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October 31, 2019

Experiments in the Palace

by Margarete Pratschke

When the Humboldt-Universität moves into the Humboldt Forum in 2020, it won´t be the first time ist has moved into the palace. Almost exactly 100 years ago they were already there.

In March 1919, in the early, unsettled days of the young Weimar Republic in the wake of Germany’s revolutionary upheavals, Carl Stumpf, director of the Institute for Psychology at the Friedrich-Wilhelm- Universität, grabbed this historic opportunity by its horns. His institute was in desperate need of a new home, so the internationally distinguished psychologist, founder of the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv and former Humboldt- Universität vice chancellor, inquired at the ministry of culture if his institute could use “one of the former imperial palaces near the university.”

This gutsy request outlined the need for a distinguished home befitting the growing importance of psychology as an academic discipline and of the sciences in general. Stumpfer’s institute was given access to a number of rooms in the Berlin Palace, the only university institute to be awarded the privilege. It moved into a suite of rooms in the west of the palace facing the Schlossfreiheit and to the right of the Eosander Gate.

The palace rooms were completely renovated for their new purpose as a home for psychological research. Construction work penetrated to the very core of the building and included laying new floors, opening masonry, removing decorations and chandeliers and even installing electrical wiring. Only after these changes had been made could researchers carry out their experimental work in the field of visual perception, for which they needed a great deal of technical equipment. Stumpf’s successor, Wolfgang Köhler, was able to obtain additional large rooms for research purposes in 1923. And so it was that one of the palace’s elegant salons was transformed into an experimental cinema in which a variety of film and perception experiments were carried out based on Wolfgang Metzger’s ganzfeld experiments.

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The conditions for researchers conducting these experiments in perceptual psychology in the palace rooms during the 1920s was wellnigh paradisiacal. The institute’s location in the palace spurred on the research and ensured international fame for the Berlin School of Experimental Psychology under Köhler. It attracted guest researchers from all over the world and put Berlin researchers on the map of international science. But the palace’s unique rooms not only brought research success; they also created practical problems when the laboratory was drawn into disputes with palace administration, which viewed the building as a heritage monument. In particular, disputes between researchers and administrators repeatedly broke out over the materials used in their experiments, particularly with regard to fire protection measures, as the film material used in those days was particularly inflammable.

The university’s psychological institute remained in the palace until 1945, even though Berlin’s reputation as an international centre of Gestalt psychology came to an end in 1933. The entire institute staff fled into exile and continued their careers in the United States. The university institute remained in the palace until the end of the war – under new “leadership”. The first victim of the new research agenda was the cinema laboratory. The rest of the institute’s remaining equipment was destroyed by fire in bombing raids carried out towards the end of the war. Other than a few photographs and construction plans, nothing remains of the golden age of Gestalt psychology in the 1920s. Furthermore, hardly anyone today is aware that the successes of Gestalt psychology are due – at least in part – to the unusual working conditions enjoyed by the laboratory in the Berlin Palace.

Margarete Pratschke is visiting professor for modern art and visual history at the Department of Art and Visual History and is an associated member of the Humboldt- Universität zu Berlin’s cluster of excellence “Image Knowledge Gestaltung”. In 2016 she was awarded the Caroline von Humboldt Prize. In 2016 she published her book Gestaltexperimente unterm Bilderhimmel. Das Psychologische Institut im Berliner Stadtschloss und die Avantgarde.

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