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Christine Blazina

Interview with Christine Blazina, undertaken by Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent, Elizabeth Gettinger, and Anne Steptoe in the Docents Office at Dumbarton Oaks on July 16, 2009. At Dumbarton Oaks, Chris Blazina has been Docent Coordinator since 1998.

AS: I'm Anne Steptoe,

EG: I'm Elizabeth Gettinger,

JNSL: and I'm Jeanne–Nicole Saint–Laurent.

AS: Today is the 16th of July 2009 and we're here in the docent's office at Dumbarton Oaks to talk with Chris Blazina about her role at Dumbarton Oaks over the years. And we're correct in that you came to Dumbarton Oaks as just a coordinator in 1998 – correct?

CB: Yes.

AS: And were you involved at Dumbarton Oaks before that?

CB: No, but would you enjoy hearing why I took the job?

AS: I would love to.

CB: Okay. I was the historic site administrator of a historic house, and I went through a program at Georgetown, at George Washington University, where I got my Masters in museum education. One of the instructors had come here to evaluate the docent program, and so what she did was, she called me and asked me if I was interested in the job, and I was getting tired of driving the long distance I was, and I wanted to work part–time, so I said fine, and then I came here and I was interviewed and received the job.

JNSL: Was that with Angeliki Laiou?

CB: Yes. But at the time Angeliki had an assistant, whose name was Gay Mackintosh and who was the assistant director, and she was the one that interviewed me, as did – there was a gentleman who was in Pre–Columbian department at the time and he interviewed me, also – Jeff Quilter – I don't know if you've heard his name – and one of the docents, so all three of them interviewed me at different times. That's how I came.

AS: What were your initial impressions of Dumbarton Oaks?

CB: Well, the reason why I was supposedly selected to do what I was to do was because the docent program had gone through a bad point, and they had fired the previous docent coordinator and needed to replace her, and they wanted to look at what the program was, and supposedly at that point I was hired to shore it up, but things changed a bit, because the director at that time, whose name was – actually Angeliki left just as I came, and Ned Keenan was then the director. He was building so he didn't want a lot of people coming here, so instead of what I was hired for I got a completely different job description, which was okay. So, what was my impression? Well, in what manner?

AS: Well, a lot of people talked to us about not realizing that Dumbarton Oaks even existed before coming in –

CB: No, I knew it existed.

AS: – about being very impressed by this funny sort of almost European scholarly center.

CB: I knew it existed because I'd been here a few times before, actually the Pre–Columbian Collection, and the docent that interviewed me happened to be in the Pre–Columbian Collection at the time that I visited the last time, so I was fairly aware of it. I have almost a Masters – except I didn't write my thesis – in classics, so I knew of Dumbarton Oaks, so it really didn't throw me one way or the other. It was just a place to work that looked interesting. It has a wonderful collection of objects, and since I worked in a historic house I was well aware of the history of this particular site, so that wasn't a deciding factor.

AS: The docent program when you came was only about fifteen years old, is that right?

CB: It started in '81, so that would have been seventeen years old. There's only been – the first docent class was in '81, and that was started basically by Gary Vikan, and then the next class was in – just as we closed to complete the courtyard, and all of those people were gone. People don't even remember who was in that class, but from the first class there were four people left. And then the third class started in '91, and then in '99 I interviewed and had another class, and then we just finished the last class, so there's only been like four classes.

AS: And only two docent coordinators, right?

CB: Correct.

EG: How many people are in each class?

CB: Well, the first three were – I don't know about the one that came before. I have no idea how many were in that class, but in the first, the third and the fourth class – I guess there's five classes – there were fifteen in each class; this one there were only seven because we didn't really need to replace – I mean basically what it is, is replacement. So, in fact we still have one person left from the '81 class, and she periodically gives tours, mainly of the Byzantine; that's her interest. Since that point there's another woman, who I guess was interviewed by the last people…

AS: Inge?

