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Anne L. Helmreich

Oral History Phone Interview with Anne L. Helmreich, undertaken by telephone by Veronica Koven-Matasy on August 30, 2010. At Dumbarton Oaks, Anne Helmreich was a Junior Fellow (1992–1993) and a Summer Fellow (1999) in the Garden and Landscape Studies Program.

VKM: Hello, my name is Veronica Koven-Matasy. It is August 30th, 2010, and I’m at the Main House at Dumbarton Oaks to conduct a phone interview with Professor Anne Helmreich about her time at Dumbarton Oaks. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.

AH: Oh, you’re welcome.

VKM: So, according to our records you first had a junior fellowship in Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in 1992; is that correct?

AH: Right, I think the fall semester of that academic year.

VKM: How did you first come to be involved with Dumbarton Oaks?

AH: I had had a fellowship, a one-month fellowship at the Huntington, and at that time Amy Meyers, who is now the Director of the Yale Center for British Art – at that time Amy was the curator of American art at the Huntington. And Amy, as you might be aware, is an important scholar of natural history and has done many projects relating to garden history. And Amy had brought Dumbarton Oaks to my attention and thought that it would be a great institution, knowing that, actually, I was about to move to D.C. – it would be a great institution to be affiliated with, and it would be a wonderful opportunity to apply and also to use the library and go to lectures and things like that.

VKM: OK. What were your initial impressions of the institution?

AH: Oh that’s a wonderful question. It’s certainly impressive with the gardens and with the whole building. It seems very – more European than American, and the Museum and the collections and the special Garden Library. It all seemed sort of otherworldly.

VKM: Can you describe what your typical day was like as a Fellow?

AH: I would say most of it would be spent reading, and taking notes, and writing and discussing, and there was probably a fair amount of coffee in there as well.

VKM: Who would you be discussing with?

AH: Well in both cases. I ended up spending a lot of time talking with my other colleagues or Fellows at the same time. In that fall, Tim Davis and I shared an office and then Grey Gundacker was next door. I think – particularly Tim and I were both writing our dissertations, so I think there’s certain camaraderie around being in the same place. I think, we’re also – all three of us – were very much interested in thinking about landscape as a place in which cultural, social, economic, political issues are articulated and thought over and contested. A lot of it was really, you know, kind of bouncing ideas off each other about methodology, but also about specific summer individual projects and how to frame it, and the evidence we had at hand, so a lot of those kind of discussions.

VKM: Aside from being on the same floor and offices, was there any attempt made to encourage socialization among the Fellows?

AH: Sure. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn was the Director then, and, you know, I think I remember him inviting us to have a drink in the garden. Also, you know, because you all had lunch together, when we first started, he would come over and say, “Let’s go have lunch now.” I think he very much – not in a heavy handed way, but in a kind of behind the scenes way more – encouraged us to do that.

VKM: Did any of the other Fellows have impromptu get-togethers?

AH: Oh yeah. We also, at that time – we all had apartments up at the top of the hill there. I can’t remember the name of the building. And so actually what would often happen is that we would leave at the same time – and there were a lot of restaurants outstretched there – and we would get something to eat on the way home. We’d be a little more expansive. I remember doing a lot of things with people in Pre-Columbian Studies, you know, we went out to eat. In Byzantine, now that I think about it, there was sort of a group of us that were working on our dissertations, and so I also remember one night going some place and they were teaching – what kind of dancing was it? Anyway some form of, not line dancing, something kind of corny. Was it tango? – doing those sorts of things too. I don’t know how – I think through lunches and just getting to know each other at the center then we just – you know Dumbarton Oaks – then we just started spending more time together. I used to go running with somebody from Pre-Columbian Studies to Rock Creek Park. So you just find people with similar interests.

VKM: OK. You mentioned that you were sharing an office with another scholar. Were there any other scholars or other Fellows that you worked closely with or developed relationships?

