EG: My name is Elizabeth Gettinger and today is the 23rd of July, 2009, and I’m here in the Peabody Museum. I have the pleasure of interviewing Professor Gary Urton, so thank you for talking with me today. To start things off, could you tell me how you first heard about Dumbarton Oaks and came to work there and what your initial impressions were?
GU: Well, for myself I think I first came to know of the existence of Dumbarton Oaks when I was actually in graduate school in the Classics. I now work in South American, but I entered graduate school as a Classics major and doing ancient history. As a graduate student I worked in the Classics library at the University of Illinois, and they had a very strong Byzantine studies program there. And so working in the library I always had to shelve books and I remember that very often I would shelve books that would have been published by Dumbarton Oaks from the Byzantine Studies program. I mean, I heard of it then and I was only aware that it was an odd name, but it was a venerable name because it seemed that they published works that were all quite interesting, very esoteric: Byzantine numismatics and Byzantine icons. And so I became aware of that aspect of it or the studies program within the institution, before I came into contact with the Pre-Columbian Studies. Then in my own studies I switched over from the Classics and from ancient history into archaeology and started working immediately in South American studies. And so now we’re talking about the mid-1970s, and this was a time when there was tremendous work being done in terms of symposia, in terms of workshops, et cetera, related to a real increase in activity in studying ancient civilizations not only in South America where I ended up working but in Mesoamerica as well. So, you have the Olmec volumes and the Chavin volumes from the symposium proceedings as well as from workshops and the study series, and those books were all staples of graduate student reading in the 1970s and through the ‘80s and on. Yeah, so from that time I became aware of Dumbarton Oaks not only as a place that published works that were very serious and of very high quality but particularly from the Olmec volume and the Chavin volumes. They both had at the end of the volumes – they published transcripts of the proceedings of the discussions of the participants in those symposia and so that penetrated my dim mind that, “Oh, there must be meetings that are held at these places.” So, then I became aware of the tradition of organized meetings among specialists in the field. And I just increasingly over the years became more and more familiar with the institution. And my first real involvement was, well, I guess on a couple of occasions I was invited to round tables, but then in the early ’90s I became interested in pursuing research on the Inca quipus, the knotted string recording devices, and at that time I started corresponding with and working with a colleague in Washington, Bill Conklin, who had contacts with Dumbarton Oaks, and we wanted to write a proposal for study of the quipus. And what we really wanted to do – we had corresponded with each other over time and so we sort of knew more or less where we stood, but we didn’t actually know how our ideas would be received and we wanted some perspective on them. So, we appealed then to the then-director of Pre-Columbian studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Elizabeth Boone, to ask for support for a meeting in which we would go – it would be a round table – we would go, we would present our overview of our proposed research and get reactions from scholars. Most of the scholars then were from the Washington, D.C. area and so that for us was a great opportunity to use the resources and sponsorship of Dumbarton Oaks to bring scholars together to begin to talk about this work. Then subsequently, very soon after that I applied for a fellowship to Dumbarton Oaks and actually got the fellowship, but at the same time I got a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship and that was not a residential fellowship. And given complications of life with kids et cetera I determined that, well, I should take the National Endowment for the Humanities. So, I declined the Dumbarton Oaks fellowship. So, I’ve actually never been a resident as a Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, and I regret that very much because everyone I’ve ever talked to has told me what a fabulous experience it is and how very rewarding and exciting it is working with the Fellows in the setting of the library and of the whole Dumbarton Oaks world. But then, soon after that time I was in Bolivia, and I was asked by Angeliki Laiou, a former director of Dumbarton Oaks, to join the Senior Fellows. And so, I first joined I think around ’92 or ’93 – I’d have to check my records – but somewhere around there. So, I served then a six-year term as a Senior Fellow, and during that time Angeliki was replaced by Ned Keenan as director, and then in terms of the director of Pre-Columbian studies Elizabeth Boone was replaced by Jeffery Quilter, and he and I worked together to organize a round table on the quipus and we subsequently published a book on that. So, my involvement just increased over time with Dumbarton Oaks. And then when I came to Harvard, my position here at Harvard is partially paid by Dumbarton Oaks, so I carry the title of Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies. So there, I didn’t think I had anything to say!