CB: Inge periodically I see at Pre–Columbian symposia, and she appears here. She no longer gives tours; she worked for Natalia for a while – Teteriatnikov?

AS: In the photo –

CB: Yes, but she doesn't do that anymore, either. It seems like everybody else has died. One just recently died and gave Harvard a hundred thousand dollars!

JNSL: What are some of your favorite, or the most exciting aspects of your work that you've done here, or that you get to do here?

CB: Well, it's teaching, so therefore I guess working with the docents and having them give the tours, basically. That's probably the most satisfying thing.

AS: I know it's sort of an obvious question, but just for the institutional history record, would you mind giving us a quick overview of the docent coordinator position, the responsibilities?

CB: The responsibilities? To train and coordinate the docents who are a part of the program. What I also do is I set up the tours and work with the individuals who come and send them materials, talk with them to find out exactly why they're coming here, because that's important to the docents to know. I basically do the administrative work as well as the training part and the coordination. I keep records so we have some information about what's gone on in the past, so that we can project it to the future, and plan tours, and with training – what the docents did. They had classes twice a week, and the curators and the heads of study spoke with them about the collections, and also the history of the different disciplines, and I worked with them on how to give a tour, and this went on for quite a while, and then what they had to do – they each had to do extensive outlines on each discipline, basically. So, that they had to write an outline on the objects and the history of the Byzantine empire, the history and objects that would be used to give a tour of the Pre–Columbian – things like this they come out with. So, that basically what they're doing is giving themselves a class, and then what I do is go through the material and see what's wrong and what needs to be changed and what is not correct, and then give it back and they rewrite it. They're fairly trained by this point, and then what we do after that is monthly. I arrange for a meeting – they just finished – the Byzantine curators and the people who are in the Byzantine department just talked about the Radiance exhibit upstairs, so that they could give the tour. So, we now give tours at three o'clock of Radiance, and as you saw, Charlotte just came in from the tour of the garden at two o'clock. So, that's the other thing: they have to learn about the garden, too, and about the history of Dumbarton Oaks, that's another facet. They're busy. And it's amazing, because they're very committed people; they haven't left! The only way they leave is if they die. And that's happened quite a bit!

AS: How are docents selected?

CB: I sent to various newspapers and to the retired Foreign Service people. Mainly because I have about four or five that have been stationed various places, like Turkey, where we have a number of our pieces. So, they're well aware of the geography and background before they actually come. They all have different interests. I have one person who's a landscape designer, so obviously her interest is in the garden, but they have to give tours of everything. So, they have to learn everything. So, they're selected basically by me, and it's my choice, basically; I see whether or not they're congenial. If they've taught before that's important, because that's a major thing they do; that's their whole function, is to teach. But if they've had some experience and know something about a topic, this is helpful. What they do is they send me a letter first, then they send me a resume, then I decide whether or not I'm going to interview them. And then once I decide that I'm going to interview them, then I have them come in and we talk and explain what they're – does that explain?

AS: Yes.

CB: And in fact, at the moment we're interviewing – well, I haven't really gone out actively – for information volunteers. There'll be someone who's going to be up in the lobby between two and five, and we have two people out of the four. So, what it amounts to, I'm just finishing the manual for them. Because that's the other thing I do; I write manuals, because they have to have something to refer to, and that's why that drawer was opened; I was collecting stuff from various museums so that they could have it up at their desk to give out to people as a suggestion. And why Nancy came down was because I had just written something that I asked her to critique, because she was head of visitor's information at the Smithsonian for many years, before she came here.

JNSL: What is your busiest time usually for visitors for the museum?

