Angela Constantinides Hero and Helen C. Evans
INT: Today’s July 29th, 2009. My name is Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent.
INT: I’m Anne Steptoe.
INT: I’m Elizabeth Gettinger.
INT: We have the honor today to interview Helen Evans and Angela Hero. We are here in New York City at the Metropolitan Art Museum. Good afternoon to both of you.
AH: Good afternoon.
HE: Good afternoon.
INT: Now we can get going. So, Dr. Hero, can you tell us something about your work in editing monastic documents at Dumbarton Oaks?
AH: Well, Professor Constable thought that the entire range of monasticism, both eastern and western, could not be studied properly until sources for eastern monasticism were made available, collected and made available. And he assigned that project to John Philip Thomas, whom he had known from Harvard. John was at that time on a joint appointment at Dumbarton Oaks and Georgetown. He was putting the final touches on his dissertation at Harvard, which was published a couple of years after that—I think it was the early eighties—and very, very well received. It was an excellent study of private religious foundations in Byzantium, so it was related, you see. And he became – he took over the project. And I was appointed—this was all started in ’81—I was appointed philological editor for the Greek, because when we got a grant from the Foundation for the Humanities, they said that they wanted also a Greek editor, since these were translations. And we got together a group of translators. It was a problem, because these documents were written in various registers of the Greek language, ranging from the classicizing Hochsprache to the vernacular. And there weren’t many scholars, many Byzantinists, who wanted to take on such a task. It was very difficult, because there were—to give you an idea—in the so-called inventories, the brevia, there were words that were not found in any dictionaries, so the two of us worked together – it was a very harmonious collaboration between John and me. We were very lucky finally in getting together a group of international scholars that – some of them were from England, others from Belgium, from Italy. And there’s also a – very satisfactory, really. It was a very fine work, my favorite. I mean, it’s there in five volumes; you can see it. It was published in 2000, the year 2000. It’s the index. This is the part that I value very much, because it was, it is research-friendly. You see, if I – can you bring down volume five, please? That whole volume is the index.
AH: Yes so it gives you an idea. If you look under “monks”, you have so many entries. [Flipping through the book]
HE: Do you use this in your research at all?
INT: I work in Syriac sources more and I didn’t – I know what a tremendous contribution this has been to the field. I work more in the earlier period.
HE: What period are you working in?
INT: Late Antique.
HE: Up to about the seventh century, or –?
INT: Up to about the seventh century.
HE: I’m working on an exhibition on the transition from Byzantium to Islam. We should discuss that at some point.
AH: I’ll read it to you so you get an idea. For instance, you start: “Monks, appointment of, assignment to fix duties, attempted assassination of, care of aged, conspiring to flee, contract workers, definition of, dietary concessions for, documents offered by, expulsion of, esthete of the community, electoral college, foundation of.” You know, you have, on monks you have how many pages, yes? Monks continued, monks, you have four to five pages. But it followed the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium in the format – what it means is that we wanted to produce something that was research-friendly. Now, the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium is unique. I mean, Alice-Mary Talbot, who was the executive editor – of course the idea was Kazhdan’s, Alexander Kazhdan. There you have a dictionary, an encyclopedia practically of Byzantine life in all its aspects: politics, not just as before, you know, the great, important events, people who took part in these events, patriarchs, kings, emperors; but you have also: sports, food, clothing, footwear. The entry on women in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, it’s cross-referenced to Eve, the Virgin Mary, birth of women, girls, you know, education of, marriage, fertility, divorce, concubinage, prostitution, empresses, nuns, so it is – these are extraordinary reference books, standard reference books. That’s all I can tell you.
INT: This was a long labor of love for you, these volumes. You worked twenty years and I understand that there were some difficulties at times.
AH: Well, there was, because, as I said, the grant ran out of money, and John and I carried on, on our own expenses. And of course he, fortunately, was – of course we are talking now twenty-five, thirty years ago – he was a master of the computer. He was a computer whiz. And the word processing – he turned in a manuscript over 5,000 pages in ’96 to Dumbarton Oaks. And that was all done, you know. I couldn’t help there, because my first computer I bought in 1990. And still I use it because it has an excellent Greek font. My Macintosh, the one there, has access to the Internet. I google, now. But I still miss my nice Greek font. In this Macintosh that I have, the Greek font leaves a lot to be desired, especially the accents, the iota subscript – forget it. It’s a mess.
INT: Well, while we’re on the subject of publications, you were also involved in the Dumbarton Oaks Holy Women of Byzantium series.
AH: Well, I am on the advisory committee on hagiography, yes.
INT: And contributed the life of St. Theoktiste of Lesbos –
AH: Yes, but my dissertation, which was published by Dumbarton Oaks, was – at that time, Alice-Mary and I were doing correspondence, you see, where I did fifty-nine letters of Gregory Akindynos, who was condemned as a heretic, because he was involved in the Hesychast controversy. And then I edited – to give you an idea of my background, it was Professor Ševčenko who introduced me to the study of manuscripts and suggested that I do – both Alice-Mary and myself; we were his students – that we focus on unpublished sources of the fourteenth century. So, she did Patriarch Athanasius; I did Akindynos, and then I edited and translated the only surviving correspondence by a Byzantine woman, the letters of Irene Choumnaina Palaiologina and out of that the correspondence of her spiritual advisor, Theoleptos of Philadelphia.
INT: You were working on sources on the history of women –
AH: They’re all fourteenth century.
INT: -- before a lot of people were doing that, really. You were at the beginning of that.
AH: Yes, we were. It was the beginning of the study – you know, gender studies and all that. But, and then of course, you know, in Byzantine Hagiography and Theoktiste of Philadelphia, er, Theoktiste of Lesbos.
INT: When did you first come to visit Dumbarton Oaks? When was that, and what were your first impressions of the place?
AH: Well, originally I was very impressed, because I felt that it was an ideal place for scholarly research. At that time, I think in ’66, Mrs. Bliss was still alive.
