Susan A. Boyd (DOA Interview)
Susan Boyd was also interviewed by the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) on July 23, 2014. For more information, see ICFA Oral History Initiative: Susan Boyd.
SB: I came to Dumbarton Oaks on November 1, 1962, and I retired finally in 2004, so I’m probably one of the few people remaining that ever knew Mrs. Bliss. Mr. Bliss had already died by the time I came. But my first day at Dumbarton Oaks was such a remarkable day because it was Founders’ Day, which was the commemoration of the first day of Dumbarton Oaks, November 1, 1940, which was the celebration of the formal handing over of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard. And it was one of those extraordinary days – perfect late-summer, Indian-summer days, sunny – and the celebration was always a fancy luncheon at the director’s house – which is of course today the refectory – and Jack Thacher was the Director. What one has to remember at that time was that the staff at Dumbarton Oaks was tiny. We were – I think with my appointment as assistant for the Byzantine collection – were a staff of twenty three, and there was a research staff, professorial staff of ten, I believe, plus the Director and Director of Byzantine Studies. But my day first started with being introduced to people around Dumbarton Oaks, signing those papers, and then going over to this wonderful liquid lunch at the director’s house. It was always a liquid lunch with champagne. Mrs. Bliss was there, as she always came. And then because it was such a wonderful day, we went and wandered around the gardens and I saw all the gardens for the first time in their late fall beauty. So, it was, let’s say, an unrealistic first day of work, if one could call it that, for my career at Dumbarton Oaks. I was fortunate to have met Mrs. Bliss early on and that was certainly my very first time having met her. But during the 1960s she was a regular presence at Dumbarton Oaks, and she would come up probably mainly for the garden library to see what was going on there because she still maintained a personal interest in, and I think pretty much a control of, the garden library – which was not yet called the Center for Landscape Architecture. But she would also come into the Byzantine Collection and we – I remember preparing for an opening – and I don’t remember now whether it was1963 or the really big reopening and reinstallation of the collection in 1965 – but I was busy cleaning off Plexiglas stands, which had had these terrible little labels put on them, with wood alcohol, which was the one thing that I could get the sticky stuff off with. And I had the wood alcohol in a little wine glass, and she came in up to me and she said, “Oh, Miss Boyd, isn’t it a little early in the day to have gin?” And I just burst out laughing because it was such an unlikely thing for her to have said and it was certainly unlikely that I would be in the collection sipping gin, but it gives a sense that she was a very approachable, nice lady. So, erect and – I can’t think of the word – but she was a very impressive presence, and for some reason I felt relatively at ease with her. I don’t think the Fellows did all the time. She would come up for tea once a week, and we’d have formal tea in the afternoon at four o’clock, and once a week she would come up to tea. But, I enjoyed – she – having been in the diplomatic service all her life – she was able to talk to anyone, and she could always find some subject that could be of interest for somebody who was shy or socially insecure or was lost in Byzantium and didn’t know beyond Byzantium. So, in any event, that was how I started. And – yes?
SB: Well, we had – my recollection was we, initially, had tea every afternoon at four. And we had this wonderful little French maid who would cut the frozen pound cake into slices that were so paper thin, and cookies that were set out absolutely in a perfect arrangement, and so she would be doing that – and maybe it was at 4:30 I don’t remember. Silver tea pots set up, tea cups and saucers – I mean porcelain tea cups and saucers. And on the days that – at least this is my recollection, I could be wrong – but certainly on the days Mrs. Bliss was there, some of the Fellows would sneak in early and grab a cookie off the plate and not come for tea, but it was understood that all the Fellows were supposed to be there for tea. Mrs. Bliss still liked to meet the people who were the Fellows of Dumbarton Oaks. She took an interest in what was going on. It may be staff that talked to her or the senior professors who were here that spoke to her.
SB: It was completely informal. It was small talk.
SB: No, they were not. They didn’t exist. It’s a social gathering. It was a chance for her to meet some of the professors that she might have known elsewhere, to meet the Junior Fellows, whom she certainly didn’t know. She invited people to her house for dinner, probably more at the senior level than the most junior level. But of course we – even then, I didn’t go back and see how many, but we may have only had six, maybe four Junior Fellows, three post docs, and then what we had were invited visiting – distinguished visiting professors at the much higher level whom she might well have been acquainted with in the past. But these were just informal gatherings and the Director was there, Director of Byzantine Studies was there.
SB: Oh, who was Director? Jack Thacher. John S. Thacher. And he is somebody whom I would like to mention specifically because I think he to a certain degree has been undervalued in terms of the really huge contribution that he made to Dumbarton Oaks. He was the first Director of Dumbarton Oaks and he was handpicked by Paul Sachs who was then the Director of the Fogg Art Museum, and he had been assistant to Paul Sachs at Harvard for several years. And, of course, the whole setting up of Dumbarton Oaks was in large part facilitated by the Fogg Art Museum – Paul Sachs, Edward Forbes, who was the first Director of the Fogg, I believe – and helping to convince Harvard that this was a viable undertaking, because Harvard was, as you know, uncertain as to whether they wanted to accept this research center in Washington, D.C. at a time when we were just coming out of the Depression and just entering the Second World War. It was a very unsettled period, and Harvard was a little skeptical as to how this was going to work. Would there be sufficient funds? The Blisses were very canny, I think – and I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense – but they worked very closely with their colleagues at the Fogg who were very enthusiastic about this. But I believe to whet their appetite, to help convince Harvard to have Dumbarton Oaks as part of the university, the Blisses gave, I believe, a million-dollar bequest to the Fogg Art Museum which is almost no-where known, and it was certainly given anonymously as they did almost everything. They were very modest collectors. They were very modest donors. They worked behind the scenes to get things done that they wanted to have done and see done, but this certainly helped ensure the interest of the Fogg. And they in fact would have allowed one of the Fogg directors to be Director of Dumbarton Oaks, but the Fogg I think quite wisely decided that that was not what should be. So, Jack Thacher, as he was known, came down in1940 as I think the chief executive officer. He was not a Byzantinist, he was a Harvard Ph.D. in Spanish Baroque painting, but he was a man of extraordinary connoisseurship. He had a wonderful eye and somehow he picked up Byzantine art along in his tenure at Dumbarton Oaks – over twenty-eight years, and I think this is something that one should focus on, he was here from 1940 until he retired a year and a half after Mrs. Bliss died. And he had promised Mrs. Bliss that he would stay as the Director of Dumbarton Oaks through her tenure, and she died in 1967 or ’68, I think.
SB: He retired in ’69.
SB: In any event, ’69 he retired and – I don’t remember exactly the date. I think she retired –
SB: Yeah, ’69 I think is when – yes.
SB: Very long time. And there was a symbiosis between them that really, I think, explained how they worked together so harmoniously and so closely.