AH: As I mentioned, the one in Pre-Columbian Studies, Mary Pye, I used to spend a lot of time with. And I think pre-Columbian studies is a similar – a lot of those people were dealing with similar issues about land and how a history of the land can tell you something about the culture, so I think there are some natural affinities there.

VKM: Did you ever work with any of the Senior Fellows or the Director Studies in Garden and Landscape?

AH: I don’t remember who – oh yeah, the Director Joachim. In fact, I contributed an essay to the volume he edited on the wild garden, or the natural garden – I wrote on the wild garden. So yes, I definitely worked closely with him. And, I’m trying to remember who was the Senior Fellow that fall. I don’t know why I’m blanking on that, but I guess it means I didn’t work with them. I know Erik de Jong came the next semester in the spring when I wasn’t a Fellow but I was still in D.C. and still using the library a lot. And I definitely would have interactions with him.

VKM: OK.

AH: Or maybe he was there in the fall too, and I’m just mis-remembering that he was only in the spring. You know, I mixed – I probably would have to see. But I do remember a lot of discussions with Erik de Young too. And then there were people who’d been Fellows the year before like Craig Clunas and Ned Harwood. Ned Harwood in particular would be back quite a bit so I would have conversations with him.

VKM: OK. So again, you mentioned a little earlier that you used to hang out with the Pre-Columbian people. Can you tell more about any social or professional interactions with the other departments of Dumbarton Oaks?

AH: Yes. So, I think I mentioned two sort of people that were doing their dissertations in Byzantine. I think there was sort of a natural gathering around what stage your academic career was in.

VKM: OK. Can you tell me a little about any of the people that you –

AH: So, the person that I remember the most – Dirk, I can’t remember his last name –

VKM: Don’t worry.

AH: And then there was actually someone who was, I don’t remember exactly what her position was, she was like the curator of the Byzantine Collection and she had background and training in material culture. And, I spent a lot of time with her. And, actually the person that was head of the gardens at the time, I hung out with him as well because he knew plant history and plant culture.

VKM: Did you get the impression that the Director of Dumbarton Oaks or the Director of Garden and Landscape Studies was encouraging the fellows to interact with other departments?

AH: Oh, I think before you asked about the Director of Dumbarton Oaks, I was thinking more about the Director of Landscape Studies. Angeliki was the Director when I was there. And yeah, you heard a lot about how important interdisciplinarity was. I don’t know – I’m not sure how much I would say that the institution encouraged it, whether how much was more intellectual interests and personality. Does that make sense?

VKM: Yes, yes.

AH: But you definitely had those colloquiums where you would hear each other present. I think that was an important way to foster connections because once you know something more about someone’s research it’s always easier to have a conversation with them.

VKM: So you did attend the colloquium and symposia for the other programs?

AH: Oh yeah. Do they not do that now? We all went to each others!

VKM: I think they do now, maybe earlier they didn’t.

AH: No, we all went to each other’s.

VKM: Do you remember any in particular?

AH: Not really.

VKM: More a moral support thing?

AH: Yeah.

VKM: Do you remember any symposia for Garden and Landscape Studies?

AH: So, obviously the Natural Garden one because I gave a paper in that one. And, I know I attended more than one and I remember meeting people. I think what was nice is that I also met a lot of people involved with the AIA, American Institute of Architecture, who’d come to those. I couldn’t tell what the other topics were though, to tell you the truth. That was a long time ago!

VKM: Do you know of any important collaborations with other institutions in Garden and Landscape Studies?

AH: I though they did things occasionally with the National Gallery, with CASVA.

VKM: Did you ever go to any of those?

AH: Yeah, I’m sure I did. In fact I know they did one on Nazism and Landscape Design, I remember distinctly going to that one.

VKM: I think I read about that one. This is probably more something that the board would be able to answer. Did you get the impression that they wanted to do more collaborative projects?

