AC: Good morning, today is Saturday October 14th, 2011, and I’m Alyce de Carteret. I have the great pleasure of interviewing David Webster, currently a professor of Anthropology at Penn State University and a Senior Fellow of Pre-Columbian Studies here at Dumbarton Oaks. Thank you so much for joining me.
DW: Thank you.
AC: Just to begin, how did you first come to know about Dumbarton Oaks and what were your initial impressions of the institution?
DW: Well of course I knew from the late sixties about its publications, but then my wife Susan Evans, who taught in the early eighties at Catholic University, became a good friend of Elizabeth Boone. And, when Elizabeth Boone was head of Pre-Columbian, of course my wife formed a strong connection with Dumbarton Oaks and eventually became a Fellow herself. So that was my entrée.
AC: What led you to apply for your first fellowship here?
DW: You know, I don’t remember. I think on both of the fellowships that I had – both of which were Summer Fellowships – I think I was invited both times. I don’t think I ever applied sort of out of the blue.
AC: What was that experience like being a Fellow here? What were the day-to-day activities?
DW: Well, in those days of course it was in the old set of facilities. And it was extremely pleasurable. And what you really fail to get most of the time as a scholar in your professional life is just time out when you can do what you want and time out when you can do what you want in the context of other people who have similar interests. So, the day-to-day routine was pretty much get up, come to work, sit in your little cubicle if that’s what you had, and presumably work on your project. Although, of course when you are surrounded by all the great stuff at Dumbarton Oaks, you often browse around and begin working on other things.
AC: What were those – I mean, tell me about the library and working with the library. I’ve heard from others –
DW: You mean the old one?
AC: Yeah, the old one. And going in and getting distracted by the –
DW: I liked the old one because the old one had a kind of chaotic, informal, basement weirdness. And you would wonder around these hallways, many of the hallways were filled with bookcases and so on. So, you could not find anything quite as easily as you could here. And of course there were no computers. You had to find things by hand, using a card catalog. But eventually you got very used to it. So, when they eventually built the new library, I had to learn all over again how to deal with the – you know – where things were. But I like the kind of informal, a bit shabby aura of the old library, the sort of underground warren of rooms. It was fun.
AC: Have you gotten to work much with the new library?
DW: Yes, yes.
AC: How would you compare the experiences of working with each?
DW: Well, of course in many respects, it’s much better because you can find things easily – you can store things more easily. It’s more apparent just intuitively where things are. In those days of course the Pre-Columbian volumes where all by themselves; now they are interleafed with the other Byzantine stuff. But the new library has many infrastructural advantages, but it’s not as cozy, let’s put it that way.
AC: And what projects where you working on while you were here?
DW: The first one was the project on palaces in the new world, which Susan and Joanne were in charge of. And the second one was on Maya architecture, which was the brainchild of Stephen Houston and Takeshi Inomata. Those were both sometime in the 1990s or early 2000s.
AC: And did you actually finish those projects while you were here?
DW: We did. We did. They have all been published. I’m trying to think of how many symposium volumes – my work is in those two symposium volumes but one or two others as well because sometimes – although I don’t know that this works today – but sometimes, in the past, you would get roped into presenting a paper or contributing a paper even if you weren’t formally part of the project. But I think that – I think those days are gone. I don’t think that’s going to happen anymore.
AC: While you were here was there much interaction with the Junior Fellows and the Senior Fellows as you were a Fellow?
DW: Well, remember in the summer – I was a Summer Fellow – so, it wouldn’t happen as often because you didn’t have the normal Fellows around, and also we didn’t have what we have today, these other short arrangements for summer Fellows or for Fellows during other times of the year. So no, I think it was pretty much the people in our projects.
AC: Was there not really much interaction with the other areas of study as well, Byzantine studies or –?
