Humboldt lives!

The Hamburg Center of Natural History (CeNak) is joining in the celebrations to mark the anniversary year. In the exhibition "Humboldt lives!", the Zoological Museum and the Botanical Garden of the University of Hamburg cast a light on Humboldt's expedition to South America.

From August 1790 to April 1791, the future explorer Alexander von Humboldt attended the private commercial academy in Hamburg. He was interested in many different fields of learning, and at the academy he honed his commercial knowledge and studied the circulation of money and the global economy. It was only later that he moved to Freiburg, where he devoted himself to his more widely known studies in mining.

But his foray into the Hanseatic city and the world of economics paid off. Hamburg merchants at the Spanish court interceded on behalf of the explorer Humboldt and his trip to the Americas. There were, after all, economic interests at stake – revenue from the overseas mines left much to be desired. The Spanish Crown believed that the young mining engineer showed promise for getting the cash flow back on track. Thus it was that the "Prussian Columbus", as he is also known, set sail for America under Spanish protection from the port of La Coruña. Hamburg harbour, meanwhile, remained an indispensable mailroom for his contacts with Europe – though these did not always go without a hitch. On 12 June 1804, the Hamburger Correspondent mistakenly reported the explorer's death.

But: "Humboldt lives!" is the name of the exhibition that reconstructs von Humboldt's five-year journey to America. A copy of the passport for the Spanish colonies is on display, a document of several pages for an expedition across the entire continent. A map of his travel route covers the floor. And every exhibit is accompanied by details on the scientific context and Humboldt's life.


Botany in motion

"Humboldt lives!" is divided into separate sections on flora and fauna. The "Botany in motion" section was designed by the University of Berne, with the University of Hamburg developing the section on "Animals in the tropics". Visitors can explore the diverse vegetation of South America along the "Humboldt path" leading through the University of Hamburg's botanical garden. Journal entries displayed on information boards bring the explorer to life. The entry at the "Wanderlust" station, for example, reads: "If I might be permitted to invoke my own memories, to ask myself what first prompted an indestructible longing for the tropics, I would have to say: [...] a colossal dragon tree in an old tower of the botanical garden near Berlin." And on the subject of "Drugs", the natural scientist noted: "The niopo is so stimulating that the smallest portions of it produce violence sneezing in those who are not accustomed to its use." Sneezing is actually the least of the effects of Anadenanthera peregrina. The plant is ground into a powder, the consumption of which induces trance states and psychedelic hallucinations.

Humboldt's painting of the Andes takes pride of place here as one of the first scientific infographics. In it, Humboldt meticulously identifies the different vegetation zones of the mountain range.

Humboldt's herbarium is a special attraction of the exhibition. Accompanied by the Frenchman Aimé Bonpland, the explorer and scientist collected thousands of plants in South America. Most of the collected items are stored in Berlin and Paris. Some loan exhibits are now also on display in Hamburg.

Animals in the tropics

The "Animals in the tropics" section showcases Humboldt's work as a zoologist. The stuffed specimens are especially exciting for children, with various species of monkey, the enormous Andean condor, llamas and electric eels alongside the drawings Humboldt made as part of his basic research. As research studies they also have surprisingly aesthetic qualities and reveal something of Humboldt's artistic talent. Copper engravers and colourists later reworked many of his drawings into real works of art.


An air of adventure wafts through the Zoological Museum. As well as the exotic flora and fauna, typical clothing and equipment of the late 18th century are also on display. While the measuring instruments were highly sophisticated, the attire required of its wearers a rather robust constitution – Humboldt ascended the highest summit of the Andes in ordinary street clothes.

"Animals in the tropics" is curated by CeNak director Matthias Glaubrecht and the journalist and Humboldt expert Peter Korneffel.  "Botany in motion" was designed by the University of Berne.

Exhibition "Humboldt lives!", until 29 September 2019 in Hamburg.

The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive programme with readings, presentations and guided tours. Here you find more information.

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