There is no simple way to survey the 45 collections of the

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Their widely diverse affiliation

in terms of disciplines and departments, from archaeology to

zoology, implies a geographical dissemination across the entire

urban conglomeration of Berlin: from the main building at Unter

den Linden and the Central Library at the Jacob-und-Wilhelm-

Grimm-Zentrum in the middle of the city, to the Adlershof

campus and other locations, such as the arboretum in Treptow-

Köpenick, the wood cultivars in Zepernick, or a collection of

tropical domesticated plants in Dahlem.

On certain occasions, such as the ON THE EDGE exhibition,

a temporary but fragmentary synopsis is possible. And yet

alternating between a general account and focussing on a single

discipline has been a main feature of Berlin university collections

from their beginning. When the university was founded in 1810,

collections that had previously been housed privately or were

integral to the cabinet of curiosities at the Berliner Schloss

were amalgamated in the main campus at Unter den Linden. It

was only in the 19th century that further efforts were made at

separation by discipline, which in fact led to an increase in both

the body of objects and differentiation between collections. In

various areas and at various times, attention was paid in differing

degrees to the research and teaching collections. At times, much

care was devoted to curation and the collections were expanded;

at other times, a certain amount of neglect prevailed and even

– particularly during World War II – destruction. From the 1990s

on, however, the Humboldt university collections experienced

a renaissance with a reinvigoration of ideas through innovative

exhibition approaches that were at first developed outside

universities. In exhibition spaces, diverse groups of items from

the natural sciences and humanities, from everyday culture

and from art, were temporarily displayed to create a series

of interrelated and reciprocal associations. Such curatorial

approaches also allowed for objects from the various university

collections to be assembled, both in theoretical and actual ways

– harking back to the concept of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’. In

these exhibitions, art and science were no longer considered

as separate spheres, but placed in varying constellations and


ON THE EDGE follows in the footsteps of such exhibitions,

deliberately bringing together objects from the various

collections of the Humboldt-Universität in artistic juxtapositions.

Some of the art works are more strongly rooted in the speciality

of specific collections; others develop a perspective that draws

on distinct fields to provide an overview. The artistic approach

is always complementary to the situation in departmental

collections, where items are used in the systemic teaching or

research of a particular field – but where they may also languish

in obscurity for a while. It is of course difficult to predict what

new uses the Humboldt-Universität collections might be put

to in future. One thing is certain, however: the formats of

disciplinary viewpoint and temporary overview will continue to


The collections of the Humboldt-Universität are only partially open

to the public; the 31 respective custodians are happy to assist

with scientific inquiries. More information can be found at: www.


The Museum für Naturkunde was, from its foundation in 1810

up to 2007, a part of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and its

predecessors respectively. The Charité was founded in 1710 and

served for many decades as the university hospital; since 2003,

it has been incorporated the medical faculty of both the Freie

Universität and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Its collections are

housed in the Berlin Museum of Medical History at the Charité or

within the respective departments.