DW: Well, not so much with Byzantine. I’ve always been a bit bemused by Byzantinists and what they study. It’s an extremely specialized topic. No, I wouldn’t say, with one or two – except at lunch, occasionally at lunch of course we sit with people from Byzantine Studies or Landscape Studies or whatever, and then we interacted. They were in those days and probably still are rather different worlds. I think the natural linkage within those three programs is Pre-Columbian and Landscape not Pre-Columbian and Byzantine. Although in the symposium we’re having right now of course we have a Byzantinist who’s a contributor.
AC: Right. And, has that influenced your work at all, having Landscape Studies here? I mean has that directed your work in any way?
DW: Well, it hasn’t directed mine, but certainly my wife’s, who has always maintained strong connections with Dumbarton Oaks and whose interests are heavily in Landscape. It’s been a big boon to her. In fact, she’s even now trying to get off the ground a project which would involve landscape archeology and Pre-Columbian. So, we’ll see where that goes. It is kind of a natural thing. And one of my former students was here last summer – Tim Murtha was a Summer Fellow. And he actually teaches in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Penn State. So that was a natural for him.
AC: Fellows that were here as Fellows at the same time as you – do you still keep in touch with them?
DW: Oh, absolutely. Well, Maya archeology, which is what I do, is a small world. So of course you keep in close touch. The palace project had myself, actually my wife was part of that, of course, Karl Taube, and a number of others who got along very well. And then Steve Houston’s architecture project Takeshi Inomata and a whole series of other Mayanists including one of my former Ph.D.s herself, Nan Gonlin. And so, we all, you know, you spend a lot of time together. I see these people all the time. And many of them are very active at Dumbarton Oaks in the sense that they come here to meetings; they send their students here; they themselves write Fellowship applications.
AC: Great. So, we were just talking about some of the symposia. What’s the experience like actually attending a Dumbarton Oaks symposium as compared to other conferences?
DW: Well, it’s a kind of symposium, which is rather different because it has so many different sorts of attendees. In a normal symposium it’s pretty much professionals. In these, of course, you get people from not only several different sub-disciplines or whatever, but you get all the people who are enthusiastic outsiders – I don’t want to call them amateurs, you know, but people that don’t have a specific connection with the profession as we do, but who are here anyway. And you get to notice who they are because they’re kind of – I don’t want to call them groupies – but they are Dumbarton Oaks regulars. And one of the problems we now have is that we’ve become more popular than ever but the accommodations in the Music Room have shrunk. The fire marshal or somebody has said, well, you shouldn’t have more than 125 people in there, which means that you could not accommodate the late comers, the interlopers, and so on as well, which always made things kind of fun. You never knew who would show up. Now it’s a little bit more regimented for infrastructural reasons. The fun part is you never know who will come and who will ask what kind of question. Archeologists themselves tend to be pretty predictable, but when you have art historians or landscape people or the general public in there, then it gets to be a lot of fun. It’s also a big social gathering. People that I would ordinarily see very briefly each year, I get to see here, and I get to see them in contexts when there’s free time. So you can sit with them at lunch or talk to them during the breaks or go out to dinner in the evening. That’s a very good thing. We don’t have enough of that in our profession.
AC: Do you have any stories or examples of how that diverse mix of attendees can be fun?
DW: Well, I’m not sure I have any stories that I can tell, but you get to know the backgrounds of these people and you get to know the cast of characters. Sometimes when a paper is given with certain kinds of claims or assertions or data, you can kind of tell what response there’s going to be from which person. Whether it’s going to be – well, there are two kinds of things that people usually do when they stand up and are given that microphone. One is they ask a question, which is what they are supposed to do. The second thing is they give a lecture, which is what they are not supposed to do. So, five minutes after they are given the microphone they are still talking. But often that’s because they are part of a sub group that wants to make its views known and doesn’t quite agree with what’s on the screen or what’s been said. So, those kinds of interactions are sort of fun. Although I remember one – I’ll tell you one funny story. About five, six years ago we had a – and I can tell this because my colleague has died – we had a symposium on Mesoamerican writing in Northern Yucatán. My colleague Bill Sanders was there, who was a very distinctive looking man and sort of an institution around here. Although he would never pay to get into Dumbarton Oaks, he would always sneak in and crash the party – right. But every year he was there, and every year at a certain point you knew Bill was going to get up and maybe ask a question, but more likely deliver one of these little lectures. So, I was sitting in the back room – the back of the room – and Ned Keenan who was then Director was sitting right next to me. So we were watching the paper, and I noticed that my colleague Sanders who was in another corner of the room was getting increasingly agitated. What this meant was – since I’d known him for thirty years –he didn’t agree with anything that was being said, and he was going to have his say in a minute. And Keenan saw this too. And then Sanders raises his hand, and he’s starting to get up. And Keenan says, “Do you know who that white haired gentleman is?” I said, “Not only do I know who he is, but I can tell you exactly what he’s going to say.” So I whisper this in Keenan’s ear. And sure enough, Bill – just like he was scripted – went of on this predictable tangent. But it was very interesting.
