JC: So, it’s January the 28th, 2014. I’m James Carder and I’m here with Christopher Harrison in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives for an oral history interview. Chris was senior exhibitions technician and cabinet maker in the Dumbarton Oaks museum for many years, and he unfortunately is leaving us this coming Monday to take another job at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Thank you, Chris, very much for agreeing to do this.
CH: Ah, you’re welcome, James, it’s a pleasure to do it
JC: Can you remember and tell me a bit about when you first came to Dumbarton Oaks and what your position was and what your responsibilities were?
CH: Sure. It was a very exciting time in my life. I was a young man back then; it was almost sixteen years ago. It was in 1998 when I applied and interviewed. I was in my – you know I’m fifty-two now – so I was in my thirties and I had been working in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama. And my daughter – I had two children at the time – my plan was to relocate back to the north when my daughter came of school age, and she was fast approaching her fifth year. And it was time to make the move, and I was looking for work in the Washington area, and the Dumbarton Oaks job came up in my search. And I made the application and sent in my CV and my resume and appended materials with a perfectly worded cover letter and received no reply whatsoever. And it was a scary time because I had to make this move, and I was determined to make the move, and it required a leap of faith. I remember going to the museum director in Montgomery and tendering my letter of resignation. We had put the house on the market in Montgomery, and I did not have a position up here. And the nature of the reason to come to Washington was that my wife’s family had a family farm out west of D.C., out in the sort of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, that we had to claim or we would lose it. So, somebody had to take over the running of this horse farm or it was going to be put up for sale. So, our timing was such that we just had to simply make this move. And it came – the deadline was basically February-March of 1998, and I made this application to D.O. back in the summer of ’97, and heard nothing back. And I was terrified. And I remember going into the museum director’s office and turning in my letter and he said, “Oh, congratulations Chris, tell me about the new job,” and I said, “Well, Mark… I don’t have one,” and he said, “I cannot accept this letter. You have to take this back and you have to continue to work, you cannot leave without a position up there,” and I said, “Well, no, I’m afraid I have to do this.” He said, “You’re crazy,” and I said, “Yeah, I think – I think you might be right, but it really is, it’s a necessary evil. I’m going to have to take what I can get when I get up there. We’ll make the move and if I have to I’ll work as a house builder or a plumber’s assistant or, you know, I’ll wash dishes or something.”
I think it was on a Monday when I did this, and three days later – we had made arrangements for the trucks and we had gotten the house packed up – and three days later I received the call from Dumbarton Oaks from Gay Mackintosh who I – who I love. Gay was just a delight. She could be difficult to work for but she was a dear woman and a wonderful colleague and I – she was my immediate supervisor. And I received this call from her asking me to come up and interview. And it was like a gift from heaven. And so I did. I travelled up to D.C. I think you guys flew me up here and I spent a few days at Dumbarton Oaks meeting the staff, and they brought in Astor Moore, who was my predecessor who had been here since the sixties. He was a former navy cabinet maker and had worked with acrylic in his role in the navy, and so he was a perfect choice for Dumbarton Oaks to incorporate this sort of broad-based, multi-material, multi-media kind of skills that were required for museum framing and mounting and furniture building. He was a perfect guy for the job, but he had been here for forty years or something like that and he was ancient. He was seventy when he retired and he was just – he was a rock god. He was this tall, statuesque, African-American man who just had this regal persona that was indelible. He was a character. I remember him asking me questions about the job and about my work and very pointed questions about my experience, and here I was, this thirty-something guy from Montgomery, Alabama, and he was this erudite and well-spoken and charming and urbane and seventy-year old, totally wizened and experienced guy.
I met Sue, Suzanne Mercury, who was to be my assistant, and she was a dear, and they conducted an interview with me. And then of course I met with Gay Mackintosh and we talked and went over my CV and she was very perfunctory and just sort of checking things off her list and it wasn’t very inspiring. And I was a little nervous, ‘cause I thought, you know, maybe I don’t stand a chance at getting this job. In fact, I found out later that they had offered the job to I think two other individuals who had applied, and the reason I had been called late like I was – months after the application – was because these two guys had been offered the position and had declined it because they had taken other jobs elsewhere.
But anyway, the very last day of my stay and interview process, I was granted an interview with the Queen, and the Queen was Angeliki Laiou. Professor Laiou was like a Byzantine queen. She – talk about regal – she was this classy lady from Greece and a Harvard Professor, and she ruled Dumbarton Oaks like a queen. She was a character, too. I mean, you know this place is full of characters, and, golly, Angeliki was one of these people that either drew you too her like a magnet or repelled you. She was controversial, and she made no qualms about stating her mind and making enemies if necessary. She could pick you apart or build you up as she chose. She was polarizing in that way. And she could wither you with a glance, and she had this air about her that was regal and commanding, and I remember walking into her office, and she’s seated behind this huge partner’s desk, this ancient partner’s desk, and she’s just in command of this space and the director’s office was – is beautifully appointed, and the shelves are full of books, and it was imposing. And she stood behind her desk and came around and greeted me again – it was almost as if I should curtsey to her. And she said, “Please, Mr. Harrison, please have a seat,” and she guided me to the sofa and she had a wing chair stationed in front of her desk and aimed at the sofa across this antique coffee table.