EG: So, in the collections at Dumbarton Oaks do they have quipus, or was this something you brought in to discuss?
GU: No, no they didn’t have quipus. I mean, they have some very nice pieces of Inca – or they have some very fine Inca objects, textiles, ceramics, but mostly textiles, and they have some really classic pieces, some pieces that if you study fine Inca tapestry work these are some of the classic pieces. But the reason that bill Conklin and I appealed to Dumbarton Oaks for support was that we knew that the Pre-Columbian Studies program had had a real interest in promoting work on the decipherment of the Maya glyphs and there was a long history there of support of that work. And we sort of fancied ourselves in those days as doing work that might ultimately lead to the decipherment of the quipu. So, we used a rather brash and probably immodest proposal or approach to our studies, but we felt, well, that we would draw on what we knew to be a long term Dumbarton Oaks interest in New World script decipherment to support our work. So, it was not so much that that was the home – it was not at all that that was the home of objects in the collection, but rather of a long standing support of the kind of work we wanted to do with the Inca recording system, the quipu.
EG: So, was the symposium you organized with Elizabeth Boone – I think it was called “Scripts, Signs, and Notational Systems in Pre-Columbian America” – was that related to only the quipu or was that a symposium where you talked about other types of glyphs and writing systems as well?
GU: Yes, it was comparative, so it was Mesoamerican and South American. So, in those terms – actually, for that volume I’ve just written an introduction and part of that introduction is to go over the history of Dumbarton Oaks’s involvement in script and sign and notation system work in the Americas. So, there I review the history of where there has been a lot of support for scholars working specifically in the decipherment of the Maya glyphs as well as the work that myself and Bill Conklin and Jeffrey Quilter were doing on the quipus, and there were two comparative symposia. So, my point is that very often there was support for Mesoamerican workshops or Andean workshops or symposia. But on one earlier occasion Elizabeth Boone had organized a round table, and this was in I think the mid- to late-1990s or so, where she brought together people working on the Maya glyphs and well as people working on the quipus and had papers given. So, there was an opportunity for people working in two areas to compare methods and theories, approaches, and results from the work. And so, then Elizabeth and I felt that in this most recent setting that there were real advantages to having a comparative conference. The work in the separate areas has proceeded at pace. There have been many, many conferences since that original one that focus either on the Maya glyphs or the Inca quipus. We’ve made some real advances in the study of the quipus over the intervening, say, almost ten years, eight or ten years or so, and so we felt that it was time for another comparative symposium. And so, what we wanted to do and what we did, what we managed to do with the conference was to bring together people working in the two areas. We had very productive conversations, really good discussions about where we felt we stood in the two areas, what some of the comparative similarities and differences were in communication systems, in the writing and signing systems in the two areas, and then discussed ways of advancing research in the two areas. So, that’s what Elizabeth and I both as well as Joanne Pillsbury, the Director of Pre-Columbian Studies, felt was the strength of the proposal for that symposium was – it brought those people together. And I in general think – I mean, my own view is that those are the strongest symposia organized by Dumbarton Oaks, ones that bring together people working in Mesoamerica and the Andes around topics that are of common interest to them. So, whether it has to do with seafaring or it has to do with ideas about death or a whole range of topics – there’s so much fragmentation in the academy today and people work in increasingly restricted areas of specialization. And I think one thing that Dumbarton Oaks has been good at and one thing it does very well is to bring people together from those two great regions of ancient American civilizations to talk about the actual material that they’re working on, the similarities and differences, and also to talk about ways, kinds of approaches, methodologies that are used perhaps in one area that can be beneficial to the area, and just general sort of theoretical problems, then.
EG: Is there a relationship or community among the South American scholars and Mesoamerican scholars, or is this something that really only happens every once and a while in the symposia?
GU: You mean in terms of comparative discussions like this?