AC: Could you comment on Bill Sanders at all? Since now he’s not with us.
DW: Well, he was – he was never a Dumbarton Oaks regular. Except, I mean, he never participated – I don’t remember him ever participating in a Dumbarton Oaks symposium. It could be that I’m wrong, and that maybe in one of those early ones on the Olmec or whatever he did. I don’t remember in any of the later ones that he participated. But, he always liked to come, in part for reasons that I can’t say on camera [laughs]. He was one of those people who, although he never really registered, just showed up. He was allowed to do that because he was such an eminent person. Joanne or Elizabeth or whoever would mash their teeth because, of course, there weren’t enough chairs, and Bill would suddenly show up and what not. They really liked him so they let him do this. He was a real live wire and had opinions about everything and was not reticent about saying them out loud and at some length. Sometimes this gets very irritating if it’s done the wrong way by the wrong individual. But in his case everybody seemed to take it very well. He would deliver these little mini lectures and so on, and sometimes they were very much to the point. So, he was a very good influence and always a striking character with this big white beard. And he was a very forceful person.
AC: So, we were just talking about the diverse mix in terms of past experiences about the symposia. But the symposia also vary in diversity in terms of art history topics, archeology topics –
DW: – and people from different countries.
AC: Yeah, absolutely, Andean, Mesoamerican – do you think the most successful symposia are the ones that kind of have these broad areas or the most focused ones like Mesoamerican writing?
DW: No I think – well, it’s interesting to have both kinds, but you have to have the broad comparative ones because too often we forget how divergent our fields become even though we think we are doing the same thing. And a good example is the palace volume. When we did that palace conference and the resulting publication was Palaces of the New World. Well, we discovered that the participants from the South American – from the Central Andean area – bristled at the very use of the term “palace.” In other words, you sought in vain, looking at all the publications that came out of Andean archeology, apparently, at the time, for the word “palace.” Now Mesoamericanists had been using this for years – sometimes well and sometimes badly – but nonetheless in a kind of common sense way that suggests that there are big impressive facilities were important people live. That’s kind of a cross-cultural universal, right? So, why the people who studied the Andes should have been so shy of it never kind of made sense to me. And now – what ten years later – if you look at what Andean scholars write of course palaces appear all over the place. There was a kind of effort, which I think cut through the sort of turf – the turf in the sense of how we use concepts – and brought everybody together. And it did so very fruitfully. I think the reason that the Andeaninsts didn’t want to talk about palaces was that they couldn’t think of a Quechua or Aymara word that actually meant exactly what the English word means, whatever that is. But that’s not reason for ignoring concepts that can be unifying.
AC: Were there any symposia or publications that you found particularly successful in that regard?
DW: You mean in the sense of making these kinds of synthetic overviews?
AC: Or in other instances.