AH: I think there was some reach-out to the Smithsonian. I couldn’t tell you whether there was more or less. When you are working at an institution as a Fellow, you sort of – whatever they do, it’s sort of natural. You don’t think, “Oh, could they do more or less?” I couldn’t say whether I have a distinct impression about that.

VKM: When you first came to Dumbarton Oaks the director was Angeliki Laiou, right?

AH: Right.

VKM: Did you ever have much contact with her?

AH: Very little.

VKM: Did you ever work with Ned Keenan?

AH: No.

VKM: OK. So when you were here, did you use the garden library or –?

AH: Yes. No, the garden one was 99%, and every once in a while there would be something over at Pre-Columbian.

VKM: What was the experience like then, because you know they have a new library now.

AH: Well, it was a little funny I thought because we were downstairs, you know, in the basement and you had to go through that weird hallway to get over to the Pre-Columbian side. So, it felt a bit like a rabbit warren down there. We used to joke about – Now this is going to sound mean so don’t quote this!  But we used to joke, how come the Byzantine people get the windows and they only care about the past, whereas the garden and Pre-Columbian people that care about landscape were buried in the basement! But I’m sure everyone had their own particular point of view.

VKM: Yeah, that point of view about the Byzantinists was not uncommon. Have you been back since they built the new library?

AH: No.

VKM: It’s very pretty.

AH: Oh, I look forward to seeing it!

VKM: During your first fellowship, I can’t pronounce his name Joachim—

AH: Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn?

VKM: Yeah – was Director of Studies in Garden and Landscape, and then it was Michel Conan.

AH: Yes, yes.

VKM: Could you talk about how they were as directors?

AH: I think they both had different personalities. I think that was part of it. But, I mean, both, I think, really tried to make Landscape Studies into a truly intellectual endeavor; that they both shared. And I think they wanted to encourage and would help push – for want of a better word – people to really produce their best. But they had very different intellectual trainings. Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn was a little bit more of a social history, social-political history and Michel Conan, a little bit more of a linguistic, French theoretical background. And, probably my inclination was more towards the methodologies that Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn worked on. But it also might have been that they had shared topics in common. So I enjoyed them both, but they were different as well.

VKM: OK. So at some points in the past there has been some tension between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks over the control of various issues – financial ones. Did you ever get a sense of the prevailing feeling towards Harvard at Dumbarton Oaks while you were there?

AH: I wouldn’t say I had a sense of the prevailing feeling. But at the same time I completely understand what you mean about the tensions. I think there was a sense that decisions were made from far away without understanding what was really happening on the ground, if that makes sense.

VKM: Yeah. In some of the other interviews people have discussed the division in Garden and Landscape Studies between academics and professionals as a problem in the fields and especially at Dumbarton Oaks. Do you have any thoughts on how Dumbarton Oaks has addressed that divide?

AH: Between? Can you just – let me listen to your question again? Between?

VKM: Academic, people who research Garden and Landscape Studies and those that practice –

AH: What you would call like a practitioner?

VKM: Yeah.

AH: You know, I’m not sure. I think Dumbarton Oaks has done a good job of doing that for some of the topics they’ve picked. And I’m sure at times one constituent has felt slighted over another, and I’m not sure there’s a perfect balance for that. I think for me, maybe I’m less troubled by that than some people because I’m an art historian, and I have a lot of professional conferences that are studio and art history combined, and so that tension between those who make and those who study is prevalent all the time in those conferences. I guess in some ways I’m sort of used to it. And so if I hear people complain about it, I actually don’t pay attention to it because I hear it often enough that I just think, well, that, you know, that’s the nature of the beast.

VKM: Do you think there are any other systemic issues you know in Garden and Landscape Studies?

AH: I think this is something that Dumbarton Oaks can’t do much about but I think their- [connection is cut off]

What did you last catch me say?