GU: We tend to be fairly fragmented. I mean, there’s a lot of awareness between the two fields of who’s doing what. I mean, among those who really do have some broader interest in work between the two areas, and most archaeologists do have a general interest, Dumbarton Oaks acts as a focal point for gathering information and redistributing information on work in the two areas, and it has always been a very strong force in helping develop and promote a general consciousness of a wider objective among scholars working in Pre-Columbian studies. So, whether you’re in Maya studies or Aztec, Central Mexican studies or Andean studies, Dumbarton Oaks does a very good job of drawing people together in workshop settings or in symposia or just communicating opportunities for grants and research support et cetera that goes equally to Mesoamerica and the Andes. So, there’s a general awareness on the part of people who do pay attention to that sort of thing – not everybody does – of work in both areas that produces, then, or results in a general sense of community of scholars working in pre-Columbian studies. And that’s the core group I would say that attends the symposia whether they’re in one area or the other or if they’re comparative symposia. And they tend to be the people who also direct their students to make applications for fellowships to the institution, and it’s the group too that we tend to draw Senior Fellows from. I mean, when we select Senior Fellows we try to find people who we believe are aware of and sympathetic to work in both areas. I mean, each will be a specialist in one or the other, Mesoamerica or the Andes, but we want to, on the Senior Fellows, draw people in who have demonstrated an interest and a sympathy and some knowledge, not just in their own area but in the other area as well.
EG: So, aside from selecting other Senior Fellows, what are some of the other roles and responsibilities that you have as a Senior Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks?
GU: Well, the main thing you do as a Senior Fellow is that you work together to read and evaluate applications for fellowships and make recommendations then to the Director for fellowships for the program. So, that’s the main work. Well, I would say that that’s one of the two or three main tasks that we do. I mean, that’s the one that is the most demanding in terms of, like, every year we receive something on the order of say a hundred-ish fellowship applications, that’s for senior fellowships and junior fellowships and project grants and summer grants. So, they have a lot of applications to read all with their project descriptions and letters of recommendation from different scholars. And the six – I think we’re six Senior Fellows, I’m not exactly sure – plus the Director of Studies, we all read those and then we meet at the January meeting, meet in January and make the selections of the candidates who will be recommended. We also have discussions in our meetings, our two annual meetings, to talk about symposia. So, to accept applications for future symposia and then to work to help shape those symposia to try to improve them one way or another, to make recommendations for people who might be included on the part – who might be considered by the symposiarchs, the ones who’re organizing the symposia, for people they might consider. So, those are really the mains tasks, really, is to select the fellows for recommendation and to give attention to the organization of symposia. There are other tasks as well. We’re responsible for being cognizant of and being there to advise the Director of the program in Pre-Columbian Studies on matters having to do with publications and collections et cetera. But being on the Senior Fellows is to me one of the most fulfilling and enriching academic experiences I’ve been involved in. I mean, we’ve always had – to a person – we’ve always had people who are serious and who are committed and who are very collegial in terms of their approach to things. I mean, I’ve never experienced a moment when I felt that there was a kind of partisanship or a kind of special pleading or special interest on the part of any of the Senior Fellows. I mean we really are all – there’s just a sort of sense, sort of understanding, a sense of mission, like a sort of spirit of the objective of the Senior Fellows that is built around the notion that we are all in this together, supporting Pre-Columbian Studies in general to the best of our abilities. And so it’s been a very, very rewarding experience.
EG: Have there been any particularly memorable discussions or projects that you’ve worked on, on the Senior Fellow committee?
