Elizabeth Hill Boone
JC: I’m James Carder, and I’m at the Guest House at Dumbarton Oaks on January the 26th, 2012, with Elizabeth Boone. Elizabeth Boone is the Martha and Donald Robertson chair in Latin American Art at Tulane University, where she’s been since 1994. She was also a past director of pre-Columbian studies at Dumbarton Oaks, and she’s presently on the Pre-Columbian Studies Senior Fellows Committee where she has been chair of that Committee since 2010. Welcome Elizabeth. Thank you very much for coming.
EB: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
JC: Thank you. Let’s start when you first came to Dumbarton Oaks, which I believe was around 1980. And you were hired to be a curator in the museum, but then, subsequently your position in the program evolved and changed. Could you talk a little bit about that?
EB: Well, actually, Betty Benson, who had been here before me had been curator and they were looking for someone younger, so they hired someone as an associate curator. But, it wasn’t specifically to be working with the Collection, and I think I was hired because I had more publication experience than the other candidates. And so, my portfolio as it were, included the publications program, the scholarly meetings, the library, as well as the Collection. All of that’s been parceled out now, but at the time it was all in one person. And I was hired with a three-year term. And at the time Gordon Willey had been Senior Fellow since some years prior and he became – I’m sorry he wasn’t a Senior Fellow because there weren’t any Pre-Columbian Senior Fellows; they were all Advisory Committee members. And, he was the Chair of the Advisory Committee. And he was hired by Giles to be Senior Consultant, and he came down and met with me about every two or three months for the first two years. So together we looked at the program, looked at everything that needed to be done, to transform what had been a collection—a private collection, a private personal library, and some publications around that collection—into a scholarly program. And, I remember that summer was an incredibly busy summer. I came Cinco de Mayo and Gordon Willey came down the week after. And, we had a list of things we were going to go over and one of the first things was the publications situation because there were thirteen volumes that were in process, in one stage or another. There were nine other manuscripts waiting to be decided upon, and some were three years old by that point. So that was our first priority I think. And, there were things to be addressed with the collection and also the library. But, this was also a time when the investment – we were not generating as much income as inflation. And so, the financial people at Harvard projected that Dumbarton Oaks would soon be going into the red in two or three years. Everyone was very alarmed about this. And so my first week there, Giles announced that we might be selling the collection, deeding the collection to the Organization of American States. I don’t know whether he’s mentioned this in his conversations.
JC: He has.
EB: And, they would pick up the funding of the program. And his idea was that it’s better to lop off one arm than to starve the whole entity, the whole body to death. So for the first year, I would say, of my tenure—maybe a year and a half—there were negotiations, there were discussions. It all went to nothing thank goodness, and I think it was by the end of that time, it was revealed that the OAS was in worst financial shape than Dumbarton Oaks. I think inflation dropped; income went up. But during much of my time here money was always a concern. We had number of publications. The conferences cost too much; the publications cost too much. There was one volume was costing $65,000. And those days that was absolutely unheard of. So, one of the things I was charged with was trying to get these things under control.
JC: So you started as Associate Curator. How did the transition come about to being Director of Studies? And when you first came were there Fellows? Was there a Fellowship Program?
EB: There were. There were two Fellows Mary Miller and Anne Paul. Mary is now a Dean at Yale and has been on the Senior Fellows Committee. And Anne was a very, very fine Nazca textile-Paracas textile person who died early. So there were those fellows that stayed over in the summer. And then there were two fellows a year for many years, and then there were three, and then there were four, and then there were five. And we were always trying to get more fellows. During my time, there was always a challenge to get more of the pie, I would say.
The first three years as Associate Curator was a termed appointment, and then I was named Director of Pre-Columbian Studies and Curator of the Collection, so that’s when that title changed. These were two distinct titles at that point. And I think that gave me voting rights on the Fellows because my book had come out, so I was considered to be tenure-able or tenured. And, my appointment was without limit of term. I mean I could be fired, but I didn’t rotate off automatically. I think I was the last – I don’t know if I was the last of those appointments, but I may have been one of the last.
JC: Did you have Senior Fellows at that point?