Once I was seated, she proceeded to enthrone herself, and she did so and offered me tea and then pulled out a bag of rolling tobacco and rolled a cigarette and offered me one, and I was just floored. I was like, “Oh my God, this is like out of a movie.” And it really was. She crossed her legs and she had this nervous tick of bouncing her lower leg on her knee. She lit up her smoke and she sat there and proceeded to ask me about myself, and she was very friendly and she said, “So, tell me about yourself, Mr. Harrison,” and, “Tell me about your experience,” and, “How do you think you’ll fit in here and what you can bring to Dumbarton Oaks.” You know, fairly standard interview type questions. I think I spoke for fifteen or twenty minutes about my experiences in exhibit design and my work in previous museums. My work prior to Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts had been as a scenery designer and as a technical designer in scenery for the stage and for some television and film. And the experience in setting the stage, as it were, really informed my sensibilities with exhibits and with museum construction and fabrication and engaging the patron of museums in a more exciting – maybe in a more theatrical – way. I felt that I could bring that to the table. And I discussed that with her and talked about my private life and my family and the need to move to this area and my excitement at the possibilities. And I said pretty much the normal kinds of things that you would expect a thirty-five-year old guy to say to the Queen of the – and she concluded the interview. She just kind of nodded and smoked and let me say my piece, and I thought, “Here we go again,” it’s this sort of perfunctory thing and I don’t stand a chance at getting this job and the interview was obviously coming to a close and she said, “I just have one last question, Mr. Harrison.” She said, “What makes you think you can fill the shoes of Astor Moore who’s been with Dumbarton Oaks – he came when Bliss was still alive.” You know, at the time of his retirement, I think he’d had fifty years of experience in cabinet making and the kind of skills that were needed for the job. And I remembered thinking, “God, I am screwed. There’s no way that I can fill this man’s shoes,” and it just flashed through my mind, and I looked at her and I thought about the question and I said, “Doctor Laiou, if you really want to fill Astor Moore’s shoes you will have to call Astor and bring him back.” I said, “I cannot do that; that’s not in my capabilities.” I said, “What I can bring is fresh ideas, a perfect safety record, modern training in museum standards and best practises, and energy, willingness, a collaborative spirit, and my excitement for the work that you do here. I am in awe of your collection. And I think it will be an honor to work with your collection and your museum staff.” And I said, “I don’t know whether that’s what you want, but I can tell you, you know, that if you need Astor’s shoes filled you’re going to have to get Astor back.”
And she didn’t say a thing. She just kind of smiled and gave me this crafty smile and she said, “Mr. Harrison, I do believe that is the best answer I’ve ever got to that question, and that has greatly impressed me, and you will be hearing from us very shortly.” And she left me with the impression – without actually offering me the job on the spot – she left me with the very clear impression that I was a serious candidate for them, and I think it was less than two or three days later – I had flown back to Montgomery and we were literally throwing things in boxes and getting ready for the move – and I got the call and the offer for the job. It was a remarkable time in my life, and it was a remarkable process to go through. You know, taking that leap of faith and then just having it magically fall into place – it was cool.
When I got here my job was to sort of re-invent the exhibit making process at Dumbarton Oaks. We weren’t doing at the time – my predecessor, Astor Moore, was not really engaged in exhibit building. He was a craftsman of the first order: a cabinet maker, a furniture builder, an artisan, an artist, but he really wasn’t an exhibit designer. And I don’t think he had the collaborative skills to engage in that the way I did, or the way that I learned to do while here. So, it was about finding my own way to some degree. But to help me in that – you know, by the time I actually began work, Astor was retired. In fact, Astor was retired already when he interviewed me, I guess it was probably in February in ’98, ‘cause I started in March of ‘98. So, in March I’m going to be just shy of sixteen years’ stay here when I leave on the third of February. But anyway, he had been gone for a few months when I arrived and began work. And at the urging of Suzanne Mercury, who was my assistant cabinet maker, I called him and I arranged for visits with him so that I could get his oral history; he was such a font of information and it was such a new thing to me at such an old institution. And he had been here since forever, and finding out how things worked and where things were and what he did in certain situations and how he problem-solved and how he went about doing his job really helped me in guiding me through, in finding my way here. So, we developed this habit of meeting for drinks and lunch, and he allowed me to take him to lunch to Old Europe up on Wisconsin, and he would have a three martini lunch, and Suzanne and I would sit there and he would hold court and tell us stories about his life and about his work at Dumbarton Oaks and about some of the stories of the history of D.O., and his time with the Blisses and with the directors and colleagues that came after their departure, and it was awesome. And we did, we kind of fell into a routine of doing this once a month, and we did that until Astor became sick, and he died very shortly after retirement. It was less than two or three years after he retired and he was gone, he died of cancer and some complications and old age, and I think those three martinis a day weren’t helping either. I think at that time, in fact, he probably had something of a drinking problem, but he was still fun to be around. He wasn’t a mean drunk, he was a really interesting one, and we enjoyed our time with him – the little time that we had.
