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Dorner, Alexander, 1893-1957. Papers of Alexander Dorner, 1834-1985: A Guide

Harvard Art Museum Archives, Harvard Art Museums, Harvard University
The President and Fellows of Harvard College

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: BRM 1
Repository: Harvard Art Museum Archives, Harvard Art Museums, Harvard University
Title: Papers of Alexander Dorner, 1834-1985: A Guide
Date(s): 1834-1985
Date(s): bulk 1834-1935
Quantity: 38 linear feet (66 file boxes, 6 17x20.75 folio boxes, oversize materials)
Abstract: Notes, manuscripts, clippings and published articles relating to the research interests of Alexander Dorner, German art historian, educator, and museum director.

Acquisition Information:

The collection was donated to the Busch-Reisinger Museum by Dorner's widow, Lydia Dorner, in May 1958 and October 1961.

Processing Information:

The collection was processed in January-March 2005 by Emma Winter-Roffe, with assistance from Renee Gertler, Susan von Salis, and Wingsze Mak.

Conditions on Access:


Conditions on Use:

Copyright: Copyright in materials by Alexander Dorner is held by his heirs or assigns. Copyright in some papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns. Researchers must obtain the written permission of the holder(s) of copyright and the Harvard Art Museums Archives before publishing from any material in the collection. Copying: Papers may be copied in accordance with the Harvard Art Museums Archives usual procedures.

Separated Material

The following drawings were removed from these papers and accessioned into the Busch-Reisinger Museum collection in 2000:
The following photograph was removed from these papers and relocated to art storage in 2016:


Alexander Dorner was born in January 1893 in Königsberg, Germany. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in courses at the Königsberg University. With the onset of World War I, Dorner would divide the next four years between military service and his university studies. He transferred to the University of Berlin in 1915, where he began his study of art history, archaeology, philosophy, and history. While completing his degree Dorner associated with other future historians such as Erwin Panofsky, and it was during this time that he developed a strong interest in art theory and the necessity of revitalizing the study of art history. Upon completion of his dissertation in 1919, Dorner found employment at the Provincial Museum in Hanover, Germany. Though a novice and one of the youngest museum directors in Europe, Dorner showed ambition and a desire for change. He set about the transformation of the Hanover Museum, intent on creating a new conceptual arrangement. The collection was rearranged to create "atmosphere rooms" that were intended to demonstrate the continuity of themes in art through the ages rather than illustrate specific art historical periods.
Dorner's museum work and advocacy of modern art gained him recognition from German and international colleagues. He was the first museum director in the world to purchase and permanently exhibit the works of Piet Mondrian, Naum Gabo, Kazimir Malevich, and El Lissitzky. In the early 1920s he was able to make contact with multiple international gallery owners, collectors, and artists, putting Hanover on the map in avant-garde art circles. Recognition of Dorner's work increased in 1927 when he collaborated with the constructivist El Lissitzky in the creation of the "Abstract Cabinet," a theoretical design for a dynamic museum room based on the viewer's perspective.
As a result of the worsening world economic crisis and the change in the cultural and political climate in Germany, many of Dorner's future projects would not come to fruition. His influence in international avant-garde circles and his lifestyle were cause for increasing suspicion, and his defense of "degenerate art" led to his being forced out of his position at the Hanover Museum by the Nazis in February 1937, ostensibly because of his financial practices.
Dorner appealed to friends and colleagues in the United States, including Alfred Barr, Erwin Panofsky, and Walter Gropius, all of whom assisted Dorner in his attempts to find a position in America. Through the support of these influential contacts and his associations with the Bauhaus, Dorner was finally nominated in late 1937 to be director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. At RISD Dorner implemented many of the same ideas he had in the Hanover Museum, creating atmosphere rooms, and promoting public access to the museum, particularly for students and children. Dorner's contributions to the RISD museum were initially successful and museum attendance grew exponentially. After a few years, however, conflicts arose between Dorner and the board of the museum, partially due to his personality and directorial methods. The rise of anti-German and anti-Nazi sentiment in America raised suspicions regarding Dorner's political orientation, and the FBI investigated and denounced him as a Nazi sympathizer, despite his earlier attempts at opposition to the Nazi party in Germany. In May of 1941, Dorner was dismissed as director of the RISD museum.
With the help of some prominent society members of Providence, Dorner was able to rehabilitate his public reputation later that year; however, he never directed another museum. He gained a position as lecturer at the art department of Brown University, and in 1948 joined the faculty at Bennington College in Vermont where he lectured on art theory and twentieth-century art history. His experience at the RISD Museum had greatly affected him, and he gradually lost touch with current developments in the contemporary museum and art world. He died in November 1957 during a trip to Europe to settle formalities related to his persecution by the Nazis.