EB: It was called the Advisory Committee; they acted as Senior Fellows. They converted to being Senior Fellows probably about the time I became Director of Studies. So, it was just a shift in title. But I believe what we were trying to do is make the Pre-Columbian Program more parallel to the Byzantine Program, and it really hadn’t been.
EB: And at that point Betty McDougal was Director of Landscape Architecture Studies, and she and I were great pals. And we were always trying to scheme against the Byzantinists to get more of our share. Those were very good times.
JC: And during that period, as public awareness of at least the scholarly work of the Pre-Columbian Studies Program grew, do you feel that Dumbarton Oaks and that program pushed the study of pre-Columbian art and archeology?
EB: I do think it did. I do think it did. I think Dumbarton Oaks was and still is vital to pre-Columbian studies. Some of the best scholars in the field have been fellows here or have participated in the symposia or have been on the Senior Fellows Committee. We’ve involved a tremendous number of people. Now when I first came the emphasis of the activities were on art history, well pre-Columbian art. The library had mostly books on pre-Columbian art. The publications tended to be dedicated to objects in the Collection or related objects. And, one of the mandates that I felt—and I’m sure that Gordon felt it too as one of the great archeologist of this century—was to sort of bring archeology to Dumbarton Oaks more than had been done before. So we broadened it disciplinarily, we opened it up a bit; we brought in historians, anthropologists, ethno-historians as fellows. I mean, well we accepted their applications and encouraged them to apply. But, one of the challenges was also to make Dumbarton Oaks better known, and make the Collection better known because the Collection was not very well visited. So, as Associate Curator and then Curator we weren’t acquiring very much, I don’t think. I think I took in a few gifts in the fifteen years I was there. But we did a lot of conservation, we did a lot of remounting, re-displaying; we re-designed the display in the Philip Johnson wing. We put in little labels; we actually put in the first wall panels. The first thing we did was create a little brochure, rather than have descriptive labels in the cases. The cases retained their sort of modernist aesthetic, but we had a brochure that an individual could use as they walked through the gallery.
JC: I know this is a little bit out of sequence. I believe you were instrumental in the great Aztec show –
EB: Yes, but that was also in the early years. That was 1983, and that was three years after I got here. Those early years – it’s amazing how much energy I had. Well, I wasn’t married, I was single, you know. I just spent all my time in that office in the basement. I loved that office. It was quite – I had a series of wonderful secretaries, and I had some very good assistant curators. So, I was very blessed in that way. And I think I had the support of Giles. Giles was always worried about : “Oh we shouldn’t spend too much or we shouldn’t do this or that.” But, the Aztec Show at the National Gallery came about because we wanted to do a symposium on the Temple Mayor because the great Coyolxauhqui statue had been discovered in 1978 and was creating a lot of excitement about Aztec studies in a way that hadn’t happened in recent years. So, I went down there, I talked to Eduardo Matos. George Kubler went down. And George Kubler and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma agreed to share a symposium on the Aztec Temple Mayor. That symposium was in the planning stage for a couple of years, but it took place in October of 1983. And meanwhile George mentioned to the Mexican ambassador: “Oh, we should have an Aztec exhibition.” And, then he mentioned to Carter Brown: “Oh, we should have an Aztec exhibition.” And so there were a series of lunches and negotiations with Relaciones Exteriores in Mexico and that sort of thing. And that’s when I became really good friends with individuals at the Mexican embassy. And a former ambassador became the head of Relaciones Exteriores so there were all sorts of things going on there. And this was also a time when Mexico was looking for a big loan from the International Monetary Fund that was meeting in Washington. And so it was in Mexico’s best interest to have a big splashy exhibition at the National Gallery, and I think that’s part of the reason it happened.
JC: And had there been a big Aztec exhibition –
EB: No, it was the first one. It was the first one. And, then Tenochtitlan has been everywhere. But that was the first one. It was very exciting.
JC: I know that at some point you catalogued the Pre-Columbian Library holdings.
JC: If I remember correctly, Robert Woods Bliss had established a personal library on pre-Columbian art and archeology that was donated to Harvard as part of the gift of his collection. During your tenure how did the library grow and in what ways did you participate in its growth?