VKM: I mean it hadn’t actually gotten to –

AH: Oh OK, so we got cut off before – I was just saying I think that one of the issues – but I’m not sure that Dumbarton Oaks can do much about it – is the job market. There are not a whole lot of positions for landscape historians as opposed to practitioners. On the other hand, I don’t feel that it’s Dumbarton Oaks responsibility to deal with that issue.

VKM: That’s true.

AH: But it is a systemic issue for the field if that’s what you are pointing to.

VKM: Do you think there’s been any major changes in Garden and Landscapes Studies at Dumbarton Oaks either between your stays or since then?

AH: Yeah, I think there’s been general changes overall. I think, I mean, there were certain points in which archeology was more of an emphasis than some other points. I think theoretical approaches were more important than at some other points. I mean, you could map ebbs and flows with that. But, I think overall what’s been very exciting to see is the way in which Dumbarton Oaks has helped to ensure that landscape history is on par with other academic fields.

VKM: Have you followed at all the – there are some trends that have kind of popped up, moving towards globalization –

AH: Yeah, I mean, I run our humanity center and that’s our theme for this year, so yeah. That’s what I mean about keeping pace with it. I mean, on the other hand there are some topics that – I don’t attend the symposium as much as I used to – there was for a while topics – I didn’t understand what the topics were, or I wasn’t interested in them.

VKM: Because they were getting further away from art history?

AH: Yeah, I wasn’t sure what I would leave with at the end of the day. If I would see five examples that illustrate the same topic, well you’ve proven that that topic is important to me, but I haven’t learned anything. Whereas, if you take an issue and plumb that issue, then I can leave at the end of the day with a more sophisticated understanding of an issue.

VKM: Do you remember any symposia topics or issues that are sort of illustrative of that?

AH: I don’t know, I think there was – it’s hard to say. Was there one on motion or something like that in the garden?  I mean that was—

VKM: I did wonder what exactly they were doing with that one. What do you imagine the place of Dumbarton Oaks in the larger context of the Garden and Landscape field?

AH: I think because it offers the fellowship program, it’s very well recognized for that. And because of the symposia and things along those lines, I think it’s established a pretty important profile. You know, it’s not the only place doing it. In some ways maybe it could connect more with other academic programs outside of Harvard. But I think that’s not an easy thing to negotiate.

VKM: I guess – do you think that Dumbarton Oaks has been as important as you think it should be or more important than you think it should be or –?

AH: I think with any institution you always wish it could do more. I think with the resources it has – you know, it doesn’t have a huge staff in Garden History, and I think for the amount of staffing it has I think it’s done a pretty good job. So the question – I think the Directors in that area could be more prominent in other – I think it’s very tempting you get very comfortable at Dumbarton Oaks. Should they be going to other conferences and being more visible? I don’t know. But, I’m also in art history so, you know, just because I don’t see them at those conferences – those probably wouldn’t interest them.

VKM: OK. This is sort of a random question, but while you were here, did you go out to the gardens very much?

AH: Oh yeah, almost every day after lunch we would go. And then when I was there in the summer, of course we went swimming.

VKM: Yeah – the pool – everyone talks about that. Have you continued to interact with Dumbarton Oaks after?

AH: No, I mean, what I’m working on now doesn’t have anything to do with it.

VKM: Fair enough. Do you have any memories, either positive or negative, that stick out about Dumbarton Oaks?

AH: Oh, I have very positive memories. I think the garden was positive. I think having interactions with my colleagues was extremely positive, and then just the absolute quality of the library. I could have not done my dissertation without that library. In that’s sense, it’s just constantly finding things that were useful and helpful. And the networking opportunities – since so many people would come through there to use the library or come to conferences. So I think those would be my top things that I remember.

VKM: OK. Is there is anything that I’ve left out that you’d like to add.

AH: Not really. I had looked through – but you’ve sort of touched on things that I was remembering.

VKM: OK. Well thank you very much for taking the time to speak.

AH: Oh, you are more than welcome. You are more than welcome. Good luck with your project!

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