I was working for Sue Boyd on my – Sue was the head of the museum’s work board, the head of the Byzantine collection, and there was not a museum director in those days. It was a very small and intimate and familiar kind of place to work. It still is to some degree, although that has changed somewhat over the years. But, Sue was a delightful colleague and a guiding light for me. I was actually answering to Gay Mackintosh, and it wasn’t until Angeliki left and our new director Ned Keenan came in that Gay finally retired. Ned came with a sense of shaking things up. Professor Keenan’s mission was to sort of come down here and clean house – the women’s touch has been ‘round long enough. And he came down here with a swagger and he was going to shake things up at D.O., and he did that. He really revitalized the institution to a large degree, and he was very successful in managing and overseeing the construction of the library and this huge capital improvements project, which was a massive undertaking and it required hours and hours of labour and organization that, under a lesser man, it would have faltered. But he saw that through. But part of his shakeup was reorganizing the management structure to a degree, and he did that to some degree, and Gay Mackintosh was sort of lost along the way and in that process. And it was in that time that things were really in flux for me. I went from working for Gay to working for a series of facilities managers that Ned tried out as a method of re-organizing that wasn’t very successful. And there was conflict and unease and there was new people and difficulty. There were challenges all along the way and all during this process we’re trying to build this multi-billion dollar – well, it was a many million dollar library with a many million dollar renovation of the main house and a many million dollar renovation of all the other facilities around the campus. So, it was a scary, exciting time, and throughout those years it was probably sort of the middle of my time here. We were doing very little exhibit making. What exhibit making I was doing at that time was these didactical sort-of exhibits. We were doing these little things in the hallway that would be sort of like extended label exhibits, and we’d had a bunch of photos of old archaeological sites and label copy that would explain the material. These exhibits were not for the public; they were really just for the scholars and the staff. Back in those days the museum itself was the only area where the public were allowed, and what has become our special exhibition hallway was just a staff hallway.
But we began the process of doing sort of regular, yearly, two or three a year of these little exhibits that would sort of expand on and delve into the details of either an archaeological dig or a set of materials that was found in ICFA, or something about Byzantine artifacts or pre-Columbian material. This was very scholarly and rather dry and not very jazzy in museum exhibit design terms, but it was fun, and it was engaging, and it kept me busy, and it opened up the staff to thinking about that hallway a little differently. And when the time came to really design the throughway making and the re-organization of the museum spaces and the way finding and what would be private and what would be public spaces, they chose to make that hallway a public thoroughfare, and that was what really drove the desire to step it up. And it was at that time that Sue Boyd had reached retirement and she parted ways, and we gave her a wonderful send-off. She had been here forty years plus, and she was a mainstay and, in fact, she’s taking me out to lunch this afternoon. We’re going to go over and have lunch in Georgetown and reminisce about these same stories. She was and is a class act. But when she left, it left a horrible vacuum, and Ned, in his wisdom, and in his willingness to experiment with new organizational modes, he chose to bring in a museum director to unite the collections both in the library and in the museum collection in a way that had not been done before.
The Byzantine Collection was a little fiefdom and the Pre-Columbian Collection was a little fiefdom, and the Byzantine library was a fiefdom and the Pre-Columbian library was a fiefdom. The rare books were their own little fort. And people had these little territories, and it was, “this is my stuff,” kind of a way of being. And that was just a natural outgrowth of the way that the place was organized before. But Ned changed that and he put the library under one director and he put the museum collections under one director. And Gudrun Bühl was hired and she came from Germany, and it was like a whole ‘nother world, and she came with a European aesthetic, and she came with a whole different way of exhibit making, and it was her first – she was learning as she went. We began slowly and, of course, when she first arrived we were in the process of stripping the place completely bare and putting everything in offsite storage or loaning it to institutions around the world to try and get rid of all of our stuff so we could renovate our museum spaces. So, it was a busy, busy time and, in the same process, we were packing all of this stuff up – she and you, James, and the other museum staff were in the process of thinking how we might redesign and re-install, and the architects were busy working out how people were going to get around and what kind of utilities needed to be rebuilt, and what kind of infrastructure needed to be addressed, when in the remaking of the D.O. facilities, the main house facilities. And all the while the new library’s being built and the gardener’s court building is being built and it was a busy, busy time, and exciting. We brought in some contractors. Wendy Jessup and a few others like her, conservators and registrars. You know, at that time we didn’t have really a registrar, back in the day, and it was shortly after – when did we get EmbARK? It was around when I came?