CB: Generally the same time that the garden is busy, because it's like March through June, then it picks up again September through November, and that's a problem in itself because that means that January, February, July and November, December there's virtually few visitors coming here. And you must have walked through the museum to come down here and I don't know how many people are up there, but generally at this point it gets hot, people don't come, which is unfortunate. And then the other thing is, because schools are open from September, and we try to – by definition we give only tours to school groups from fifth grade up, and they have to be actively studying the discipline. So, generally fifth grade they're studying Native Americans, so we have a lot of Pre–Columbian groups come that are beginning to discover, the explorers, then sixth and seventh grade it's usually classics or antiquity, and then into high school, it works that way. And we get a lot of junior college or college students. We get a lot of people from Georgetown. We were getting people from the Corcoran, mainly because Kristin Gonzalez, who's upstairs, was teaching at the Corcoran, so she told the people there. But the problem is, they want to come when they're teaching the class, because the students can only use that as the time. The problem is that if the class is on a Friday, we don't give tours on Friday; if it's late in the afternoon, we don't give tours after two o'clock. It kind of limits who we can actually accommodate. 

AS: Who would you say, I guess, is the typical visitor? Do you get more school-group age individuals or older people?

CB: I don't think that really we have a typical visitor, I really don't. There's a lot of elderly people who come here, who are interested in the objects that we have. A lot of people who come for the garden. A lot of garden clubs, no question about it, and they're just generally older women for the most part. We get a lot of students who come here who are studying Pre-Columbian cultures or Byzantine or Greek and Roman. So, I don't think there is a typical visitor. I just wrote an evaluation sheet for people to give out. So, far we've only got five of them back, but I can tell you once we get some more back who is the typical visitor from there, because in the demographics I have listed age group, sex, interest, and geographical location, because we do get a lot of people from other countries.

JNSL: That's what I was about to ask you. That's been an impression that I had this year as a Fellow, that there were a lot of folks –

CB: There are. Don't ask me how they hear about it; that's one of the things –

JNSL: It's in their guidebooks! I was stopped by a man on the street just the other day; I think he was from Japan. It's well-represented in the international guidebooks.

CB: We're in the Michelin, so that may be part of it, because a lot of people from other countries use the Michelin. When I do look for docents I look for ability to speak another language, so we do have a little variety there, and in fact we have a Japanese docent, and the reason why I was interested in her is because there are a lot of Japanese people who come here for our garden. Gardening's big in Japan.

EG: Have you led any particularly memorable guests or tour groups that have come through?

CB: Oh sure, we've had lots of different people come through here. We've had Mrs. Bush, who took a tour of the garden because she belongs to a garden club in Dallas; there's just a real variety of people who come here – a lot of ambassadors, people from the state department, a lot of people from the Capitol – Representatives. What ends up is a lot of times their spouses come, and they want to take friends of theirs around, so we try to accommodate them, but sometimes it's not possible.

AS: Do you get a lot of requests for unique tour-groups or seminars or more extended relationships with outside groups?

CB: We get some really strange ones, like the gas company. What'll happen is, my husband's profession often means that we go on trips somewhere, so for example we went to an international gathering in Istanbul that was there for ten days, and what they usually do for the spouses is they will provide tours, and there'll be tours before and tours after the meetings, so we went with a group of people, about eight people, to Cappadocia, which was very nice, because it was a small group. And this is typical, this is exactly what happens here. Maybe the gas company has spouses. But we do get a lot of garden clubs, big-time garden clubs.

EG: I guess we've talked about this a little bit already, but I was wondering if you could talk a little about the history of the program. We talked about Gary Vikan and Cynthia Pinkston, who were here before you, if you know anything about their mission for the program or what it was like then.

CB: Well, I don't know. Gary is the Director of the Walters Art Gallery up in Baltimore, and about a couple of years ago I took the docents up there, because when we were closed a lot of our objects were in various places. And one of the places they were was up in Baltimore, so we wanted to go see how St Peter looked on the wall there. And he looked wonderful! So, Gary kindly gave us the tour, mainly because he was so interested in that. I think basically he set up the program because there were so many people who were interested in taking tours of Dumbarton Oaks, and that's really it, and then Cynthia came along; she worked with him on setting up the program, and then it was my turn. So, I don't know what else historically I could tell you.