INT: She was still there.
AH: And during the symposia they had a beautiful buffet, as you know, and the table set out with the best china and silver, and it was something to see. And of course the gardens – the symposia were always during the spring and outdoors. And the opportunity offered of interacting with other scholars – I met some of the world’s top Byzantinists there: Robert Browning, oh so many – Romilly Jenkins, Trypanis, Laourdas, Vryonis, Sir Steven Runciman, so many, Anastos from California – my friends, yeah; and Alice-Mary, with whom I feel like, you know, like a sibling, like sisters. We were very close and we still continue to be. But our mentor is sick.
INT: Doing better, though, I understand.
AH: And Meyendorff passed away fourteen years ago.
INT: Can you talk about Father Meyendorff, what he was like, since we don’t have the opportunity to interview him?
AH: No, no, he died in ’92 and he died – it was so sudden, because I had seen him at Dumbarton Oaks two months before he passed away. He was a real man of God. Bickerman, my other teacher at Columbia—he was of course a classicist—said once that Meyendorff was the last intelligent man to believe in God, which shocked me, of course, because I was still very innocent and very not used to that kind of talk. He said to me, “Are you with Meyendorff?” I said, “Yes.” Ha! Last intelligent – I couldn’t believe it. Yes, Father Meyendorff was a true believer. He was a pioneer, an intelligent man, despite what Bickerman said, and very erudite, a very learned man. And easy, kind to work with – you know, very congenial, very – I found him. He was exceptionally good to his students. And he had a lot to give. It’s a shame that he died. He was in his – sixty-two years old when he died. He died of pancreatic cancer. And fortunately he didn’t suffer. As I said, I’d seen him two months before his death. I couldn’t believe it when I opened up the New York Times and saw the obituary – because he had then retired from Fordham and had gone to the Institute for Advanced Study.
INT: Right, Princeton.
AH: Yeah, Princeton. They had built a house that summer and everything. He died, and she had to sell the house, Mrs. Meyendorff.
HE: Did he just not know he was ill at all until it was just the very end?
AH: No, no, no, no. All of a sudden he died in Canada. He used to spend the summers there, at a retreat.
INT: Do you remember, as a student, hearing about Dumbarton Oaks from him or did you get a sense – he was quite a giant at Dumbarton Oaks. Did you get a sense of his opinions on the place as a place of study for scholars?
AH: You mean from Father Meyendorff?
AH: Oh yes. Well, he thought he was – I think they considered him for director, but he didn’t want to accept that job, because he was at St. Vladimir’s. He was very active at St. Vladimir’s with Schmemann, Father Schmemann.
INT: They made Byzantine theology accessible, I think, to the West in a way that few have replicated. They opened that world up to a lot of people in the West – English-speaking.
AH: Yes, yes. Schmemann’s son is a journalist. He’s, I think, one of the senior editors – not editors; what do you call them? Correspondents – he was a correspondent for the Times and the head of the Times bureau in, I think, in Moscow for a while. But he went back, you know, to Russia and visited the estates of the family, because these were princely families in Russia – the Meyendorffs, yeah. Meyendorff didn’t use the title himself, but it was a princely – again, they were titled people, going all the way back to the first German pope in Rome, before the schism, before 1054. There was a Bavarian pope, a Meyen –
HE: A Meyendorff.
AH: They were Germans, yeah.
HE: And you tell me he came with –
AH: And they went from Germany with Catherine the Great. They married into an Orthodox family in Russia. And that’s why he was no longer a Catholic; he was a Russian, he was an Orthodox. But, I asked him – before, of course, the reform of communism, he visited Russia – and I asked him if he went to see their property there, their estates. And he said, “No, my home in St. Petersburg is in the museum.” The estates – but Schmemann’s son went there and wrote a book. I think it’s Echoes from a Native Land – something like that. I don’t – I’m not sure, but it’s something – yes, Echoes. It’s brilliant. And Schmemann’s wife was related to another of those, you know, white Russian families, the Trubetskoys, Franz Trubetskoy, so she was the headmistress at Chapin, I think, or Brearley, one of those schools for years. She taught French and Russian, because you see Meyendorff and Schmemann were, of course, refugees from the revolution and they settled in Paris, so they both had doctorates from the Sorbonne. And they were bilingual – more than that.
INT: It seems that an entire generation of scholars at Dumbarton Oaks had a similar story – Kazhdan.
AH: Kazhdan, yes.
INT: It must have had a very European feel in those first years.
AH: It did. But then after a while, they started, you know, one by one – well, you’re the future! [Laughter] It’s up to you, now.
INT: Well, I wonder, along the lines of these early years and even later – and you’ve attended so many Dumbarton Oaks symposia – there must have been some quite memorable experiences among those; I understand there were quite heated debates.
AH: Mm, no. Of course, Professor Ševčenko was always asking a series of questions, you know, but –
INT: How was he as a teacher? How was it having him as your mentor?
AH: Well, I owe everything to him. I’ll tell you why: because I went there not knowing what my strengths were, what I wanted to do, my strengths and my weaknesses. And he said to me, “You know the Greek language. You like the written word, don’t you?” I said yes. “Well,” he said, “continue that.” He gave me, when I went to his seminar – he opened up Patrologia Graeca and gave me a passage to translate and I did. He said, “You’ve seen that before.” “No, sir.”
HE: It’s not my bedside reading.
