Museums preserve the past and produce disorder. Almost everything has been ripped from its original context. Cleaned, isolated, packaged, sorted by curators, displaced from its neighbors: the opposite of Andy Warhol’s vision of the great museum as a supermarket that we lock today and won’t enter for 100 years. A historical house museum, in contrast, draws its charm from the illusion of a bell jar covering the past. But even there, you are rarely allowed to open closets or drawers.
In Bielefeld, at the address “Methods 1,” room 115A, labeled “Wehler-Archive Pool/Darts,” the condition of Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s library suggests the historian, who died in 2014, had just left. Its order follows the structure of his opus magnum, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte 1700 bis 1990. The books were moved to the “Center for Interdisciplinary Research” (ZiF), next to a pool table and dart board. Swinging the cue, throwing darts, pulling out books—there is no guard watching. They trust their fellows.
This is as fantastic as it is shockingly fragile. You grab a book and … there are bookmarks in it! Loose. Wehler did not underline or annotate. He seems to have excerpted. But he left strips of paper. In almost every book. They are mostly from tear-off calendars separated at the perforation. Each bookmark has an exact date, but there must have been a reservoir of dated strips. They could fall out, be rearranged or taken by groupies of the “Bielefeld School.”
Wehler left a second trace, one which can’t be erased. Even at an early age, the 23-year-old student writes his name across the first page of the book, the date and where he read (bought?) it: “Hans-Ulrich Wehler Köln Summer 1955”. He maintains this practice throughout his life. A mnemonic technique, linking to time and date of the first reading?
Wehler’s library is a counterpart to the holy Zettelkasten of another doyen from Bielefeld, Niklas Luhmann. It is now available digitally. One Zettel says: “But this note disappears as soon as you open the note box. I.e. it accepts a different number, disguises itself and cannot be found. A joker.”
Wehler’s study is a library full of jokers.
Hans-Ulrich Wehler Archive, University of Bielefeld, Bielefeld