EB: Well, when I arrived and looked at the library – I came from the University of Texas at Austin, where I took my Ph.D., and they had one of the best Latin American libraries in the world. So I was spoiled, and I was used to libraries with lots of ethno-historical sources and all the archeology journals and all of that. Dumbarton Oaks had none of that. It had books on pre-Columbian art. It had a few journals, but not very many. So we, and I say we, and I think it was Carlos Aróstegui whom I hired soon after I came because Anne Schaffer who was the Assistant Curator left. And Carlos was hired as the new Assistant Curator, and he was a book person too. So, we made a list of all the books, and journals, and series, and things that we needed. We sort of spent I don’t know how many years checking those off and building the library. One of the things we did was get the Peabody—the Tozzer Library at the Peabody—to give us all of their duplicates or one of all their duplicates. That took some doing. And, then Thelma Sullivan, who was an old friend – she had cancer and she had to leave Mexico because she had lung cancer and the altitude was bad. And we were trying to bring her to Dumbarton Oaks. And she died before she could come. But I think she was so touched by that that she gave her library to Dumbarton Oaks. She had a fabulous library. She was a Nahuatl scholar, an Aztec scholar. So, she had all the ethno-historical sources that we needed. She had many of the codices, the facsimiles. And so that helped us greatly. And then we started buying. If I went to Europe, I would visit London book dealers. I would go to Mexico and visit all the book dealers and present them with a list or mail them a list. So we gradually did it. I remember one time I came back from Mexico with fifteen boxes of books in my personal luggage. And, of course the customs people were very curious, and they thought I was smuggling drugs or something I don’t know. Then of course that all changed. And the library wasn’t catalogued, of course. Well it was and it wasn’t. There was a card catalogue, and so there was an index card for every book alphabetized by author. And the books were organized on the shelves according to topic. So there might be “Maya archeology” or there might be “Aztec.” There was a section called “codices.” There was “Maya codices” or “non-Maya codices.” And as an Aztec codex person I thought: “Oh, this can’t be. You have to have one on Aztec codices.” And so, the library had to be catalogued. It was fine for a private library. I mean, mine at home is arranged in some ways by topic, and it’s not catalogued. And there were various discussions about whether we would develop our own system because the Byzantinists had their own system. And we decided that we didn’t have the resources; we didn’t have a librarian. So we decided to go with the Library of Congress system, even though we knew that there would be a lot of F-one-two-one-threes and that sort of thing. We got an NEH grant. I remember – well – I remember shortly after my mother died, and I had to go in and I was working on this NEH grant. The deadline was very short, and I had to go in. And it was the best thing to get over my grief, I think, was working on that thing. So we wrote this NEH grant, won it, and were able to hire Bridget. I think we had two years of funding for her, and then Dumbarton Oaks picked it up after that. There were lots of student workers and that sort of thing helping. It was a wonderful time. We had books in the hallways of course and books everywhere. We had you know – there was a little space on the wall so a little bookcase would be made to cover it. The hallways downstairs were so narrow because there were books on either side. We didn’t have a formal checkout system because the fellows were all down in that space. So, I think it’s the system that is still being used. You take a card; you write the call number on it, you put it in the slot.
JC: Exactly the system –
EB: Yeah, I think the Byzantinists used it too. I’m pretty sure. They may have had a more formal checkout system. But when I left Dumbarton Oaks, people talked about the changing nature of the scholarly program, and the fellows, and this and that, but I think that was what I feel most proud of is the library because it wasn’t much of a library. And it was a lot of fun getting all those chroniclers and all those journals. And every year, I remember, Bridget and I would sit down together – or before her Carlos and I – and figure out how we could argue that we needed more money. We couldn’t just say we needed 25% more money or an extra X number of dollars. We had to come up with a reason. So we would say, well inflation, and books have topped inflation. So I would go to Giles with this inflationary story. If inflation was down we would come up with some other scheme: “Oh, the peso is up and the dollar is down so we need more money because of that.” And so we got about a 15% to 25% increase every year. And over time it gradually – because I think, I don’t know how much money we had to begin with, it was like $2,000 or something like that. It was just nothing.
