GLAM: So What Exactly Is Dumbarton Oaks Anyway?
After a few months of using Drupal for my professional blog, I’ve decided to once again move to Tumblr in order to contribute to the conversation that’s already happening. I’ll be migrating older content from the other blog and adding new content on a regular basis.
Ahh, it’s good to be back!
Prior to moving to DC to take part in the NDSR program, I had never even heard of Dumbarton Oaks before. Tucked away into a pocket of Georgetown, this little gem is well off the DC beaten path, and is actually an affiliate of Harvard University.
Owned by Mildred and Robert Bliss in the early 20th Century, Dumbarton Oaks began is a sort of pet project for the couple. Because Robert Bliss was in the foreign service, the Blisses became versed in the Parisian art world, and began to collect Byzantine and pre-Columbian works. A post in Buenos Aires prior to Paris, to my limited knowledge, led to Robert’s particular interest in pre-Columbian works. Mildred, on the other hand, was enamored of landscape and garden arts, and had the grounds of DO fashioned into an sumptuous outdoor paradise. Byzantine art was a point of shared interest for the couple (who, incidentally, were step-siblings prior to marriage), and was collected with an eye to the elaborate.
Because Robert was Harvard alumni, the couple decided to leave much of Dumbarton Oaks to the university in 1940 (with the rest going to the National Park Service). It was to “be used for study and research in the Humanities and Fine Arts with special emphasis upon Byzantine art and history.”
In its early years, DO supervised projects like the Index of Christian Art, and tasked fellows with the creation of new research materials. Since then, DO has both supported fellows in undertaking archeological digs in various areas around the world, as well as in coming to the grounds here to undertake their studies. The fellows come from interdisciplinary backgrounds, but are grouped into the three areas of study: Byzantine, pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Arts.
So this is all leading up to the question: What exactly is Dumbarton Oaks anyway? The scope is somewhat unintuitive, but speaks to the nature of how DO started out. As with so many humanities projects, it seems, the institution is built on the personalities of a few key people. And so, DO is really a representation of what the Blisses’ many passions (another point of note is our beautiful Music Room, a nod to another one of the couple’s shared interests, and where Stravinsky composed the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto).
One of my colleagues first explained Dumbarton Oaks to me as “a GLAM: a garden, a library, an archive, and a museum.” And really, that’s apt. We do it all here. And the culmination of all of these elements is really a world that exists completely separate from anything outside of its ivied walls (and especially from the goings on of the Washington, DC politico world). It is full immersion in scholarship, a place where time doesn’t run 9 to 5, and where lunches organically revolve around heady questions like ‘What is art?’.
In first entering DO, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I didn’t speak the language – sigillography, “Nantucket reds”, Orangery… And still, the winding paths and garden gates get me lost – at one point after a “get-together in the garden” after work, I got lost and ended up entering the museum through an apparently locked door (according to the annoyed guard). It’s a living place, full of moving parts.
Go and stand in the center of one of the eight domes of the Philip Johnson Pavilion, or visit the Cloud Terrace (an art installation featuring thousands of Swarovski crystals), and you’ll start to understand the magic that is part of DO. Get lost in the giant roses, or see the 14th Century manuscripts in the rare book collection, and then you’ll understand why it’s so hard to define Dumbarton Oaks.