SB: Well, initially it was certainly Robert, Mildred, and Jack. But, of course, Mildred was really the power wanting to collect Byzantine art. That was the influence of Royall Tyler. And, of course, very early on Robert Bliss became interested in Pre-Columbian art, but they together always were collecting Byzantine art. But definitely the relationship I think grew between Mildred and Jack. And part of this – the reason it worked so well, I think, is the cultural milieu in which both had grown up. Both came from extremely wealthy backgrounds. They were extremely well-educated, they traveled widely, they both had the collector’s passion. And I think that because of this interesting collecting – and they both spoke the same cultural language. They both spoke the same language. They had grown up in the same kind of cultural milieu, and therefore the Blisses trusted him even though he was probably twenty-five years their junior at the time, I think more than if some other younger scholar had come in to be Director of Dumbarton Oaks. And of course he had the imprimatur of Paul Sachs and familiarity with the Fogg system, which was pretty much taken over at Dumbarton Oaks initially, the way we registered objects and things like that. It was the Fogg system. And theirs was a very close and fruitful relationship. And I have noted elsewhere that it’s possible that Mildred looked on him as the son she never had, for her letters to him over the years were filled with great affection and respect. But what he – the closeness of their relationship – and I think what one has to realize, how difficult it must be for a – and I’m thinking now from 1940 to – really from the – when Dumbarton Oaks was transferred to Harvard, the Blisses moved to 28th Street, but they left immediately for Montecito, California where they stayed for two years, Mr. Bliss having retired in 1933. But he was called back to Washington in 1943, I guess because of the Second World War, and he was a special assistant to Edward Stettinius who I think was Secretary of State, and so they were in Washington where I think they stayed off and on until her death in ’69. And for a director to have living founders virtually next door is a task that demands enormous diplomacy and tact. And there may be times when you wanted to be more independent, but he, I think, never to my knowledge, probably made a major acquisition without discussing it with Mr. and Mrs. Bliss ahead of time. Certainly in the period of the ’40s just after Dumbarton Oaks went to Harvard, the Blisses were as closely involved as probably they would’ve been before. Every acquisition was – photographs were sent to the Blisses for approval. Dealers both sent them pictures directly as well as they sent them to Jack Thacher. They often – the art scene in New York, the Blisses would come east or if they were east they would go up to New York frequently. Similarly, when they were in Europe they would see dealers. But what Jack did over that period of time, certainly with a huge backing from the Blisses financially, was probably more than double the size of the collection from the time of 1940. Now I haven’t done a count to make sure of that, but it was an enormous increase in that twenty-eight-year period.
SB: Absolutely, absolutely. One has to remember that, probably the first thirty, forty years of Dumbarton Oaks, the focus was much more on art, archaeology, and art history than it is today. The collection, even though there were only – it was a two-person collection, and then the Director of Dumbarton Oaks who was really the director of the collection and the chief curator of the collection. Therefore, just because of the small size of Dumbarton Oaks, the collection was a larger part of the whole than perhaps it is today. The Blisses certainly were trying to build their collection prior to – to make it – they wanted to fill the cases at the moment they gave it to Harvard and they wanted to increase its size. Now Jack Thacher was one of the few pure art historians to be the Director of Dumbarton Oaks and he came at a time when Dumbarton Oaks was still in a major acquisition mode in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s. One of the things that really surprised me when I was going through early correspondence and budgets was that despite the fact that for three years from ’37 to ’40 – actually, four years because it was really all through 1940 they were acquiring – when the budget was set for acquisitions for the Byzantine collection in 1941 it was something like one thousand dollars. Now this was a fraction of what the Blisses had been spending over the years, and I can only assume that this was in part because the Fogg was helping us make up the budget, and the Fogg was a very poor museum and had no acquisition funds and therefore they just said, “Well, this is all you need because – ”
SB: Yes. This is a guess, but even in 1946 I think we only had a five thousand dollar acquisition fund. It was nothing.
SB: Well, it nowhere covered what was being spent. But it is not so easy to find out again because the Blisses simply did this very quietly. And it wasn’t until I think the ’50s that one said, “Gift of Mrs. Bliss” or “Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss,” that one saw clearly that they were paying the money. But when I could look and see we were spending ten thousand dollars on acquisitions and we had a three thousand-dollar acquisition fund. Even if we were begging to pay over a two-year period, there’s no way the same number of acquisitions could be made. And there was one other thing. Yes, well, up to the time that Dumbarton Oaks was given to Harvard, Brummer, Joseph Brummer, played a major role. He was such an important dealer at the time in almost all areas of art, but certainly in antiquities. And we were certainly in negotiation for various other objects at the time of the transition, some of which we did acquire, and that was actually what put me on to the fact the Blisses had to continue paying for these objects behind the scenes. But then Brummer died and there was a huge sale of the Brummer collection in 1947, where, I don’t remember how many objects we bought, but I know I had written down somewhere there were sixteen major objects that we bought, and that was definitely with the help of the Blisses. So, Jack and the Blisses worked hand-in-glove over a good part of his tenure here, but he was constantly on the prowl for objects. As I think I mentioned to you earlier, from the time I came to Dumbarton Oaks in the ’60s, Jack went off every summer for three months to Turkey, mainly Istanbul, to Greece, sometimes up to Mount Athos, to – and he spent a fair amount of time in Switzerland, but he would probably go to the major world capitals and he was always talking with dealers. So, much of acquisitions at that time was establishing a relationship with a dealer. And you would go and see them and you would have tea with them, and little by little they would start showing you one treasure, and then if you had enough time you would get to the more important things. And this was in Europe also, and in New York eventually. You didn’t get to the back room for quite some time. You had to prove yourself seriously interested. But this was all some kind of priming the pump. If you were a good client then the dealers would bring to you their most important objects and you would get the right of first refusal. And for a while I think Jack played a very important role in that, whereas the Blisses were quite notorious for never being willing to pay full price for an object. And so they would dicker and dicker and dicker, whereas jack I think was much more pragmatic, and if he felt the price was reasonable he would buy it. If he felt the price wasn’t reasonable he would just say so and say, “I will give you – I’ll offer you this much.” But he didn’t dicker the way the Blisses did, and the dickering could go on for years with the Blisses. It was amazing. You read these – I think with Kelekian was one of the worst, but Kelekian was a difficult dealer. He was always trying to sell objects because he needed the money. He had good objects, but he couldn’t stand to lower the price, and the Blisses refused to pay his price.
SB: Yes. Anyway, Jack really made – and the other thing is as a museum – he was really the only true museum director we’ve had in the sense that he had an eagle eye for every detail everywhere, whether it was installation, if a label was crooked, if a curtain was wrong, if there was dust here, if something – a blind was aslant, he couldn’t stand that. He was an absolute perfectionist, and his own house showed that too.
SB: Oh, it’s such a good question, and I can’t answer the question. I don’t think there is much information there that I have read. It was a very old-fashioned exhibition in the sense that there were wooden cases with glass shelves. They were – it was put out like a private collection and a kind of Kunstkabinet type of installation. There were just trestle tables out with objects, open, not even vitrines on them. And, of course, we had probably a very small coterie of people that would come up. We were open – as we are today – only three hours a day, two to five. But it had very much a private collection aspect, to have it with potted palms everywhere, and I think this was just the ethos of the era. I can’t believe it was not Jack Thacher who did not do most of the installation. What I don’t know is to what degree any of these cases existed after – because, of course, they had built the whole wing for the museum, so I assume the cases were probably made at the same time. There were four perfectly beautiful cases, very old-fashioned, eighteenth-century-type cases with beautiful woodwork on them, which really I think gave the model for what was eventually done in the Garden Library for their great latticed, open bookshelves. And these cases at least had lights in them. But the lightning in the collection was virtually daylight, and there were – to my recollection – there were no lights except overhead lights, but not spotlights or anything like that. Now, the installation that I remember was the 1965 installation, because I think when I came the collection was closed because of all of the construction that was being done at Dumbarton Oaks with the construction of the new wing, the Philip Johnson wing, for the Pre-Columbian Collection. New offices were being put over – Byzantine Collection offices were being expanded and offices being put on the second level there, changes were being made to the basement level, and so I do not remember an installation before the ’65 installation. But I think it had opened. We had opened it, I simply – it’s not in my memory. The installation I remember was a new installation in 1965 because the Byzantine collection looked so dowdy by comparison to what the Pre-Columbian collection looked in this wonderful new glass and bronze building with Plexiglas mounts and Plexiglas cases. But again, this was a much more conservative approach. But this was Jack Thacher entirely. He chose the stone bases for the cases, which were – I’ve forgotten what it was called, the sort of beige – travertine, I think it was.
SB: Yeah. I think the beige, the pinky beige was travertine.
SB: Oh, no, that’s Illinois marble or Illinois something. Yeah.
