William L. Fash
EG: We are Elizabeth Gettinger and Anne Steptoe and today is Wednesday, July 22, 2009. And we have the pleasure of interviewing Bill Fash today in his office here in the Peabody Museum. So, I guess to get things started, could you tell us about how you first came to hear about Dumbarton Oaks and what your initial impressions were of the place?
WF: Well, I was in college studying archaeology at the University of Illinois and got interested in various topics related to the Olmec because I was working with David Grove. And he recommended that I read the Dumbarton Oaks study from the conference on the feline, and when I saw them on the shelf I used to love to browse — so I started just going throulgh them all and thought, “Wow, these are powerful stuff.” So, the early volumes that I was reading — this was the mid ‘70s — had some of the conference conversations that took place after people would present their formal papers. So, to me that was wonderful because I could sort of get an entrée into the way people thought and the way they discussed things in a scholarly setting like D.O. I found the books to be tremendously helpful. And then I was fortunate enough to be admitted to the graduate program here at Harvard University to study with Gordon Willey. I had by then decided that the Olmec was better left to people like Dave Grove because I was passionately interested in the Maya because of their hieroglyphic writing and their pictorial sculpture and also because I knew that Gordon Willey had a project going on in the ruins of Copán, in western Honduras. And I actually came to meet Gordon the fall of my senior year, the fall of 1975, and talked with him in his office just across the hall there. I remember being scared to death, but he immediately put me at ease and was very congenial and said that, yeah, he thought there might be a spot for me in this project if I decided to come to school here. So then when I was lucky enough to get in, I got to know Gordon a lot better because he did take me to the project he had in the ruins of Copán, in Honduras, and over the course of my years in graduate school I got to know about Dumbarton Oaks through him. So as a starving graduate student, I have to confess, I never got there myself while I was in grad school. But Gordon and I became fairly close in so far as graduate students can become close to a great personage like Gordon Willey. He was always very generous, and we spent a lot of time working together in the lab because we were sorting through all the pottery that we had dug up at his project in Copán. And he used to come in and talk to us about Dumbarton Oaks and, you know, we all understood that he was a very important player there because he was chair of the Board of Senior Fellows. I think he had been chair of the Board of Senior Fellows for decades by the time I got here in the fall of ’76. And so, we learned about things like the succession of Elizabeth Benson to Elizabeth Boone. We got to know whether Gordon thought the latest annual symposium was a success or maybe not as successful. One year he came back and said, “Well, that one was a real dog.” But that was only once. And I remember one time he came back and I was working in the lab late on a Sunday evening on the maps that I was preparing for the monograph on the settlement patterns in Copán — the archaeological map — and I think I had the radio up pretty loud or something. Gordon heard all this racket, opened the door to the lab after he had gotten his mail — because he’d always come back and pick up his mail, dutiful guy that he was — and he saw me in there, you know, going cross-eyed over these maps. And, “Oh, Jesus! You poor guy!” And he said he’d come back from Dumbarton Oaks, and said that if I worked hard enough I might find myself at a conference there one day, and happily closed the door and went home. But anyway, as luck would have it that did eventually come to pass, but since Gordon’s not here to speak anymore, I wondered if I could just say a few words about what he had done and what he shared with us. Does that make sense?
EG: Yeah, absolutely, because we haven’t really heard a lot about his work there. So, that’s great.
WF: Okay, great. So Gordon came to be known as one of the more important archaeologists of the second half of the twentieth century as you all know, having worked on his archive and read his memoirs. And he was a revered figure at Dumbarton Oaks because he not only went to all of the conferences and played this important role in the government of Dumbarton Oaks and selection of symposia and Fellows and all that, but he was also very good about asking questions at the symposia. So, when there was a discussion, Gordon was always there and always attentive to the different points of view that were raised. And Gordon was a good colleague to everyone in the profession, at least everyone that behaved themselves. He actually shared a couple of stories with us graduate students — with Richard Leventhal and Arthur Demarest and eventually others that came along like my colleague at UT Austin whose name is slipping my mind – Fred Valdez. And he’d tell us these stories. So we came to understand that he was very judicious about being a good parliamentarian. At that point the Board of Senior Fellows was just three people, and they represented three really great traditions in Pre-Columbian studies. So, one was Gordon of Harvard, which had a century of work in the Maya area. Another was Yale University where George Kubler, one of the titans of art history in general — not just pre-Columbian but also colonial art history — worked and taught and was very influential for many years. So he was the sort of counter to Gordon’s expertise in archaeology because he was Mister Art History. And then Donald Robertson at Tulane University was the third member of the Board, also a very prominent art historian. Because, you know, let us not forget: it’s art and archaeology in Pre-Columbian Studies, not the other way around. It’s art and archaeology because the collection’s so heavily art. So Gordon was very careful to not impose his own will. He was a person who liked to see consensus and he was also someone who just tested academic politics, as you know from reading his memoir where he goes on and on about how much he hated being department chair. But anyway, we came to understand that, for the succession from Elizabeth Benson to Elizabeth Boone, that all three members had their favorite candidate, and so Gordon instructed his colleagues to vote for their top choice, giving them a number one, and the second choice number two and third number three. And when the votes were tallied by an independent party, it turns out that each of them had voted for their own top candidate, and so it was a tie in terms of total number of votes. But Gordon insisted that it not just be, well, you know, “Since I’m the chair my candidate wins,” which other people might have done. Instead he said, “Well, who got the most number-two votes, and that person should get it.” And that person was Elizabeth Boone. And I remember one of my grad school classmates rumbled afterwards, and I won’t mention any names, “That’s ridiculous! Gordon should have just chosen his person!” But his cooler head prevailed. And that’s how Elizabeth Boone came to be the director. And working with her for a few years, he came to really respect and admire Elizabeth’s skills.e