DW: Well, I think this recent one that just came out – the one on sort of writing and graphic systems or recording systems in the new world – I forget the name of it – I think that was a very interesting conference. Early on when there were symposia – very early on when there were symposia in the sixties – what they used to do is they would have the symposia and then later they would have a room full of the participants and they would do exactly what you are doing here. They would record everything, except there wouldn’t be just two people. There would be of course a whole room full. So there would be maybe one, a moderator. And that moderator would throw out a question and then suddenly, you know, Morton Fried or Bill Sanders or Kent Flannery – whoever was there – would chime in. And then they’d go back and forth. And somehow they managed to edit these down into a manageable script that you could publish. Although I think it probably – knowing the people involved – it would have been heavily edited because they would have talked over one another, hands on the table, and laughed and done unseemly things, knowing their temperaments. But nonetheless, that’s a very interesting way of accompanying a set of papers, with a set of debate-like comments. We’ve actually thought that we should do more of that. It’s kind of a difficult thing to arrange, you know. It’s hard to imagine how you would get everybody to agree to have their unwashed comments finally published in a book.
AC: Yeah, I was under the impression that they actually recorded the questions people asked after people had presented their papers at the symposia in the fall. I didn’t know that they actually got them in a room after the –
DW: Well, as I remember some of the published ones were repartee, yeah. I could be remembering incorrectly, but that’s the way it reads, going back and forth. So there are these little exchanges between people. And those are very revealing. One thing that is essential to all human – in fact you could say this is why – I think this is why language started in the first place – is gossip. And so you can debate whether early language was selectively advantaged because of tool use or hunting success or whatever. I think it’s basically gossip. I think as social creatures we sit around and exchange information about the other people we know and the things that they’re supposed to be doing or not doing or why they are good or bad or why we should like them or not. And when you think of what people do in cell phones and texting, about ninety percent of it is exactly what I just said. I think. I don’t do it myself. But when I hear people talking, it’s all gossip, good or bad. Well, that’s another thing that happens at Dumbarton Oaks because you get together – whether it’s a – if it’s a symposium or it’s just a bunch of people, you know, who are here for six weeks or nine weeks or whatever else – and you exchange information, and one of the most important things is that it be done across generations because what young scholars fail to understand is that – and I can’t speak for Landscape or the Byzantinists – I suspect they’re the same way – what they don’t understand that in our profession, Pre-Columbian – especially, at least in Mesoamerica, which is what I’m in – much of what goes on has very deep roots which are not usually or even necessarily at all rational and scholarly. Much that goes on has to do with old prejudices and animosities and food fights and so on. And one of the hardest things to say to a younger scholar is, “Well you shouldn’t really cite person ‘X’ the way you are doing because if you send your proposal to person ‘Y’ I know what’s going to happen.” And they’re baffled because it seems perfectly sensible to them. So, one thing you do when you are dealing with people who are a lot younger and who are just getting into the business is that you try to impart a lot of gossip about personalities and past events and who gets along with whom and who can’t stand the other person and the reasons why. This is the unwritten lore of our discipline, and one of the ways in which it’s handled now is certain publications do what you are doing here in a more lengthy way. For example, in Ancient Mesoamerica sometimes there are published debriefings of people who are seventy-five, eighty, ninety years old. Steve Houston did one of these with Ed Shook. So, if you’re the last person standing, you’re eighty-five, and you’re being debriefed on your life – I think they probably did it with Ian Graham, they should have done it with Sanders but he died too soon – that’s when you get all this great insight into the way everything has developed. And some of it’s not – some of it is useful for the informalities of the way things have developed. There should be much more of that. Everybody should be – somebody ought to do this with Mike Coe, who I know very well and who is what, eighty-six, eighty-five.
AC: We’ve had an interview with him.
DW: Has he? Exce – No No, but I meant just in general, and not just an hour – you know, maybe several hours over several days. Because I’ve been endlessly in various contacts with Mike Coe, most recently in South East Asia, and what a raconteur, I mean, that guy has really good stories. Somebody ought to get these down before it’s to late.
AC: Do you have any examples of times in which these animosities or tensions between people have actually gotten in the way of symposia?