SB: And then the big change were these hexagonal cases with the great bonnets in Plexiglas, which just had never been done before. I mean, the use of Plexi at Dumbarton Oaks was Jack Thacher, and this was well in advance of its – one doesn’t blink at it today, Plexi and Lucite, but at the time nobody worked in it. And we had this wonderful installer called Jim Mayo, a designer who came from the Smithsonian Institution, and he designed the cases for Pre-Columbia and then he designed the cases for the Byzantine Collection. And one of the questions I saw that had been asked in – considered in the oral history, was what was the concept of presentation and did you have wall panels and what kind of texts and labels and all of that. And Jack Thacher was a minimalist. If he could have had no labels in the collection, he would’ve had none. We had to fight to get two line labels in tiny type that simply gave the name of the object, the material, and the Byzantine eleventh century, or Constantinople twelfth century, and that was it. He felt if you were interested enough you would read up on Byzantium and know what these things were, and that –
SB: Absolutely. Aesthetics –
SB: Absolutely, absolutely – style, aesthetics, simplicity. You didn’t want to mar the installation with information. It’s really shocking when you think of it today, but –
SB: Dumbarton Oaks always had a certain cachet, and it still does, but it tends to be those people who have traveled, whether it’s now to Central and South America, Mesoamerica or whether, of course, in the early times it was Turkey and Greece. And obviously it was a highly educated audience that we appealed to, well-traveled. Europeans seemed to know about us more than Americans. And I assure you, when I came to Dumbarton Oaks not one of my friends had ever been in Dumbarton Oaks. And even fifteen years later many of them had never been in Dumbarton Oaks.
SB: Yes, exactly. They would come to the gardens. They knew the gardens but not the collection. It is – both of these collections are very specialized, and they appeal to a specialized audience. And I – yes.
SB: No, not even – even after Jack Thacher retired and William Tyler came. Now, William Tyler, as you know, was the godson of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, and he actually gave up an ambassadorship to come here as the director. But he was a very quiet director. I could use the term passive. I think he really wanted to preserve the status quo at Dumbarton Oaks. He did not want to make changes. He had such deep respect and love for the Blisses that he wanted to keep it just the way the Blisses had it. It really wasn’t until Giles Constable came that a great wind swept through Dumbarton Oaks, and this was not so easy for everybody to come to terms with. And he got off on a somewhat awkward and difficult footing at Dumbarton Oaks because we were – I’m just trying to think because he came in 1973, so that was about five years after Mrs. Bliss died. He did not like – and I think he came with a mandate from – I’m jumping to two different things – I think he came with a mandate from Harvard to make changes at Dumbarton Oaks. It could be just his own ideas about the place, I’m not certain. But one of the most controversial issues came up really before he even took over director, which was the possible moving of the research center up to Harvard – Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard, which meant all the Fellows, the professors – if we still had them at that time – and the library I believe, would move up to Harvard. The collections would – and the buildings, of course – would remain here and the gardens would remain open. This, to everybody who knew anything about this, meant you had to break the Blisses’ will, which seemed to all of us something that couldn’t be done nor should it be done. This created a huge outcry among the Byzantinists and everybody who knew Dumbarton Oaks, and I think that was when the Fellows of Dumbarton Oaks first coalesced into a committee to talk with the director and try and keep pressure on Harvard that this would not happen. In the end of course it did not happen, but people did not trust Giles because of this, because they felt that this was his mandate, that he had been sent down here to basically terminate Dumbarton Oaks. What he did instead, once that issue finally was resolved and Dumbarton Oaks was not going to move, he did make a concerted effort to open up Dumbarton Oaks much more to the public on the one hand and that, in terms of the Byzantine Collection, the Pre-Columbian Collection, was to attempt to make a real outreach to the public to bring the public in. Now, Giles was a bit of a publicity hound, but this actually helped the Collection because we got free publicity in the Post all the time. And it was mainly on the gardens, and maybe the swimming pool, but it was also on what his mission for Dumbarton Oaks was or his ideas for Dumbarton Oaks were. And under Giles I was appointed Curator of the Byzantine collection and Gary Vikan was appointed Associate Curator of the collection, and he had already been at Dumbarton Oaks on a fellowship or a special research project – I honestly don’t remember which. Maybe he’d first been a Fellow and then got a research project, and I think at that time he may even have already been asked to do the sculpture catalog – I meant to take a look and see when that was first conceived of. But our mandate was to start doing special exhibitions, to try and make the Collection itself more accessible to the public, meaning information, better labeling, wall texts, the brochures are what we first started doing
SB: The word “outreach” I don’t think anybody at Dumbarton Oaks had ever heard before.
SB: Well, Dumbarton Oaks had a reputation very much as an elitist institution. It was an ivory tower. Only the crème de la crème came to Dumbarton Oaks. If you were a Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, this was kind of an imprimatur on your résumé that you were the best of the bunch. It was kind of a hushed place. It was very hierarchical. Staff was on the low end of the hierarchy, Fellows and scholars and professors were at the other end. Now, of course for a large part of this time, early time, it was so small we all interacted. But we did not go to lunch at the Fellows Building. The staff did not go to lunch at the Fellows Building. So, in fact – I think I should probably have said first – Giles wanted to open up Dumbarton Oaks on the scholarly side of things. And one of the, again, rather controversial things that he did was change the fellowships on two levels. No longer would the distinguished, most important professors be invited. Like every other applicant, they would have to write an application and apply for the fellowship. Now this, as you can imagine, did not go down well with the Buchthals, Demuses, Weitzmanns. They were used – Paul Lindner, Momigliano. I mean, these people did not apply, they were invited. So, this did cut down on our senior level of people and caused a fair amount of consternation, I think, on an international level. But what he did, which was also very controversial but I think the right thing to do – up until Giles Constable Dumbarton Oaks was closed for two months in the summer, in July and August it closed down completely. The textiles had to come down and rest, the tapestries had to come down and rest, everything was covered up so that no light was in on the objects, and the staff could come down and rest. And of course this was wonderful: we had the swimming pool, it was a time when you really got to know – this is anecdotal – but got to know the Fellows, because fellowships for the junior fellows were all two-year fellowships so they were all there during the summer and maybe they would take a couple of weeks off but it was a low-key, informal, and very nice period. Well Giles changed all of that. Fellowships for Junior Fellows were now nine months. He opened us up for the summer months and he started summer fellowships. Now, you can imagine, not just to open up but then to have a whole new group of fifteen or twenty Fellows was really a hard thing for staff to get used to, especially the library staff who had the most to do. But that was often when – the Summer Fellows were often the ones who came to work in the Collection because they were museum – often – I don’t say all – museum people, but they were often museum professionals who could only get a month or two off, and this was really a good thing in the long run. It opened fellowships up so that people could come and use our library who might not be able to either get the time off from their job if they weren’t an academic, or might not perhaps have quite the qualifications for a full-year’s fellowship, but we would like to help encourage them with the help of a really first-class library with no other interruptions on their time. Another thing he did – I mean, those were sort of the two things on the fellowships side of thing and the Fellows. He opened up the Fellows Building so the staff could eat lunch, so that there was more interaction between staff and Fellows, so that those of us who were basically professionals on the staff actually had a chance to interact on an informal basis with the Fellows who were here. In terms of the Collection we – now I say Giles did all of this. I would have to look and see who our Senior Fellows Committee was at the time, but this obviously came – some of this opening up and certainly for the collection process I think came also from the Senior Fellows, because when I was appointed Curator, this was the first change in museum staffing. It was the first search for a museum curator, because Jack Thacher had been the director and Libby Bland, who was not an art historian and who had been my boss, was not a trained art historian, and so this was the first time there had been a real search for a curator. And I think they took that very seriously and looked at what the collection should be and what direction this should be going. This coincided with what other museums were doing, and I think it was time to look in a very different way at the functioning of the museum and the role of the museum in Washington and at Dumbarton Oaks.