At one point he came back so impressed that someone could be so in command of the situation, that everyone had shown their respect to her including all the staff who had to worry about how many teacups there were, and was it the right size of spoon for this particular meal, and all this other stuff. And he concluded, and I quote, “There’s a woman who was born to lead a life of power and influence.” And I told that to Elizabeth once and she just got the biggest tickle out of it because I know she had immense respect for Gordon. If you ever have the chance to interview her I’m sure she’ll talk about that at some length. And he was in fact asked at one point to become the Director of Dumbarton Oaks because he had been such a good citizen and he had a really deep commitment to the institution. But he had to decline the offer because at that point he was getting ready to retire. And he wasn’t really sure he wanted to be commuting back and forth, and his wife Catherine was in failing health. So he turned them down. I only learned of that years later when I was recruited to come here. I have to say I was kind of sad because I’m sure he would have been really good at it. But as we know, it’s not Gordon’s cup of tea. He didn’t like administration. So then my next experience with Dumbarton Oaks was when I was asked to contribute to one of the volumes, which I may have here. [Looks for the book.] I guess I’ve taken it home. It was a volume that I believe Elizabeth asked David Webster to edit, and it was called House of the Bacabs. It was one of the studies in pre-Columbian art and archaeology, and it was about a building that we had dug during Bill Sanders’s project. And there were a lot of different aspects of this particular building that were of interest. So, Bill Sanders wrote the big-picture anthropological view on lineage and state in ancient Copán, and Webster wrote a really great introduction laying out all the research problems of the project. And there was a hieroglyphic bench inside of this building, so the epigrapher of the project at the time, a German fellow by the name of Berthold Riese, wrote a chapter about the inscription. And I wrote a chapter about fitting together all the fragments of sculpture and my tentative ideas as to what that reconstructed — or at least hypothetically reconstructed — façade might have meant in conjunction with the archaeology and the epigraphy and all that. And Claude Baudez then gave an iconographic analysis of the motifs. So, to me that was a really wonderful way to sort of rake into Dumbarton Oaks, a place that I had admired because of those same studies in pre-Columbian art and archaeology. I felt really privileged to contribute to it. And I believe that was published in 1986. So, it came out after I’d already got a lot of different grants to do work on art and archaeology in Copán — from NSF, NEH, Wenner Gren, National Geo, and whatnot. So, it wasn’t directly influential in my obtaining support for my work, but it was extremely useful to me for teaching purposes. So, as you know, when I take students out there to Sepulturas, I’ve got that lawn and show them how we mapped all this stuff and fit it back together. I do the same with any colleague that comes along. Jeez, the copy I have in Copán is just really dog-eared now because of taking it out to the field school. And the tropics are not kind to paper anyway, so it’s pretty beat up. But still very useful! So that was really how I came to know and appreciate DO. And then when, by pure luck really, and I think also by the fact that people recognized the level of talent that Barbara brought to our work in Copán, I was selected to succeed Gordon in the third round of the college professor sweepstakes. The first two didn’t work out. Much more capable people would have been hired had they gone with their first choice in either of the previous searches. At any rate, when I got here, then I had the great privilege of succeeding Bob Sharer, who had been the person selected in actually the first two searches, on the Board of Senior Fellows. He had actually been the chair of the Board of Senior Fellows of Pre-Columbian Studies, and I’m pretty sure he was the one that engineered that I got on the Board to succeed him. So I served for six years, and that’s when I really got to know the place and the people in it, and really came to appreciate what a magnificent resource it really is. I also was very pleased that some — not all — but some of my graduate students got junior fellowships to spend a year in residence there and write up their dissertations. Almost all of them did finish the dissertation while they were in residence there. Oh, let me think back about this, that would include Bill Saturno, and he was followed by Karla Davis-Salazar, and then James Fitzsimmons, Sarah Jackson, Ann Seiferle-Valencia. I think there was one other grad student. At any rate, I just was really pleased to see them all do so well, in part it was because David Stuart was here and we had a program, as you know, in Copán devoted to exactly the kind of research that Dumbarton Oaks has supported, but mostly it’s just that they were all extremely intelligent and could figure out what was a topic that would be of interest, that they knew they could pull off and could relate to their dissertations. And it worked out really well for all of them. So, I had the privilege of seeing my own students and other students do really well in their fellowships and got to know a number of other colleagues who obtained senior, or I think it’s called a regular fellowship — someone who already has their Ph.D. and is already established in their career. Because when we would come down for our two meetings of the year – one was the fall symposium over Columbus Day weekend, but the second was the business meeting in January where we would select the Fellows and weigh in on the different proposals for symposia. On those two occasions, I would get to know the regular Fellows as well as the Junior Fellows, and there really is a great sense of collegiality and fellowship at the place, and so I’m always encouraging my grad students and other colleagues to apply because I can’t imagine a more pleasant year than spending a year at D.O. in the library and talking with your colleagues and spend the weekends kicking around the D.C. area. I’m a museums person, so the idea of being able to go to the mall every weekend sounds like Valhalla to me. It really sounds wonderful. At any rate, it’s a fabulous institution. The other great, really tremendously great pleasure and privilege for me in all those years was to get to know and to have the opportunity to work with Ned Keenan who was the Director for all of the time that I was on the Board and afterwards too. I was happy to step down after my six years because I believe very strongly that these kinds of positions do need to rotate. I’m sure back in the day when those three titans were the ones on the Board that that was the perfect arrangement. But now there’s so many really great people out there — thanks in part to Dumbarton Oaks — that it’s really good that the community get fresh blood every six years, and people from outside Harvard and now a greater diversity of people even within Harvard can serve on the board. It’s a wonderful thing. So, I stepped down happily. Nobody had to push me. I cheerily tendered my resignation at the end of my six years. But those were very