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From the student prison to the laboratory

The Freiburg University Museum combines history and teaching


There was a time when the people of Freiburg cheered every student who matriculated at their University of Freiburg. The 1000th student received a golden watch as a welcome gift in 1885, a portrait of the 2000th student was printed on postcards in 1904. The 3000th student received food and beer for one semester in 1911, which is why he was eventually put in the city's student prison (Karzer) - for drunkenness.

In view of the 22,000 students in the Southern Baden city, hardly anyone gets into festive mood nowadays, anymore. Nevertheless, people in Freiburg are proud of the long tradition of the Alma Mater, which was founded in 1457 by Archduke Albrecht VI. "Wisdom has built itself a house," the first rector Matthäus Hummel noted in his opening speech back then.

Almost 550 years later, the current director of university operations, Professor Wolfgang Jäger, thought it was time to finally also build a museum for the venerable house. Thus, the Uniseum was founded last year. The museum project, which is unique in Germany, not only presents the University's eventful history, but also provides a forum for its teaching activities. The exhibition organizers spent four years working on the concept. The result is one of the most modern and exciting museums in the city - and this at a time when cutbacks in culture are daily fare. This was only possible because the Uniseum Freiburg is not only to depict historical facts, but also to serve teaching purposes. "It was by no means intended to be pure navel-gazing," says Dieter Speck, director of the Uniseum and the University Archive.


Visitors are allowed to operate on Playmobil figures

The exhibition rooms are open to the public only three times a week for two hours each time. During the rest of the time, courses, alumni meetings or guided tours for freshmen take place. Seminars on university history are held here, as are courses in which students can test marketing concepts using the Uniseum as an example or try out new forms of museum tours. A small room is reserved for changing presentations prepared by students. The various faculties present themselves in the exhibition with current research projects and interactive stations. For example, visitors can use modern endoscopy technology to operate on Playmobil figures or at least knock them over.

The bigger part of the exhibition, however, is dedicated to the University's history. Even the building itself stands on historical ground. The first students of the Albertina were taught here. Freiburg students are also the ones who lead the Uniseum visitors anecdotally through the centuries: from the ducal foundation to the influences of the humanists and Jesuits to the university reform in the 18th century; from the expansion in the 19th century to National Socialism to the student protests of 1968. Multimedia elements and bizzare exhibits complement the exhibition.

A second construction phase is already planned - in the cellars of the building, some of which date back to the 13th century. Here, the focus will be on an important topic that concerns all universities equally: happy student life.


Andrea Benda

Published in German in the newspaper Die Zeit in December of 2005