AH: I said, “I’ve studied the classics, which I admire, but I never studied the fathers of the church. He said, “Hm. Well. Alright,” he says. “You’ll be my student. You can take my courses.” And I remember: there was another woman, who was – she was also from Europe. And he said to her that she had to take the test. And she said, “Over my dead body.” She says, “I have a degree.” And he said, “Then, you’re not my student.” Well, he could be – I’ll tell you. I mean, Meyendorff was, by nature, a very gentle, very mild person. The other one – you’ve known Ševčenko, haven’t you? But, I’ll say something else for Ševčenko. Ševčenko would go to bat for his students. Yes. He was there for us all the time. And knowing how demanding he was, we worked hard. You couldn’t produce for Ševčenko something that was substandard; he’d throw it in your face! Sure. So, I – he was – for me, he was the guiding light. Afterwards, I wanted to continue with him but he left Columbia and went to Dumbarton Oaks, as acting director, interim director. And he told me to go to Meyendorff, because Father Meyendorff had come to Columbia as a visiting professor for a year. And when I told him that I wanted to continue for a doctorate, he said, “You have to come to Fordham. I’m leaving. I can’t accept a position here, and I’m offered something at Fordham.” And that’s it. That’s the story of my life, girls. I’ve got to go now, because –
HE: -- because you think you’re going to get rained on.
AH: So, of course, I was going to – I didn’t know if you had interviewed Alice-Mary.
INT: We’re planning to.
INT: In August.
AH: Yes. And I was going to suggest that you go to her, because she is Dumbarton Oaks. She’s been there from ’65 all the way to last, this past year.
HE: This year.
AH: She retired. And we are now – in fact, I’m writing an article for her Festschrift. So, she is phenomenal, as far as I’m concerned, because not only is she a superb scholar, but she’s also an excellent administrator. I envy this, as far as administration goes. I can’t, I hate it, I dread it – administration. Don’t give me such duties, no, in my white tower there, ivory tower.
INT: You were quite involved with the Byzantine Center here at Queens.
AH: Well, yes, I was there, yes, but not in the administration, yeah. Right. And it was a small center. We started it with, you know, Professor Psomiadis, who was the founder of the center, and I helped him out. It’s – I cannot dismiss – I’ll tell you why: because I cannot fire anybody. [Laughter] I can’t! I would die before I had to fire somebody, before I tell somebody, because I can’t use you anymore. I have a cleaning lady and the poor thing now is getting older, and I do more work than she does. [Laughter] My sons tell me, “This is absurd.” I can’t, I can’t tell anybody, “I don’t need you anymore.” I can’t. But Alice-Mary is fantastic. And then, like Helen – they can juggle, as I said, fifty different projects, here, there. I hate traveling – that’s another thing.
HE: She still goes to Greece.
AH: Not anymore. And I can’t travel because I’ve got problems with my back and sitting is not good for me. So, if you’ll excuse me – I’m eighty-three years old.
INT: Thank you.
INT: Thank you, that’s amazing.
HE: Do you want me to get somebody to get you out to a taxi?
INT: I can walk you out.
HE: Do you need to do your introduction or do we just keep going?
INT: I think we can just keep going.
INT: This is part two and now we will be speaking with Helen Evans at the Metropolitan Art Museum. We’re so honored to talk with you today. Thank you so much. So, we understand that you were a summer fellow in 1981. Was that how you first came to work at Dumbarton Oaks, or were you involved earlier than that?
HE: No, it’s not how I first came and – I can’t remember. I remember being at the symposium that was the first symposium that Robert Thomson from Harvard attended. And I spoke at the symposium “East of Byzantium,” and I had not even, really, picked Byzantine studies as my dissertation topic at that time, and so it was a paper I had given for Tom Matthews, and he was one of the co-higher-ups of the symposium. And I remember giving the paper and being so stunned that I was giving it, and my mother had just almost died, so I’d come from the hospital to the conference, and I’d re-written the paper in the hospital so that I hadn’t – the research wasn’t good enough. I had no access to the books to do anything about it. And I was so nervous that when I finished speaking – and people were very, very positive about it – I essentially tore off the platform and had not unclipped the mic. So, I remember that, mercifully, somebody gasped, I stopped, and the mic cord was as tight as it could have gotten. One more step and I could have discovered whether I fell down or the platform turned over. [Laughter] So that’s one of my first great memories of Dumbarton Oaks. But then in ’81, as I began my dissertation, I had a fellowship. I started graduate school to do Japanese art history. I think I’m the only Byzantinist that went on the Silk Road backwards, from your point of view. We had lived in Tokyo for several years, when my husband set up a merger venture there. And I began studying at Sophia University, the Jesuit school in Tokyo, and then ended up studying Hagia Sophia, so it was a reverse. And when the man I went to the Institute of Fine Arts to study with retired, himself –
INT: Was that Krakow? [?]
HE: No, I went to study with Alexander Soper, who was the Pelican History of Arts author of art and architecture of China and art and architecture of Japan and was a grand old man. It led me to tell everybody who asked me for advice on dissertations to be sure that your advisor is either tenured, or you have time to finish before they come up for tenure and is young enough not to retire before you finish, which used to infuriate Tom Matthews as a set of basic advice, but it was highly relevant to my life. Soper was a wonderful person to study with. I just had no intelligence that would lead me to have figured out how old he was. I knew he was old, but I didn’t know that he would retire, himself. And Tom Matthews, whom – I’d taken every course that Tom had taught at the Institute. I arrived just before, er, just after he did – then let me become a Byzantinist. So I, overnight, left Japan and went to the other end of the Silk Road. And I had published my talk in the Dumbarton Oaks “East of Byzantium” series. It was on an Armenian topic. And the Byzantine topic, Greek topic I thought would be a dissertation topic I couldn’t get the permissions I would need to do it. Tom told me that if I would answer a question for him on a book he was working on, then it would be a perfect topic for me, because the manuscript I was studying would be in the States and I would be able to cope with two children and the husband I had—have, too, now. So, I suddenly became an Armenologist and went and took courses in Armenian and have backed up the Silk Road ever since then. So, I have the advantage of – or disadvantage, depending on your point of view of my scholarship – of having skipped classical Greece – took one course. I think the advantage is that I studied Al Gandhara a good deal in college with Soper and it makes you ask two questions that I don’t think you always think to ask when you come out of the great western classical tradition. And so one of them is, “Did the motif travel?” but the second question is, “Did the meaning travel?” And we assume a transmission of meaning that I don’t think we should always assume, and that’s been a part of what I’ve always thought that you had to prove was how – even when the image is as simple as a Christian symbol, does the community that continues to use it receive it in the way the community that produced it thinks of it. And it may be a subtle difference, or it may be a very big one. For Gandhara it was usually very big. If you go to the Afghan gold show that we have on right now – if you haven’t seen it – there’s a wonderful necklace that has a cameo, and it’s a classical god—I think its Mercury—but it’s one of the classical gods and its hung sideways. Clearly the man who had to put it in the necklace did not care that he had a male figure. He could not have missed the head and the feet, so it’s not like, “I don’t know it’s a human being.” It just meant nothing to him. To him, it meant, “I’ve got an exotic rock from the other end of the earth that proves how powerful and wealthy I am.” And then in the catalogue, of course, they do it upright so you have no idea that it’s a total other meaning to whoever in the world owned it in the vast past.