happy years for me because Ned was just such a hoot, besides being a great scholar and the best administrator I’ve ever worked with. The man was fabulous, really just so skilled at negotiations whether it be with the community or with different parts of the administration at Harvard or Harvard professors or the members on the different Boards, because each Board has a slightly different history and makeup. And he just somehow glided through everything – amazing guy, very funny during the meetings but especially when we were no longer in formal session, just so much fun to hear his stories. And he did a fabulous thing by creating and funding and building the new library. Really it’s an astounding accomplishment. It’s very difficult to get things passed in the various conservation and neighborhood committees at Georgetown. And he struggled. It took him several years. And he used to joke about wanting to put up a monument in honor of the tree that died that allowed there to be space in a part of the grounds that the conservation people wouldn’t object to, because he had struck out in his previous two attempts. And he pulled it off. My hope is that someday, hopefully before Ned passes on to his much-deserved reward, that the library can be named in his honor, because he deserves it. That was a signal achievement for Dumbarton Oaks. I’d also like to recognize Jeffrey Quilter, my colleague here, who was for ten years the Director of Pre-Columbian Studies. He was the one who succeeded Elizabeth Boone when she moved on to greener pastures as a named professor at Tulane, in fact the Donald Robertson Professor at Tulane. And Jeff had the vision to immediately snap up space for Pre-Columbian Studies in the new library building, because each Director of Studies was asked, “Well, where would you like to be?” And there was no hesitation on his part. He said, “We want to be with the books.” And because he actually was the chair of the committee within Dumbarton Oaks to coordinate various aspects of the construction, and moving all the collections into the library — and, oh boy, it was a mess of an enterprise — he ended up very savvily steering the Pre-Columbian Studies onto the top floor of the library. And they have magnificent vistas up there. A lot of the books are on the fifth floor. Most of what we’re interested in is on the bottom floor, but Joanne Pillsbury loves to comment that pre-Columbianists like to stay in good shape by running up and down those stairs a number of times every day, which I can relate to because that’s what I used to do on the Acropolis during the eight years that I ran a major project on the Copán Acropolis. That was something that I’ll always be grateful to Ned for, but also to Jeff, that he got Pre-Columbian Studies out of the basement. Both of them did, but especially Jeff had the good sense to jump on board right away and get space in the new library. And I think it’s really a much better situation for our program which is a very strong and vibrant program. Every year fabulous students and professionals apply for those fellowships and submit proposals for symposia, and it’s a tough job selecting them. It’s really hard because there’re really good people doing fabulous work out there. That was one of the reasons I was happy to step down. I felt so guilty all the time that we couldn’t give them to the other worthy people, which included some of my own graduate students who were very, very good scholars. But by the luck of the draw, they didn’t get them. Oh, I remember now, the other student who got one was Allan Maca, also had a Junior Fellowship. So, my years on the board were really quite wonderful. I did have a sort of odd first day on the job, if you will. Oh, I have to also mention— another thing I loved about Ned was that he spoke Spanish with the staff and probably 80% of the staff are Hispanic. And, you know, they just bantered back and forth as if he was on the streets of Mexico City. And that was just so refreshing to all the pre-Columbianists to see someone who was so at ease with, if you will, our language and our culture of Latin America. It was great. Anyway, my first day on the job was sort of a trial-by-fire situation. So I was new to the place. I’d never set foot in Dumbarton Oaks until that first meeting of the Board of Senior Fellows – never even seen the place. So I was quite perplexed when the proposal was made that Dumbarton Oaks should get back in the business of buying illegally acquired antiquities, and the nominal reason was to do honor to a departed colleague. Carol Callaway had been a fixture, a pivot really, of Dumbarton Oaks for many years and when she passed away the sentiment was that a new piece should be acquired in her honor that could be displayed with her name and so forth. And others thought this was a good idea. I couldn’t abide by it because it’s against the code of ethics of the Society for American Archaeology and it’s against the UNESCO Declaration of 1970 to which the United States was a signatory. So, I found myself in a bit of a predicament there. I didn’t really want to be the fly in the soup in my very first meeting, so I just waited for the break and went up to my colleague Jeff Quilter and said, “Well now, Jeff, you know, Dumbarton Oaks should do as it sees fit, but I have to tell you that if this is the direction it’s going to go I’ll have to resign after my very first meeting because I can’t be a party to that and certainly I know that neither the Department of Anthropology let alone the Peabody Museum would allow itself to be a party to that and I’m affiliated with both of those institutions. I’d fail them if I didn’t say I can’t go along with this.” I didn’t want to make a stink at the meeting, but this is just not acceptable from my ethical perspective or that of the SAA or Harvard or the United States for that matter. He said, “Oh, no, Bill, don’t do that. Whatever you do, don’t do that.” So then the negotiations began, and Bob Sharer, to his everlasting eternal glory, helped Jeff to get out of this predicament, and me, by suggesting that surely there was some other way in which an object could be acquired by D.O., that they didn’t have to go out and purchase it at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, which would be an embarrassment and really not be in D.O.’s or its parent institution’s best interests. So what Jeff and I creatively came up with was that we could find an object in the Peabody’s collections that was an aesthetically beautiful object of art historical and anthropological interest that could be researched and then restored and then sent to D.O. on long-term loan. And that way there could be something appropriate to honor our departed colleague Carol Callaway, and we’d all live happily ever after. We wouldn’t be breaking the law or ethical codes or anything else. And Jeff just thought this was terrific. And a couple months later he came to the Peabody and we selected a wonderful Remojadas figurine from the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico. It had a little hole in it so it needed some work, but we had a series of tests conducted on it so we could be sure it was ancient, which it was. We could do a pigment analysis. We could do an analysis of the paste and the composition of the figurine, so it could be entered in Ron Bishop’s database. It was just a wonderful little operation. And the reward for D.O. came when Leonardo López