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A Repository of Deep Memories


reading time: approx.  min

Hanns Zischler recalls his first visits to the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut. The research center later helped him to lift the lid on some of the secrets of South America.

For several years after I first visited the new Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library) in the late 1970s, I didn't take any particular notice of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut (Ibero-American Institute). Although I found the new statues of Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín remarkable (a compliment, considering the myriad other monuments in West Berlin), for a long time they remained nothing more than two impressive but orphaned figureheads at the great prow of Scharoun's library. Maybe it was also the disobliging label "Institute" that prevented me from familiarizing myself with this part of the building – notwithstanding my great fondness for Latin American literature, and despite having met Jorge Luis Borges in person.

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The Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut, which was built between 1967 and 1978, at the same time as the Staatsbibliothek © IAI/ Friedhelm Schmidt-Welle

That changed completely when, around 2007, I wanted to learn more about the legacy of the German geobotanist and land surveyor Arnold Schultze, whose chest of butterfly specimens (a thousand of them) was held by the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, but had not yet been studied. In the 1920s and 1930s, he did scientific research in Colombia and Peru, and in 1936 he brought out an unusually comprehensive report on his findings, which was also an impressive piece of literature. It was published in such an out-of-the-way location, however, that his work unfortunately went unnoticed, much as his collections did. At the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut, I found countless pieces of literature, periodicals, maps, charts and photo collections dealing with the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia and with the Peruvian Andes. Working with the illustrator Hanna Zeckau, I ultimately opened this chest full of butterflies and documented some of what we found.

A staff member at the institute, Caterina Indolfo, provided helpful advice and support at the time, as she did some years later, to an even greater degree, when I was engaged in a complex bit of research: I wanted to get a more exact idea of the movements and whereabouts of the gardener Friedrich Sellow, originally from Potsdam. From 1814 until his death, in uncertain circumstances, in Rio Doce in 1831, Sellow traveled incessantly across southern Brazil collecting specimens and making drawings of the flora, which he then delivered to Berlin and London. We ultimately published an extensive reader about this solitary explorer, edited by Sabine Hackethal, Carsten Eckert and myself. Without the abundant holdings of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut, it wouldn't have been possible to fill in several large gaps in that story.

The news of the fire at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro on September 2, 2018, which almost totally destroyed the collections, was a blow that brought home to me once again the unique value of the Ibero-Amerikanisches Institut. The diversity and scope of its archival holdings – books and manuscripts, cartographic works, the photo and video collections – make the institute something like the living synthesis of an "ideal" Latin America. Archives are much more than mere collections or accumulations. They contain a pledge for the future and constitute a memory – which it is up to us to revive again and again – of unrealized drafts and promises for a liberation that requires painstaking effort. In this sense, the statues of Bolívar and San Martín are still relevant and remind us of the continual threats to which that continent is exposed, now more than ever.

Gesprächsreihe „Kulturforum – Forum der multiplen Modernen“

As part of the Berlin Kulturforum, the IAI has initiated a discussion series to initiate a dialogue about the present and future of the Kulturforum as a forum for multiple modernities.

Hanns Zischler

Born in 1947, Hanns Zischler started his career in the theater, where among other things he worked as assistant director to Peter Stein. From 1970 onward, he acted in films by Wim Wenders, Claude Chabrol and Steven Spielberg. Zischler was born and grew up in the Franconia region of Germany and has been living in Berlin for over fifty years.

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Portrait Hanns Zischler