INT: So, it was through Tom Matthews that you came to know Dumbarton Oaks.
HE: Through Tom Matthews – Tom Matthews encouraging his students to go to Dumbarton Oaks symposia. I went to graduate school, like Angela did, later than you all are. I had returned to – I had come to New York – I grew up in Tennessee – from having studied in Tokyo, and the person I studied with, Julia Meech, had written the letters that got me into the Institute of Fine Arts as an Asian student. And I had been interested in medieval art in college, and so I took all the medieval courses that were of interest to me and that was everything Tom taught, so I had all of Tom’s courses, I had all of Soper’s courses, and I had, like, three other courses by the time I was taking my orals, but I turned in a qualifying paper for Tom and a qualifying paper for Soper and used Japanese answers for some of the issues that I took my orals on – on Byzantine for Tom – a year and a half later. It was several years before I felt like I really knew Byzantium.
INT: Have you worked at all – or perhaps you could comment on the importance of the collection, Byzantine Collection, at Dumbarton Oaks as you see it as a scholar of art history, of Byzantine art history, and also from your point of view here in New York, vis-à-vis the collection here of the Metropolitan – and the relationship.
HE: My predecessor Margaret Frazer was actually at one point offered the job as the head of the collection at Dumbarton Oaks. And I think that the Met and Dumbarton Oaks in varying ways have not precisely collaborated or cooperated, but also have been respectful of each other’s collections. They’re the two great collections in this country. I was charged when I was hired here to make the Met’s collection better than Dumbarton Oaks – you know, that was fully said to me. And whether you think I’ve done it or not, that is what I have been certainly trying to ensure – that we were as comprehensive and as important. I think that what the Dumbarton Oaks collection did in – for many decades – was to offer a place where, in this country, you could see a collection brought together and identified as Byzantine. When I renamed our collections – and now my title is the Mary and Michael Jaharis Curator of Byzantine art, I changed the focus of what this museum did. And our collection is built on the 1880s theory that the great northern tradition took a little bit from the Mediterranean Christianity and infused it with the noble people of the north to create Gothic art. And the early installation of the Museum, actually up until 2000, was origins of European art. And what we had done with the installation here in 2000, which Dumbarton Oaks already had, was to see it as the art of the Byzantine world, which as one of its aspects influences European art, but does not exist only for having influenced European art. So that it is a change that was very important here and with the exhibitions I did. And I think it is relevant, in that Anastasia Tourta, who just retired as the director of the museum in Thessaloniki, said it was the first collection in a major museum that used the word Byzantine. So Dumbarton Oaks was always this beacon that understood Byzantine, but what we added was Byzantine in a larger context, because of the breadth of our collections. The summer I was at D.O., I – which would have been when I should have spent all my time looking at the collection – I never meant to be a museum curator, so it wasn’t the way I particularly thought of my life. I actually spent the summer working at the Freer, because the manuscript I was doing my dissertation on was at the Freer, so it was really in their store rooms, looking at all of their Christian objects because they let me look at them all, and they have this amazing collection of Christian material that never goes on display that I remember as more influential on me than actually the D.O. collection.
INT: Do you remember from that time – I think you were also working with a piece at the Walters; am I right about that? Maybe that’s wrong in the record. During your summer fellowship?
HE: I went to visit the Walters that summer. I spent some time – I was looking at the Armenian manuscripts at the Walters, maybe that’s what it was, if you have notes. I was supposed to do my dissertation on a manuscript in the Freer that had not been fully studied and was filled with illuminations. It was, in theory, by the artist Toros Roslin and was therefore connected to the one by Roslin that is signed that’s at the Walters. And in the end, I turned in a dissertation that discussed the western influence on Armenian illumination in the kingdom of Cilicia, which was pretty much every image that Sirarpie der Nersessian had said was a native Armenian tradition. It was a very traumatic dissertation, to disagree with a woman that was as wonderful as she was when I met her and who was canonized in the Armenian community. And some people still don’t speak to me because of it; some people do. But at the time I turned it in, my first and second reader had not expected that dissertation, so it was not the dissertation that was supposed to be fast and dirty that I was sent out to do, where I was supposed to agree with her. But I think that has to be it, because I’d go up to the Walters and look at those manuscripts and then I would spend most of my time during the week in the Freer, going through the actual manuscript and then spend half the day at Dumbarton Oaks. And to me what was wonderful about Dumbarton Oaks was that I went in early in the morning and I left about ten or eleven at night and I had my children in camp and my husband in New York and I just read and looked at books all day. I had relatively little interaction with the people there. I was there the summer that the Fellows Building was closed down for something they were doing to it so we did not have the fellows’ lunch where we all talked together. And I stayed at night to use the library.
INT: So you were probably in the Wisconsin Avenue apartments.