Luján — whom I also by the way encouraged to apply for a fellowship. He was very skeptical, but he applied. He and his wife Laura Filloy both got fellowships; both had a fabulous time. They referred to it as este paraiso. But at any rate, Leonardo was deeply involved in the intellectual life of pre-Columbian studies in France. He got his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, speaks flawless French. Everyone there just adores him, and rightly so. He’s a brilliant scholar – the best archaeologist I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve worked with an awful lot of really great archaeologists. But at any rate, Leonardo was asked by Latin American Antiquity — flagship journal for our profession — to talk about the Musée du Quai Branly in France because he had all these French connections, as it were. He looked at the situation there, and he knew a number of people in France who had been affected by it or were participating in the preparation of the museum and one very able scholar — who actually resigned her job in protest at the way the museum was being handled, including that it was acquiring pieces. And so in an article in Latin American Antiquity he basically took the Quai Branly to task, but proposed Dumbarton Oaks as an alternative and told the story of this Remojadas figure and that this was the way responsible museums should go about acquiring new objects — through long term loans and other kinds of arrangements with pieces that have been legitimately acquired — because this particular figurine was given to the Peabody by the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City in the 1950s. It had a pedigree, and it got here a long time before 1970. So, that was very gratifying for me to see that Dumbarton Oaks was shown in the pages of Latin American Antiquity, right? publication of the SAA. That Dumbarton Oaks was shown to be a responsible institution and to have had a small role in that was very rewarding for me. So that was one bit of excitement. And then for him to be able to pull off getting the library built was another. I had stepped down from the Board when the opening happened. Larry Summers was then president. And I remember feeling so honored that Ned invited me to go to the opening of the library, and I was present there. It was just a really thrilling day. Actually Leonardo and Laura were Fellows that year, so I got to sit with them at the opening, and Jan Ziolkowski was also invited to be there because he’s been so important for the university in a number of different departments and areas, study centers, at I Tatti in Florence. Jan’s a walking culture hero. And so it’s great to see Jan there. I’ve always admired him, and he would speak up at faculty meetings of the greater faculty of arts and sciences. He was to the point and spot on every time. So, it was for me just thrilling when he was selected as the next Director of Dumbarton Oaks, when Ned was finally able to retire. Poor guy, he was such a trooper. He just, you know, kept on. It’s actually kind of a funny story if you don’t get to interview Ned, so I should share that one too. So, Ned told me how he ended up as a Director of D.O. – because he’s not a Byzantinist, let alone Landscape Architecture or Pre-Columbian Studies, though he does speak impeccable Spanish – he’s a medievalist of Russia and, you know, he’s a very, very highly regarded scholar, but his scholarship has very little to do with the three areas of Dumbarton Oaks. And so at one point I said, “Well you know Ned, you know, I couldn’t be happier that you’re here, but if you don’t mind my asking, how the hell did you get here?” He said, “Well, that’s an interesting story, my boy, and one you might want to take heed to when somebody asks you to be on a search committee.” And I said, “Oh!” And he said, “Yes.” Well, Neil Rudenstine, who was a fabulous president of Harvard — jeez, Neil was so good for this institution in so many ways — Neil asked Ned to be on a search committee to try to find a successor to Angeliki Laiou, who had done her time. I think she was Director five years, and needed her sabbatical, and felt like she had made her contribution, and that her time was up, and it was time they found a successor. So, Ned was a good soldier like he always was. He was Dean of the Graduate School when I was in school. He signed my Ph.D. diploma and that of Jan Ziolkowski, I might add, and Tom Lentz, the Director of the Art Museums. Anyway, he was on this search committee by virtue of his great skills not only as an administrator, but as a judge of people. That’s a tough skill. You’re either born with it or you just don’t have it, and he had it in spades. So he agreed, and they had a rough time of it finding somebody who was on the faculty at Harvard, or who had Harvard connections who could be recruited as a faculty member — because that’s part of the terms of being Director of Dumbarton Oaks – is you’re a faculty member here because it does belong to Harvard University and that’s its governing structure. And in the end they weren’t able to persuade the one individual they thought would be appropriate to take the job. It would have been back to the drawing board had it not been for the fact that Angeliki said, “No, I’m going on sabbatical. That’s your problem, not mine.” And so hat-in-hand, Neil Rudenstine went to Ned and said, “Well, you know, what do you think? Can I trouble you to do this for just one year? Just one year, we’ll find ourselves an able successor.” Sure enough, at the end of the next academic year, “Well Ned I’m really sorry, we weren’t able to find anybody, so you really leave me no choice but to appoint you again.” Oh boy! So this just kept going on and they couldn’t find anybody else to do the job who was appropriate, who had appropriate interests. I mean, Ned really wasn’t the right person in terms of scholarly background, in publications and teaching and all that sort of thing, but he was so good at it that Neil just kept going hat-in-hand to see Ned. And by then, Ned was devoted to the institution because he’d seen the potential. He knew what this could provide to Harvard. He realized that if they built a new library and bought just a few more places to put students and scholars up in then this could be an unmatched resource for the humanities. I mean, it’s always been billed as the Home of the Humanities for Harvard, and the rest of the world for that matter, in these three fields, and he enabled it to actually live up to the name. And now Jan is following a lot of the same sorts of policies and ideas that Ned germinated. And it’s really very excited to see students now going there on a regular basis with their classes. So, it’s really been rewarding for me to see how Ned’s ideas became a reality because they couldn’t find anybody better. Tough break for Dumbarton Oaks: they couldn’t find any better than Ned, who’s just great. We got to show him around Copán after he did retire, and that was just so much fun. We had such a great time, it was really wonderful. So, let’s see, one other thing I should mention in terms of my experience on the board. Now there are a number of Harvard faculty who do pre-Columbian studies. So right now Gary Urton is the chair of the Board of Senior Fellows, and our colleague in Andeanist studies, Tom Cummins, whom you’ll talk to, is really, like Gary, a really phenomenal scholar. Extremely respected in the field the same