AS: Was the program modeled on any other program, or have you used any particular models since you've been here?

CB: I used my own knowledge of what a program should be, since I've worked in museums since – well, I was a docent, actually, before I went back to get a Masters in museum education. And that's the other thing I've done; I've mentored interns, because we have a number of interns that have come from that same program that I have, through George Washington. So, therefore, I guess, I used what was my – I patterned is what I did, which makes sense.

EG: Do you have much interaction between the docent program and the studies programs, Byzantine, Pre-Columbian?

CB: They've been very, very helpful, actually. Like when John Beardsley put together the Charles Simmons exhibit, he very kindly gave two walkthroughs for the docents, which was nice, because the docents that couldn't come at one time came at another. And it was true with Alice-Mary when she was here, so we look forward to what will happen with the new person. As far as Pre-Columbian, Joanne's been really superb; she's been very helpful. I put together a list of suggested bibliography and she went through and she took out and added and did a lot in those terms, so I ended up with this gigantic amount! But that was fine, too. So, they've been very helpful.

AS: The docents are all volunteers, correct, and that's always been the case?

CB: Yes. And the information volunteers will be volunteers, too.

AS: And the docents are here four days a week? It must be more than that now.

CB: Well, they each volunteer for a day. So, if they don't give a tour in the morning they generally come – it depends upon the group, because they're each divided up into four days. And then on Sundays and Fridays what I had been doing is asking them if they would volunteer to come in the afternoon on their own, so it was a completely different volunteer situation. I'm going to have to rethink that. But they have one day that's set aside, and then one day a month that they have their meeting, which generally means a speaker, or we go on a trip. It has to be something that has to deal with what they are studying or how to augment their own tours, basically. So, we went to the Pompeii exhibit, and that was wonderful, because the fellow who gave us the tour did a fantastic job. I'm trying to decide where to take them in November, and I was thinking maybe to Mount Vernon, because they have an archaeological lab there, which I saw years ago, when I was working for a history organization, and I think that would be good, because I don't think many of them have seen what an archaeologist really does. So, that'll probably be November. So, there's usually one thing a month that they do extra. But then there's been a number of times they've had to come in for lectures, and then they also come to the Fellows' lectures. It depends upon what their interests are, as to whether they're interested in that particular topic, but they come for that and they always come in for the symposia.

JNSL: Have you ever had young people, like college, as docents?

CB: No. I have some that are in their 50s who aren't retired. I've had requests from people, but the problem was, I've had about six people actually contact me about volunteering, but then they're so specialized, and in order for them to actually be a docent they have to go through the training, and it's not possible. So, I was thinking about the information volunteer, and two guys from Hopkins had contacted me, but we're not starting that till September and one of the fellows said, I don't know what my schedule is going to be like, and the same thing happened with some people that contacted me from George Washington. And they're not stable; too, I hate to say it. You've got classes; being a volunteer isn't most important. No, I have not used anyone who's young. But I'd like to, actually, because I think it brings a certain point of view that would be very nice to have. And especially as an information volunteer, they wouldn't have to go through a complete program. They could be helpful. Anything else?

EG: You mentioned earlier when you first came here they were doing some building projects, so they didn't want as many visitors, maybe. Have you noticed changes in either admissions policy or just the attitude towards the public here at Dumbarton Oaks?

CB: No, I think everybody was happy to have them back! What we did was, they closed this building and moved everybody out, and we were moved down to the Fellows Building. In the meantime what they did was they built the library and then as the library finished, they started – well, at first they did the gardeners’ cottage, then the library, then this, so then we moved back in here but it was a series of – we stayed open; the docents continued to give tours of the garden, and that was what they were doing. And they kept reading. And what I did with them is, to keep them up to snuff each day-group had to pick out a book that they each read, and then they talked about that book. They read Procopius. And this was a good way to handle letting them keep thinking about what they would have to come back to, to do. I don't know.

