Art as Research?

The Berlin World Improvement Machine

From the 17th century onwards, various European cities forged secret plans to construct a “world improvement machine”. The machine was based on the assumption that the correct arrangement of particular works of art and artefacts within an architectural “superform” would release enormous power. The idea fuelled absolutist power fantasies and educational attempts to improve the world alike.

To give an example, Prussia sought to avoid lagging behind its European rivals by founding the Academy of Arts (1696), the Academy of Science (1700), and later the Royal Museums in Berlin (from 1830 onwards). The primary task of these institutions was to build the machine. The academies focused on scientific and artistic research, whilst the museums collected the components deemed to be required. Work on the world improvement machine ceased as the 19th century drew to a close, and the secret project was forgotten.

The world improvement machine is now the subject of a critical reconstruction, with supplementary texts used to mark 70 artefacts that were originally selected as machine components and are now spread around Berlin’s collections. A treasure map leads visitors to items in the Egyptian Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, Collection of Classical Antiquities, German Historical Museum, Ethnological Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berggruen Museum, Museum für Naturkunde, Museum of Prehistory and Early History, Neue Nationalgalerie, Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection, Sculpture Collection, Museum of Byzantine Art, and Museum of the Ancient Near East.

In addition, a ten metre high, pyramid-shaped model of the world improvement machine is on display at the Hamburger Bahnhof gallery. Two accompanying publications are available through Merve Verlag.

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