way that Gary is. Gary’s a MacArthur Prize Fellow and there aren’t too many Andeanists who can say that. Maya glyphs are a very showy topic so there are several in Maya glyphs that have gotten one. But Gary’s the first Andeanist. That’s pretty impressive. And you know Tom’s not far behind, if at all. His scholarship’s really been phenomenal. David Carrasco of course is another full professor who’s here, and myself. So there’s some sentiment among our colleagues at other institutions that, well, you don’t want to pack the board of Senior Fellows with Harvard people, too many of those Harvard people. So, I have to say that I find it gratifying but also puzzling that so many of the staff at D.O. and other scholars from other institutions believe quite fervently and are more than happy to express in very emotional terms their conviction that Dumbarton Oaks has nothing to do with Harvard. Well, Dumbarton Oaks as an institution exists because Robert Woods Bliss was a Harvard alum and believed in the place. The Blisses didn’t give it to Yale or to Tulane or to Penn or to Texas or Berkeley or any other institution. But that said, Harvard has always run it in a very inclusive way, so you have Boards with people from Tulane and Yale and all over the map. So, it’s puzzling that people whose paychecks read Harvard University can’t seem to recognize this simple fact of life, including some whom I’m very close to. But it’s very gratifying that colleagues from other institutions have such a strong sense of ownership over an institution that I believe has been run in a very collegial and inclusive way. And I’m very proud of Jan that he’s going to continue in that vein. And I couldn’t be happier that he was selected Director, and I hope he serves in that capacity for the next 25 years. And not just because I don’t want to do it, but because he’s wonderfully good at it. So those are most of my recollections. Now you should just shoot with anything you’re curious about.
EG: Well, on the topic of the Harvard-Dumbarton Oaks relationship, have you noticed changes in that relationship or in the tone of that relationship in the time you’ve been there?
WF: Yeah, so, I would say that Ned did his best to strike a balance between his own perspectives as a Harvard professor and administrator and former dean and former house master — I mean there’s really very little that Ned didn’t do. God, he was Director of Undergraduate Studies for quite some time also — and the need to be more inclusive. So, he was tickled that Harvard was able to recruit scholars of the caliber of Tom Cummins and Gary Urton, and he played a major role in making that possible. So, we were extremely grateful that he thought enough of our area, of our study program, to help recruit scholars to Harvard. And so as part of their reward for coming here — because you have to give up something, if you’re going to come to this faculty you give stuff up – it just doesn’t work any other way; everybody has to give up something to come here, bar none — he gave them a little reward in the sense of having them serve on the Board of Pre-Columbian studies. But there never were more than two of us from Harvard on the Board at any one time. And then just because of the mechanics of succession in these six-year terms, it’s only been Gary for the last three or four years, something like that. I think Tom stepped down in ’03 or ’04, something like that, maybe ’05. But at any rate, it’s been quite a while where it’s only been one Harvard person on the Board, and part of that is because Ned felt strongly that all of the Boards should have representation of scholars from Harvard and a number of scholars from outside of Harvard as well because he didn’t want it to become any sort of an insular place. And I know that it’s a difficult task to balance those two interests for all three Boards. And there was a time when some of us were feeling that Ned should do what he could to make it a policy that all three Boards be set up in this way, but I think that he didn’t want to alienate any of his colleagues. And he had his hands full with the library and trying to take care of the collections when they got moved out of the main building and into storage. That’s always a harrowing experience. If you’re a registrar or conservator, oh boy, you don’t sleep well until you know it’s all done and everything’s back in place in perfect shape, that the lighting is right and all the rest of it. It’s a serious, serious proposition to move something of that much value into storage and then bring it back out and have everything be just fine. So we didn’t press him on it, but I think that it will continue to be a point of tension because people outside of Dumbarton Oaks feel like they own it, and obviously people at Harvard feel like they have maybe a little bit more right to ownership than those who don’t work here. And it’ll always be out there, which, you know, that kind of a creative tension I think is good. Just like in an academic program, you don’t want everybody agreeing with each other because then you run the risk of going in a direction that in five or ten years will be seen as antiquated and really off the mark. You need to have a diversity of viewpoints in any kind of an academic program. So I think it’s good. And the other thing that’s wonderful about D.O. is that perhaps because of the origins of the institution, perhaps because it is such a stately building, perhaps because of all those books on the shelf and the legacy that you’re privileged to be part of, people do tend to be very collegial. I never, ever participated in a meeting of the Board that got out of hand or where people raised their voices or got upset about something. I mean, people would advocate with passion for whatever it was they were advocating for, but nobody got out of hand and there were never any unpleasant moments. There were some serious things to try and decide and it wasn’t always easy to achieve a consensus, but we always did, at least during the time that I was there. That was the wonderful thing about it – that you knew that when you got to the end of your business you’d have a great time patting everybody on the back and telling them how much you’d look forward to seeing them at the next meeting because it was always true. And some of us got to travel to Peru when the main building was closed down. They were unable to have the symposium there at D.O., and Ned had the great idea to travel, the Pre-Columbian ones. So there was one in Lima, Peru and after that one we got to travel the north coast of Peru. Several members of the board were able to go on the trip and, oh boy, we just had such a fabulous time. It was just wonderful. And then more recently all the members of the Board came to Copán after the conference that took place in Guatemala. They all hopped up to Tikal for a couple of days and then went down to Copán. And to judge from the number of photos I’ve seen of that trip in the offices of people at D.O., I think they had a pretty good time! So those are other innovations that, you know, it might not be bad if they did that again at some point in the future because they were only able to visit three countries when that happened. It was Peru, Mexico, and Guatemala, and there are plenty of other countries in Latin America that have cultures, living descendant cultures as well as ancient ones, that are of great interest to people who work at D.O.
