Campus & Community

Busch-Reisinger marks a century

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The art museum named for a St. Louis brewing family has weathered the storms of two world wars

Painting: "The White Cloud" by  Karl
Birthday acquisitions include Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s ‘The White Cloud (Die weisse Wolke),’ 1936, watercolor and black ink on off-white wove paper.

The name is instantly familiar from the beer: Busch, as in Anheuser-Busch, the world’s largest brewer and producer of such well-known brands as Budweiser and Michelob. But what, one wonders, does Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum have to do with a family of St. Louis beer barons?

Quite a lot, actually – and it’s a tale worth telling as the Busch-Reisinger celebrates its 100th anniversary this November.

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The Busch-Reisinger’s saga is, above all, a story of the triumph of artistic expression over the hatreds spawned by two world wars.

The only American museum devoted to the art of German-speaking Europe, the Busch-Reisinger features treasures from the medieval to the modern periods. Yet the museum faltered in its early days, and was closed twice by anti-German sentiment. The 100th anniversary, says Daimler-Benz Curator Peter Nisbet, “underscores the importance of the long-term nature of our commitment to deepening American understanding of the achievements of German-speaking cultures.”

The Busch-Reisinger’s story properly begins in 1897, when three Harvard professors of German literature published an essay, “The Need of a Germanic Museum,” in the forerunner of Harvard Magazine. The group’s leader was Kuno Francke, a German native and eminent scholar of Germanic art and literature.

Francke feared that some institution in another city – such as St. Louis or Milwaukee – would get the same idea and approach the German government for support before Harvard did. In 1901, Francke and friends started a society to push for a new museum. In 1902, Prince Henry of Prussia, on a goodwill tour of America, visited Harvard and was awarded an honorary degree. Prince Henry announced that his brother, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, would “make a magnificent gift to the Germanic Museum, which will include key monuments in the development of German sculpture.”

The kaiser made good on his promise, sending a large collection of plaster casts of art objects such as the 11th century bronze doors from the Church of St. Michael in Hildesheim and the 13th century Golden Portal from the Church of Our Lady in Freiberg. At the time, college students typically studied art history through looking at photos and full-scale replicas. The museum also received gifts of reproduction artworks from the king of Saxony, the prince-regents of Brunswick and Bavaria, and from the citizens of Berlin.

The Germanic Museum was dedicated Nov. 10, 1903, the birthday of both Martin Luther and Friedrich Schiller. Harvard Professor William James, the psychologist and philosopher, said at the ceremony, “Our university, like most American universities, is Teutomaniac. Its ideas of scholarship and of the scholarly character have been inspired by German rather than by French or English models.”

Francke was named curator of the new museum, which was housed in Rogers Hall, a former gymnasium and storehouse. This was, Francke declared, “not a dignified shelter” for the artworks, and he began fundraising for a new building. A benefit performance of Friedrich Schiller’s “Maid of Orleans,” for instance, held in Harvard Stadium and involving a cast of 1,500, drew a paying audience of 15,000 in November 1909 to mark Schiller’s 150th birthday.

But what Francke really needed was German-Americans with deep pockets. In 1906, to mark the silver wedding anniversary of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Kaiserine (Queen) Augusta Viktoria, Harvard created an “Emperor William Fund” to support the museum that collected $30,000 from wealthy German-Americans. Adolphus Busch of St. Louis gave $2,000. Later that same year, Busch became president of the Germanic Museum Association.

The fledgling museum could not have had a better friend than Busch, who amassed a huge fortune as a brewer and spent lavishly to support pet projects. In 1908, Busch donated $50,000 to the museum building fund.

But Busch, described by all his biographers as a super salesman, wasn’t able to sell German-American heavy hitters on the idea of supporting the Harvard museum. “I am still working for the good cause, however without flattering prospects,” Busch cabled to Francke in January 1909. “Most of our millionaires are not deserving their possessions. Providence made a mistake in bestowing wealth upon them.”

Busch, however, would not be deterred. He increased his contribution, and by 1910 he had given the Germanic Museum $265,000 to construct a new home. A German architect named German Bestelmeyer was chosen to design the building. Neither the donor nor the architect would live to see it.

‘Our university, like most American universities, is Teutomaniac.’

