The Oral History 100
James N. Carder (August 2014)
This month, the Dumbarton Oaks Oral History Project posted its 100th interview. Inaugurated in 2008, the project includes interviews with former Dumbarton Oaks directors, directors of studies, fellows and scholars, staff members, gardeners, and people who knew the founders, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, and the residential period of Dumbarton Oaks. The majority of these interviews are undertaken by Harvard University summer interns who research, conduct, and transcribe the audio/videotaped conversations.
The developing critical mass of oral-history memories now provides Dumbarton Oaks with an interwoven narrative, in many voices, of the intellectual and social history of the nearly 75-year-old research institution and collection. Many who were interviewed speak of the significant impact that Dumbarton Oaks has had in the fields of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies. Others flesh out the history of the social environment: the teas presided over by Mildred Bliss, the changes in collegial dining customs, the great enjoyment of the swimming pool, the evenings of music in the music room, and the Halloween costume parties, to name only a few examples. Most of the fellows and scholars who knew Dumbarton Oaks in the twentieth century have nostalgic stories about the main house—the Pre-Columbianists and Garden and Landscape scholars working in their subterranean spaces, the Byzantinists sitting at long tables in their communal reading room, and all being at arms’ reach of the library books that lined the walls around them. Perhaps most importantly, significant former members of the Dumbarton Oaks community, such as Alexander Kazhdan, are remembered in enough detail that these collective memories constitute a biography of the person’s time here.
The posted oral history interviews are searchable and tagged. Anyone interested in a particular aspect of Dumbarton Oaks and its history has only to enter a search term—such as archaeology, Maya art, the Byzantine Institute, symposia, Beatrix Farrand, Alexander Kazhdan—to uncover the multiple layers and discover which topics receive the most commentary.