SB: I think it was to make the Collection a more dynamic part of Dumbarton Oaks, and certainly Giles was very interested in visitorship. I think he wanted to make Dumbarton Oaks better known to the Washington public. I think he wanted people to come in. We established the docent service at that time, and that was a big undertaking for us who had never had a docent service. And we had to find someone who could run it. We had to look at all the docent programs around town and see what we wanted to do. It’s a very complicated collection to try and teach, with such completely disparate collections and the gardens, which really remain the most popular part of our institution, so that was a very big undertaking. The special exhibitions, I think, were one of the best things that we did in terms of – up to that time in the ’60s and early ’70s we had been really working on the publication of the Collections, getting our catalogs out, the two volumes of the Marvin Ross catalog. I worked with Weitzmann very closely on the ivory catalog. We had worked for a long time on a textile catalog that ultimately did not get published, but that was a hugely time consuming thing for me. And then Gary was working on the catalog of sculpture. I’m trying to remember when the first exhibition – I guess I have a list here. The first one that I actually did was a tiny little exhibition, one, two vitrines, and it was on the medieval liturgical arts. And it was focused on really the Suger Chalice down at the National Gallery which had just been completely taken apart to examine it in the conservation lab to try and determine the antique parts, what part of it might be Byzantine, what part Phoenician, what part Western Medieval, and it’d been put back together again, and I just happened to have had the pleasure of being able to go down and see it at that time. And I thought, gee, they weren’t planning to put it back on exhibition at the National Gallery, so I asked if we could borrow it. Yes, it was in the Widener collection, but for some reason the Widener collection was going to be closed – I think the reinstallation of the collection. It’s always been in this room just of the Widener materials. So, I just went through and selected everything we had in the Byzantine collection of medieval patents, asterisks, some medieval vestments and the like. And we got a vitrine made for the Suger Chalice and just – anyway. That was the first little exhibition.
SB: And then, of course, they thought, how did this happen that they’re putting it on exhibition before we are?
SB: Well, it’s a small world. One has very close connections with these – the National Gallery often was doing restoration work for us. I got to know the curators and got to know the conservators. And I think the Freer Gallery was another one of the close connections because we don’t have a conservation gallery at Dumbarton Oaks and never have. So, the first major exhibition was, I would say – I mean, we had another one on conservation of the silver – the first piece of the silver treasure, which I want to come back to because that was such a major part – the conservation of the silver treasure was just a major part of my career there. But “Gifts from the Byzantine Court” was the first exhibition, and it came about because of the acquisition of the two pages from the lectionary of Catherine, Catherine Clamia. And we were able to borrow two pages from the Cleveland Museum and a manuscript from which – in the Houghton Library up at – the Widener Library at Harvard. And it was simply a one-vitrine exhibition focusing on our acquisition, and Gary wrote this wonderful little publication just setting the whole thing in context. And the goal of our exhibitions tend to be very – I hate the word pedagogical – but they were very small, focused exhibitions with a very specific theme and some of them – another exhibition was the – it was specifically focused on an object that we had acquired, it was, of course, the icon exhibition in 1983, in part because – well, first of all, it was the first major icon and only major icon that – we have subsequently been able to get a number of post Byzantine icons – but this was a great, late thirteenth-century icon of first importance. And it was a difficult acquisition because it did not have the kind of provenance that we wanted, and it came from a collection in Amsterdam that we did not know where it came from. And so we did what’s now known as due diligence, which was to write to Serbia, Estonia, Greece, and Turkey to try and find out if this was a known piece anywhere, and everybody wrote back saying they did not know it and to buy it, that it was fantastic. But we were able to make an arrangement with the dealer for a two- or three-year period where we would pay for it and put the money in escrow and we would publicize the acquisition and if there was any claim made against it we would return it to him and we’d get our money back. So, we were under a lot of pressure to make this known as quickly as possible. And we were able to get icons from private collections in London and California and it was a wonderful little exhibition that really covered and focused on what icons were. We had a lot of text panels and photographic panels with information about the history of icons and how they function. And then, of course, we had Kurt Weitzmann come down, publish the piece, and give the inaugural lecture – well, the inaugural lecture was his publication. And this was an astounding period because it was the last – I think, the last public lecture that Weitzmann did because his eyes were so bad he could no longer read any text. And he examined the icon literally almost putting his eye to the wood, and he had written most of his article before he had actually seen this first hand, he had a day with the icon. This was also a huge breakthrough for us in the sense that it was the first time we had ever had a press conference and a press preview at Dumbarton Oaks. And this had come about in a funny way because the New York Times for some reason had gotten hold of the story of the icon acquisition and had put it on either the front page of the paper or the front page of the art section, so we got a lot of publicity in that way about it. And a PR firm simply called me up and he said, “What are you doing to publicize this icon?” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” He said, “Well, you know, PR, press releases.” And I said, “We’re Dumbarton Oaks. We don’t have – ” “Who’s your press officer, development officer?” And I said, “We don’t have one, we don’t have one, we don’t have one.” So, anyway, he said, “I would like to do this for you.” So he came in and we talked and I said, “Well, we were planning an exhibition on it.” And he said, “Okay, this is what we’ll do.” And he then walked us through what we had to do, and he gave us the deadlines for six months in advance. There’s no exhibition that we do six months in advance. Well, maybe we do, but we certainly don’t know what we’re going to do at that point. And we prepared the press information for him. He sent out press packets to all the newspapers around: Washington, Baltimore, New York Times. And then they do it – well, the way they do it is six weeks, and they do it at four weeks, and then two weeks, and then a final. We had twenty reporters come, and Kurt Weitzmann was our lead person. Gary and I got up and gave the basic information. But then Kurt started to talk about icons and Mount Sinai and all the icons they have there and why was this so important and how rare it was to have icons survive iconoclasm, why St. Catherine’s Monastery was so important. Well, he held them transfixed. Questions just – I think this went on for two or three hours. It was the most extraordinary event in my history at Dumbarton Oaks. But it also began to teach me what you had to do to get the press to even know you’re alive. And of course in today’s world with the Post cutting back on everything it is very hard to get that.
SB: It certainly did that, it certainly did that. I think the piece itself is so arresting. It is not your typical icon in the sense that most people thought of icons, which tended to be these small Russian pieces with jewel-like colors and enamel-like quality and very distant and other worldly. This icon of St. Peter had such presence and such reality that it really took hold of you. And I think that it did put Dumbarton Oaks on the map in a way that it hadn’t been in a long time. I think people did not understand how icons functioned from the early times, the fact that how rare these were in today’s world, they didn’t know anything about the just wholesale damaging and destruction of icons. The whole idea of St. Catherine’s was – St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai was almost unknown in 1983. No icons had left St. Catherine’s for loan exhibitions at that time, and I think the thought of having this repository dating back to the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century up to the fourteenth century, and then of course the great repository of library books and manuscripts that they had, really caught the public’s imagination. And it’s an interesting question, but as I recall we’ve not since had the same visitorship to the Byzantine collection because at that time we got a lot of publicity for the exhibition, newspaper publicity, even up in New York, and this coincided with Giles getting publicity on the gardens and on Dumbarton Oaks in general. There may be things I’m forgetting, but the reality is you have to get publicity if you’re going to get visitorship, especially from visitors who basically are down on the mall, and it’s harder and harder to get that.
GB: But maybe first can I just go back and ask about the icon exhibition just to give a kind of picture frame of what – quite physical, actually being. Where was the icon exhibition? Was it in the Byzantine gallery?
SB: It was in the Byzantine gallery.
GB: So, you had to take down and rearrange some –
SB: We took down all the silver, I think.
GB: Oh yeah.
SB: We had to empty cases for this and I think we took – I think it was probably four cases of icons and related, because, of course, we put all the icons we had, our miniature mosaics – we were trying to explain what icons were, and therefore we would have the little ring with the death of the Virgin in a case that had an icon with the death of the virgin. I –
GB: And you had loans, as you mentioned?