DW: Well, I suspect that sometimes when earlier generations of Senior Fellows were behind closed doors debating what symposium to accept or not or which people should be involved, especially on that level: “No, I don’t think so and so is very good,” or “I think this, my persons should –” On that level I think it probably is fairly common. But, you know, I can’t think of any blatant examples that I could talk about where these – I don’t even want to call them animosities because although they are personal animosities sometimes, they’re often just caused by the fact that people stake out – people’s careers are based upon having staked out certain kinds of territories for themselves, all right? – intellectually, territorially, culturally. And they get known for having taken certain positions and made certain kinds of interpretations. And inevitably someone falls out with them and has a different slant on things, and the way to take that if you are sensible is, of course nobody is ever going to agree with you and you’re never always right. But sometimes there are certain people who have certain temperaments that don’t allow opposition, and then they just get more intransigent, more dug-in. But on the other hand that creates a lot of fun because you can almost anticipate the bubbling up of invective and repartee – sort of minor loss of temper. All of that is fun to watch. After all, we’re primates in these social situations, and if it was everybody sitting there worshipping everybody who’s speaking the content of the symposia, it would really be dull. But I can think of a – I won’t say who it is – but yesterday I can think of one example of a paper which had a tone which was utterly predictable to me. I don’t think most of the people in that room – if they were just general interest parties – would have picked up on this. But if you know the people involved in these long-term research projects and what not, I could tell exactly who certain comments as said and eventually as written are aimed at and why things are said that way. I don’t want to name names under the circumstances.
AC: I guess one last question for the symposium topic: Have you – did you get the chance to go to the offsite symposia in Mexico City or –?
DW: I went to the Antigua one. I think those are really valuable. I think one of the big things that Dumbarton Oaks does is involve all these Latin American scholars and places, and of course when you are on those symposia you get to go on little trips and what not, and I just – yeah – they’re a lot of fun, and I know they’re costly and I know that they are sometimes hard to arrange, but if we are really going to be a general pre-Columbian program, then you’ve got to have certain of these functions in other places and I think the local archeologists and the local public that gets to come to these things probably finds them very interesting.
AC: Great. All right. Let’s get to your tenure as a Senior Fellow. How did that actually come about? How did you get selected to be a Senior Fellow?
DW: Joanne asked me. That is how I got to be a Senior Fellow. Well, what happens when a Senior Fellow leaves – which I’m about to do, because six years is your tenure – what happens when a Senior Fellow leaves is a slot becomes open, and the slot usually is one that is sort of identifiable. I’m the senior Mayanist, so my slot will be open and they’ll have to get someone like me in some sense. So, they’ve already raised the issue of names. We were all encouraged to submit names of someone who could in some sense fulfill the role that I have had, and I’ve been thinking of who such people might be. But I don’t know how that list of names is eventually digested by the powers that be at Dumbarton Oaks. Obviously, the head of the program has to suggest somebody and Jan has to OK it, but that’s an opaque process to me.
AC: What are your responsibilities as a Senior Fellow here? And can you describe the atmosphere of the actual meetings themselves?
DW: Oh the meetings go surprisingly well. All the Senior Fellow panel meetings that I’ve attended have had various agendas. Sometimes it’s just listening to reports and then asking questions about initiatives in terms of publications or whatever else might be on the table. Often there are more important decisions to be made. And frankly, I’ve been surprised at how well everybody gets along and how democratically certain kinds of fundamental decisions are. I suppose the most important things we do are, first of all read all these applications of which we do roughly, I’d say, sixty a year for various kinds of fellowships. And then we can only, obviously, give about eight or ten of them out, depending upon the kinds of fellowships and so on. And so we sit in a room and we discuss their merits and we have all these little ranking systems and then we have these voting conventions and we have a very complicated but effective voting system when we wind up – what normally happens is that we wind up with three or four people who are really well suited to our program and we all say, “Yeah, give them money.” And then we get sort of a residual bunch, maybe another eight or ten, and we can’t give all of them money and positions. So we have this rather interesting voting process which Ned Keenan first introduced us to. It works very effectively. It really cuts out bias. I think decisions are made quickly and efficiently and fairly. Everybody really gets along very well. That’s a big thing because you get – I think there are what seven Senior Fellows in Pre-Columbian – you get six, seven people in a room and one or two don’t like one another or don’t get a long or, I mean it makes things very difficult. But as long as I’ve been here, it’s worked extremely well.