JC: It was.
CH: Back in the day – back when I arrived in ’98 – besides Angeliki being a Byzantine queen, we were really running kind of like a Byzantine college. We had files, written files, and three-by-five card catalogue files. That was our database, and one of the first things you did, James, was get us on a real collections management database; and thus was born EmbARK with D.O. And so, besides packing everything up and moving it out, we were in the process of really renovating our management, our organization style. We were reinventing what we were going to present to the public, what our image was going to be, how we were going to exhibit our material, although we didn’t vary too much from what we had done in the past. We still have a permanent collection and we were still going to have relatively static collections. There was this opportunity to really re-invent ourselves and to rethink the exhibits with the twenty-first century in mind, and we did that. A real milestone in this process for me, personally, was when we finished packing up the collections and we really kind of turned the building over to the contracting firms to begin work, and it came out of the blue with no previous forewarning – no hints, even, that this was to come – I was called into human resources offices, and at the time the human resources was housed over in R Street in the Bass House – the Grant summer house, a beautiful building next to the library, a private residence – but it had been converted into offices for human resources and finances and some of the other offices at D.O. that no longer had space in the main house while it was under renovation. And the message they gave me that day was that I was to be made half-time for one year while the collections were not in our care. And I was aghast, I was stunned, and I was just – frightened. I was angry that they weren’t giving me very much notice and I was astounded that they thought that there wasn’t really work for me to accomplish, when in fact there was plenty of pre-planning that could have been done, and I could have been part of that in a real active way, and as it turned out, being put on half time, I wasn’t able to do very much with – I think the architects and the rest of the management here just didn’t think really much about my advice anyway, and that’s understandable. I was a little outspoken and I piped up early in the process. I’ll back up a little bit and tell a story. When Ned came with his mission to build the new library, he had a town hall meeting and he gathered us all in the music room for a big meeting and he said, “This is what we’re going to do: we’re going to build this library and it’s going to be state of the art and it’s going to remake D.O.” And it was very exciting and it was a neat mission to undertake and he said, “I want your input, so my office door is open and you guys, any of you, can come in and tell me what you think about this process and give me your advice.” And naïve as I was, I thought that he really meant that, and he didn’t, he certainly didn’t want to hear anything from Chris Harrison. But I think he meant well, and I think he did mean that to some degree. I mean, he certainly wanted to appear to be interested in everyone’s opinion.
Not long after that he let it out that one of the ideas that was floated was to build this library underneath the north vista in the gardens, and everybody – except for just a slim few – everybody was like, “Are you out of your mind?” You know, when you think about the practicalities of excavating under the north vista, and what it would do to the gardens and how it would change that landscape, even with the most sensitively handled architecture and burying the library underground, it was going to make a mess of the gardens for many years, and it was uncertain if it could be done, really, and maintain the historical nature of the gardens. And the preliminary drawings were kind of sketchy and it was a little iffy, and there was quite a movement that came later that revolted against it, but at the very beginning, when he first floated this idea, I had had direct experience with new construction, modern construction, underground, both in Montgomery and here in Washington, D.C., and I had colleagues down at the Smithsonian – the Sackler, the Freer – that had extensive construction areas underground and exhibit and work spaces underground, and I’d heard horror stories about it. And I went to Ned’s, and I asked for a moment of his time, and I went into his office and I said, “Professor Keenan, I’ve heard about your idea to build underground, and I just want to say, don’t do it. Just don’t do it. You know you’re going to be sorry in the long run.” I said, “It’s not a question of if the building will have problems; it’s a question of how long it will take for the building to start to develop problems. With the best construction techniques that you can bring to bear – just, don’t do it. It’s not worth the headaches. Find another location for the library.” And he listened patiently, but he didn’t want to hear it, and he thanked me very curtly for my opinion and whisked me out of his office. He did not want to hear it at all. And he was convinced that this was the state of the art solution to the problem of where to put the new library, and it wasn’t. It was a horrible idea, and it proved to get worse. It was months and months following, this where it just continued to unfold, and there was an organization of individuals, landscape architects and historians and scholars and professionals around the globe, who just were out of their mind with the through of disturbing this perfect piece of Beatrix Farrand’s art and the horror of the idea of digging up the north vista and planting a library underneath there. And so, there was quite an outcry from the global community against the whole thing, and he finally dropped it, after some time. But I was one of the first to give him fair warning, and he didn’t listen to me. But thank God they decided not to build it where he had hoped.