SB: The Eric Bradley collection, which was this great collection of icons from London which I had seen some time back. And I met Eric Bradley through a dealer, Richard “Dick” Temple, who was a big icon dealer, and so he had some very important early Byzantine icons, and we borrowed a number of them for the exhibition. And then Prince Michael of Greece, who was in New York at the time – and somehow Gary had some connection with him and we got two icons from his collection that were extremely fine icons. And then there was a dealer out in California who had two rather later Byzantine Cypriot icons, fourteenth to early fifteenth century icons. I don’t remember the number of loans we had but it was probably the biggest – I mean, it was the biggest undertaking Dumbarton Oaks had ever taken on, with loans coming from London and New York and California.
GB: I think this is pretty important because – often forgotten – because the catalog Weitzmann – St. Peter icon catalog is not of course dealing with the overall show. It’s the icon – it’s the essay, being, of course, first –
SB: Yes. It’s really too bad.
GB: And there’s no kind of recording of those early loan shows.
SB: No. What I always did for those shows was to photocopy all of the labels, the big introductory text and all the labels and photographs into a sort of big – not a binder – but they’re all Xeroxed together, so at least one could see what was there and what was the illustrative material and what the themes were that we were trying to discuss during the exhibition. But for a team of three people this was a major undertaking. Yes.
GB: Amazing, amazing job to do. Thinking of nowadays, even we have nowadays a registrar. But of course at that time you did everything –
SB: No, the staff at Dumbarton Oaks was tiny.
GB: You did all the paperwork, everything until the accepting the couriers, the people who brought the pieces. And of course, it’s interesting for now that there were some – obviously, and that is one part of course I’m interested in – there was an understanding or an appreciation to invest – I mean, it costs money to have these objects coming to Dumbarton Oaks. A loan show is, of course, an expensive endeavor, and how did you manage to get this supported and funded?
SB: Well, that’s a very good question. I can remember other shows better, but I think because this was such a major acquisition and there were these important ancillary factors of making this object known, Giles was – even though we were in a quote “deficit spending profile” at that time in Dumbarton Oaks and Giles was trying to cut back expenses, this was managed. I expect also that people were very kind and generous themselves in not insisting on first-class airfare. I think most of the loans came unaccompanied, which today does not happen. Dick Temple I’m sure was instrumental in having this done in the least expensive way possible. But nevertheless, there are insurance costs, although Dumbarton Oaks is lucky because we are under the Harvard umbrella policy so what we had to do was tell them what this was and that we did not have to take out huge amounts of insurance. We could cover it that way. The transportation costs were no doubt very expensive. But subsequently I can tell you I had to estimate costs, which are very difficult to do if you haven’t done exhibitions: installation costs, every aspect of them. And you simply couldn’t always estimate what the costs were. But loan shows, there’s no question they cost a lot of money, which is why our mandate was probably to do more in-house shows or to – and that was always I think the idea that these shows were going to be in-house with some other objects drawn from at least neighboring museums and Baltimore of course is here, Richmond is nearby, the Smithsonian. So that – and the Met, which has always been very cooperative with us, and again they would – I do remember when a great truck came – I guess it was for the first show, the Byzantine lighting show – and this huge tractor trailer drew up. I mean, really, a block long tractor trailer drew up in front of Dumbarton Oaks. And was Bill – ? Was that – ? I’m trying to remember who was the Director at that time. When was – ?
GB: Let me think. We are in the ’80s, in the early ’80s, so –
SB: It was Robert Thomson. He stopped by my office and he said, “What is that truck outside?” And he looked inside and there were these two crates way up at the front, one was big and one was small, and I said, “That is our exclusive-use, air-ride van.” Even I could not believe it could be that big, neither could he. And this did cost us a lot of money, and I can remember calling up Margaret and saying, “Oh my God, Margaret is this really true?” I mean, it was thousands of dollars for this one way trip, and she talked to the registrar and somehow it got cut down, but those were special arrangements that were made to help us out. But it was always – every one of these was a great learning experience.
GB: Oh yeah, sure it is.
SB: But I think probably the icon show was one of the most exciting we did.
GB: With this icon show you have achieved such an attraction and Dumbarton Oaks became kind of known outside of the proper scholarly world. Thinking of this icon acquisition and that we have had almost no icons at that point, it’s kind of almost a surprise that from then on Dumbarton Oaks didn’t develop an icon theme.
SB: Wonderful question. If I had asked you, you couldn’t have given me a better entry. I think it was probably the very next year – and I just want to remind myself of – I just remember it was when Robert Thomson had come. Yes, ’83. And the exhibition was ’83. After that exhibition I was back in London and I was having lunch with Dick Temple who told me that Eric Bradley, the same Eric Bradley who had lent to us earlier that year, wanted to sell his entire collection of icons. And it had been offered to the British Museum and they said we can’t do it, and it had been offered to someone else and no one wanted to buy – it was a huge collection of not just Byzantine but Russian icons, and he said, “You’re at an incredible time. You could buy – you could ask for any icon in this collection and he will be willing to sell it to you at Dumbarton Oaks.” So, I go home, I’m so excited, and I go into Robert Thomson’s office. He’s just been appointed the new Director at Dumbarton Oaks. And I said, “Robert, we have a chance to buy either the Saint Spyridon icon with the life of the saint, or we can buy the Saint Marina icon, or – ” Anyway, there were about five icons, any one of which I would’ve been thrilled to have. We probably couldn’t afford more than one, that’s just the reality. And he looked at me and he said, “But you just bought an icon.” I was absolutely flabbergasted. And I said, “Well, Robert, how do you think we have such a great collection of Byzantine ivories, of Byzantine jewelry? You keep buying and increasing and you get something different. I mean, this is a Macedonian icon of the late thirteenth century. Some of these are twelfth-century icons or early thirteenth-century icons or from Cyprus, of very high quality.” “Oh, well, you know, I just don’t think we can afford to buy anything more.” And that was that. And that whole collection of Byzantine icons then went to the Menil Foundation in Houston.
SB: And I was crushed, I was truly crushed. And this one other time, just to go back to Bill Tyler, there was one other acquisition that just broke my heart, and it was one that really we should have had. But it was the time the Kofler collection of ivories came on the market, and these private collections just don’t come on the market very often. I think it must have been about 1970, but I don’t remember the date, but I know we were already very careful with what acquisitions we were making because of the provenance issue and the illegal acquisition of antiquities. And so this was just a wonderful opportunity which was being handed to us on a silver platter by Kurt Weitzmann, who was at that time adviser to the Metropolitan Museum on acquisitions. He was working at that time preparing for the big exhibition of Byzantine art, but he was formally helping them and finding acquisitions for the Byzantine collection and advising them what to buy from the Kofler collection. But he reserved for Dumbarton Oaks this wonderful little ivory of the Dormition because it came from the same set of twelve ivory icons as our Incredulity of Thomas. And I went in – I know that Kurt Weitzmann had already told Bill Tyler about it – I went in with the photograph, with the information about it and said, “We must go after this ivory. Kurt has reserved it for us.” I don’t remember the price that it was offered to, but it was not outrageous. And Tyler insisted on seeing it for himself. And it was not of quite the quality of ours in terms of its surface preservation. The surface on ours is lustrous and pearl-like. It’s an absolutely gorgeous surface, sort of the most beautiful surface that ivory can have, almost polished. And this was a little dried out, but nevertheless it was a major tenth-century ivory that belonged with ours and it was the only other one known that wasn’t in a museum. And he refused to buy it. He said the quality was not up to Dumbarton Oaks. And so it was bought by Houston which has no other Byzantine objects and that again just broke my heart. It was one that – but, you know, I was still sort of considered – I was Assistant Curator, but I was the youngest person on the staff, and Tyler considered himself an art historian and better – Well, Weitzmann was not pleased because he had gone out on a limb to let us have this, and I just –
GB: Tyler considered himself as an art historian? Is that so? What –
SB: Well, perhaps not an art historian, but certainly an art expert. He had grown up – Royall Tyler – with his father. He grew up with art around him. He grew up in the art world. I believe he had a fine arts degree from Harvard. I don’t remember whether he had an advanced arts degree, because he did go into the Foreign Service, but he knew a lot.