HE: Yes. I was there the summer Prince Charles got married. This is the way I can remember it. And the Washington newspaper, afternoon paper, was going bankrupt. And they devoted the entire summer to wonderfully snarky articles on the wedding, which I would pick up the paper on the way up the hill, read all these kind of Vanity Fair articles on the wedding and then the next morning go back to Dumbarton Oaks and return to Byzantium. And when they got married – there were several Greeks there the summer I was there and they invited me – they rented a television and we all went and looked at the wedding, and they devoted the whole discussion to how the English had learned from the Greek wedding not to have flowers because that was what drove King Constantine off the throne. And any effort to say, “Well, actually we think it’s an incredibly expensive wedding in which flowers would have looked busy on TV,” was met with “No, no. They knew.” And I learned of everybody who was unacceptable to the Greeks at the wedding, starting with King Constantine. So that was the other thing I learned that summer: I learned more about Greek politics and Prince Charles’ wedding – and really remarkably useful and lovely access to the library.
INT: Could you get a chance from your time at D.O. to get a sense of the, I guess – an active relationship between institutions like the Freer, with which you were working closely, and Dumbarton Oaks?
HE: At the time I was there, the relationship was close to zero – largely from Dumbarton Oaks, then. I was welcomed extremely well at the Freer but not because of Dumbarton Oaks. And I made some use of the Library of Congress, where there may have been a little bit more of a connection than I ever perceived, but Dumbarton Oaks viewed itself as a self-enclosed entity. And the only thing I really remember is somebody unacceptable went swimming in the swimming pool and so there were large notes that you – it didn’t matter if you were on the board of trustees of Harvard – you were not allowed to swim in the swimming pool. I remember looking at that and thinking, that’s just really weird. But I don’t even know who it was that insisted that they should be allowed to swim in the D.O. pool.
INT: Was Giles Constable the director?
HE: Constable was the director and it either was the first summer that they had summer fellows or one of the first summers. I did not know that, but later I learned. So I, of course, appreciated very much the fact that he had opened it up in the summer. It was clear that summer that not all the staff was fond of the fact, but I didn’t know what they were un-fond of. I just – you could tell from their tone of voice. I think that it depends on where you stand. I came to Dumbarton Oaks late. I have no firsthand knowledge of when Mrs. Bliss had footmen seating people. The fanciest symposium I went to – we were in the Orangery, and the tables did have white tablecloths; maybe the food was served. What happened was that it was a weird moment in time where using red clay flowerpots was very chic for serving chocolate mousse, which would look like dirt and you’d stick some flowers in the middle of it and that was – those were the centerpieces on the table and my table of course was the young nobodies in the back – no matter what our age was. And so we didn’t realize that the waiters would serve us the mousse. And I do still remember the look of disgust on the waiter’s face when he got to us, having served like three other tables, and realized we had served ourselves our dessert. That’s the closest I ever was to the high Bliss years. There was, the summer I was there, a young man, who Giles had allowed to go through the Bliss archives, and his mother had been there before him and he put up a little exhibition on the Blisses and I remember that to me it was just interesting, and to an older generation at D.O. it was horrific. Mr. Bliss made very bad grades at Harvard, so I remember this guy saying to me, “But I found one where he didn’t have any Fs and that was very hard.” It was all Cs and Ds. But there they were – I think maybe even on the label. But someone was telling me that when you were there in Mrs. Bliss’ years you took her for a walk, told her what you wanted money for, and if she liked it, she’d pull the money out of a little purse between her breasts. So, then of course she dies and somebody writes—probably Ševčenko—and says “I want x money for next year,” and Harvard writes back, “Fill in the forms.” And these are people that have told amusing anecdotes to Mrs. Bliss; they haven’t filled in, “I’m going to spend $50 for transportation and $10 for food.” So I know there was a great deal of tension in the transition, and that Constable was one of the people that got the pressure of the transition. But for me he was always an extremely helpful person that was someone that I saw. I don’t remember particularly talking to anybody my summer there; I remember reading books.
INT: Have you been involved in symposia or colloquia or any of the conferences since your time as a summer fellow?
HE: I’ve gone to a number of the symposia. I have not been to the symposia for the last four years because I’ve been the editor – oh no, the head of the editorial board of the Art Bulletin, which unfortunately has its major annual meeting the same weekend as Dumbarton Oaks. So I have been fulfilling that thing and missing each and every one of the Dumbarton Oaks symposia as a result. I have used a number of people involved with Dumbarton Oaks in the writing of the catalogues for my two shows. I didn’t actually go to Dumbarton Oaks to do any major amount of research of my own. There are very few books, if any, at Dumbarton Oaks that are not in New York City – just a little bit more irritating how many different physical places you may have to go to to get them, but the getting of them is just as possible.
INT: You’ve also written on pieces from the D.O. collection for, I think, for catalogues here and in other aspects of your position here. Unless again, I’m –
HE: You may be right. Maybe for “Glory of Byzantium”, although I don’t know. For “Glory of Byzantium,” I was very intent that I would prove that American scholars were on par with Byzantinists in other countries, because if you look at the arc of Byzantine exhibitions, the ones in the generations right before it had been very much Byzantine art in France by French, Byzantine art in England by English. And it seemed reasonable to, in a way, prove that America had come of age in scholars. And I thought very hard at that time against having entries for catalogues written by scholars from other countries or from lending institutions, not that I won every one of them, but overall I won that I should get people who were involved in the object rather than the institution for authors. And then for “Byzantium: Faith and Power,” where actually Europe is ahead of American scholarship in looking at the late Byzantine, post-Byzantine period – or was at that time – we went in the other direction and drew on a much more international body of authors. I think Gudrun Bühl is an excellent head for the collection at Dumbarton Oaks, in part because she’s able to stand back from the pattern of Dumbarton Oaks and look at it from a perspective that comes out of, in part, the Bode Museum, which is so important in its collection because all the German scholars that were writing on Byzantine and early Christian art were looking at the Bode collection to define that for them. In a way, to me, if you look at collections, what you need to extend to is who’s using them. And that’s what, in a way, makes the Byzantine collection at Dumbarton Oaks important – is the variety of scholars who, whether they looked at any individual object by the hour or walked past them and to a degree defined themselves by them. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the collections here at the Met, but if you go to the Cloisters, everything’s big. Mr. Rockefeller bought a collection of a sculptor and it’s what that sculptor bought that drives that collection. Mr. Morgan, which is the core of our collection downtown, liked little things. So, if you take their big things and our little things, you’ve got some chance of knowing what people had in the Middle Ages. But one looks like nobody had any furniture and there are large stones, and we look like all they had was tchotchkas and no place to put a roof over them. It has nothing to do with the taste of the time; it’s the taste of the collector right around 1900, because they were both built up then. Now, Julie Jones is very interested in the pre-Columbian collection, for the fact that it’s, in her mind, accumulated largely in terms of aesthetics. And the Byzantine collection is increasingly interesting in the degree to which it ignored religion. The Blisses were not that interested in things that were Orthodoxy. Icons come in after them, and there’s a whole body of literature, of which I now have two shelves, of research on – beginning of the twentieth century – you begin to get the argument that modern art will be based on Byzantine art, that they both avoid looking at realism. And to a certain extent the Blisses fit into that – that you are looking at something or an aesthetic that doesn’t care about the religious meaning. And now we’re in a period where we’re going back to a focus on the religious meaning.