But anyway, where we were in the story, I was let go, basically. I was told I was going to work seventeen hours a week, but that they would maintain – because I had a family, because I had family obligations. I was going through a horrible divorce. I was going through a personal crisis of my own; it turns out I was falling into an addiction of alcohol, I was becoming an alcoholic at the time, so it was a horribly scary time for me. And this period where I was suddenly without a full time job – the one grace was that they were going to leave me with full benefits, as if I was a full-time employee, because they could do that if I worked seventeen and a half hours. If I was just over halftime they would give me full benefits so that I could continue to give medical coverage and health benefits to my two children and my ex-wife. But I remember clearly, like it was yesterday, driving home that day, that afternoon, after being told I was going to be made part-time for one year. But, they couldn’t justify it and Ned had cost savings in mind, and you know, from Ned’s point of view, it was the right thing to do. And they were probably right, you know, in the long run. I don’t think the museum project suffered one bit because I wasn’t helping out more actively.
And as it turns out, hindsight has given me a whole different view on the matter. At the time I was livid, and I said so to Gudrun and – it was – Maria Schmitt was our Human Resources director person, part-time HR lady, and I will always be in debt to Maria Schmitt. And I think very highly of her, she was in a tough position. And Human Resources at D.O. is a tough row to hoe for anybody, and Maria was not – you know Maria had a hard time here, and struggled with doing the job, just as all – as most of the folks who have done Human Resources here at D.O. have. It’s not been an easy job to negotiate that and ride that razor’s edge between management and the staff. But she was very kind to me, and she was very supportive, especially later when my alcoholism really flourished and, personally, I was challenged to the very limit. My work was affected during that time, too, because of my alcoholism, and it was a really dark time for me. And that’s – I’m getting a little ahead of the story, but where we were here, in this thing – I was driving home following that interview with Gudrun and Maria Schmitt, and I was driving across the Memorial Bridge, heading to Arlington, Alexandria, and I remember literally pounding the dashboard, I reached up with my right hand, with one hand on the wheel, and I literally beat the top of my dashboard (laughing) in anger at the audacity of the museum management and D.O.’s management in making me go halftime and what that would mean for me financially. I was crushed, I was certain it was a disaster. And little did I know, actually, I have to say, I was in early recovery at this time – I had been to rehab, and I had been to detox and rehab, and I’d gotten through, I’d gotten on the other side of my alcoholism at this very point, I was brand new, in fact, my alcoholism had come to a head, I was out for two months or so, getting help and getting into rehab and getting myself squared away. And so I was brand new to recovery and to a new life without alcohol and dependence on drugs or alcohol of any kind, and something that somebody in one of those twelve steps meetings said, came to me at that moment on the Memorial Bridge as I was pounding the dashboard, and what it was was, the serenity prayer, which is a big hit with those AA people, they say, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” And I don’t know if it was rehab or sitting in enough AA meetings or whatever, but I heard that, and I heard it in my head, and it occurred to me at that very moment, as I was rolling towards Arlington cemetery, that this was something that I couldn’t change. This was something that had been decided by more capable hands than I, and had decided in a way that was irrevocable. And I had offered Gudrun and Maria Schmitt, I said, “Do you want my resignation? ‘Cause I will resign if you want.” ‘Cause I was indignant, you know, I was really pissed. They said, “No, no, no, Chris, we mean it.” And I said, “Well, if you really mean it, I want to see that in writing,” you know, I was pissed (laughing). Well they said, “We will do that, we will make a letter of agreement with you, and we will write, in the letter, that you will start back fulltime one year from this date, and you can maintain your benefits and all of that stuff – we’ll do that for you.” And I thought, well, okay, this is something I cannot change, it’s something that I do not have control over, so, according to AA’s principles, the principles of recovery, this was something that I would have to just accept. And the sooner I did that, the more peace of mind and genuine serenity I would experience, and I was anything but serene at the moment.
And so I made a conscious decision just to accept it, and I did it, and it was truly a life altering moment, because it was the most exciting, productive, financially rewarding year I’ve had since I lived in Washington, D.C. As part of our mission to remove all of these artifacts from our museums and storage, we had hired a series of contractors from several different art handling firms in the metropolitan D.C. area. We had hired conservators, and registrars, and workers in the museum profession who had worked with the Smithsonian and all of the large institutions downtown – and it was a wonderful resource, and a wonderful network, that I was completely unmindful of. And when I mentioned the next day at work to my co-workers and to these contractors who were helping us with the relocation of materials, when I mentioned my situation, and that the museum had, you know, pulled the rug out from underneath my feet, as it were, they said, “Oh, well, you know, Chris, that’s great, why don’t you come work for us?” (laughing) And these firms – that was Ely and Artex and US Art and SurroundArt – these companies that assisted us in this process, and the private contractors, the conservators, and museum workers that we had hired in to help us with the job, all had wonderful suggestions and a wonderful network of contacts for me to look for work, and I was able to work out a deal with Gudrun and Maria – and this is where Maria’s kindness really came in – not only that she was understanding as I was going through the throes of my recovery and getting out from under the onus of alcoholism, which she was an angel through that process, and very supportive emotionally and everyway else and professionally. They bent over backwards for me, and they gave me free reign to work a week at a time here straight and then take a week off and go work for Natural History, or, The National Museum of Women and the Arts, or, I worked for the Hirshhorn for a period of six months, doing collections management work and art preparation work for them. And so, it was really a wonderful time in my career when I was doing seventeen and a half hours here at D.O., but I was working on these fabulous projects downtown, meeting all kinds of new – making all kinds of new contacts, and really immersing myself in the museum world of D.C., and these were globally recognized institutions that were state of the art and doing their work on a global scale and, not to diminish Dumbarton Oaks’s status or its collections in the least, but we are a very niche institution that serves a different purpose and, you know, places like the Hirshhorn and Natural History and the National Gallery and these institutions downtown, were very exciting to work for, because they were what they were, what they are, they’re the Smithsonian, man, you know? It was a joy.