JNSL: Does it seem like there are more visitors now with the new, or has it been consistently the same? Or do you think the renovations and things have brought more people?

CB: I don't know. They've been keeping track of visitors. Before we closed, Don Pumphrey, who was then the security person, he would send out a monthly accounting for how many people came. And I think there's more people coming, but I don't know in relation to the past, and since they haven't sent out an accounting – What I have the docents do is I have them tell me how many – you saw Charlotte writing in a book; there's a book over there that I collect the data and I have them tell me how many people they help. How many people take the Radiance tour, how many people take the garden tour, how many people they talk to in the collections, aside from how many people are on the tours that they give. So, I'll have to see.

JNSL: That might be interesting to see.

CB: I wanted to know how many people they were giving the Radiance tour to, the special exhibit’s tour. The Birds is coming; I think that'll attract more people too. I think that Radiance tour is fantastic. I've enjoyed it.

AS: While we're talking about admissions and things like that, you sit in an interesting perspective, I think, because you think an awful lot, I guess, about the relationship between Dumbarton Oaks, which is primarily a research center and so in that way sort of naturally inward looking, and the public, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you thought the current and past perspective and perception of Dumbarton Oaks was in the Washington D.C. community, and even the national community to the extent that you interact with that.

CB: You brought up earlier a point when you were talking about a visitor saying “I didn't even know it was here,” that type of thing, and I think that's what a lot of people don't know. Let's face it, Byzantine and Pre-Columbian aren't exactly big draws. Well, I'm thinking in terms of French Impressionists, and, if you noticed, when they had the French Impressionist paintings up there, we pulled all kinds of people in. So, that's another problem. That's kind of sad, actually. Because when you think about art history courses, what they do is basically they drop out. They don't really include Byzantium; it's like a two page thing in an introductory art history course, and as far as Pre-Columbian, it's in non-Western art.

JNSL: It's an interesting point, because as other people have mentioned, one of the great things about Dumbarton Oaks is you can study these very specific things. You've touched upon the one of the unique – I guess it's one of the best parts of Dumbarton Oaks, but then it also creates an extra challenge in terms of drawing people, because it is this place that is so specific. That's great for the Fellows and that's great for the researchers, because there aren't any other centers like this for Byzantine studies or for Pre-Columbian or for Garden and Landscape, but that doesn't necessarily have mainstream appeal then to the public, but it's a fabulous collection, so how do you bridge that gap so that people can – just get the people up here so they see how great it is.

CB: We've been starting to advertise in various places, so hopefully that'll help. But really what our purpose is, it's three things, really; the research facility of this is most important, so you really can't have a lot of people wandering through here. I have to laugh, because I know people at Tudor Place, which is down the hill, or at Dumbarton House, or at some of the other places, and they're out actively trying to recruit people; they're sending stuff to schools and things like this. Well, there's got to be a line for us, because of the fact that we don't want to be overrun, because our purpose is – but we do want to educate people about these disciplines, because otherwise you won't have anybody going into them. Or just in general, it's a real dilemma, actually, where you sit. Jan is certainly much more open to the public and Gudrun certainly is fantastic in that manner, she's open to the public too, but our previous director didn't want anybody here, and there was a reason. He was building and the community was really not happy with that. It's kind of a yin-yang. I don't know if anybody has ever seen any of the other programs that Harvard has. There is the Hellenic Center behind us. But I Tatti is the Renaissance center, that's over in Florence, in Settignano. And if you go there, it has tours on Tuesday.

JNSL: It's very hard to find.

CB: Yes. I've actually gone there and taken the tour. And it's funny because there's only one docent, and she comes every Tuesday for one tour. And the fellows live – have you ever been there?

JNSL: Yes.

CB: And they live in that house, in Berenson House. It's very different. It's beautiful, though. It's fantastic.

JNSL: I agree there is a part of its charm and its uniqueness, too, but on the other hand, it would just be great that people know how wonderful the collections are, so how do you balance that?

