Illustrating scholarly ideas and processes: Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne as conference panel format
Written by Nora Benterbusch, Madeline Delbé, Rieke Dobslaw, Yasmin Frommont
The primary objective of the Doktorand:innen-Italien-Netzwerk is to establish connections among postgraduate students who are engaged in research pertaining to Italian art.
In this blog post, we hear from four members of the network, as they share their experiences organising a conference early career session. They recount the valuable opportunity they had to design and lead this session, drawing inspiration from Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne.
We, the Doktorand:innen-Italien-Netzwerk – (DIN), a network founded in Germany in 2021 with the aim to connect Master and PhD students working on subjects related to Italian art, had the chance to design an early career session at the biannual conference Forum Kunstgeschichte Italiens (Leipzig, Germany, 15–18 March 2023), taking Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas Mnemosyne as an inspiration.
Although the Bilderatlas was created almost 100 years ago, it continues to hold a fascination for beholders from all different backgrounds. The constellation of the images allows us to fathom Warburg’s way of thinking and enables us to analyse the cultural historian’s thoughts hidden behind it. The panels can also have an associative and cognitive effect on the viewer: especially in a world of digital image overload, it is these analogue image networks that our eyes try to explore and understand.
Introduced as part of the educational training for art historians, Warburg’s panels are often used as a creative and performative way to approach image-based research questions. For the first time, we applied them as a conceptual framework to a conference panel. In this brief text, we want to sum up our first attempt by sketching the idea, the concrete realisation, and the reflection.
After the early career session at the Forum Kunstgeschichte Italiens had been confirmed, we launched a survey among the DIN members to find out which session format they would prefer. Following the results of the survey, which came out in favour of poster session, we came up with the idea to avail ourselves of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Bilderatlas to redraft the “classic” format of a poster session. In our expectation, “posters” following the model of Warburg’s panels would both create a more creative approach to present an art historical research topic as well as foster a broader discussion, as the textless panels would not be completely comprehended without the speakers’ explanations and guidance. At the same time, the beholder was offered the chance to make up their own connections and bring in their personal knowledge.
Following Warburg, our intention hence was to create a dynamic Denkraum with the panels [see fig.1.], in which the participants could think about their topic from a new perspective, juxtapose images, put them into sequences or relationships, and provide synoptic insights into their research material and question. In addition to these physical panels, digital offerings should serve to consolidate and expand the contributions. Given that it was the first on-site Italienforum since the outbreak of the pandemic, working with haptic image material alongside a digital component seemed even more appealing. Just like the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne, the Warburgian panels provided a digital and haptic ground to illustrate both a scholarly idea and a process within the framework of an art historical conference.
Besides the decision for this presentation mode, it was an important concern for us to make the session as thematically open as possible. Particularly in established formats with a 2-year cycle, such as the Forum Kunstgeschichte Italiens or the Deutscher Kongress für Kunstgeschichte, an early career session that is not dependent on the conference topic provides great added value; firstly, the range of topics of current dissertation projects can be represented more broadly and, secondly, the doctoral candidates do not have to rely on a narrow conference or panel subject in order to present their research.
Realisation at the Forum Kunstgeschichte Italiens 2023
In preparing the session, we launched an open call for papers in the summer of 2022. PhD students with research projects dealing with any aspect of Italian art were invited to submit not only an abstract but also a first sketch of their Warburgian panel [see fig.5.]. The first visualization of the projects thus took place already during the application phase.
To provide a high number of early career researchers with a platform to make their multi-faced ongoing research visible in the field, we chose ten speakers with excellent and wide-ranging projects. By placing the projects also on our website before the conference, we created additional digital visibility for the presenters. This was intended to promote our session on the one hand and ultimately, to provide a lasting platform for the research topics and the presentation of the speakers.
The display boards on which the speakers presented their projects were black foam boards in the format 70x50 cm [see fig.2]. The participants could work freely with their material and attach the images to the panels with pins [see fig.3]. The boards were then placed on easels situated in the foyer between the lecture halls at the beginning of the conference to enable discussions in front of them even before the speakers’ talks. To create a link to our online presence, each panel was equipped with a QR code that led to the respective project presentation and the speakers’ CVs on our website. Even though the PhD students also created a digital version of their panels, the main focus was laid on the physical panels on which the image material was pinned to remain rearrangeable at any time, e.g. in the course of the discussion in front of the panels. During the conference, we had the great opportunity to fill two time slots on the last day – a morning and an afternoon session. While our first panel was designed as a classic lecture format, the second session was intended to function more as a workshop with greater involvement of the display boards. Since we wanted to focus on the discussion including the Warburgian panels, we designed the project presentations as impulse lectures of 15 minutes in the lecture panel and 10 minutes in the workshop session. Instead of holding a longer discussion round in the plenary session, the session was moved to the physical boards in the second half of the workshop. In this way, several smaller discussion rounds were created at the same time directly in front of the boards, whereby participants were also encouraged to redesign the boards by rearranging the images [see fig.4.].
