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Prof. Dr. Ulrich Borsdorf

Director of the Stiftung Ruhr Museum (Ruhr Museum Foundation) until 2011

Prof Ulrich Borsdorf studied History and German Studies with a view to teaching at the Ruhr University from 1966 to 1972. After his internship with Lutz Niethammer in Essen he completed his doctorate with Hans Mommsen at the RUB in 1981. Prof. Borsdorf then worked as a historian at the Institute of Economic and Social Sciences before becoming Director of the Ruhrlandmuseum (now the "Stiftung Ruhr Museum") in Essen in 1986.


The university was awakening, and I was in a kind of personal, biographical awakening.

RUB Alumni: Can you give us a quick outline of your university and professional career?

Prof. Borsdorf: I started at the Ruhr University in the summer semester of 1966, reading history and German studies with a view to teaching. At one point I also went down to Freiburg to study, but only for one semester, and then I returned with a little remorse because it was "too nice" in Freiburg.

RUB Alumni: ??!

Prof. Borsdorf: Yes, my colleagues there all had Cabriolets and the seminars were overcrowded - Freiburg was just a mass university. I really started longing to go back to the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and eventually I did. I then stayed there until 1972, when I did my finals.

RUB Alumni: You've just said "Freiburg was too nice"; the Ruhr-Universität is often criticised because of its architecture. Did you quite like it then?

Prof. Borsdorf: When I started at the Ruhr-Universität there were only the two buildings, IA and IB. And the lawn in between was a bit steep and we used it to lie on. The architecture never bothered me, although I can be very sensitive in this area. But apart from the structural design – I had already gone before the campus was completed – the atmosphere at Bochum University was imbued with a great pioneering spirit and I liked that. I had chosen Bochum as a place to study at advisedly, but I had also previously had a look at Marburg, Heidelberg and one or two other small university towns. But I wouldn't have liked it there at all. I didn't want to go to a place that was dominated by the university but a city where there was normal life too.

RUB Alumni: How did you experience the student revolution time of 1968 at the Ruhr University?

Prof. Borsdorf: I am still convinced to this day that this time was a political awakening for the Federal Republic of Germany and an important epoch in the political and social history of Germany, with all its good and bad sides.
I can understand the criticisms of the "68ers", but I still think that 1968, all told, has had a positive effect on society.
I personally didn't take part in the phase of the political factionisation of the student movement; I remained more of a Sponti. Apart from all the seriousness we put into it in political terms, there was also an incredible amount of fun involved in using our imaginations to take on the prevailing, stifling structures. I had no connections to violence, I didn't want that at all.
At a demonstration I bought some tulips at the market in Bochum, which I stuck behind the cross-barred windscreens of the water cannon I had climbed up on to. I was also then arrested and such. So I'm not going to try and claim I was the personification of holy, sober, political seriousness, as it were - the whole thing also involved great intellectual and other enjoyment for me, especially during this time of my life.

RUB Alumni: How did you view your studies at the Ruhr-Universität? Were there also professors and teachers that had a great influence on you?

Prof. Borsdorf: Yes. The Faculty of History had some outstanding people, even though I didn't really realise it as a first-year student. And there were also many relatively young people there; Rudolf Vierhaus as the first history Dean, for example, played a positive liberal role in the best sense of the expression. And then there was also Hans Mommsen and others such as Max Imdahl. I consider it to have been one of the best history faculties in Germany at that time, the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s. Until the Centre for the Renewal of Historiography (Zentrum der Erneuerung der Geschichtswissenschaft) then moved to Bielefeld. I don't know where it is now.

RUB Alumni: Is there any object from your time as a student that you have kept to this day?

Prof. Borsdorf: Yes, my student pass. We still had those old Hollerith punchcard passes. One on side you stuck your semester stamp and the passport was on the other. But I had messed with my pass … At the cinema box I always showed it stamp side up; when I was asked to show the passport photo I then turned it over – and the cashier was presented with the face of an amicably smiling chimpanzee.
This student pass was then displayed at the Ruhr-exhibition "Feuer and Flamme” (“Fire and Flames”) at the Oberhausen Gasometer in 1994: as an exhibit intended to indicate the founding of the universities and the change of structures in the Ruhr.

RUB Alumni: If you could summarise your studies in four words, what would they be?
Prof. Borsdorf: Awakening, quality, work, pleasure. The university was awakening, and I was in a kind of personal, biographical awakening. The degree was of good quality; I felt I had been well educated when I finished it. It's true that it was a lot of work, but I had nothing against that and I would like to stress the fact that it was not only the leisure, but the work too that gave me pleasure.

RUB Alumni: What connection is there between your studies and your current profession?

Prof. Borsdorf: My studies gave me the assurance that I had an academic base for my current profession. And I find that an absolute necessity for museums. Of course, exhibitions are not usually academic events. They should be designed to appeal to visitors - such as "Feuer and Flamme” or “Sonne, Mond und Sterne“ (“Sun, Moon and Stars”), the most successful exhibitions in the last 20 years in the Ruhr – but they should not be superficial. Museums have a mediatory function between academia and education. In this respect I am a defender of academic services in this field too.

RUB Alumni: When you think of today's students at Bochum, are there any tips or is there any advice you'd like to give them?

Prof. Borsdorf: No, I don't think so. I think every generation has to work out its own course of education for itself. I would like students to place value on finishing their studies relatively autonomously. That they don't let themselves be misled, that they should be guided by their interests and inclinations.
What I would wish of the Ruhr-Universität is that despite global networking – which is, of course, a sine qua non for a good university - it still devotes a lot of its energies to the Ruhr.
Now in particular, with the new conception of the Ruhr Museum's permanent exhibition [opened in January 2010], I notice that I would like more academic input as regards treating the history of the Ruhr – not as a home region but an example of industrialisation of the mining and heavy industry type and an example of the relationship between nature and culture that develops with the use of fossil energy. I would be interested to see the existing approaches to modern regional research bear even more fruit.
But I also think the Ruhr-Universität can feel a little proud of having made an impression on whole generations of students of a subject, who, historically speaking, did not actually belong to the recruiting reservoir of students. The universities helped to create a new social stratum here in the Ruhr: the "educated middle classes”. This newly created social stratum is aged between 25 and 45 and is a Ruhr powerhouse. They probably do not have the educational background and habits that exist in typical educated middle-class families outside the Ruhr, but they have had a good education at the universities that are here.

RUB Alumni: Thank you for talking to us.