The Old University building was built between 1712 and 1728 on behalf of elector Johann Wilhelm and was called “Domus Wilhelmiana” in his honour. The Old University houses the Rector’s Office as well as the university museum, which was established in 1996. The historic student prison (Studentenkarzer) is located in the back of the Old University.
The Great Hall, Heidelberg University’s magnificent historic auditorium, is located on the first floor. Like the rest of the building, the Great Hall was long a home for courses and lectures. Its present design dates back to Josef Durm’s redesign of the auditorium to mark the university’s 500th anniversary in 1886. This redesign features paintings and busts honouring the university’s founders, innovators and benefactors as well as its most important academics from its founding to the 19th century.
Today, the Great Hall is chiefly used for academic ceremonies, though it does also lend its venerable ambience to concerts, lectures and similar celebrations, which attain a special lustre thereby.
The student prison was established in the 1780s and remained in use until 1914. Today it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Heidelberg. From 1823 to 1914 students were incarcerated for offenses such as disturbance of the peace by night and other breaches of the public order.
The university has had the privilege of disciplining its own members since its founding. Since 1886, however, its jurisdiction has extended only to disciplinary procedures. Students could be incarcerated for durations from two days to four weeks, depending on their offence. Although students were theoretically permitted to continue attending lectures during their terms, life in detention was considered quite comfortable and the arrest was frequently used to skip lectures and spend time immortalising oneself on the walls and ceiling with drawings and poems. Today the university is trying to preserve these legacies in order to share these unique historical testimonials to student prison life with future generations.
The university museum, on the ground level of the Old University, offers an exciting tour through the history of Germany’s oldest university. Exhibits, portraits and documents are testimonies for the zeitgeist of the individual epochs, beginning with the founding in 1386 by elector Ruprecht I and running up to the end of the 20th century.
The university’s history is depicted in three separate epochs – the epoch of the Palatine electors, the Baden era and the twentieth century. Alongside the rooms housing permanent exhibits is the space dedicated to hosting temporary exhibitions. A different special exhibit opens in this space roughly every three to four months.