To capture ideas outside and within the official discussion sessions and thus to perpetuate the oral exchange of ideas, we provided a digital offering during the whole conference: via a QR code, the audience could access a digital mind map on flinga.fi into which questions and suggestions for the respective projects could be entered. This collection of feedback should be particularly useful for the speakers, who could access the mind map even after the conference.
Review of the first realisation
In order to critically review our first trial of the format, we conducted a survey among the speakers. The results of this survey will be included in the following, along with our reflections as organisers of this session and feedback from conference attendees.
First of all, it should be noted that the overall impression from all sides was very positive. Initial quantitative observations of visitors interested in the Mnemosyne panels were supported by numerous advocacies for the format, because it satisfies the innate curiosity of art historians to discover within the “pure” image material. Others expressed that they felt reminded of their own working process. All the speakers summed up positively and perceived the panels as helpful visual aids in the discussions; some of them also as concrete discussion triggers.
The somewhat unconventional but aesthetically pleasing form of presentation using wooden easels and foam boards also seems to have worked very well as a visual and tactile stimulus [see fig.1]. In addition to its advertising effect, this form also conveyed an impression of the processual, or in other words: the deliberately unfinished research process is subliminally underlined by this studio-like mode of presentation. Besides the general visibility for the participants and the networking opportunities, the openness of the topics was praised remarkably often.
Particularly noteworthy is the feedback from the speakers that the challenges and opportunities of the format had a lasting and productive influence on their actual research. The earlier the project stage, the more profitable the presentation mode seems to have been for the specific research questions. In advanced or even completed projects, on the other hand, new or further research approaches tended to crystallise. This basically supports the previous argument for thematic openness, since it is not necessary to start with issues created specifically for the conference, but with the core subjects of one’s own research.
In terms of content, it can be observed that – contrary to initial fears – the formal examination of the panels has not only proved particularly fruitful with regard to especially “suitable” topics from the fields of style history, iconology, or the Warburgian Motivwanderungen. Instead, new impulses for thought have also emerged for approaches guided by the history of ideas or theory.
However, there is still considerable potential for improvement with regard to the concrete realisation. With respect to the conference programme, care should be taken in future to link the short presentations directly with the in-depth discussion in front of the panels in terms of time and, if possible, space. To ensure this, a reduction in the number of contributions could be considered. In order to support active handling of the pictorial objects – i.e. moving, restructuring, etc. – the latter should be effortlessly (re)movable. At this point, a test run with different mounting and background materials is recommended to ensure a really dynamic Denkraum.
The linking of digital and analogue content and the possibilities for participation can also be expanded. The attempt to constantly record an asynchronous digital mind map, unfortunately, did not work. Two main problems seem relevant here: Firstly, there was no sufficient need for the visitors to take advantage of the offer, as they could also make their contributions in the usual oral form after the short presentations. In this respect, either a stricter avoidance of the classic format would have remedied the situation or – in order not to curtail the joy of discussion – a real-time translation into the digital. The oral contributions would thus have to be transferred in short form to the mind map by one person. The second problem, in our opinion, was that the offer was not present enough in the physical presentation and in the mind of the audience. In this respect, a poster with a brief instruction and QR code next to the panels would have been handy [see fig.7]. Considering the late timeslots, a short introduction at the beginning of the conference would certainly have been helpful. Ideally, a monitor would also have been set up on which the growing mind map could have been seen in real time.
In summary, we can say that the format has great potential in our opinion. Especially if the following two context factors are given. First, probably a mandatory condition, the framework of an art-historical conference, so that the targeted audience is familiar with Warburg’s Bilderatlas and, on the other hand, appreciates the potential of visual knowledge reduced to images in a special way. Secondly, it is not a mandatory condition that it is an early career session, since the use of the presentation mode seems to be particularly profitable for the speakers. With regard to the concrete implementation, the first trial has resulted in some improvement possibilities, which will certainly enrich future use of this format.
 The panels with a description (in German) are available on our website. [02/06/2023]
 After some research, we decided to use the flinga.fi tool for the digital mind map. It offers the following advantages: free of charge and without registration, any number of users can collaborate in real time. The interface is also easy to use via smartphone. A major disadvantage, however, is that individual content – such as the panels as root elements – cannot be locked and fixed. Therefore, constant error control is urgently needed.