GB: How did he then perceive – how did he look at the Collections? Especially after this incredible tenure of Thacher, this incredible exhibition and acquisition making, active – He, actually, as being Director of Dumbarton Oaks, as you said traveling every year, keeping in touch with all the art dealers’ throughout the world. What about Bill Tyler?
SB: Not at all, not at all. I don’t even remember what we acquired in the ’70s, but I don’t think much. Let’s see, he was Director until ’73.
GB: ’73. That was of course indeed the time, the dreary inflation years leading up to where we were when Giles Constable took over.
SB: This was that awkward time of acquisitions where we were being very careful of what we were acquiring and the acquisition guidelines were just being formulated at Harvard. And as I said I think his interest was just keeping Dumbarton Oaks on an even keel, making no great changes. I do remember the one acquisition that I did make was this wonderful Constantinian pendant, or Constantinian medallion, in that great open work frame, late fourth century.
GB: Oh so – Sorry, I was so much thinking in Middle Byzantine.
SB: Oh, Middle Byzantine, yes.
GB: Constantine. Yeah, sure.
SB: And this had come up at a Christie’s auction, and there were four medallions.
GB: That was Bill Tyler doing – ?
SB: Well, I saw it from a Christie’s catalog, and there were these four extraordinary medallions, these three elements of a necklace, and a bracelet, and we got Philip Grierson to go look at it. And now we had to clear its title, which we had trouble doing because there was no provenance on it. But through Grierson, who talked to the coin curator Robert Corson – I can’t believe I remembered his name – who was curator of coins at the British Museum, said that he remembered that a kind of Middle Eastern man had come in and shown him this treasure in the mid-’60s to find out what it was and what these medallions were and what the date was. And then I was able to find another person who was I think a German scholar who was in Italy at the time, whose name is escaping me, who had also seen it out of its country of origin – whatever it was, we now think it might have been Libya – in Italy. So, now I had two people who could vouch that it had been out of its country of origin in the mid-’60s, which is what our guidelines said. So, we were allowed to go ahead in buy it, and we were successful – we only could afford to buy one, and we bought the perfect circular one that we now have. One went to the British Museum and one went to the Louvre and one was bought by a dealer. A few years later I was offered the – but that was a Tyler, under Tyler we bought the first one. I think that was the only thing we bought in his tenure. But it might have been because nothing else was going to pass muster or that we were hunkering down to just not do anything until the guidelines were hammered out, I really don’t remember the details. But I do know it was sort of my first acquisition. I wasn’t curator at the time, but it was the first thing that I had guided through, and then it was just a great pleasure.
GB: How wonderful. Outstanding piece.
SB: Outstanding piece. And then the bracelet was offered to us three years later. By that time, of course, the guidelines had gone in, so then just fortunately we had this other documentation in the books and so I was able to buy that. And then I told that dealer, I said, “If you can track down the other pieces, we want them.” And so I was able to get the three elements of the necklace and the second, hexagonal amulet. So, those have always had a special place in my heart just because they were the first things that I had shepherded through an acquisitions process.
GB: Yeah. No, that’s amazing. Really, that’s –
SB: Mr. Tyler – I always call him Mr. Tyler because he was that kind of person – became interested – and it escapes me now who the music manuscripts were, this will be in somebody else’s oral history – but he became very interested in these music manuscripts that Dumbarton Oaks had in the Garden Library that were part of Mrs. Bliss’ collection of incunabula, and he spent a lot of time translating them and preparing them for publication with a man by the name of Waters, I think, at the Library of Congress, and that was one of his major foci of his term here. And then he also was going through all of his father’s papers and he was apportioning them out to either Harvard or to the Byzantine collection or different parts of Dumbarton Oaks. But I think he just was a rather quiet Director, not interested in making changes or doing very much creative – I perhaps am being unfair to him. I just didn’t see that much of him. I didn’t work that closely with him. Libby Bland did. She was my superior. She really was the person who worked with him the most.
GB: Libby Bland, she came up earlier. You said she was your boss, and she was the senior of course, and she was definitely hired by the Blisses. I mean, she was –
SB: Yeah, she started work under the Blisses, I think probably first working in the library. But when the Collection – she moved over to the Collection and I think there was a woman by the name of – now I can’t remember whether it was Berta Segall or Mrs. Scheffer. There was somebody else on the staff who also was perhaps a little bit more of an art historian. But together they worked and they were doing all of the registrarial work on the objects and getting dossiers made, and she just sort of worked her way into this position and was always basically the registrar cum curator, head of the Collection, working very closely with Mr. Thacher. And certainly everything that had to do with the Collection, Jack Thacher dictated to her. She could actually take dictation. Blissfully, I could not. And so he was really – they worked hand-in-glove. And she was a lovely person and was a very self-assured person and very modest. I say self-assured because she was not insecure in the sense that she might be, and she was just wonderful to me. I mean, I came as, you know, sort of a young art historian, very excited about being at Dumbarton Oaks, and – gosh, Ernst Kitzinger – God – was the Director of Studies. And all these, you know, Ihor Ševčenko and Cyril Mango, and this is heady stuff for a young graduate student. And she was just a wonderful person to work with and really gave me one opportunity after another. And I’m just going to mention, I had taken a trip to Turkey and I was just fired up wanting to do excavations, and finally the opportunity came up. Doug Tushingham from the Royal Ontario Museum came to Dumbarton Oaks. I had tried to get on Hanfmann’s Sardis expedition, I had tried to get on Kenen Erim’s Aphrodisias excavation since I had the connection with New York University and now with Harvard. Only their own students could go. So, Doug Tushingham comes, who does a joint excavation with the British School of Archaeology, and my colleague in the photograph collection said, “Oh, you must meet Susan Boyd. She’s assistant curator in the Byzantine collection. She’s dying to go on an excavation.” They were running the Jerusalem excavations at the time. Inside the city was the Royal Ontario Museum, outside the city walls and the city of David was the British School. And so, he came up and talked to me and he said he’d be happy to have me on the excavation. They would give me room and board. I’d have to pay my way there. So, now I had broached it with Libby, she thought it was a wonderful idea. So, then she, I think, first took it to Ernst Kitzinger, and Ernst, to his great credit – I never would have thought that – this is a very cautious man, who normally does not – would not, I think – but for whatever reason, he thought it would be a good idea to have somebody on the staff trained in archaeology. And I was allowed in 1964 to go off for two and a half months to Jerusalem. Not only that: since I was going there, they decided, why shouldn’t I go and pack up the loans to that 1964 exhibition of Byzantine art in Athens, of which Dumbarton Oaks had taken responsibility for all the American loans, because there – I won’t go into the details, but we were the responsible party. Now, I was two years into an assistant’s job in the Byzantine Collection, I had never packed objects, and there I was in Athens packing up all of the American loans. It was a wonderful learning experience and horrifying. But I shouldn’t get too much into anecdotes, so I’m not going to go into it.
GB: Oh, that’s amazing.
SB: And then I went off, and that really then started me on – then I was asked if I would go on the – if I would work with Cyril Mango in Cyprus on Saint Chrysostomos to look at the wall paintings, and I was to do the very detailed description of the wall paintings that we had just finished restoring. Then I was asked to go to Bargala, and the excavation of Bargala which was a joint Yugoslav-American. And then I went back to Cyprus for Mango and the study of the paintings in that twelfth-century, late twelfth-century church. Anyway, it opened up a whole avenue of work and research and specialization that I had never dreamed of, and it also gave a wonderful balance to the kind of background that I had had from my training at the Institute of Fine Arts, which at the time was strictly style and strictly iconography. And the whole world of art history now has moved so far beyond that, but it grounded me in a contextual approach and historical approach to art and art history that was very valuable to me.
GB: When you say it opened up and you joined then other excavation teams, was it that you then were asking around or did the other teams – you just heard about the others and you approached them?