AC: When you select Senior Fellows are you picking – or when you select Fellows and the Junior Fellows – are you picking people individually or do you try to form a cohesive group that will work really well together?
DW: Well, that’s always a consideration, but on the other hand you would never – if somebody applied and wrote a very good proposal, but was known to be less than wonderful, less than well socialized – let’s put it that way because remember a lot of these people have been around for a long time and they have reputations, it’s not so much true with the young people – well, you would never, no you would never say, “We can’t have person ‘X’ because they just won’t get along in the little social group.” However, if you wrote a marginal proposal and it was a kind of a toss up – well your ability to interact with people effectively might be a consideration. After all, you are really designing these little groups of people who even if they don’t have a common project, they are all going to be a together for months at a time. And hopefully they all kind of get along and form a cohesive group and exchange information and find each other’s topics interesting. I suspect that often times – especially for the people here as Fellows – they must form social relations which last for a lifetime, a professional lifetime.
AC: Does the Senior Fellows Committee have any particular goals – while you’ve been a part of it – that they’ve tried to advance, or is it mostly case by case in terms of fellowships and symposia topics?
DW: A lot of it has to do with publications. And we have a little sub-committee that’s the publications sub-committee. And as Joanne said the other day, yesterday – or it might have been Jan – this has been a particularly rich year for publications – year or so for publications. There’s all kind of stuff out. And that’s one particular thing to do, we have to decide not only on specific publications, which might be how is the, you know, why was the symposium that was given ten years ago still unpublished? Because this has happened and Joanne has taken the reigns firmly and eliminated that problem, but when I first came this was still a big deal, there were these volumes hanging over from years before. And also there have even been symposia that were not published – people just proved to be so feckless in getting things together that they just weren’t published. And then every time you have a roundtable and every time you have one of these smaller colloquia where a bunch of people come together to talk around the table for a day, inevitably, they get very excited and they want theirs to be published by Dumbarton Oaks too. And of course since those are not necessarily well thought-out gatherings with a structure of speakers and so on – I mean a lot of it’s half-baked and you just have to say, well probably not. We have to sit around and think about publication strategies and what kinds of specific volumes should be published under what venues and so on. And that’s an important thing and I think some good things are in the works right now.
AC: Are there any memorable sessions from your time in the Senior Fellows committee that stick out?
DW: Memorable sessions is what sense, just contentious or –?
AC: In any sense, whatever happens to be memorable.
DW: No, they tend to be – that is, what tends to be memorable or not are the actual symposia. We almost always have our meeting – except for the one where we choose who’s going to have fellowships – we always have our fall meeting at the time of the symposium. And so there are more or less memorable symposia, but I’ve never really known any of our meetings to be unusual. They all seem to work very smoothly. We often set side time on Friday –I mean in January, when we have to do all this work – we often set aside time on Friday and time Saturday morning to get through all this work. But for years we’ve done it all on Friday. So, that’s how efficient it seems to go. If you – and that’s why if you have a bunch of Senior Fellows who’s tenures are staggered, that’s the best thing because one person coming in isn’t going to upset that tradition of getting things done probably. But if you had a whole turnover, I think it would be a bit of a –
AC: So, it is two years?
DW: When you are asked – when you get to be a Senior Fellow you have a three year stint and then they can renew you if they want to for three more. And sometimes you’re not renewed after the three years, but usually you get to serve six. So, there’s an automatic kind of uncertainty in how long people are going to be there. And then of course you have the unfortunate things like death and what not. So every once in a while a new personality shows up or they draft an old personality to come back in and fill an unexpected gap. But there’s a lot of continuity and people who are on that committee generally know one another very well and are able to cooperate. And that is where, by the way, you would have to be very careful. I can think of six very prominent Mesoamericanists who, if I were the devil, I’d get them together and make the Senior-Fellows-Committee-from-hell because it would – there would be blood on the floor. But that never happens with us. So, I’m sure that when Joanne and Jan and whoever makes these decisions – in the backs of their minds there are these issues of who can be trusted and who doesn’t have a lot of enemies that we should fling together. You know this kind of thing.