JC: Do you have any sense of the numbers of volumes when you came and when you left?
EB: No, I don’t. Many of them fit – No. Most of them were in what we call the Old Rare Book Room, which was Mr. Bliss’s office, and we turned that into the Rare Book Room.
JC: And his entire library was on those shelves, correct?
EB: His. And there were some in the hallway. I think there was one long shelf. And then by the time I left we had compact stacks, and they were overflowing.
JC: Would you say they quadrupled or less?
EB: Oh, tenfold to twentyfold.
JC: A huge investment.
EB: That was the big focus was building the library because if you don’t have a good library you don’t have a good Fellows Program.
JC: Let’s return to the fellows. When you started there were two. You helped to increase the number of fellowship applicants as well as the number chosen and also the disciplines that they represented. How did that come about and how did the Fellowship Program change during the time that you were at Dumbarton Oaks?
EB: Well, it grew. And, I think fundamentally we did change the way we selected fellows. The Advisory Committee selected them at the beginning, and the Senior Fellows of course did later. But the emphasis shifted from topic to quality, regardless of topic. And so I think in the early days because it was a program growing up around a collection of pre-Columbian art it made sense to encourage people to come and work on things directly related to the Collection in some way. And I – even though the group of two people that came the next year, Richard Burger who worked on Chavín—and of course we have a lot of Chavín material—and Richard Luxton who was a Mayanist. But then gradually we started looking not so much at the project itself, not that we ignored the project, but we looked first and foremost for the quality and training of the applicant. And it’s funny I wouldn’t have – I hadn’t remembered that, but I was going back through some old correspondence, and that was one of the things I have in my notes from my very first meeting with Gordon Willey that these sorts of issues emerged.
JC: Was there the same divide between Junior Fellows and Fellows as there was in the Byzantine Studies Program?
EB: There were Junior Fellows and Fellows, yes there was. We tended to have – well we had fewer. And that was the time when Landscape Architecture had maybe one or two, and we might have had two or three. But the fellows ate at the Fellows Building, now the Guest House, but it was the Fellows Building. But in Betty’s day, in Betty Benson’s day, I don’t think the pre-Columbian fellows were invited into the Fellows Building. I think it was a Byzantine enclave. And the Byzantinists lived upstairs. I remember one time Giles and I had a – well we had a sort of argument, because I had booked this room to show a film, a Maya film, for our fellows and a group of people. And, Philip Grierson was living upstairs, and he complained to Giles that he wasn’t able to watch his television show because all these pre-Columbianists were here and they were in his living room essentially. And Giles called me: “Ah, Elizabeth, no no.” And I said: “All right,” and I was mad so I just went: “Giles, no no no.” I told him that I had gotten permission, that scholarship came first, so he backed down. But there was this sense that, in the very beginning, that pre-Columbianists were a little bit [inaudible], you know. And, the field was so young too.
JC: It also was – the institution started as a Byzantine Studies institute.
EB: As a Byzantine, yes, and Mr. Bliss had his collection, that’s right. And this program that Betty Benson gradually, very subtly put together, was just waiting to kind of grow forth.
JC: And in the 21st century you see the successful fruit of both Betty’s and your efforts.
EB: Absolutely, absolutely. The early fellows were very – they were among the top in their field. And Betty was the one who brought Linda Schele together with Fred Lansberry and sort of helped to launch Linda Schele on her career. Now that – her experience bringing a group of Maya pictographers together to work on the Palenque panels, gave me the idea of our Summer Research Seminars. There weren’t many applications for summer fellows. We had you know two or three. And often the fellows in the fall and spring stayed over or wanted to stay over before we put a stop to that. So about every three years we decided to try to organize a summer research seminar. So we would invite, I would say, two or three prominent, mid-upper career scholars interested in a topic. We would work with them on a proposal and then we would send out a call for applicants to be part of the summer working group. The first one was on the manuscripts of the Borgia Group. That was an incredibly amazing time; very different personalities, and very difficult personalities came together. And we would all go down to the middle room and yell and scream and say: “This is what this is.” “No, you are all wrong.” And, the Byzantinists would hear us, and they must think, “They hate each other, they’re fighting.” And, then we would argue for two hours and everyone would pat each other on the back and say: “Boy, that was good.” And, everyone would go off to lunch. But, it was a very exciting time, that first one. And there was one on Aztec that eventuated on the volume Aztec Imperial Strategies. Frances Berdan and Mike Smith, they were the primary organizers. That’s when we had the D.O. volleyball team.