CB: It is, it's a dilemma, it really is, because we have some fantastic stuff. And not only that, it's nowhere else. When you look at our Pre-Columbian collection, the American Indian Museum has some wonderful pieces, too, but I don't like the way it's set up. It's just different. It's a different point of view from the National Gallery; it's a different point of view from the Philips Collection, the Corcoran. And the other question is, is it really an art museum? The American Indian Museum has a completely different point of view.

AS: Founding the docent program really was a break with tradition for Dumbarton Oaks. And in that respect I guess there really must be a tension between –

CB: I don't think so, I don't know.

AS: Or I guess the struggle that you're talking about between the different missions.

CB: There's one mission, you realize, and you do have that, and that mission says that this is a research institution, and that's part of the pride of it all. This is wonderful. For the docents, it's great; to have Steven Houston talk to somebody, speak to them, or just in general, the people. Joanne's a big name by herself. So, that's amazing. And you're on the cusp, and you're listening to things that just are interesting that are happening, and so therefore they can relate this to the public.

AS: The docent program really is the active link between Dumbarton Oaks and the public. I can't think of any other program here at Dumbarton Oaks –

JNSL: The public lecture series, and the Friends of Music maybe, but even that is a little bit more specific, because you're not, unless you're interested –

CB: Everybody's dying in that group! But it really is, I don't know if you've ever gone. And they have fantastic programs.

JNSL: Right, top of the line.

CB: But we don't advertise, and that's the big problem, so people have been coming for years and years and years. But it's too bad, actually, because it really would be nice to have young people involved with it, I think. So, the other thing is, the docents like giving tours to people who have some background, instead of a group that's just coming because it's an interesting place. If you give a tour to somebody that knows something, that's exciting. But I think also the fact that the museum is the bridge, and the docent program is just one facet of the museum, so when you say that we're the link to the public, we are the link, but the museum is really the link.

JNSL: Did you have any closing remarks or final little thoughts? What part of your job are you most grateful for? You mentioned education. What is your fondest memory?

CB: Working with the docents. They're really lovely people and I've enjoyed them. Obviously I picked them so I must have had some reason to.

AS: And also sort of a summary – we've touched on this several times throughout the interview, but you've been here for three different directors –

CB: Actually, two.

AS: But can you talk a little bit about differences in directors and how that's impacted the docent program.

CB: Jan is much more willing to get the public involved. He's a very friendly guy. I liked Ned! That was not the problem. Ned was a really nice man, too. It's just that they had really different purposes. One was here for the building and the other one's here now to establish a different point of view. You can't really asses them that way. They both were wonderful men and they each had different points. You must have been when Ned was here, right?

JNSL: I was here as a Summer Fellow under Ned and a Junior Fellow under Jan, so yes.

CB: So, you see what I mean. They both had a lot to offer in their own way, so therefore I can't say which I would like better. They both had different personalities. It was such a nice thing to see Ned at Angeliki's memorial. His comment was, because I'd warned him, I said, “Ned when you go up to Maine you're gonna be colder than heck!” He said, “well, we just stay in the house and watch the snow go down.” It was good to see him. It's really interesting to see Jan, and how he's trying to make this a family feeling, trying to include everybody. I think that's good, because we're a small place, and we know each other fairly well, except there's been a lot of change this month.

EG: I was going to ask if you have anything briefly, maybe like what you see as the future of the docent program here at Dumbarton Oaks

CB: I think it'll continue the way it is. I think the fact that Gudrun has put more stress on the museum in some ways, the docent program will probably be more involved. Everyone has been really wonderful about including the docents and everything, and that's important. But I don't see there's going to be a tremendous amount of difference, truthfully. I don't know, maybe we'll be getting more students in; that's something we'd like to do. That may be the answer there. But other than that I can't see – it's not going to get any bigger. We're not suddenly going to have forty docents with nothing to do.

AS: Well that's all I have. Thank you so much!

CB: Hope it helped!

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