INT: They did have scholarly advisors, though, I think.
HE: Oh no, they had very, very good ones, and there was that one exhibition that was done in Athens, Georgia at the University of Georgia, on the Blisses’ collectors – no, and she broke off an engagement with Tyler –
INT: Royall Tyler.
HE: They had very, very good advisors, but they turned down works that they thought were too religious. There’s a lovely work in the V&A that they did not buy. They were not collecting orthodoxy. Then you can get into the argument—Rob Nelson enjoys it—whether they were collecting Royall Tyler’s taste or not. I think it’s actually and ultimately fairly irrelevant. They built up this collection and then supported the scholars. They could have just had this collection in their home and not brought in the scholars to research it. What puts their collection into a larger framework is all the Bliss scholars that came through – you now – if they had just seen it as Hillwood, the Marjorie Merriweather Post collection. Have you been to Hillwood? Have any of you been to Hillwood? Oh, you have to go to Hillwood. It’s in Washington, D.C., and you have to make an appointment ahead, but Marjorie Merriweather Post and her husband, Mr. Davis, bought a lot of things in Russia. Stalin was selling them, and Davis was the American ambassador to Russia. And so you have this house that makes Dumbarton Oaks look like a small, tiny little servants’ quarters, splaying across the hill, filled with things that are being studied more now, but if she had put the amount of money into paying for scholars to come out of Russia in those times of trouble and be around Hillwood and look at her pieces as the Blisses did to theirs, we would have a different understanding of Hillwood. It’s really the Blisses’ great gift that they understood the need to have things studied and to get them looked at from – what we may now go back and look at differently; but we go back and look at Syriac studies differently than 1900, when there’s several translations I like to quote. What else can I tell you that is any use?
INT: I wonder if you might comment on – one of the great contributions of your exhibits that you’ve done here at the Met was really to open up Byzantine art to just a tremendous amount of people, I think, who never thought about it. And just the amount of people who visited – it’s wonderful – the exhibits that you had. And Dumbarton Oaks still, despite the choices of its Byzantine art collection, doesn’t – there’s still a tremendous amount of people who don’t know about it. We don’t get the visitors, I don’t think.
HE: Keenan did not want visitors. Keenan told me he did not want visitors. I think that what the Met offers the opportunity to do – and it’s doing it right now with a show called “Pen and Parchment” – is to look at things from a new point of view. I study – I come from the periphery. I come out of Japan through Armenia to Constantinople. I think that the important thing about Byzantium to do in this generation was to knock down the idea that there was a unicum Byzantium that had only great art; it was only Constantinople. Everything else was bad to the margins. But in Europe every single town had a different style. If every town in Europe has a different style, then there are lots of different centers of wealth in the larger Byzantine sphere, and they need to be looked at with a certain amount of interest, at least in what they’re trying to say – so, how they receive Byzantium, how they turn it around, how they define themselves in relationship to it. And that’s what I tried to do in the Byzantine show and to show that this is an empire that for many, many centuries sets a standard for people, even if they don’t know what it looks like. They know it exists. So in “The Glory of Byzantium” we used a lot of quotations, because I also wanted people to know that they could read and write. And one of my favorite – the people coming to the Met don’t necessarily know that – in fact that’s why they don’t go to Dumbarton Oaks. My least amusing memory of “The Glory of Byzantium” was standing halfway through the show in a gallery of ivories, in which every single image had Christ – maybe a baby, maybe a dead man – every image had Christ – and listening to some man turn to his wife and say, “Who are these Byzantines—did they live before or after Christ?” I have no idea who he was. I thought, I’m just not going to be able to say politely: everything in this room has Christ on it. But that’s the audience. For all I know that man has a Nobel Prize. But he certainly was well dressed and sophisticated. I sought in the show at the lowest level to have – in both shows but certainly in the first one – to have people walk through the galleries and, if they read no label, to say, “I don’t know who those people were, where they were, but they certainly did interesting things. I should go back and read a label.” And then at the highest level to say, “I’ve always been interested in this issue, and she’s brought together the works that allow me to come to some conclusions.” So I wanted an Alice-Mary Talbot to gain what she could, but also to make people realize it’s really a great empire. In the second show a Russian scholar writing on an icon I borrowed – where I only borrowed it so that I could say that the style of the Palaiologan period continues on in Russia until past the end of the empire – her entry on it was that in the fifteenth century in Russia there’s a cult that believes that the world is going to end in the 1490s and it’s how they count the dates of the apocalypse. And months after the show was over I realized that they were right: the world ended at the date they said because it’s almost exactly the same year that the Portuguese break the eastern Mediterranean’s monopoly on the spice routes and that there will – it doesn’t matter who’s going to rule the eastern Mediterranean or Russia. No