AC: You were on the Senior Fellows Committee with Virginia Fields, and I was wondering if you could just comment a little bit about her role at Dumbarton Oaks.
DW: She seemed to be –sShe was an art historian so of course I was less familiar with her work than I was with the work of some other people. She was always certainly very sensible, and very well informed and extremely soft spoken. She would just sit there and then when it came her turn to speak she would have something very useful to say. And she knew a lot of people and she had a lot of insights into what was going on in her field. When she thought – even though she was kind of soft spoken, I don’t want to say diffident person – but when she wanted to defend person ‘X’ as opposed to person ‘Y’ in terms of whether they should get a fellowship or not, she was – could be very forceful. What I also miss is her dog Paul because Paul would always come into the room and sit under the desk and we’d all feed Paul little bits and pieces of donuts or something. So, I’m sort of concerned with, what happened to Paul? Where’s Paul gone? I don’t know. It was a big shock for Virginia to unexpectedly die.
AC: Moving on to the Directors of Pre-Columbian Studies, you have Jeff Quilter and Joanne Pillsbury – how have their different styles, perhaps, of direction – how do they differ or how they have impacted the program.
WB: Well Elizabeth Boone was probably the person – after Betty Benson – was probably the person who really laid the foundations for this, as we know it now. And then she was followed by Jeff, remind me was that Jeff after she left? Was that Jeff briefly?
WB: Jeff was in there for, you know, what six seven years. Jeff – who I’ve known for a long time – has a very different kind of personality from Elizabeth and I’m sure had a very different kind of administrative style. But see I was just – in those days – I was pretty much a visitor here, and I used the library a lot and so on, and so I wasn’t involved in the decision-making. By the time I got to be a Senior Fellow of course it was Joanne. Joanne is a very impressive administrator and not – she has a way about her of dealing with things that on the surface doesn’t put anybody off. She’s nothing if not endlessly gracious, but she’s nothing if not extraordinarily tough too. So, there’s a person who really has kind of livened things up and make things go faster. Because as a – if you are a head of a program like that you’ve got to ride people and be able to offend people and say, “If you don’t have your symposium volume papers by time X, you’re going to be out, your volume is out.” She’s able to do that. She tightened things up, I think.
AC: Do you think her being an Andean art historian has made any difference in her style? Compared to maybe Elizabeth Boone as a Mesoamericanist? Or do you think she’s been able to keep things separate?
WB: Well, I think being – I think one of the advantages that Joanne and Elizabeth had over Jeff is that they both were art historians. Even though archeology is a major concern of course at Dumbarton Oaks symposia, given the origins of Dumbarton Oaks there really is a heavy kind of emphasis on things and images and objects and so on. People who have that kind of – who are trained to deal with the images, the glyphs, the objects have a certain advantage over people who are straight-up archeologists, like Jeff, because they have a way of talking to the community of people who come to Dumbarton Oaks and who might be recruited into Dumbarton Oaks in a more multi-dimensional way. And indeed, if you read through the sixty proposals that we get every year, you almost never – you don’t get very many that are straight archeology. You get a few, but most of them have something to do with monuments or spatial layouts that have some sort of landscape significance, or something like that. Almost nobody says I want to dig a test pit and check the chronology of the ceramic sequence. I mean, technically at Dumbarton Oaks we should be accepting anything, but of course you have an advantage if you have a sort of object related idea.
AC: Do you think in your time on the Senior Fellows Committee have you been able to strike a fair balance between archeology and art history or the different regions?
