Meet the Warburg: Rembrandt Duits, Deputy-Curator of the Photographic Collection

In this blog series, we introduce you to the people who bring the Warburg to life. From library staff to lecturers, find out more about the people working at the Warburg Institute.

In this interview, we spoke with our Deputy-Curator of the Photographic Collection, Dr Rembrandt Duits. Read on to discover more about his career at the Warburg, the summer short course Renaissance Art and Material Culture that he is running and what it’s like studying at the Institute.  


Could you tell us a bit about your background and career?

My career has been spent almost entirely at The Warburg Institute, where I have worked for nearly 22 years, since the autumn of 1999. Before that, I studied Art History and Archaeology at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and I also did my PhD there; in fact, I was still writing my PhD thesis when I was first appointed at the Warburg. In Utrecht, one of the trajectories within the study of Art History was Iconology, which at the time was interpreted not just in the old Panofskyan sense of putting works of art into a historical cultural context, but also in a new and exciting way as a ‘science of the image’, involving the making, meaning, and reading of images. Both these understandings of iconology, old and new, have shaped my own research.

What led you to working at the Warburg Institute?

A job advertisement. I was about to enter the last year of my PhD project in Utrecht when a temporary post as Assistant-Curator of the Photographic Collection was advertised. I applied and somewhat to my own surprise was offered the job. During the ten months of my employment, the same post was then advertised again on a permanent basis. By that time, I had concluded that the Warburg was really where I wanted to be, so I applied once more, and fortunately, it all worked out.

Could you tell us a bit more about your role as Deputy-Curator of the Photographic Collection?

Like many jobs at the Warburg, being Deputy-Curator of the Photo Collection involves a lot of multitasking, including research, teaching, supervision of PhD students, and being an editor of the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. It is sometimes challenging to perform these different roles at the same time, but they also inform and enhance each other, which I believe has always been one of the strengths of the Warburg; just like the Institute itself is fundamentally interdisciplinary, working at the Institute has never been pigeon-holed into narrow skill sets. Regarding the Photographic Collection, my main contribution has probably been the building of the Iconographic Database, which I started in 2008. The database been online since 2010 and has given the Photographic Collection a digital platform, which means that many more people have access to it than can physically come to London. I believe that having such a platform is essential for a collection the importance of which lies as much in the connections between images as in the images themselves. The database is perfect for highlighting such connections – better even in many ways than the paper collection.

The Warburg Institute Photographic Collection © The Warburg Institute
The Iconographic Database is currently being rebuilt. Could you tell us more about this project?

When I first built the database, I was just an amateur cobbling together PHP scripts from various sources on the internet. Although I am pleased that what I designed has kept working for all this time, even now that the database contains over 100,000 images, it has always been clear that it would be difficult to maintain it indefinitely in this form. Also, databases in general have become a lot more sophisticated over the past fifteen years, and there is a much greater demand for the sharing of data between internet resources, the so-called interoperability. I am really happy, therefore, that our present Director, Bill Sherman, has enthusiastically embraced the idea of a renewal of the resource. Together with the Institute’s Digital Librarian, Richard Gartner, we have laid the foundations for a new and more permanent version of the Iconographic Database, putting together a data model expressed in XML. We have raised funding from the Kress Foundation, obtained approval from the University, and found a promising external partner in the London-based firm System Simulation, whose software package CollectionsIndex+ is going to be used for the creation of new interfaces. I envisage that the new database will do a lot of things better than the old one – for instance, by having a visual rather than a textually oriented search facility, and by having more different options to highlight special collections and images that were once part of the original collection of photographs of Aby Warburg.

This summer you will be running the 5-day online short course Renaissance Art and Material Culture. Could you tell us a bit more about what participants can expect across the five days?

This short course is based on the core of my own research and on an option module that I have taught at the Warburg in the past. I have always been interested in the apparent contradiction that the Renaissance has bequeathed us a model of Art History that focusses on painting, sculpture, and architecture, whereas it is abundantly clear that the artistic spectrum at the time was much richer and more varied than just these three arts. I have found that rather than telling one story of ‘Renaissance Art History’, it is much more instructive to present several parallel narratives of different art histories, separated not so much according to artistic media as by groups of patrons – the poor, the elite, and everyone in between. This of course leads to questions such as where we want to draw the boundary of what we include in art history. Is a lead pilgrim’s badge a work of art? Is a clay beer mug with a glazed pattern? Similar questions arise at the other end of the economic range. Is a refined piece of goldsmith’s work art or a trinket? And there is of course the issue of why the more selective model of Art History promoted by Vasari and other writers of the period arose in the middle of this artistic profusion. This is in a nutshell what the course will be about – the different art histories of the Renaissance.

Who might be interested in this course? Are students encouraged to attend?

I would think that the course is primarily of interest to students, but also to others with a basic knowledge of Renaissance art who would like to expand their horizon and perhaps challenge some existing preconceptions around that period. What I would like to give them is new ways of looking and asking questions about objects from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.

Bassano Francesco the Younger, Market Scene, 1580-85 (private collection)
You also teach in our MA courses and offer PhD supervision at the Warburg. What would you say to prospective students considering the Warburg’s postgraduate programmes?

I would say that you have to be very motivated to come and study at the Warburg, our programmes are quite demanding, but if you are willing to put in the work you will reap the rewards in that there are few places that I know that teach so well how to think critically, on the basis of historical facts and a sound understanding of historical sources, but at the same time not avoiding the bigger, over-arching questions. All of these aspects have been built into the tradition of the Institute from the very beginning. Also, you will see that the Warburg is a small but very open community, where you will always find fellow academics not just willing but enthusiastic to share knowledge and expertise.

How does your work at the Warburg inform your wider research interests?

My research interests were Warburgian before I ever came to the Institute, in that I have always been interested in both images as cultural documents and image-making as a cultural process, but I have found that since I started working at the Warburg, I have also branched out in directions that I could not have foreseen, such as the writings of Fritz Saxl and Jean Seznec, or principles of iconographic classification. Engaging with these topics in its turn has enriched my understanding of Renaissance art and material culture. One of the most important aspects of working at the Warburg is that it is relentlessly intellectually stimulating.

Do you have a particular favourite moment whilst working at the Institute?

Not a favourite moment, but many fond memories, especially of the early years when I started working here and a much older generation of Warburgians was still alive and around. There was something almost magical about meeting these people who embodied much of the post-war history of the Institute.

What do you love most about the Warburg?

That despite numerous changes over the years it still remains something of a haven for a particular type of intellectual curiosity. Responding to the Material World event series that I am currently organising with my student Louisa McKenzie, one person attending commented ‘the Warburg really is nerd heaven!’ I am very happy to be part of that.

> Learn more about our Photographic Collection

> Find out more about the Renaissance Art and Material Culture short course

> Discover our postgraduate programmes