one will ever have a monopoly as they have had throughout all of history until that date. So, fire and brimstone didn’t occur, but a seismic shift in world power. And by the time we have academic institutions in the model that we think of, the eastern Mediterranean has already become relatively dead. Sinai—and I spent a lot of time studying it—looks like it’s at the other end of the earth. That’s our favorite opening sentence: Sinai at the other end of the earth. Well, Sinai’s actually right dead center on the most important trade route until the Portuguese find another route. It’s a balance that shifts, and we don’t even think about it because once we are doing academic scholarship, it’s already shifted so far we have trouble recreating it. So, I think what the shows here have done to a degree is to open it up again. And not everyone is happy with it. But I was quite appalled when I studied Byzantine history at Columbia with Nina Garcoian that I was the only person in the classes that was not from the Byzantine world, that every other student would say they were studying it because of their contact—through a grandparent or a great grandparent—with some aspect, whether it was Russia or Syria. And I think it’s – that Byzantium is too important to – what Suger thought at the abbey of St. Denis he built to compete with the church of Hagia Sophia. He didn’t build to compete with another church. He writes that he wants to know that his liturgical objects are as great as those the crusaders have seen. But my favorite quote before you end up is Harold the Bluetooth – do you know this wonderful –?, great fun – we borrowed for “The Glory of Byzantium” several objects from Scandinavia, and I wanted to show that the Varangian Guard were Scandinavians, that there was this northern route to Constantinople that we tend to forget, that exists by the ninth century, if not earlier. So first I go to Denmark to borrow, and the director of the Danish National Museum takes me into a special room, tells me it’s the office of the first director of the museum, and we have this long conversation in which I cannot figure out what’s happening, but I know I’m supposed to be incredibly appreciative that I’m there. And it turns out, which I don’t actually learn until the show opens, that in borrowing the Dagmar cross, which to me was a small, cloisonné enamel cross hanging in a case with several other things in the Danish National Museum, I had borrowed the liberty bell of Denmark, and that he has actually had to have a meeting of all of his staff to justify sending it to the show. It is Dagmar, who may or may not have ever owned it because it may have belonged to her sister-in-law or her mother-in-law, became a symbol of Danish nationalism from Germany in, like, the seventeenth century. She was buried next to her sister-in-law and mother-in-law in a church from which the tombs were removed and moved to a fancier burial church for the kings. And the women’s jewelry was commingled, so we don’t actually know which woman was wearing it. Her mother-in-law was from Kiev, and it led on one hand to a reappraisal of the cross from those who had wanted it to be from Thessaloniki, because it makes no sense for it to be from Thessaloniki. On the other hand, it made the Danes quite pleased to lend it. And I got this quote where Harold the Bluetooth, as he is raising money to go invade England, brings out all of his riches that he’s gotten from being a guard, a mercenary in the Varangian Guard, and shows it compared to the man who’s just been pillaging the British isles. And Harold has more loot. So Harold leads the next invasion of the British isles, which might have been a great success except that it’s the same year that William the Conqueror invades, so Harold ends up quite dead and Harold’s army ends up dead, but you have this saga in which Harold of the Blue – and therefore one expects dead – tooth is talking about having served in Constantinople, and I find that whole question of how you go north and what you go through quite fascinating.
INT: That story reminds me to ask about the different pieces and the story of getting things for exhibitions. In your experience for these exhibits or just in general, what is the accessibility of the D.O. collection, from the point of view of a curator at another institution? – for exhibitions and so forth?
HE: Well, I would preface it with saying that my borrowing was before Gudrun. Dumbarton Oaks liked to be exceptionally difficult, and it’s noteworthy for the degree to which it’s exceptionally difficult. I borrowed for both of my exhibitions the works that mattered to me from Dumbarton Oaks, and I found my relations with Sue Boyd and Stephen Zwirn to be, on one level, very comfortable and on another level – Sue Boyd, in particular, felt, I think quite accurately, that she was not respected – and one way to try to forge respect was to be difficult – loans – and so it was a circular pattern. Gudrun lent probably less than the Royal Academy would like to have borrowed, but since the Royal Academy asked me for four pieces, and I don’t think I sent five, because we opened our new galleries at the same time they opened. The problem for Dumbarton Oaks and its collection – the problem for me and my collection – is, if you’re getting ready to do a show, we are both fairly well published and so you pick up a book and you say, “Well, now, I’d like two thirds of their collection and that will solve all my loans.” And you just can’t borrow the entire Dumbarton Oaks collection and still have it seen at D.O. I think D.O.’s problem, which will be highly related to the attitude of the current director and Margaret Mullett and Gudrun, is – and maybe Georgetown’s neighbors – how much it wishes to do an aggressive outreach and try to get people to come. And historically it has not sought to do that. And under Keenan it actively sought not to do that.