DW: Yeah, and it is a bit of a concern because ideally what you should do is take all of the sixty odd proposals and say well we’re just going to give money to the eight best, or whatever number it is. But what if the eight best all one year were Andean? Well, I mean that’s never happened, but if one – some sub-discipline was overloaded that way then of course when people see who were chosen then they begin to get the wrong idea about the selection process. Well, there’s no point in applying because the Andeanist always get the great posts. And you have to make sure that the archeologists that do the basic kind of archeology don’t get squeezed out at the expense of people saving monuments and so on and so forth. It could happen if you just ranked all those proposals only in terms of their scholarly merit and how well they expressed it – could happen that you could have an overload in one place or the other. And I’m sure that if you looked back over the last ten of fifteen years you’d see a little bit of that, but it always corrects itself. But it’s something that – I mean it’s small population dynamics. You can never tell when you’re going to get a whole bunch of good proposals that are from one sub-discipline or the other.
AC: I just have some final questions before we end. How do you think the field of Pre-Columbian Studies has changed at Dumbarton Oaks over the years?
DW: You mean what people –?
AC: How is it? How’s it grown or how has the study of Pre-Columbian been affected by Dumbarton Oaks?
DW: Well, of course, Dumbarton Oaks started out as an institution where collections and continued collecting was still going on, but then, of course, that became impossible or at least difficult. And so now what Dumbarton Oaks has changed into is a more of a repository for all kinds of – well like the Chris Donnan archive that’s going to be present shortly – it’s become a repository for all these different sorts of collections. They’re not pots and sculpture anymore, they’re these sets of documents and archives that people can come here and study. And so you can say the more – I suppose – the more museum like aspect of it is somewhat diminished as it almost has to be at the expense of all this more scholarly stuff that’s developing. But Dumbarton Oaks will still be, of course, a place that has a set of wonderful objects that people will always come here to study. And the nice thing about Dumbarton Oaks too is it has increasingly understood that people come to Washington, where they can go and use the Textile Museum or the Smithsonian or any of these other institutions as well – the Library of Congress – that supplement what we’ve got here. Of course, when you read these proposals, the one thing that you have to say at the end of every proposal is why you have to do this at Dumbarton Oaks. And people make up all kinds of proper reasons. And sometimes they are really sensible. I live in a country, you know Slovakia, and there is no library there that has anything that is Pre-Columbian. Well sure, OK. But a lot of the people who come here, come here from institutions where they could easily get all this stuff, especially now, online. And the real reason people want to come here for the most part in my experience, reading between the lines is: “Get me out of this rat race. I’ve got all this neat stuff I want to do, this project I want to develop. I just want nine uninterrupted weeks or nine uninterrupted months of doing scholarship as I naively thought when I was twenty I’d be able to do it.” And people who have never been at Dumbarton Oaks and don’t necessarily think of it as this place where they can do what I just said – my colleagues will say to me, “God, you know I’m just picked apart from all these administrations, and all these demands for teaching, and all this stuff, if I only had a few months to just sit and write and think.” And that’s what we don’t get anymore. And so I supposed that this is one of the – it’s an institution which has retained a certain style and grace which are two qualities that are sorely lacking in the world as we traipse along here, and provides the kind of opportunity that many people had fifty years ago, sixty years ago, but which is almost gone now. And that’s one reason why you’ve got to be careful of a place like this. You’ve got to make sure that it keeps going because it’s almost unique. I’m sure that there are certain museums and so on – you know CASVA does something like this – but that kind of opportunity for people just for reflection and peace-and-quiet and a little stimulation by talking to similarly-minded people – that’s very rare.
AC: I think that’s a great –
DW: It’s like a monastic experience in many respects.
AC: Well, unless you have any comments or any memories to add I think that’s a great place to –
DW: Well, I just think there ought to be a new program where all the Senior Fellows who end their six years ought to be kept on permanently as retired sages and given little places – a little clubhouse room where we can all come and sit and hang out. I don’t think however my suggestion will be followed, but nevertheless I look forward to coming back to Dumbarton Oaks frequently.
AC: Thank you so much for your time.
DW: Well, thank you for the interview.