JC: I was going to ask if any of these resulted in either symposia.
EB: Yes, that one did, and I believe there was one on Teotihuacan or the Upper Classic. And, then there was one on the Pre-Classic, but I don’t – No there was one on Maya architecture that then fed into a symposium that was published, that Steve Houston organized. But, I thought those were very useful at the time.
JC: At that period of time, were there other fellowship programs where pre-Columbianists could apply successfully in any field?
EB: The Metropolitan Museum had a Fellowship Program. So you could be a fellow in the Department of Primitive Art. And it was called Primitive Art at the time. I don’t know of any others. The School of American Research also had fellowships for archeologists. And in some ways Dumbarton Oaks – I think Gordon Willey told me to go out and visit the School of American Research just to see how their operations worked. Because in many ways Dumbarton Oaks was a little bit like theirs, in that they would have working groups coming together for weeks, and then have a publication eventuate from it. They had a Fellowship Program, they had a library, and they didn’t have a collection of course. And then of course there’s also the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, which had its fellowship program. I think I was the first – I may have been the only pre-Columbianist that’s been a fellow there, I don’t – maybe there have been others. Well no, Dennis Tedlock was a fellow the year I was there. So, there probably have been others since then.
JC: I know that the organization ARIAH, possibly even when you were going to their meetings, was interested to try to make scholars in Latin America in particular knowledgeable about fellowship programs and in particular the Pre-Columbian program at Dumbarton Oaks. Did that pan out and attract new interest from outside of the country?
EB: We did translate our fellowship brochure into Spanish. And we sent it – because back then everyone was doing everything by mail, by postal U.S. mail. We sent things to various institutions and encouraged people. My second or third year here Ricardo Agurcia came from Guatemala, from Honduras sorry. We certainly made an effort in our symposia to include scholars from Latin America; I mean, that was something that we made a special effort to do. So we did try to reach out to Latin Americans. Mario Ramirez and a number of people came. But I think what has happened since is that when Joanne has had symposia – she had a symposium in Guatemala, a symposium in Peru. And the fact that Dumbarton Oaks went to those countries and had a symposium there—and there was also one in Mexico—encouraged a lot of people from those countries to apply. And so I think that’s changed a lot. And now we have Latin Americans on our Senior Fellows Committee. And we didn’t when I was – I don’t think we did – no we didn’t when I was there.
JC: Today, in all the studies programs there’s a fairly well organized series of symposia, tertulia, and public lecture series. You’ve mentioned that you invited the fellows and others to thrash it out over a paper behind a closed door. Were there publicly organized or professionally organized events that involved discussions of papers?
EB: We did start what I call a tertulia series. But, actually Marry Miller started it. Because in the spring before I came, she started getting together with local Mayanists. And that would have been George Stewart and George Stewart’s wife, and I can’t remember who else – well Betty, of course, and maybe George’s son, David. So, she would meet informally with them. And then after I came that summer, we started having sort of larger meetings. And someone would give a presentation and there would be a discussion. So, these were informal talks, and they were posted. And I think we sent invitations to, you know, the local group. There was a local group of pre-Columbianists, but they weren’t advertised particularly widely. And then they got bigger and we started having them in the study. And, so if a scholar came through town – a lot of people would come through town to go visit the National Geographic. Chris Donnan, for example, received a lot of National Geographic support, so whenever he came into town we tried to corral him to give a presentation, the latest on Moche or something like that. So it was a good way to build up our community because our community of pre-Columbianists was really small then. I mean, just two or three fellows, Carlos, I. That was pretty much it.
JC: Did you have public lectures?
EB: Yes of course. We had I think one in the spring because we had a symposium in the fall. And maybe later we had two, but I think we only had one, but they were the big public lectures.