And it turned out to be my best year ever. I was fresh out of rehab and clean and sober and getting my feet back under me and I had a blast. And as it turned out I was able to charge a salary from these institutions as a contractor that far – it really blew my normal salary at D.O. out of the water. I was able to charge a wage that, I made more money that year, than I think I have since. And that was seven or eight years ago now. So, that was exciting. And then, it was just a year, and those contacts that I had forged with the institutions and the people downtown and in the metro area were able to keep me going, and really built a private clientele that I’ve been working for ever since. I’ve continued to do little jobs for individuals and institutions in the Metro D.C. area ever since those days, and it’s augmented my salary nicely.
And you know, when we reinstalled, and brought all the goodies back, it was very exciting. We really did – we opened up that hallway to the public, and it really became our special exhibition hallway and we really jumped in, and we started engaging, and developing a system of exhibit building, and exhibit conceptualizing, like we just had never done at D.O. Gudrun – under her leadership, we developed this system of collaborative design, and committee design, that would in any other place be fraught with pitfalls and be a horrible disaster and would never quite work right, but here, we were really lucky, or very, I don’t know – um – collegial. And we’ve been able in those years, in these last seven or eight years, we’ve been able to develop a system of exhibit engineering, or exhibit conceptualization, that has really served us very, very well, and we’ve done some real gems. I mean, real state of the art, classy, and informative, and educational, and inspiring, and, I mean, talk about – the photos don’t do the exhibits justice, I have to say. The file photos that we have of the work that we’ve done in that little hallway, you know, they don’t really tell the story. But it – some of the work has been exemplary, really world class, world class on a small scale, on a very small scale, and a very small budget, but no doubt it’s been a joy, and it’s been rewarding.
JC: Do you have a favorite of the special exhibitions?
CH: I guess my most recent favorite – I have a couple favorites. My most recent favorite is the one we did last year. What was it? All Sides Considered? If you ever get a chance to see those photographs, to whoever the audience is that is listening to this story, when you enter the galleries from the street, you’re presented with this very clean, art gallery kind of look. Very little graphics and very little didactics and the labels were very subtle, just very subtly done. But vibrant colors that highlighted just six little display cases, very small and intimate, but, it looked like an art gallery, it didn’t look like an anthropological exhibit at all. And, the endeavor was to – the concept was to present the material from – to explain or to allow the patron to see how we view these artifacts from all these different perspectives and via what mechanisms we explore our collections, both anthropologically and scientifically, and material culture-wise, and how we look at the material. Literally one of the pieces was how the light shining at an object can change your appreciation of it if you change the angle of the light. I mean, you know, it was very innovative, it was a very innovative idea, and it was very innovatively designed. So, we presented this view of the material sort of as objects of art from the street side as you walk into this gallery, and then, as you walk through, and as you enter the space, and you get to the other side of these cases, you’re presented with these very extensive labels with all kinds of touchy-feely bits and pieces: hands-on material, interactive iPads with slideshows and x-rays and data, and all this other additional information that was all hands-on and engaging and exciting and detailed. And you didn’t see any of this stuff when you first walk in, so suddenly from the other side you’re presented with almost like a laboratory view of the work, and from the other side you’re presented with this view of the work as sort of objects of art, and it was, it was nice.
And the other exhibit I really liked was Antioch. I thought that was a great use of very, kind of, iffy material. I mean, it was drawn from a bunch of material that hadn’t seen the light of day in years, and we talked about mosaics, we talked about archaeological excavations, and the exhibit design was innovative, and it was exciting, and classy, and kind of cool. And it was a fun one to build, and I think it was successful in, you know, in taking a look at this material from a stratigraphy kind of standpoint – that was the kind of design concept was the layers that we uncover when we excavate and the hidden meaning that can be found in these layers. And so, I built some casework that kind of had that layered look, and we built some gallery pedestals that had this sort of very post-modern layered kind of feel to it, and we painted layers on the wall. It was kind of hokey, but I loved it, and I thought it was great, and I think it was engaging, and appealing, and attractive, and I think it worked for a hallway.
JC: What was the most challenging or difficult exhibition to do?