GU: Well, I don’t think, Elizabeth, there's anything that I can – that strikes me as having been – there were long conversations a few years ago when there was the suggestion that we might direct a certain amount of our resources to the support of a particular institution in Central America. So, this was a Costa Rican university, and the proposal was to have a professorship at that university that was supported by Dumbarton Oaks for which we would solicit proposals from American scholars. We would select a scholar; that person then would go there and spend the year and contribute to teaching and research et cetera. And there were long discussions over that and that ran on for quite some time. In the end we tried the experiment for a few years and then we brought it to an end. Most things don’t run – most issues that arise don’t run over that long a period of time. It tends to be very – each year has its focus and has its set of obsessions and it has its crop of applicants that come in and has its issues concerning symposium proposals, but those sort of work their way through. And I think that – well let me just – there’s one other time that I can recall when we did have certain concerns that went over multiyear and that concerned the construction of the new library, which of course consumed a lot of the effort and energy of the institution as a whole, of all of the Senior Fellows, and certainly of Ned Keenan who was then the Director, and it involved a lot of work, a lot of planning, a lot of coordination among the various Directors of Studies. And we on the Senior Fellows then were aware of all that, so that went over several years. It was another long-term issue. And in relation to that, then, we also had conversations on the Senior Fellows about long term goals of the program, given that we were in a time of transitions which we clearly were, and given that at least in those days economically the institution was very well off. This was before the crash of 2008 or ’9 whatever we’re now living through under more straightened circumstances. But when the institution was pretty flush with funds we were encouraged by Ned Keenan then to think about where we wanted to take the program in the future and the Senior Fellows had very productive discussions about where we wanted to go. It ended up in our case – I think we ended up getting another Fellow or two or approval for the appointment of another Fellow or two. So, the way this works is that each one of the programs has a generally understood number of fellowships that it can offer each year, and in general the Senior Fellows are intent on maintaining that number if not increasing it, so this potentially puts some tension into the world of the relations between the Director and the Directors of Studies in terms of the press for more resources coming from one or the other or all of the different programs. But at that time, as I say, we were encouraged to think long-term about how we would like to see our particular program develop, and we had very interesting conversations then about what we would do with more fellowships and how we would develop the program, what kinds of potential resources we might focus on. So, for instance, that was the time when we came up with the idea of trying to solicit donations of archival collections of materials. In fact I just have a note for myself of one that I have to write the Director about to promote. So, scholars out there who have spent a lifetime working in this area or that, like working with this kind of pottery or working on textiles or whatever, and as they near retirement, then, each scholar will have a rich store of resources and usually those are not passed on to heirs because family members sell them or aren’t terribly interested in that. They usually go to libraries, they go to various institutions, and to the extent that we can solicit archival materials in the form of photographs or notes from the field or whatever, that strengthens the position of Dumbarton Oaks as a place that holds significant resources for all kinds of studies. So, during the time I’m talking about, which was the late ’90s or so, we determined that we wanted to increase our efforts to try to hold onto that material. This relates to the fact that a generation of scholars, those scholars who came into major positions in large research institutions in the ’40s and ’50s were retiring. Of course we’ll have another round of that when the baby boomers, when people my age begin to retire in five to ten years or whatever. So, we wanted to have ourselves positioned well, that we could take advantage of, or we would be in a position to receive, to get our hands on, some of those resources that could strengthen Dumbarton Oaks.
EG: You’re currently the chair of the Senior Fellows committee, is that right?
EG: Do you have any sorts of different responsibilities as the chair?
GU: No, not really. I coordinate more closely – I mean, I spend time talking to the Director of Studies more than the other Senior Fellows do. She and I, Joanne and I, talk about the agenda for the meetings. We talk about – there are various issues that come up on a maybe monthly basis, things that’s she’s working on, concerned with, and she and I will talk but that mostly has to do with advice, conversations in which we consult each other. And then we work together to set the agenda for the meetings as well. So, there are conversations and there’s some general concern with matters going on at Dumbarton Oaks that I’m involved in as chair that I was not involved in as a member of the Senior Fellows. But it’s not an onerous workload. It’s just mostly chairing the meeting.
EG: Have you had much interaction with the Junior Fellows or the other visiting scholars during your time as a Senior Fellow, or is it more separate?
GU: We used not to have any formal interaction scheduled between the Senior Fellows and the people who were holding fellowships in any one year, but a few years ago we started a practice of when we had our meeting in January, when we went for the meeting to select the next year’s Fellows, that we would always have a dinner with the Fellows from that year, from the current year. And we also, I think, got better at making sure that the Fellows attended the speaker’s dinner for the fall symposium. And so those gave at least two opportunities when the Senior Fellows could make contact with the people who had received the fellowships, because when I first did this, so back in the mid-’90s or so, we didn’t have that many occasions when we actually met. So, one could, you know, you could be involved in the selection of Fellows and never actually meet the Fellows when you were there. So, I think it’s a much more sensible and productive system the way we have it now, with more interaction. So, we can actually talk to the people and get a sense of how their work’s going. And usually this just amounts to patting ourselves on the back, that, yes, we chose the right people and aren’t they doing wonderfully?
EG: And so, how did you come to hold the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies here at Harvard? How did you get that position and what does that entail exactly?