Scope and Content

The papers in this collection document Alexander Dorner's career and research interests as an art historian and educator. The collection consists primarily of clippings and other published materials, printed images, photographs of art and architecture, drawings, papers and ephemera collected by Dorner, and his own notes, writings, and lectures on these subjects. The collection also includes a small amount of correspondence with friends and colleagues. The topics reflect his personal and professional interests, including the following: art and architecture from the 15th to the 20th centuries, the role of the art museum, philosophy, education, symbolism in art, non-Western and 'primitive' art, magic and mythology, film, psychology, the impact of science and mathematics on art, Nazi Germany and politics, and the art and architecture of the Bauhaus. The material in the collection ranges in date from 1834 to 1985, however the bulk of the papers span the years 1919-1959, with most material dating from the 1940s and 1950s. Most of the folders contain a mixture of annotated clippings, notes and images. The folders and their contents have been kept in original order; they are not in any apparent logical order.
The papers in Dorner's original file folders have been re-housed into archival folders for preservation. When a large folder necessitated several smaller folders, the new folders have been numbered to indicate that they represent a part of a larger whole (example: "Psychology + Psycho-analyse," 1 of 2). Oversize materials from each original folder were grouped together and grouped together in oversize "catch-all" folders; these folders and their locations are indicated in the container list by brackets at the end of each title. The processor initially segregated acidic material within each folder by inserting a sheet of blank archival paper. This procedure was abandoned after about 100 folders due to time constraints. Some of Dorner's folders contained secondary folders within them; these are indicated in the folder list by typographic bullets. Oversize and rolled materials are described at the end of the finding aid.
All folder headings are the original folder titles and were presumably written by Dorner. Information enclosed in brackets was provided by the processing archivist. Folders labeled "untitled" or "loose material" within brackets indicate materials not explicitly titled or compiled by Dorner. These materials have been grouped together in the order in which they were found and descriptive information has been added by the Busch-Reisinger curatorial department or the processing archivist. Sections of the original folders with Dorner's handwriting on them have been trimmed and included as the first item in each folder.
When the materials arrived at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, each box was assigned a letter of the alphabet. From these large boxes the materials were re-housed into smaller acid-free boxes in the 1990s and organized by a letter and sub-number system. For example, the materials from the original box C were rehoused into boxes C I and C II. The curatorial department of the Busch-Reisinger Museum prepared an inventory of the Dorner papers in May 2004. This inventory was based upon a version of a typewritten inventory from 1985, which was, in turn, a transcription of a handwritten inventory from the mid-1960s. Both the typewritten and handwritten inventories may be found in the Busch-Reisinger Museum files. In January-March 2005, when the collection was prepared for archival storage by the Harvard Art Museums Archives, the materials were re-housed in archival folders and new archival boxes, and this finding aid was prepared. References to the original alpha-numerical box numbers have been removed from the folder descriptions below; a concordance listing the current folder number of the contents of each original box can be found at the end of this finding aid.

Old Box List

Note for researchers who have previously used the Busch-Reisinger inventory to access the Dorner papers: the following list indicates the current folder numbers for materials previously housed in lettered boxes.


Box and Folder Locations

Oversize Boxes

Roll Storage Boxes

Oversize Cabinet

Catalog Entries

The following catalog entries represent persons, organizations, and topics documented in this collection. An entry for each appears in the Harvard On Line Library Information System (HOLLIS) and other automated bibliographic databases. THIS IS NOT AN INDEX.

Container List