EG: Were you also a visiting scholar at one time at Dumbarton Oaks?
WF: No, no. I’ve never actually had a fellowship there. I hope to eventually go there when I am able to unshackle my leg from the ball and chain that it’s been in for the last eleven years of my being an administrator. Yeah, in two-and-a-half years I will have finished up my second term as Director of the Peabody and that’s what I would like to do. I’m not sure if I’d want to be there all year because, you know me, I love going back to the field. But maybe for the fall semester would be a wonderful thing. When Angeliki Laiou was the Director she actually offered me an entire year stay on what’s called administrative leave. So I may pursue that so that I don’t have to hog one of the few fellowships that are available. I’d hate to take something from anybody. And I still got the letter and I’ll pull it out of archives when I think I might be able to use it. You better not let Jan see that part of the transcript. But I would love to spend some time there. We were just there in June and I was just a visitor. I’m on the Administrative Committee, but poor Jan was up to his eyeballs, so we didn’t have a meeting of the committee and I was just visiting. But I spent four whole days cruising through the stacks and taking notes and just, really, mhm – I haven’t been able to do that since I was in graduate school. How pitiful is that? Golly. So I would really love to go back, but so far my only time there has been on the Board and for the annual meetings and now on the Administrative Committee. I’ll make a few short trips. But when I was offered that administrative leave, I was very temped to take it, but then I got recruited to be department chair – couldn’t be in two places at the same time. So, I had to turn down the time at D.O. And I’ve been either department chair or museum director ever since, which is why I want Jan to keep going for another 25 years. I don’t want them coming after me.
EG: So you touched on this a little bit earlier, but I was wondering if you’ve noticed a tension between the art side and the archaeology or anthropology side of Dumbarton Oaks in terms of both collections and acquisitions, but also symposia.
WF: It is a tough thing to balance because most of our archaeologist colleagues are interested in anthropological kinds of questions, the kinds of things you wrote about in your senior thesis, that have everything to do with people and what they do and very little to do with aesthetics which for the art history side is where they make their money. That’s their passion in life, that’s their bread and butter. They really are terribly interested in objects and who created them and for what purpose and does it speak to other traditions and all sorts of things that are not necessarily on the top of archaeologists’ lists. So, there is a creative tension; so that’s why it’s important that the board of six scholars on the Board of Pre-Columbian Studies try to be half archaeology and half art history, because you wouldn’t want either side to exercise some sort of voting bloc business and have only their kind of people be admitted. That would be a disaster that would really be, I think, in violation of the spirit of Dumbarton Oaks and the letter of the program, right? — art and archaeology. As an archaeologist, I always advocated that we select those projects that combine both, and I especially held the archaeologists to that standard, that if there wasn’t something in it for the art historians that they should get a post-doc at Stanford or someplace else, at the School of American Research and go do their hardcore anthropological archaeology at an institution that’s devoted to hardcore anthropological archaeology. Dumbarton Oaks is not such a place. We don’t need somebody looking at the specifics of osteology at a desert coastal site in Peru. That’s not to say that if that was the best proposal one year it wouldn’t get selected, but, to my mind, valuable as that is – and I’m not denigrating it in any way – that’s not what Dumbarton Oaks is all about. So, it is tough for the Director of Pre-Columbian Studies to make sure there’s a balance there. And by the same token, you don’t just have art historical studies being done, they had to be tied to archaeology in some way. The interesting thing from my perspective is that so many art historians were trained by Kubler and others who saw the critical importance of cultural context in the production of art or artifacts, or whatever term you might want to give to material culture, so that virtually all art historians have an anthropological bent and very often cite a lot of the anthropological literature, not just the archaeology and the sequence and they know their dirt archaeology to a greater or lesser degree, but they’re interested in anthropological problems. So, the trouble wasn’t so much that the art historical studies were too aesthetic and not anthropological enough. It was that too many of the archaeological proposals were just archaeological. And so, that’s why I felt it was my responsibility to advocate for those that spoke to the other side, if you will. And some of them are just seamless; they combine both disciplines in a seemingly effortless, seamless way. And those are the ones that just make your heart sing if you read the proposal and you read the dissertation and the book that came out of it, something like what Alex Tokovinine did with his dissertation, which, you know, nominally it’s about epigraphy, but it’s deeply anthropological and it draws on art history and the monuments themselves, too. So that was an “oh wow” moment to read Alex’s dissertation. It was really something. We all made suggestions. Steve Houston was extremely helpful to Alex when he was at D.O. and probably Alex drove him crazy from time to time because he’s such an inquisitive, talkative guy. Steve tends to like to really hunker down and get at his keyboard, but that’s an example of the collegiality even though Steve, I’m sure, had other things he’d rather spend his time on. And I know he was very helpful to Alex — Alex told me that on a number of occasions and I’ve thanked Steve for it a number of times. And that’s one of the beauties of having the system set up in the way that it is. There are one or two, maybe three dedicated professionals, associate or full professors, who can mentor the younger set. Even though they might not be a specialist in what the Ph.D. candidates are researching they have a broader perspective about the field and it can be really helpful to them. That sense of fellowship is what it’s all about. It’s a challenge. That’s why they have a board, that’s why it’s diverse, so that they can maintain that balance.
EG: So, there’s a sense of community among the pre-Columbianists?