CH: You know, the – ohhhhhhhh a few years ago we did Cross-References, and it was Gudrun’s first attempt at a blockbuster, you know, and a blockbuster for D.O. is not a blockbuster for the Metropolitan. A blockbuster for D.O. is, you know, would be considered a special exhibition for the NGA. But we made an endeavor to create an exhibit that encompassed the special exhibition hallway, the foyer, the hallway leading from the foyer to the special exhibition hallway. It encompassed the courtyard and the Byzantine gallery and the textile gallery, and in every corner of our museum spaces with the exception of Pre-Colombian and the music room. We were presenting this material that related to the cross, to the cross of Christ: the cross as an image, the cross as an icon, the cross as a metaphor, the crucifix. And it was challenging just from a logistics standpoint. We were, but you know, we had been in the business of this special exhibition making for some time, and although we were, we had just lost Kristen who was an integral part of our team, and it was horrible to lose her, she was a – she had to go make babies, and she chose to start a family, and it wasn’t working that, you know, she couldn’t work full time anymore, and so she had left. And we brought in Hillary as the new sort of, you know, production coordinator for exhibits at D.O. So, she was kind of brand new, and she’s like twenty-something and had new ideas and was kind of sassy in her Hillary kind of way – I’ll miss her very much, we’ve become close friends. But we were kind of working with a new, you know, some of the players were new, and that was a bit of a challenge. But we had been doing these special exhibitions long enough that we’d figured out that what we needed to do was to just layer in this material. So, we started installing the exhibit long before the gala opening, and we did this in a very thought-out sort of systematic way, so that in the end it really wasn’t that challenging. It wasn’t this daunting, sudden thing. But we did make a lot of loans, we did more loans for that exhibit than we’d ever done at one time at D.O., so there were a lot of couriers coming and dropping off pieces and um, we were using every corner of space in the exhibit at D.O. to show, you know, the way the cross has been interpreted and the way it’s impacted culture since the time of Christ and before. So, it was a fun exhibit, I don’t know how successful it was really – it was challenging. It kind of pushed our – it pushed us to the limit, and I think it showed us what we – it taught us some lessons about engaging in such a massive undertaking at such a small institution, and I think it may have made Gudrun a little gun shy from doing that too soon in the future (laughs). We were kind of – we kind of got pushed to the edge there. But it was good.
JC: One of your great contributions, in my opinion, is your ability to make these beautiful, unseen mounts that safely protect the object on display, but aren’t part of its visual appearance. Could you speak a little about how you learned to make mounts, what contribution mount-making gives to a museum staff?
CH: Yeah, you know, mount-making is – my predecessor, Astor, had, because he was so fond of acrylic and he was capable with it and it was called for in the Johnson wing, because of the nature of the acrylic use, as a material, you know, it was used for all those pedestals and everything in there. So, he showed me, I learned by seeing his stuff, how acrylic could be incorporated into exhibit mounts. Acrylic is not a necessarily easy material to work with, and it has challenges of its own and limitations, but it, as a material for mount-making, it can be very useful. But his mounts had this sort of chunkiness to them, and it wasn’t until we were doing the re-install, when it was clearly time – most of the spider mounts, which is a term we use in mount-making that describes a mount that is usually for artifacts that are of sort of decorative art size – in other words, spider mounts are primarily used for things like, what’s a good example – like, the hope diamond. These are relatively small artifacts that are fairly lightweight: a cup, a chalice, a plate, jewelry is a good example. You’ll see a lot of spider mounts used for jewelry, and they’re described as spider mounts simply because there is typically a stem that is embedded into the stage of a pedestal or the back wall of an exhibit case that’s hung on the wall. And from that stem are a series of spider legs that kind of radiate out from that stem and then in some way encapsulate or protect and hold the artifact in the position that you wish to display it. And it’s done in such a way that, using brass and small gauge wire, and meticulous, and you end up using a jeweler’s torch to build these little, these special mounts, and you’re braising together bits of brass and copper and metal and then fashioning these little prongs that will hold the artifacts in a particular aspect, and will do so with conservation issues in mind. So, you do these mounts that are very carefully thought out and engineered to properly support and maintain the safety of the object, at the same time do no harm. So, these object mounts have to nestle the piece very gently and appropriately, so that we don’t scratch the surface of a friable surface, we don’t loosen pigment from a painted artifact, and we don’t do any damage to them. And then we’ll in-paint, which is a term we use for coming back over top of these metal mounts and painting them in such a way that they sort of disappear, so that if our work, if our craft is successful, we develop a mount that performs all of these important technical functions but at the same time is unseen. The stem is – we typically attempt to hide that, to position the stem in a way that the object will hide it, or that another element in the exhibit case will keep it from being too visible to the viewer. So that when the patron walks in and steps up to a display case, they’re presented with the artifact as if it were floating there, seemingly supported, but it’s not quite clear, if your job’s successful, just how it’s supported. And often