GU: Well, it is an endowed chair. So, Harvard and other major universities are full of endowed chairs. It means that that’s a position that has been funded by an individual or by an institution, and so your position within the academic institution is linked to the support that derives from that institution. So, in my own case Ned Keenan, who was the director in the ’90s – this is the story that was told to me, he didn’t communicate this to me directly – but he was very interested in the work I had been doing on the quipus. I was at that time a professor at Colgate University. He became aware of the work I was doing and I also then, at the end of the ’90s, I was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and that gains one a fair amount of notoriety, did at the time, still seems to today. So, my work received a fair amount of press and I enjoyed a somewhat higher profile in academics. And so during this period when, again, the institution was fairly flush and wanted to expand its influence in the area of pre-Columbian studies in American institutions, that was when Ned Keenan sought the establishment of Dumbarton Oaks professorships – so two here for my own position and for Tom Cummins’ position. So, Tom was the first professor of Pre-Columbian art at Harvard, and then in my position, Dumbarton Oaks’s support allowed the establishment of this position. And that then for the first time in many years put an archaeologist or person interested in South American culture into this department and there hadn’t been anyone since, permanent at least, since Gordon Willey was here – but of course his interests – he was both a Mesoamericanist and an Andeanist. So, I would say it was in general the high profile that I enjoyed mostly by virtue of having received a MacArthur Fellowship and at that same time an interest on the part of the Director of Dumbarton Oaks itself to strengthen Dumbarton Oaks’s links to academic institutions in those fields that were its mission to support: landscape architecture, Byzantine studies, and pre-Columbian studies. But what it means here – it doesn’t mean that much here my having that position except that I have the position, right? So, I mean, it’s a tenured professorship and so I enjoy the benefits of having an endowed chair. I get to pursue research and work with graduate students and in this case then also to maintain close links with Dumbarton Oaks.
EG: Is there any relationship between the professorship and Dumbarton Oaks that’s specified?
GU: The main link is that there’s an understanding that every other sabbatical year, so that would be every six years, it’s expected that I will take a sabbatical and go to Dumbarton Oaks, which is a great benefit of course. But other than that, unless I’m on the Senior Fellows, there’s no formal ongoing link between myself and my own activities here at Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks. As it turns out though, as a member of the Senior Fellows and as a chair of the Senior Fellows I spend a reasonable amount of time thinking about Dumbarton Oaks in one way or another, interacting with the staff of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.
EG: Have you had a lot of interaction with the staff of, say, Byzantine Studies or Garden and Landscape Studies, or are the groups all fairly separate?
GU: Well, it seems to me they tend to be fairly separate, and I have colleagues here at Harvard who are in Byzantine studies. I don’t really know any of the people in landscape architecture. I regret that, but I just don’t know any of them. And here at Harvard I know a couple of the people. I knew Angeliki Laiou, of course, and I know Ioli Kalavrezou who’s a Dumbarton Oaks Professor in Byzantine Studies. And I think those are the – I didn’t know Jan before he became Director of Dumbarton Oaks. I’ve since gotten to know him, he’s a great guy, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him and learning about his work, but I didn’t know him here at Harvard. And that partially has to do with the brief time I had been here. I had only been here I think about four or five years or so before he became Director. So, I think that’s something that’s always been of concern to anybody that cares about Dumbarton Oaks is that there’re these three great programs, but there tend to be sort of tenuous connections among the personnel away from the institution. I know at Dumbarton Oaks itself the Directors of Studies are intimately involved in each other’s work, they have meetings together et cetera, but I think in terms of, say, the Senior Fellows there’re no formal and persistent links and ways of bringing together the people who are concerned in the three different programs.
EG: Have you found any of the resources at Dumbarton Oaks particularly useful such as the library or the museum and the collections – you mentioned some archival documents – and those types of things?
GU: I am aware that there are many things in the library that I would like to look at, that I would like to work with, but I haven’t made the arrangements to go down to D.O., say, and spend a long weekend or a month or something like that. I mean, the resources here with the Tozzer Library, of course, are very good. I mean there’s the odd article or book or dissertation that’s at Dumbarton Oaks that’s not at the Tozzer, but I tend just to throw up my hands in frustration rather than to write it down and take it down and then go down there at some point and study them. So, I’d say that I haven’t taken advantage of access to the collections or the library to the degree that I probably should have, and that would’ve been of great interest and benefit to my work. So no, I’ve not done that. Just out of laziness mostly.