INT: I know it’s been burned a little bit in the past with things getting stolen or lost. We hadn’t heard too many details about that, but we heard some talk of that. I don’t know if that’s a very old story or –
HE: Nobody kept records like we keep now. The first thing that happened to me when I came here was a very nice woman asked for the return of an object, I returned it to her, and she said, “That’s not what it looked like.” Mercifully, the woman took photographs herself of the piece when it had been installed in the gallery, so that we could point out to her that it, in fact, did look just like the piece when it was on display in the gallery. But our letter – first of all it was on nice lady stationery: thank you very much for the loan of your boxwood cross with the lapis lazuli pieces attached to it – which were blue glass. We sent a letter that was essentially, “You’re wearing purple, so it could have been a ball gown or a cotton smock.” We now – Dumbarton Oaks, I’m sure, now also – anything that comes in this building is photographed in every conceivable way. But it wasn’t what you used to do. And I don’t know how much documentation the Blisses kept of their purchases. They have to have done better than Mr. Walters, who burned all of his documentation, so there is no documentation for anything the Walters owned before the day Mr. Walters opened it in the museum. We’ve changed tremendously both how objects have to be kept in a building, how they have to be recorded. I don’t know what D.O. does but I assume they do something like what the Met does and our registrars office, once a year, comes into every department’s area and pulls a card out and says, “Show me that object,” and you’re supposed to be able to do it within five minutes, so that every work catalogued in this department, all 10,000, we’re supposed to know where they are at every section. And for the things that are mainstream, you normally do. It’s when they pull out something really weird that you’ve been hiding in a corner for forever, because you kind of don’t want it. So one time I watched the arms and armor people freaking out because they’d pulled out a card for a large wrought iron gate, and it took a great deal of trouble to figure out where over the years that gate had been moved over and over to get it out of the way. It was found. We had it, but it wasn’t in five minutes. So, I never know whether things are actually lost – that you used to be more comfortable, in Mrs. Bliss’ time I’m sure, with giving something, so you might have a record, but Mrs. Bliss might have given it to someone. Or maybe not. But the packing it up, moving it around – none of that is acceptable and hasn’t been acceptable for several decades by museum standards. But you went from being a large house, which people inhabited with objects in it, to being an institutional museum. And I suspect that the transition was awkward in the same way that it was awkward for people who expected to go ask Mrs. Bliss for money and suddenly had to fill out forms. Well I assume those same people had felt comfortable, as all the curators in the Hermitage used to feel comfortable, in taking the work they were studying to their office to study it. I’ve never seen anything in the Hermitage that was not on display that wasn’t sitting in somebody’s drawer, often for a long time, because they had to blow the dust off it to show it to me. Now that they’ve had this woman who was stealing things and then dropped dead on them before there was any chance to hide her thefts, they have all sorts of new rules. But, essentially they assumed that their curators were honorable people. I’m sure Dumbarton Oaks and the Met have always assumed that people are honorable. Now we have lots more security, and I do not bring things to my office to study them as I’m writing up purchase papers or considering where to put them, but Margaret would have. And the Museum would have thought it was reasonable for Margaret to have done it.
INT: Well, shall we wrap things up, maybe?
INT: Sure, I guess. Maybe, just generally, what do you see as the role that Dumbarton Oaks plays in Byzantine Studies, as someone from another institution, another city, and how do you see that role changing in the future?
HE: Well, I think that Dumbarton Oaks was for a very long time the only game in town and that that gave it the ability not to have to reconsider its role. And the Byzantine Studies Conference – I don’t know the whole warzones—but the Byzantine Studies Conference started as a war with Dumbarton Oaks, so if you have not interviewed somebody about that you should find somebody that knows its warzones. I came in after the Byzantine Studies Conference was so well established, I was stunned to discover there was actually a war. What’s happened now, which I think is for everybody’s good, is – you asked Angela about the program at Queens; Rob Nelson is building a strong program at Yale; Ioli’s program at Harvard, I think, is a little different because it’s tied to Dumbarton Oaks. We now have every year at least one, and in some years four, fellows that are doing Byzantine studies at the Met. Often they’re people that in another year do it at Dumbarton Oaks, so that it’s not like we do and you don’t take or vice versa, but there’s a greater diversity of places where you can go consider it. And I think that is making Dumbarton Oaks think about what it wants to be. Obviously there’s a greater pressure to have all three parts of Dumbarton Oaks more coequal, and for the Byzantinists, of course, that is not something that we ever recognized as appropriate. Now, for me and probably for you, we came in late enough that it doesn’t seem such a shock. But I assume when the will was read and it was recognized that they had left their money equally to all three parts, that that was a shock, that the generation who were there for the reading of the will had expected two thirds to Byzantine studies and to divide the rest to the other two. Pre-Columbian studies have been doing some incredibly impressive things, so it’s – I think back then there was a huge shock when garden studies went from formal garden design to social history. So, all those things, I think, move the institution forward and that one part of the institution will continue to do the very necessary translations that – it’s easy to fail to appreciate the amount that Angela’s text lets you look up aspects, for an art historian or for any other type of scholar, that were utterly inaccessible before and that all of those need to be made accessible and Alice-Mary is doing more translations in retirement. I don’t know whether Dumbarton Oaks will ever want to be extremely accessible. Keenan believed that his neighbors in Georgetown who were mad at D.O. for many reasons did not want lots of children coming through D.O. And it was in fact the pre-Columbianists that – who I talked to – that were the most upset, because there is no other good collection of that material in Washington as an alternative. I am hoping that the exhibitions we have done here not only have paid off in more Byzantine exhibitions—certainly Norman Rosenthal at the Royal Academy told me he did Robin Cormack’s show because we got such good attendance here – but that it will also make people look at the larger geographical sphere that you can include within the – sphere of influence isn’t quite right – but you can easily go from Slavic studies and Russia and the Balkans to Ethiopia and look at that material, I think, with a new interest. And Syriac studies, I think, is an important aspect of that. If Syria could just get off the terrorist list, my show would be so much happier. I have plans for an exhibition, and I clearly now am going to have to get real and drop the Syrian pieces and go for photographs. So, if you can get the U.S. government to drop Syria from the terrorist list, that would be my favorite choice at the moment. Syria’s willing to lend; it’s the U.S. government’s rule that is the problem. The other thing that I – either just because anybody who’s really angry doesn’t talk to me or because it’s actually changed – is there seems to be a greater willingness, except among some Greeks, to think of the Byzantine sphere in a broader circle. Now there are a certain number of Greeks that don’t speak to me so I do know about them, because they tell me so. But I think Dumbarton Oaks had a Coptic symposium a few years ago, which was a first for them. I think that none of this is brand new, but I think we’re moving toward a more elastic definition. And Constable may very well have been the beginning of that. He was the director who didn’t come from the inner circle.
INT: Well thank you very much –
HE: Thank you.
INT: – for your time.