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Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going? (Part 1)

Posted On September 26, 2017 | 14:12 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink


 Jan Ziolkowski, Director of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary this past November 1st. More than the sum of its individual parts, Dumbarton Oaks is a paragon of the gestalt principle. Director Jan Ziolkowski, who came to Dumbarton Oaks in 2007, believes that the close proximity of the research library, residential scholar accommodations, museum, and gardens is an immense asset for the institution. Ziolkowski works to preserve a balance between attending to commitments to the public (museum and garden visitors), respecting the wishes of founders Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, and strengthening ties with Harvard—all while serving the needs of scholars, who have sought a quiet refuge in which to pursue their research projects. In addition, Dumbarton Oaks has cultivated relationships with universities and institutions in the area, affirming its role in the community while mutually benefiting from shared resources and audiences. Through internal collaboration, Dumbarton Oaks shows its dedication to its role, as Mildred Bliss famously termed it, as a “Home of the Humanities,” rising to meet ever-present opportunities to study the past in order to “clarify the present and inform the future with wisdom,” as the Blisses proclaimed in 1940 on the inscribed plaque at the entrance to Dumbarton Oaks.

Dumbarton Oaks’ residential scholarship program brings advanced researchers from all over the world to make use of the institution's research library, which has unparalleled collections for Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies. Indeed, as Yota Batsaki, executive director of Dumbarton Oaks, put it, “the library is really at the heart of the scholarship that is produced here.” Daniel Boomhower, director of the library since early 2015, describes the library as “one-stop shopping,” explaining that it “acts as a whole in doing things that it otherwise couldn’t do if it was conceived of independently. All of these different aspects wouldn’t be consequential if they were pursued independently.” The new library, completed in 2005, brought together the three separate collections, which were previously held by their respective programs in the Main House. This centralized system has improved usability and expanded the resources available to fellows, who also have their offices in the library.

While Dumbarton Oaks is firmly established as a physical destination for scholars, Boomhower hopes that the website will come to play an analogous role as an online research portal. He envisions the site as a place where scholars may begin their research, and hopes to get all of the different elements of the site neatly amalgamated to form a comprehensive search tool. However, a search engine cannot parallel the community at Dumbarton Oaks; scholars who might otherwise be quite isolated can enjoy at Dumbarton Oaks the company and collaboration that comes from sharing a field of study.

Margaret Mullet, the former director of Byzantine Studies from 2009 to 2015, explains the importance of fellowship opportunities: “With the stimulus of lectures, seminars, colloquia, and symposia, the support of dedicated staff concerned only to put resources in the hands of the fellows, and the delight of gardens, music, good food, museum, and archival collections, the experience is holistic. This was the Bliss vision, and it remains nonpareil.” Over the years, fellowship positions have opened to include not only postgraduates but also those who have just begun graduate work. Scholars may now apply for one-month research stipends, summer fellowships, project grants, and short-term predoctoral residencies. In addition, under Ziolkowski, Dumbarton Oaks welcomed its first undergraduates as interns beginning in 2008.

The three eclectic fields of study at Dumbarton Oaks originated over time from the Blisses’ personal passions, and have since developed into full-fledged research programs. Initially, Dumbarton Oaks was created as an institution specifically dedicated to Byzantine studies, in which collaborative research, as opposed to isolated scholarly research, on Byzantine monuments could take place. Early administrative changes shifted the focus to publishing the independent research of preeminent scholars in the field, shaping Dumbarton Oaks’ reputation as the premier center for Byzantine studies. As Margaret Mullett observes, “Nowhere else is there a place where a dozen Byzantinists with widely differing disciplines and specializing in periods over twelve hundred years can come together and work together over the course of an academic year.” Dumbarton Oaks also supports advanced research in lesser-known fields, such as Byzantine numismatics and sigillography (the studies of coins and seals, respectively). Now, with the establishment of other research fields at Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantinists also have the opportunity to work alongside Pre-Columbianists and Garden and Landscape scholars, resulting in topics that reflect a level of collaboration, such as the 1996 colloquium on “Byzantine Garden Culture.” Current Byzantine Studies director Michael Maas (2015–16) envisions supporting scholarship in additional directions, bringing Byzantium into greater dialogue with the cultures with which it interacted over its nearly millennium-long existence, including Islamic, Central Asian, and Iranian, emphasizing Byzantium’s contributions in the context of the wider world.

Serving as a similar haven for Pre-Columbian scholars, Dumbarton Oaks’ Pre-Columbian Studies program was born out of Robert Woods Bliss’s personal affinity for ancient Mesoamerican art. Dumbarton Oaks has played a leading and defining role in the field since its official inception in 1970, and in many ways, the program’s development has been inextricably linked with the development of the field as a whole. Similar to the Byzantine Studies program, the Pre-Columbian program has shifted its focus away from acquiring objects, due to regulations upon exports from countries of origin. Instead, it has moved toward supporting a broader array of scholarship, the scope of which has expanded hugely since Elizabeth Benson was curator and first director, from 1963 to 1978, in terms of both the number of publications generated and the integration of perspectives from art historians, anthropologists, ethnographers, and archaeologists. Similar to Dumbarton Oaks’ other fields of study, there are plans to expand the Pre-Columbian Studies program, both to reach broader audiences through digital initiatives and to bring different cultures into closer interaction by placing a greater focus on previously overlooked Mesoamerican civilizations.

Although Garden and Landscape Studies was slow to develop into a full-fledged program—its initial endowment was established already in 1953 but its first director, Elisabeth MacDougall, was not appointed until 1972—it has nevertheless established itself at the forefront of the field of garden studies. Over time, the program expanded its scope from primarily European garden studies—as befit a department that grew out of Mildred Bliss’s collection of rare books on European garden design—to a broader examination of the cultural landscape with the inclusion of non-European, contemporary, and vernacular gardens. The program has striven to strike a balance between historical and modern perspectives, distinguishing it from other institutions that are more inclined to focus on either the past or the present, but not both. Over the years, Garden and Landscape Studies has included the perspectives of practitioners as well as academics, lending a modern frame of reference to a field that studies humanity’s relationship with nature while reflecting social, political, and philosophical realities. Director John Beardsley, in collaboration with Gail Griffin, director of gardens and grounds, has also implemented an occasional series of contemporary art installations in the gardens, challenging viewers to reconsider space and reaffirming the ways in which gardens buttress creativity and aesthetic experiences.