EG: So, you have a unique position as the Dumbarton Oaks Professor at Harvard. I was wondering if you have any sense of the relationship between Dumbarton Oaks and Harvard and whether that’s changed in the time that you’ve been associated with it.
GU: Well, no, I’m not aware of that. I mean I think it has, and I hope you have a chance to – I hope you’re talking to people like Ned Keenan. He’s a wonderful guy, of course, who knows Harvard intimately, served as dean of the graduate school and chair of his department and a person who knew Harvard inside and out, and served as director of Dumbarton Oaks for some ten years or something like that I believe, and served as director during a fairly critical time and was the one really responsible for planning the construction of the library and really transformed the institution with that library and with his placing of Dumbarton Oaks professors in different universities around the Northeast mostly. But as a faculty member, I at least just try to keep my head above water in what I’m doing and I’m not so intimately involved at a, sort of, institutional and structural level of the relationship between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks. Again, not just Ned Keenan, but I think in terms of the relationship between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks vis-à-vis pre-Columbian studies Bill Fash would, of course, be – I don’t know if you’ve talked to Bill or if you are talking to him – but he as a member of the board of Dumbarton Oaks here at Harvard and having served as chair of the Senior Fellows, I mean, he has intimate knowledge of all that and I wouldn’t presume to talk about all of that.
EG: So, you mentioned the different directors that you’ve worked with, Angeliki Laiou and Ned Keenan and now Jan Ziolkowski. Could you talk about your relationship with the directors and if you noticed any changes in Dumbarton Oaks through the different directorships?
GU: Well, each had their interests and their personalities and their obsessions and their particular manners and ways of going about things. Angeliki I found was very supportive of our program. I don’t think she knew a whole lot in fact about pre-Columbian studies, but I always found her very supportive of our work and of the program. She was rather more formal than Ned Keenan, just sort of ran a more formal dinner and meeting and institution when she was there. Ned I found sort of a bit more folksy, more laid back, but really smart in terms of his thinking about and his ability to work with and around institutions from Dumbarton Oaks itself and its various parts, the library and the collections and the different programs of study, and Harvard. My sense from Ned was that one of the main duties of the director was to see to and care and nurture the endowment, the fund. And at times that meant hiding it from Harvard, and so you had to know actually how to do that. You had to know not only where the bodies were buried but you had to be prepared to bury them yourself at times. And I mean that’s one aspect that I only saw from a great distance and on the surface, but I realize that it’s a real part of the concerns of the director, is that it’s a whole lot of money they have and Harvard at various times needs all the money it can get its hands on and it is the parent institution. So, I think just inherently there’s a potential tension there, a sort of cat-and-mouse game potentially between the mother ship here at Harvard and the little pod down there in Washington. And so that’s one of the challenges that I think each director faces. Plus they face then the challenge of wanting to support all three of the programs, wanting to keep the facilities, obviously, the grounds in ideal conditions. And plants are always dying and program directors are always insisting on more resources so there are all those challenges. And Angeliki had her way of managing those and Ned his, and, it seems to me, Jan, a different way. But I don’t really know Jan well enough to be able to characterize his style. I really enjoy being with him and I have enjoyed all the conversations I’ve had with him and I think he’s done a great job since he’s come in, but I don’t know his particular style well enough to differentiate it and characterize it vis-à-vis either Angeliki or Ned. Did I sufficiently waffle on that one?
EG: On the same note, have you noticed differences in the goals or the mission of the Directors of Pre-Columbian Studies, so Elizabeth Boone, Jeffery Quilter, Joanne Pillsbury – any major differences during their terms?