SB: No. Bargala was a joint Dumbarton Oaks – well, Cyril Mango asked me if I would work with him at Saint Chrysostomos in Cyprus. And then he also said – he was co-director with Ihor Ševčenko from the American side, and this was American counterpart funds that were funding the excavation at Bargala, which was a big Late Roman city, a crossroads Late Roman city that the Yugoslavs believed was Slavic. And the question was: was it Roman or Slavic or – ? You know, whatever. And I went but really there wasn’t much I could add to the team. They were sort of walking around with Digging Up the Past by Kathleen Kenyon, or at least that’s the view they had of themselves. But, in fact, there were plenty of trained archaeologists on that site, but it got me – the Chrysostomos is what really – I mean, the two things opened doors just because I was young, I was unattached, and I was low on the totem pole at Dumbarton Oaks that I could go off in the summer. But it was really that Libby Bland was open to this and felt these were opportunities for me and she did not stand in the way, whereas many people who finally had an assistant after twenty years might say, “I’m sorry, if anybody’s going off, I’m taking the time off.” But it did open up Byzantine wall painting to me, and that was my great love in the early part of my career. Once I became curator, I could not travel any longer in the same way, as you well know.
GB: Yes indeed. Which is, of course – this is exactly – you mentioned the curators being so busy and they can’t afford to be away in a different context, and I was thinking of us actually, and that is when Dumbarton Oaks started offering summer fellowships. Then we are – the institution will sometimes – and this is true nowadays – curators, museum colleagues come to do some research, but because it’s such a rare moment in the everyday life of a curator and museum person it’s really an extraordinary situation and an extraordinary opportunity. And this is indeed what is good, that we offer – Dumbarton Oaks offers that. And then of course being in Dumbarton Oaks, we at – Dumbarton Oaks museum staff is always, of course, very happy to meet them. At least, then we have our colleagues in residence here, so that is brilliant. But I have heard of course about the – I think that it was not only you. I think of course there was a time, there was a period of at least surveys and excavations of field activities where Dumbarton Oaks as an institution indeed supported field activities, which is no more the case. And can you maybe talk a little bit about that from your point of view, and was that because of – well, what was the reason why? Was it political reasons, finance, just – ?
SB: Oh, it was a combination of events. I think it certainly was an exciting time, the great excavations at Saraçhane. We took over the restoration work of the Byzantine Institute in the late ’50s, so we were doing a great many projects in formerly Byzantine churches that had been turned into mosques and their mosaics or frescoes had been covered over, and so we were uncovering frescoes. This was really bringing out so much new material for the Byzantine field. And then we got started into excavations – and I think that was probably Cyril Mango’s influence in large part – and there was Saraçhane, there was Kalenderhane Camii. And in a way Kalenderhane may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, because excavations are extremely expensive, and they seem to get more and more expensive and they – usually it’s very hard to get them to end and then it is even harder to get them published. And that is – as money became tighter at Dumbarton Oaks the question was arising: can we afford to do this? Now, some of the conservation work in the formerly-Byzantine churches in Istanbul was winding down, but at the same time it was a period when there was rising tension and difficulties for Greek-born Istanbul conservators, and it simply coincided with a time where we started looking at Cyprus and becoming interested in the Cypriot monuments, Byzantine monuments. And I think there Peter Megaw was one of the crucial scholars who have helped us work in Istanbul, but was formerly the Director of Antiquities in Cyprus up until Cyprus became independent, but really made these monuments. And he had been working in Perachorio and he knew Chrysostomos and he knew the other monuments. And so, again I think at this point Cyril Mango may have come back to Dumbarton Oaks – he had left and then he came back – and it certainly was Cyril Mango and Peter Megaw that started us working on conservation work in Cyprus, and that was because the Cypriots were so open to foreign archaeologists and foreign teams working they welcomed people, whereas it was increasingly difficult in Turkey to get permits to do work. But Kalenderhane was an extremely – I mean, Saraçhane did finish. It took a long time for the various study seasons and for the publication to finally come out, but they really were constantly working toward that aim. Whereas Kalenderhane – somehow we made an agreement that we would restore the church in part to its original wainscoted with marble interior, which really we could not afford to do but that was the written understanding. Then there was a big falling out of the two main directors of the excavation in terms of the interpretation of the finds, and I think that soured Dumbarton Oaks for any further large scale excavations. That really never got published by Dumbarton Oaks. Part of it has been published, but it was never resolved twenty-five years after the fact. But most of Cyprus has now been published or I believe is in the works – I think Asinou being the last one – and that was really a wonderfully fruitful arrangement. The Cypriots were just wonderful to work with and they were cooperative and they were helpful in every way. It was really a terrific undertaking. But it was money in the ’70s and the ’80s, and that really is what –
GB: What was the structure of these teams? They were directors of these surveys or fieldwork activities who had –
SB: You mean, of our big excavations?
GB: Yeah like Saraçhane and –
SB: Well, Martin Harrison – I do not know how initial decisions were made. I think that, you know, Martin Harrison had worked in Turkey a lot and had extremely good relationships with the director of the – well, actually, it was the chief curator at that time of the Archaeological Museum Nezih Firatli who was a Byzantinist, and he was an extraordinarily open and visionary Turk in terms of working with foreign scholars, being open to foreigners and inviting them in. And the discovery of Saraçhane was pure chance by the excavation of this big underpass. And I think probably Martin was there on the spot and probably got Paul Underwood, who was then the Director of Fieldwork at Dumbarton Oaks who was in Istanbul most summers, probably Cyril Mango may have been involved at that time.
GB: Paul Underwood being the Director of Fieldwork –
SB: Yes, he was –
GB: Can you explain a little bit this kind of term or that position, because I think this is no more existing. And what was the director of fieldwork? And what was that – ?
SB: No. Well, most – the professors at Dumbarton Oaks often had a specific role assigned to them, and I remember George Soulis was the Librarian of Dumbarton Oaks. Cyril Mango was – I think he was basically the editor of Dumbarton Oaks papers, although his title was Associate – maybe he was Associate Professor but editor of the publications. And Paul Underwood, who happened to be at Dumbarton Oaks at the time we needed to take over the Byzantine Institute’s work, then de facto became – he was the one art historian I think on the faculty at that time and he took over the Byzantine fieldwork, certainly Kariye Djami was the one he worked on the most. He was not wild about spending time in Istanbul.
GB: Oh no?
SB: No, I don’t think so. And he’s –
GB: So, he was in residence here.
SB: He was in residence here.
GB: And he was a Dumbarton Oaks Professor for Fieldwork and –
SB: I think probably Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Art and Archaeology and Field Director of Byzantine –
GB: Yeah, but not in a sense of a faculty or professor who would have teaching obligations but –
SB: No, we had a research faculty up until Bill Loerke retired as Director of Byzantine Studies, and this did not sit well with Harvard. But from the beginning of Dumbarton Oaks we had professors appointed, and they had no teaching responsibilities. When I came some of these were already emeriti professors, but they were at Dumbarton – Sirarpie Der Nersessian, great Armenian scholar, and Francis Dvornik, the great Slavic scholar, I think were emeriti at that time. But I think Ihor Ševčenko was here, Cyril Mango, Underwood – oh, there were two others – and of course Ernst Kitzinger was Director of Byzantine studies. Now little by little Harvard – Harvard basically does not make research professorship appointments, and as time passed they wanted to phase this out, and it ultimately got phased out when Bill Loerke retired. And we wanted Nickos Oikonomides to come as the Director of Byzantine Studies, but they would not give him a professorship and he would not leave his professorship at Athens to come here. And that is when – then – I’m trying to remember who took over after that. When Giles came after all, he was the Director of Byzantine Studies. But you could keep your professorship as long as you taught occasionally at Harvard and you were here just for a five-year appointment, or if Harvard wished, as he did, stay on for ten years.
GB: So, in a way what we have now there with the Director of Byzantine Studies is the only kind of – not left over, but at that time early on he was one of many professors of specific units or research.