you know you have to kind of look around the side and peek at the backside to see how this thing is just floating there – and that’s our, that’s the definition of what a spider mount is. Well, in spider mount, or in the small brass custom made mounts there is no other than the master, the grandmaster himself, Bob Fuglestad, and Bob is a mount-maker who worked for the Smithsonian for years and years and years and is now retired from the Smithsonian. But he still does mount-making on the side or in retirement, he’ll do contract work, and he came and worked for us, and helped build mounts for the reinstallation of the exhibits. And he’s the one who showed me the amazing flexibility and some of the secrets of engineering that go into these special artifact mounts. And he’s the master, and he’s a neat guy too, and very willing to teach. And he was very willing to show me the ropes and to show me his techniques and let me learn how to do these spider mounts like he does. And they’re fun, they’re fun to work on. It’s instant gratification. You can design a mount and usually have a rough-out of it in just a couple hours, and in a matter of a day or so you usually can have something that’s quite impressive and that does the job and does it safely and meets all the requirements. And so mount-making is a great source of gratification, ‘cause it’s a relatively easy job that not a lot of people know how to do; it’s a specialty. And I don’t claim to be as good at it as others, certainly not like Bob, but after a few years of it you get the knack for it, and it becomes like a, just another skill. And I’m glad I was here to learn how to do that with Bob, and we have so many artifacts in our collection that need mounts, you know like ninety percent of our collections are spider mount-type artifacts, a lot of decorative arts, a lot of jewelry, and bits and pieces of pre-Colombian tombs that are crying out for a spider mount or specialty mounts of that sort. And so, I learned, I really learned how to mount-make while I was here at D.O., and its something that I’ll take with me when I go to Hamilton College up in New York.
JC: So, we’re close to finished here. Is there anything else you can remember and want to talk about? Or have we covered everything?
CH: I can’t think of any – you know I’ve got stories, James, I could tell you stories for hours. I loved working for D.O., you know, personally, it’s been an honor. The collections themselves are just first-rate, not enough can be said about the Blisses connoisseurship, they were and are, responsible for such a wonderful pile of goodies to play with and to show to the people, and, you know, it’s a really – I described, when I returned from that interview sixteen years ago to Montgomery, Alabama, to begin packing the trucks to move – my wife asked me, “So what’s it like?” And I described Dumbarton Oaks as a jewel box, it is a, it’s a treasure chest, it’s a little, it’s like a little, intricately carved, encrusted with gems and gold, casket, from the Middle Ages, meticulously crafted by highly skilled artisans and lovingly adorned with gems and precious jewels and, you know, gilt, and polychrome paint. And then you open this little treasure chest, and there’s all this wonderful material inside. And you can – it’s fabulous. You know, the fascination that you can have for the people that made these things, and the people that wore them, or that put them in their tombs, or mixed their cocoa in them – or whatever, you know. So, the collection has been a joy to work with, and I’ll miss that. But it’s the people that I’ll miss the most.
I think I’m going to miss where we’re located. I’m – you know, moving to upstate New York won’t be a challenge because I’ll be going from sort of a midsized fish in a very big pond to being what I guess will be a – I guess I’m a pretty big fish in a very small pond up there, as far as museum exhibits go. You know, it’ll be exciting to try that outfit and see how that feels. The staff at Hamilton College has been very reverential to me, and in a way that I’m not accustomed to here at Dumbarton Oaks, because I’m a very irreverent sort and most of the staff treat me like I deserve to be treated, which is (laughs) irreverently. But, you know, I’m perceived very differently up there, and that will be interesting to see what that’s like. But I will miss the people with whom I have worked and collaborated here at D.O. You, James, for sure.
And, well, all of us, you know, John Hanson’s come back from Canada, and he’s a joy. God, he brings such joy to the job, he’s always got a joke or a story to tell and he fits in this place so well. He never should have left, but it’s so good to have him back. And I’m going to go have lunch with Sue here in a few minutes, and Stephen Zwirn, I love him, he’s retired now too. So, the people that I’ve come to know and love I will miss the most.
But the town, you know, I won’t miss the traffic. I live, I’m going to live, you know, as a sidebar to this, and for those of you at home listening, I work in Georgetown, and for most of my time here, for most of my fifteen years in D.C. working in Georgetown, I have lived fifty miles away, so I have forged my way through traffic for all these years – or most of the years, there was a period during my divorce and recovery when I was living in town – but, most of the time I’ve been living quite a distance away and having to commute for an hour minimum each way morning and night, and for the first time in sixteen years, I will be living two miles from my office door, and I’m looking forward to a very short commute, and a quieter way of life, so, I’m excited for the future, and sad for the people I will be leaving as I depart. But thank you, Dumbarton Oaks. I’ve loved working for you, and I will always hold Dumbarton Oaks very fondly in my memory.
JC: We will miss you too. I wish you well, and hope for your visits back to see what new things have happened here, and hopefully we’ll get up to Hamilton and see what you’re up to there.
CH: I would urge you to come visit, and thank you, James, for this opportunity to share my story.
JC: Thank you, Chris. It’s been a pleasure.