WF: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s something that everybody has remarked upon who’s had the privilege of being there for a year or even just for six months. I think for most people it’s very difficult to go back to the real academic world where it isn’t always that way. You’re really lucky if you have a department or a number of colleagues at your institution that are of like mind and with whom you can have that kind of camaraderie, and deep discussion, late night parties, and all the rest of what makes it so enjoyable to be there. Everybody racks their brains trying to figure out a proposal brilliant enough to be able to go for a second tour of duty there, but generally they don’t allow that because there are so many people who are in our field now. It’s a huge field, though the art historians complain bitterly that their field isn’t getting any bigger. Western art continues to have a sort of stranglehold on the positions at most universities. That’s why it’s so vital that D.O. support art history, to encourage the younger set and give them a post-doc or a year to finish their dissertation while they look for jobs. Maybe they just want a year to write things up based on a dissertation that’s almost done. All those things are valuable in terms of helping the profession of art history. Archaeology is just growing by leaps and bounds. It’s amazing how many people are out there. So, many different schools do pre-Columbian studies in archaeology, but it’s got a vital role.
EG: Have you noticed any relationship between Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and the Byzantine Studies or the Garden and Landscape Studies either as a senior fellow or during the symposia or in publications?
WF: There are a number of ways in which the institution is promoting those kinds of exchanges because even though people work with decidedly different areas and topics, they nonetheless share a lot of common interests. So, one beautiful example is the symposium they had on garden archaeology which spoke to pre-Columbian and Byzantine and obviously to landscape architecture as well. That was a tremendous contribution. It’s been having a hard time finding its way into print, but when it does, that will be a substantive contribution to all three fields. And so increasingly they’re figuring out ways to do that. And, oh, all the fellows present a synopsis of their research to everyone in all three fields, in this way where people can exchange ideas. From what Alex tells me, the three fields don’t mix so much, say, in the lunch room – which I observed when I was just there in June. And they don’t really sit together when there are events where they are all divided. But now, increasingly, they’re really mixing it up after hours and in some ways that’s really almost better. They get to know each other in an informal setting and be able to form a good bond. I’m sure that within each group there’s a certain amount of peer pressure with certain individuals when they are present, so I can understand why it’d be tougher to do in an institutional setting. But it’s all breaking down after hours, so that’s good, and if eventually that can be shifted into the institutional setting that’d be great too. But you know, they are very diverse fields. We really can’t expect that they would be thriving in exchange. I mean, Andean and Mesoamerican studies are in some ways very different fields, and there are occasional resentments that one can sense between the fields, not just archaeology and art history, but between Andean studies and Mesoamerican studies. I remember one year we selected all Andeanists, and we went to the dinner afterwards with the rest of the pre-Columbianist crowd and the Mesoamericanists were all shocked, dumbfounded, and, “How can that be? How can you not have selected any Mesoamericanists?” And there I was, one of three Mesoamericanists on the Board and I said, “Andeanists wrote better proposals. More power to ‘em!” And if you were an Andeanist, boy, I bet that was a fun year. You get to talk Andeanist stuff all the time. But that’s very, very rare. That doesn’t usually happen.
EG: Has there ever been any talk about incorporating North American pre-Columbian archaeology?
WF: Yeah, so, there are two areas that people talk about in that way. One is North America. For decades, the Southwestern U.S. and the Southeastern U.S. were populated with very reputable scholars who did not want to hear the word “Mexico.” They would not hear of it and they would not allow articles suggesting contact to get into print, and they would make the careers of those who were outrageous enough to suggest that any such thing could have ever happened very difficult, very difficult. And the word “diffusion” became a dirty word, even though there were a lot of other mechanisms that could have been used to explain the adoption of certain cultural forms from the Southwest into northern Mexico and vice-versa. And so for that reason, it wasn’t really even a viable subject to talk about even at a place as broad minded as D.O. because the people that worked in the Southeast and the Southwest didn’t want to hear “Mexico.” So why should we consider that part of it? But more recently people have really opened up their viewpoints on that. The archaeology in the Hohokam has shown irrefutably that they’re very closely tied culturally to Mesoamerica and the work of scholars like Karl Taube, who’s always showing that the pueblos today still retain a lot of the Mesoamericanist cosmology and mythology and it’s in their art in ancient times and in their present-day practices. And that was actually a paper that Karl was a co-author on at D.O. a few years back in A Pre-Columbian World. So, that volume was co-edited by Mary Miller and Jeff Quilter and in that volume they said, “Hey folks, there’s a larger pre-Columbian world. It doesn’t stop at the U.S. border; it’s not like the Weather Channel where all of a sudden it stops right here.” I mean these people are exchanging sons and daughters as well as ideas and pots and plants and birds and everything. Metallurgy, everything under the sun they were exchanging. So I think that’ll probably come to the fore, but a lot will depend on the Board and if they think this is a priority. But I think one that will probably move more quickly is to what degree can Colonial studies be considered to be part of the mission of Dumbarton Oaks which was founded as Pre-Columbian Studies. And so one of the more exciting things that happened when Elizabeth Boone was the director of D.O. was the symposium that she and Tom Cummins — who you’re about to talk to — organized on the Colonial period. A lot of people said that that created a field, that volume. Some people say Tom Cummins himself created a field. How many people can say that? So I think that is going to become increasingly interesting for people who work at Dumbarton Oaks. All of the great scholars that Tom has mentored over the years, and Gary Urton — a like minded individual working with contemporary Andean cultures — Frank Solomon — he’s an anthropologist, but a lot of what he does is quipus and other things that are material culture that express ideas, and that’s certainly part of the scope of D.O. And in Mesoamerica, goodness, all the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuscripts, I mean where would a scholar like Elizabeth Boone be had there not been sixteenth- and seventeenth-century post-Columbian manuscripts. So, that I think will probably change. It may be that it will be a process rather than a decree. They’re not going to necessarily change the name overnight. But I think that the scholarship has already been there and done that for a number of years ever since that volume came out. So that, you now, is an already engaged new direction. I would love to see the Southeast and the Southwest be included. The so-called southern cult, oh my goodness, that’s as Mesoamerican as it can be. I look at some of the collections, the archaeological ceramics in the annex, and just say, ‘Boy, if the sign didn’t say this was from Alabama I wouldn’t believe them.’ There it is a bottle with incised designs and Mesoamerican iconography and feathered horned serpents and — I mean, jeez — it’s so clear that they were interacting. One of my happiest moments when I was browsing the stacks just a couple of weeks ago was to pick up an old monograph by Battlin’ Bill Sanders. You knew I’d bring him up. Sanders was such a huge figure at Dumbarton Oaks. At every symposium he was there and he always had something to say and it was always productive. You didn’t necessarily always agree with him, but you had to hand it to him that he’d hit on something important every time he opened his rather large mouth. So, Sanders’ first monograph was a survey that he did in northern Veracruz in the Huasteca, and it was vintage Sanders. I don’t think he could’ve been more than twenty-four or twenty-five years old when he wrote this thing. And it starts out with the geography – just a masterful summary of the hydrography of the soils, of the stone, outcrops of the river geomorphology, of the weather patterns, of the kinds of plants that were grown there at what times of the year, a masterful cultural ecology. And then he got into the nitty-gritty of the sites he had located and of the ceramics he had found on the sites and gave a sort of broad synthetic view of the culture history of the area and how people had related to the landscape. It was all a wonderful piece of work. But in the very last part of it he said something extremely daring, which is that surveys like this one are just a first step as we make our way north along the Gulf Coast of Mexico to try to document the relationships between Mesoamerica and the Southeastern United States. My jaw dropped. I thought, “Wow, to say that in the early 1950s. Woo!” If other Americanists had read that they’d have been after him with a pole in their hands. That just was really not something you wanted to publicly say, that was a big no-no. And it was Sanders, fearless as always, saying it. And I just thought, you know, good for him. His first monograph – he’s going out on a limb saying we really ought to expand the field in this direction, and sadly it really hasn’t. There’s a lot of archaeology that’s been done there but unless you live and work in Mexico and are terribly interested in that, it’s not very well known. I bet there might be three or four people in all of the United States that are familiar with that archaeology because it’s all published in Spanish and it’s not a topic that’s been wildly influential in this country. So yeah, I hope your question is one that we’ll see progress on.
EG: More generally, I was wondering how you see the role of Dumbarton Oaks in pre-Columbian studies as a whole; whether you see it as affecting the direction of the development of the field and its importance in the field.
WF: So yes, I think it’s critically important. As I mentioned the art historians — really distinguished people like Rebecca Stone and Mary Miller and Ginny Miller — have all confided to me that they’re worried, that there aren’t that many Pre-Columbian art historians who are getting jobs. So, a place like Dumbarton Oaks is vital because it not only gives them a chance to write up their material, but in some cases it’s also led to publications — and that increases their profile because Dumbarton Oaks is such a highly-regarded institution. And I think it’s also invaluable in that it’s a place that institutionally supports people getting out of their intellectual silos and moving effortlessly, it seems, back and forth between anthropological and archaeological perspectives, topics and approaches, methodologies and those of art history. So, although the volumes that come out of D.O. in some cases are extremely innovative, most of them really serve as sort of a grand state-of-the-art kind of book that tell you what the current thinking by the best scholars in the field is about crucial topics. And so they chronicle the discipline and how it changes through time in a way that I think no other institution does. The Peabody has this fabulous collection of papers and memoirs that chronicle the differences in the way archaeology was practiced when the Peabody first started digging in places like Copán, over a hundred years ago, to how it was done when Gordon Willey first got here, to how it’s done now, but that is just archaeology. And in the same way, the journals in art history – you could go to those and see how that profession has changed through time. But Dumbarton Oaks shows you how the combined fields have grown together and pursued topics of common interest in creative ways. In my experience working in Copán and certainly here at the Peabody too, the really fun work is when you get people with very diverse viewpoints and perspectives and opinions on things to work together because inevitably you’re taken out of your comfort zone and you find yourself discussing and debating topics that you never thought you would have ever considered or that you would’ve never spent time trying to figure out more about. And your colleagues inevitably do the same thing because you’re trying to bring them into what you’re interested in and what you know about, and in that way everybody grows intellectually and everybody profits. And that’s why it was so great to have somebody like Battlin’ Bill to stand up and give the cultural-ecological point of view at every symposium he ever went to. It was a wonderful moment when Joanne Pillsbury recognized our great loss at last fall’s meeting. I was really proud of her for doing that. There she was an Andeanist art historian — well she’s deeply versed in archaeology and she knows Mesoamerica awfully well, but nonetheless if you had to label her you’d say: Andeanist art historian — and she was singing the praises of a Mesoamerican archaeologist. So I think that speaks to your question, that everybody respects their colleagues’ points of view even if they might not agree on certain particulars, but the institution as a whole has a hugely important role. If you go to SAA meetings you’re going to find precious little on art history. If you go to the College Art Association meetings, you’ll find many art historians of pre-Columbian studies taking an anthropological viewpoint, but other times they’re in symposia where they just have to be dedicated art history. So Dumbarton Oaks does that in a way no other place does.
EG: I was wondering if you, sort of along the same lines – what you see as Mr. and Mrs. Bliss’s legacy in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks.
WF: Huge, huge. It’s, I suppose in sort of prosaic terms, it’s a think-tank. But really it’s a scholarly refuge. In the same way that it was so important in world diplomacy in the creation of the United Nations, Dumbarton Oaks is an oasis and a refuge where people can get completely unplugged from all the academic politics at their own institution and all the other things that they’re paid to do in their regular jobs and just focus for six months or a year on what they’re really interested in. [Barbara Fash knocks on the door and enters.] Hello there! Come right on in. And I think between that and combining archaeology and art history in a way that no other place does it’s a spectacular institution, and not just because they serve good food. All right I think I’ve said way more than enough.