez, Christine and Uwe Fleckner (eds). Lightning Symbol and Snake Dance: Aby Warburg and Pueblo Art. Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2022.

See especially Justin B. Richland, ‘Aby Warburg’s Travel to Hopiland: Lines and Limits of Knowledge,’ and Adam Duran and Bruce Bernstein, ‘An Inherent and Organic Part of Life: Privacy and Circumspection in Pueblo Societies.’

Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip. ‘Sketching Knowledge: Quandaries in the mimetic reproduction of Pueblo ritual.’ American Ethnologist 38:3 (2001), 451-467.

Farago, Claire. ‘Epilogue: Re(f)using Art: Aby Warburg and the Ethics of Scholarship,’ in Claire Farago and Donna Pierce (eds.), Transforming Images: New Mexican Santos in-between Worlds. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006, 259-313.

First Archivists Circle. Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (2007).

Freedberg, David. ‘Pathos at Oraibi: What Warburg did not see,’ unpublished English version of ‘Pathos a Oraibi: Ciò che Warburg non vide,’ in Claudia Cieri Via and Pietro Montani (eds.), Lo Sguardo di Giano, Aby Warburg fra tempo e memoria. Turin: Nino Aragno, 2004.

Freedberg, David. ‘Warburg’s Mask: A Study in Idolatry,’ in Mariët Westermann (ed.), Anthropologies of Art. Williamstown: Clark Institute, 2005, 3-25.

Harrison, Rodney. ‘Reassembling Ethnographic Museum Collections,’ in Rodney Harrison, Sarah Byrne and Anne Clarke (eds.), Reassembling the Collection: Ethnographic Museums and Indigenous Agency. Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2013, 3-36.

Indian Arts Research Center. Guidelines for Museums (2019).

Pente, Stefan and Ines Schaber. Unnamed Series, Notes on Archives 5. Graz and Berlin: Archive Books, 2019.

Access Policies for Native American Archival Materials in the National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution PDF 954.88 KB