GU: No, I don’t think so. Of course, each of those has their own interests, so Elizabeth is a Mesoamericanist and Jeff and Joanne are Andeanists, but one thing I’ve always been impressed with through all the directors – and I knew Elizabeth Benson before Elizabeth Boone as well, it goes back that far – I think that each one of the directors that has come in has been really sensitive about promoting work in the two major areas that are supported by Pre-Columbian Studies, so Mesoamerica and the Andes. And one needs to be aware, and if you’re not aware you’re made aware very quick after you become Director of Studies, that you’re being watched by the great constituency out there and if they feel that you’re directing more resources to one area or the other, gossip starts percolating through the community of scholars interested in it. I know that we have been aware of this on the Senior Fellows. We’ve thought about the potential implications if in one year, say, we’re giving more fellowships to people in Mesoamerica than the Andes or vice-versa, but we’ve never in any manner established a quota system that, you know, we must have x number of Andeans and y number of Mesoamericans at a minimum. I mean, it may very well be the best proposals that come in are all for work in Mesoamerica. If so, they’ll all go to Mesoamericanists. I think that’s something that we have to do, but then we are also aware that on the outside world, people perceiving the degree of support from Dumbarton Oaks for this or that field, that there may be some consternation if they think that one of the areas is benefiting perhaps to the exclusion or the potential detriment of the other. So, it is a concern and that’s one of the main challenges I think for the director is that when they come in they will each be expert in their field, otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten where they are. But immediately then they are challenged with the need to support work in all areas in the two major areas that are funded, that are supported by Dumbarton Oaks.
EG: More broadly, what do you see as the role of Dumbarton Oaks in pre-Columbian studies or, more specifically, in Andean studies?
GU: Well, in general I think Dumbarton Oaks has a unique place. It’s one of the only places in the country that has as its mission – and here I’m talking about pre-Columbian studies. I mean, I think this is true for Byzantine and for landscape architecture. In each one of the three areas, in that area it’s one of the few institutions in the country that has a significant program of support for scholars working at the highest level. In pre-Columbian studies it has a unique reputation as a place that has extraordinary resources and that regularly makes them available to the community of scholars working in this area, through fellowships, through summer workshops, through a whole variety of means, making funds available, making resources available to scholars. I think it has a really important position in the life and certainly in the mentality of people working in this field. I mean, I know I have a close relationship with Dumbarton Oaks myself so I hope I’m not just blinded by that and am misperceiving what the role of the institution is more generally, how it’s perceived, but I think that it’s fair to say that is has a very important position. In terms of Andean studies, I mean, again, I think what’s said about pre-Columbian studies in general goes doubly for the Andes. I mean, there’s no other place where the Andes is a major area of concern by a major American institution, and that is the case for Dumbarton Oaks. I think one would have to say that for Mesoamerica as well, I mean each one of those areas, but in particular Mesoamerica because Mesoamerica tends to be the area of classic pre-Columbian Mesoamerican studies because they have the Maya and they have a writing system. And there are more small institutions funding research and funding development of Mesoamerican studies, but nonetheless none equals the resources nor the continued level of support for Mesoamerican studies represented by Dumbarton Oaks. So, I think it has been a critical institution in the development of pre-Columbian studies in the Americas from the ’60s to the present day, and as far as I can see it’s poised to continue to promote and sponsor work in those three areas far into the future, hopefully as long as its endowment holds up, which we hope will be a very long time.
EG: Do you see the role changing at all in the future?
GU: Well, we know that the fields themselves are going to change. I mean, we know that talking in terms of pre-Columbian studies there will be changes in methods of study but there will also be changes in relations between the American academy and American institutions linked to Dumbarton Oaks and those Latin American nation-states which are the homes of the territories, the sites, and the collections that are the focus of pre-Columbian studies. And that’s a very dynamic and potentially unpredictable and changeable world. That is, the world that presents itself out there in terms of how Dumbarton Oaks manages its relations with the nation-states and the scholars in the those various nation states that are the homes of the archaeological sites and the museum collections that we’re interested in. So, that can go in any number of ways but that will be a sort of forum, a little motor of change and transformation that exists within the inherent structure of the Pre-Columbian Studies program that may lead to changes that I can’t foresee now. But I suspect that there will be transformations, new kinds of relationships between D.O. and those various countries and scholars in those various countries. That’s the sort of general sense in which I see potential changes in the future because I don’t think that it’s going to remain static, that it’s going to be exactly as it was. It will change, it will transform and that will be one of the forces of change in the future.
EG: Well, I think you’ve answered all of my questions. Do you have anything else that you’d like to add?
GU: Like hidden secrets? No, I can’t think of anything else. I was just thinking I’ve just about talked myself out. There you go – all very good questions. I enjoyed the conversation.
EG: Thank you for talking with me today, this is great.
GU: After all, there was an hour’s worth of talking.