SB: Well, they were appointed to Dumbarton Oaks, and I don’t know when exactly Underwood came but he, because of his specialty, he was the obvious candidate to take over the fieldwork. And Cyril was particularly interested in fieldwork and I think when he came back he came back because we were involved in fieldwork, and he then became the Director of Byzantine Fieldwork.
GB: Who was at the point – or was there one professor who was specifically in charge of the Collection?
SB: Never. Well Ernst Kitzinger.
GB: Well, yes.
SB: Ernst Kitzinger – well, even long after he left he was the end and all main squeeze behind the Collection. You didn’t do anything – make up an acquisition, major change of policy – without clearing it with – you know, he was Professor – what he was – what was his – ? Anyway, he was a major professor, a university professor at Harvard, but he maintained a very close relationship with Dumbarton Oaks and interest in the Byzantine collection and the photograph collection. Because at one point I had to take over the photograph collection and I wanted to change the census, the way the census was cataloged so it was easier to find things, and he would not hear of it and I just gave it up.
GB: You took over the photograph collection?
SB: For a few years. They let go of the person who was in charge and I was sort of between major projects. I’d finished work on the second volume of Ross and the Handbook and hadn’t yet, I guess, gotten involved in something else. And it was a supervisory position and to be – if I may use the term scholarly – decisions on acquisitions and policies and things like that.
GB: And soon after that then Natalia came in, and was that then – ?
SB: No, Marlia Mango was working there and then a girl by the name of Judy O’Neal who – and I finally said, “I did this to help you all out, but I don’t want this. I want to be in the Collection.”
GB: Yeah, sure. In fact, this is a business on its own.
SB: Yeah, and so I just pulled out and I think Judy finally became head of it. And after that I think Charlotte Burk came, and after Charlotte I think Natalia.
GB: Huh. Wow.
SB: Yeah, yeah.
GB: I mean this – there are many, many names come in and that just shows us that there’s a lot still to – I mean, I learn a lot by just listening to this – what you just brought up is totally new in a way. I of course do know the names and the scholars, that they have been linked and attached to Dumbarton Oaks, but that there was these different professorships with specific functions which were covered and –
SB: Well, I didn’t really quite mean to present it that way. We simply had professorships.
SB: And if it so happened that they could take over one particular area, then they did. But for the most part they were here to do their own work.
GB: Actually, that leads me back to the excavations and Paul Underwood, for example, doing the excavation and any project in Istanbul. Was that then an exclusively Dumbarton Oaks activity, project? We funded it and the director of the excavations was a Dumbarton Oaks field –
SB: Field director, because these were mainly conservation projects. The ones that we ran from Dumbarton Oaks – we took over the work of the Byzantine Institute when Thomas Whittemore died in – I’m going to say – ’55, ’56, something like that. We’ll have to consult Natalia’s book, but – and this was – again, Jack Thacher was a major player in this. He simply knew it had to be done, and he was so interested in this kind of restoration work in Istanbul, and as I said he went to Istanbul for a month every summer. And so somehow he helped raise the money because the Byzantine Institute was not a wealthy – Thomas Whittemore was raising the money, but we were giving a lot of money every time.
GB: Yeah. The Blisses already gave money, isn’t it?
SB: Oh, I’m sure they did. Yes, yes. So, we took over the administrative function and Paul Underwood then became the supervisor. But one of the key players was Ernest Hawkins, who I’m sure you’ve heard of, and he was one of the principal restorers in terms of uncovering the mosaics in Saint Sophia uncovering the frescoes in Kariye Djami. So, he was our on-the-site, on-the-spot person there all summer long, and probably maybe six months out of the year he was there in Istanbul. And he – certainly in ’63, my first trip to Istanbul he was there and took me everywhere and got me into everywhere, every church I needed to get in – I call them churches, but every place that was basically closed off that you couldn’t get into, he knew who had the key, where you had to go, and really gave me the most fantastic introduction to Byzantine Constantinople. And he was our man on the spot, so he was really our onsite conservator.
GB: An onsite conservator as staff, so to speak, at Dumbarton Oaks? That’s what I tried to find out. Just from our perspective nowadays, it’s not anything we can –
SB: It is sometimes so hard – I have kept all of their – what were called the Who’s Whos – up until the time – I guess 2004 may have been the last one, I don’t remember, when I retired. But sometimes one’s advisers who aren’t at Dumbarton Oaks are listed on the staff, sometimes – Ernest Hawkins was listed on the staff. Now, he did come to Dumbarton Oaks sometimes, but there are all kinds of people that may be listed that there’s no asterisk to show that they’re actually working elsewhere. And people like David and June Winfield working in Cyprus –
GB: But this is not like what we do nowadays with granting fieldwork.
SB: Oh, those are projects. Just to distinguish them, almost everything that we did in the ’60s and early ’70s Dumbarton Oaks paid for. And we either ran through an appointed director who was responsible to us but independent doing it out of his university with his own team, as at Saraçhane, or Lee Striker at Kalenderhane Camii, or – I just lost my train of thought – or once we stopped doing that – and here I’m just going to leave aside Cyprus which we also paid for – we stopped running any field work on our own and we decided we will support with small grants in aid to outside scholars.
GB: Exactly. Yeah, that’s of course totally different though.
SB: Totally different.
GB: Because doing it, directing it, and having the supervision and having actually the thing really going on, you do want to – what usually happens – to publish it, of course. And that was a very important function of Dumbarton Oaks to see through the project into publication.
SB: And that was what was backing up not only in Istanbul but in Cyprus, and that was why one felt – put a hold on it. Now I know Cyril Mango would have loved to have excavated Amorium, that was always his secret passion, but by that time we had given that up and I think he had already been appointed professor at Oxford by the time that even came up as a possible excavation site, so the focus has really quite shifted. And you know art and archaeology, as I said at one point I think, was so much the focus of Dumbarton Oaks in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and it’s been moving away from that direction, in part because of lack of fieldwork and in part because art history seems to be taking a lower profile in general.
GB: Yeah, and these activities and fieldwork projects of course were – and that is very much what it was thought of in the 1940s, that took place of course outside of Washington, outside of the proper Dumbarton Oaks site, and outside of the proper Collection – but it was a way to reach out to the architectural remains, and, of course, to any kind of finds which indirectly, of course, references backed to the collections and thus linked to the material culture through art and archaeology, I think was, of course, a very important one all the time. And to – when we – I guess when we stopped doing our own activities –
SB: Yeah. You know, it was really only I think Antioch where there was a real link between excavations and any objects coming to Dumbarton Oaks.
GB: Oh, in a sense of objects coming back, yeah.
SB: The Byzantine collection really had nothing to do with these excavations except where I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Cyprus to work, and otherwise we were focused on the Collection and the publication of the Collection. And in fact it was always – one of the things I remember Martin Harrison telling me, especially as I was looking at some of the objects from the excavation site, is that Dumbarton Oaks is not an archaeologically-oriented collection at all. And that was never – the Blisses always, for both of their collections, wanted the finest object of the type and quality. And perhaps that was what guided Royall [sic] Tyler in rejecting the ivory: it wasn’t as good as the ivory we had. Now, in the reality of the art world today, one is not quite so picky. One feels lucky to find something one wants to add to the collection that will fill in a gap of some sort.
GB: That’s what he obviously did not understand, that what one mission of a museum, of a collection is, of course, to really, very intelligently fill in the gaps. And that piece was quite a – I mean, would have filled a gap, quite obviously. So, it’s not only the quality of an individual piece, but what –
SB: But it’s always been a difficult issue because there are times when you really would like to buy some of these more archaeological pieces, and we have occasionally, in part because they – I think you mentioned the wooden eagle from a box. Well, that isn’t a beautiful piece but it’s an interesting piece and it can relate to other pieces we have in the Collection. And sometimes you just feel you want something that is different, that does fill in a gap, and if it’s archaeological that’s alright because for our exhibitions sometimes that’s very helpful.
GB: Oh yeah. Indeed, indeed. And actually that sounds to me as – we should stop soon and we should just – because I think we, having had quite intense conversation.