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Press Release: Alexander von Humboldt: the True Discoverer of America

International Conference, World-Premiere Play, American-Premiere Cantata

His fame was so all encompassing that on the 100th anniversary of his birth The New York Times devoted its entire front page to his accomplishments. A visionary ecologist, human rights activist, abolitionist, artist, anthropologist, astronomer, biologist, meteorologist, and zoologist, he was, as Simon BolĂ­var put it, Athe true discoverer of South America. Yet today Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is hardly a household name.

From October 14 to16, the CUNY Graduate Center and its Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies will celebrate this remarkable man and his colossal legacy with AAlexander von Humboldt: From the Americas to the Cosmos, an international interdisciplinary conference combining scholarship and art. Coinciding with the bicentennial of Humboldt's epoch five-year voyage of discovery, which culminated with a visit to Thomas Jefferson, the conference will encompass panels, films, more than 100 papers, a world premiere play, and an American premiere concert, all exploring the myriad aspects of Humboldt¹s life and work. The fee for the three-day conference is $50. Further conference and registration information can be found at or by calling 1-212-817-2096.

The world premiere of Wide World, a one-act play chronicling the landmark meeting between Humboldt and Jefferson, will be presented on Thursday, October 14, at 6:45 pm. Commissioned for the conference, the play was written by Laura Gunderson and will be performed by Break A Leg Productions.

The American premiered of Wilkommen!, a Felix Mendelssohn cantata commissioned by Humboldt himself, will be performed for conference participants on Saturday evening and then repeated for the general public on Sunday, October 17, at 3:00 pm. The cantata will be performed by students of the Graduate Center¹s Doctor of Musical Arts Program (many of whom are established professional singers in their own right). Students from the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, under the direction of James John, will perform other music related to Humboldt and his travels. The concert is free, but pre-registration is required. To register, e-mail  or call 1-212-817-8215.

The Graduate Center is located at 365 Fifth Avenue (34th Street) in Manhattan. The conference and associated programs are co-sponsored by Queens College, CUNY.

Sometimes referred to as Athe last universal scholar and Athe greatest of the greats, Humboldt concluded a five-year journey of exploration and discovery in South America, New Spain (Mexico), and Cuba with a visit in 1804 to the United States to pay his respects to President Thomas Jefferson. This extraordinary expedition established Humboldt as the greatest and most famous geographer and explorer of modern times, and his voyage became the highpoint of a life-long investigation and documentation of the unity of nature. In the course of his American travels, Humboldt collected tens of thousands of specimens of flora and fauna previously unknown to European science. From them grew an exhaustive, more than thirty-volume account of the journey that Humboldt produced upon his return to Europe. His travel writing is now considered to be groundbreaking. His American experience also moved the politically engaged Humboldt, a man inspired by the Enlightenment and ideals of the French Revolution, to publish books on Cuba and Mexico that offered critiques of colonialism and slavery and strongly advocated on behalf of the native peoples he saw cruelly exploited. In South America, he is still revered both for his science and his empathy with the sufferings of native people.

Humboldt's sense of justice and of the essential equality of all humankind was expressed in a wide variety of ways. He went to France during the Revolution, but, like many others with republican sympathies, became disillusioned with the course it took. In his home city of Berlin, he developed close personal ties to Jewish families at a time when such relationships were neither common nor commonly accepted --- even learning Hebrew and corresponding in that language. Despite his admiration for the United States, he did not hesitate to express his dismay at the self-evident contradiction between the American assertion that Aall men are created equal and the existence of slavery. He considered slavery Athe greatest evil of mankind.

Humboldt's influence underlies some of the classics of American literature such as Henry David Thoreau's Walden, and he had works dedicated to him by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. Hundreds of geographical, geo-political, and educational entities bear his name. His noteworthy descriptions and philosophy of nature influenced the Hudson River School and other American artists, most notably Frederick Church, and he also made his own depictions of landscapes, flora, and fauna during his scientific travels. One of the first statues erected in Central Park was a bust of Alexander von Humboldt. Located opposite the Museum of Natural History, it was unveiled by the city in 1869.

Like a certain other famous explorer, Humboldt's voyage was launched from Spain, and The Graduate Center conference is coincidentally being presented in the week following Columbus Day.

The Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies at The Graduate Center is a forum for the gathering of academics, students, policy makers, civil society leaders, and other specialists working on contemporary issues in the Americas. This nonpartisan center generates information and problem-oriented research, and encourages the formation of networks through its numerous public programs. The broad mission of the Bildner Center is to create an international community of specialists and organizations to forward understanding of the complexities of social, economic, political, and ecological life in the Western Hemisphere. For further information:

The Graduate Center is the doctorate-granting institution of The City University of New York. The only consortium of its kind in the nation, the school draws its faculty of more than 1,600 members mainly from the CUNY senior colleges and cultural and scientific institutions throughout New York City. Established in 1961, The Graduate Center has grown to an enrollment of about 3,900 students in 30 doctoral programs and six master's degree programs in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. The Graduate Center also houses 28 research centers and institutes, administers the CUNY Baccalaureate Program, and offers a wide range of continuing education and cultural programs of interest to the general public. According to the most recent National Research Council report, more than a third of The Graduate Center's rated Ph.D. programs rank among the nation's top 20 at public and private institutions.

Submitted on: SEP 1, 2004

Category: Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies | Press Room