– William James,
at the Museum’s dedication

Busch was in failing health, and Francke wanted to lay the cornerstone before Busch died. But a Harvard professor held a five-year lease for a house on the land and refused to allow even limited access. To get around this glitch, Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell gave the museum an additional 2-foot-strip of land adjoining the property, and in 1912 a cornerstone-laying ceremony was held on that narrow strip. Busch was too ill to attend; his wife, Lilly, performed the ceremony with the German ambassador.

Busch died in 1913 at his German castle. After her husband’s death, Lilly Busch gave the museum another $56,000. As soon as the recalcitrant professor’s lease expired in 1914, the University unceremoniously tore down his house. Construction began on Adolphus Busch Hall in July 1914, just a few weeks before the start of World War I. Busch’s son-in-law, Hugo Reisinger of St. Louis, an art collector and philanthropist, died in September 1914 in Germany, leaving the Germanic Museum an endowment of $50,000.

Because of the war, architect Bestelmeyer never came to Harvard to see the building; American architects supervised construction as anti-German sentiment grew. In September 1916, Francke, who had endorsed American neutrality, took a one-year leave of absence from his professorship. When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Francke resigned as a Harvard professor, though he retained the title of honorary museum curator.

Busch Hall, a fairy-tale castle, was completed in 1917 and the kaiser’s plaster casts were moved in, but the building remained closed for four years, officially because of “a lack of coal.”

In April 1921, Adolphus Busch Hall was dedicated and opened to the public, drawing 50,000 visitors in its first year.

In 1930, a newly minted Harvard Ph.D. named Charles L. Kuhn became curator of the Germanic Museum. Kuhn began collecting original works of art, including German Expressionist works that were deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis. Kuhn assembled an extraordinary collection including art by Franz Marc and Max Beckmann. In 1937, an organ was installed in Busch Hall and a well-known organist named E. Power Biggs began giving concerts.

But World War II again brought strong anti-German feeling, and again the Germanic Museum was closed, its artworks and library moved into storage in the nearby Fogg Art Museum. The U.S. Army Chaplain School took over Busch Hall, and the building primarily became known for Biggs’ weekly Sunday morning organ concerts, broadcast to a nationwide audience by CBS Radio until 1958.

The end of World War II found the Germanic Museum nearly broke and unsure of its mission. Curator Kuhn began collecting objects to document the Bauhaus movement, whose founder, Walter Gropius, had fled Germany and become a Harvard professor in 1937. But with no money, the museum’s future was tenuous.

Once again, a Busch came to the rescue. Edmée Busch Reisinger Greenough, daughter of Adolphus and widow of Hugo, gave $5,000 in 1948, and then $200,000 in 1949, to put the museum back on its feet. A grateful Harvard renamed the Germanic Museum the Busch-Reisinger. The museum began collecting, as present-day curator Nisbet puts it, “the full complexity of Central and Northern European art, from all periods,” eventually amassing some 18,000 works.

In 1987, Harvard officials, worried about the lack of climate control in Busch Hall, moved the Busch-Reisinger’s collections into temporary quarters in the Fogg Museum while a new museum building, Werner Otto Hall, was constructed adjacent to the Fogg. Werner Otto Hall opened in 1991. Part of Adolphus Busch Hall was leased to the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. Weekly organ recitals are still given in Busch Hall.

Present-day members of the Busch and Reisinger families have shown “interested goodwill” toward the museum and its work, Nisbet says, but they are not currently active donors. The museum has more than 240 active supporters, however, in the Verein der Freunde des Busch-Reisinger, or Friends of the Busch-Reisinger, which was founded in Germany in 1983, and includes members in Austria, Switzerland, the United States, and other countries.

“Before Expressionism: Art in Germany circa 1903; An Exhibition for the 100th Anniversary of the Busch-Reisinger Museum” opened to the public in October; the exhibit runs through Feb. 15, 2004. The museum has also published “Birthday Presents,” a catalog of works donated in honor of its birthday.

Though it’s a century old, the Harvard museum isn’t feeling particularly timeworn.

“We are happy to use the occasion of our 100th birthday to focus attention on our past achievements,” Nisbet says, “and to signal our ambition to do yet more in the decades to come” – a sentiment well-worth toasting.