JC: Did Dumbarton Oaks in your tenure support archeology in any way?
EB: A little bit. But let me get back to – before we move on to the project support. One of the things that I think was very successful that I did, that Joanne has continued, was a series of less formal gatherings, we called them roundtables or mesas redondas. And one of the most successful ones was called “Record Keeping and Recorded Knowledge in Pre-Columbian America.” It was two days and we had a third or fourth of the budget of a big symposium. So, people stayed at my house. People stayed at the Fellows Building. People stayed with friends or something like that. We might contribute $200 or $500 for airfare or something like that. We would have meals in the Fellows Building, and I would have a dinner at my house, a tiny little house filled with people. And those were a lot of fun. We did, I can’t remember, I must have done three or four. I know three that I can remember, maybe four or five of them. One eventuated in a book that I think it hit it just right. It was a book that I edited with Walter Mignolo from Duke, and it was called Writing Without Words. And he’s a literary theorist so it reached not just the art historians and the archeologists but the whole literary people who latched on to this idea of pictographic writing and writing in a manner other than the alphabet. So that book—and it all started with that little round table in the study—that book has been very – it was one of the easiest things I ever did because Duke did most of the editorial work, but it was one of the most important things I’ve ever done. It was interesting. And then we had a quipu conference, a quipu roundtable. And then there was a subsequent quipu roundtable that Jeffrey Quilter did that eventuated in a publication. So I like to think that in some way, some small way, I might have helped get Gary Urton interested in quipus, and that’s what he’s been doing ever since.
But, we did begin to sponsor archeology. Since Dumbarton Oaks was not really acquiring very much, and there were forces at Harvard and the Harvard Museum Council against acquiring. And certainly Gordon Willey was against acquiring, C.C. Lamberg was against acquiring things. So we weren’t purchasing anything. I would find some fabulous thing and then it would get nixed, and I just gave up. But we did – from the very beginning there was support for some projects. Betty Benson supported Arthur Miller’s excavations at Tancah–Tullum, and that volume was one of those that was in process when I came. I think that was a very interesting excavation. We did not sponsor excavations other than that because Giles, I think rightly so and Gordon said rightly so that we don’t have enough money to do it well. And an excavation would just eat you alive. So, we had very targeted recording projects: projects to, for example, record—to have someone draw a photograph and record—pyro-engraved gourds. So materials that were specialized enough or a corpus of material that could be gathered into a corpus that could be then analyzed, those were the projects that we targeted early on. Now later, the project grants as we now know them were created to fund a sort of salvage work, materials, sites, buildings that were at risk of destruction, and to try to go in and capture the material before that material was lost. I think that must have happened in the late eighties or early nineties because I was still here. I was still here then.
JC: Any conservation support?
EB: The first thing we did was to conserve the Paracas Textile, which had to be remounted. So there were various projects like that. But the Collection by and large has been in very good condition; so there was not a lot of conservation needed. And Robert Bliss was a hard stone person, you know, so there wasn’t a lot – I mean, nothing much happens to hard stone. So there was some cleaning issues and that sort of thing, but no.
JC: What is the health of pre-Columbian studies in the early decades of the 21st century? How did or can Dumbarton Oaks and its pre-Columbian program either continue the effort or help the effort?
EB: Well, I think when I was here the emphasis – we opened it up to archeology – but the emphasis, the core emphasis I always thought, was the art and intellectual culture of pre-Columbian peoples. That’s broadened now which I think is fine. I’m not – I think pre-Columbian studies is flourishing, especially in archaeology. What worries me personally, especially now in the last couple of years, is pre-Columbian art history. There are a declining number of students that are going to graduate school in pre-Columbian art history. Most of my students want to do Colonial. And I don’t know whether it’s because with so much in the material, there are no texts. And that art historians feel nervous if they don’t have a text to help them interpret it. I’m not sure why that is. So I worry that Dumbarton Oaks will become just another place for archeo – no, I don’t want to say it like that. It’s not just another – but, I don’t want it – I’d like to see Dumbarton Oaks nurture art history. I’m not sure how to do that though.
One thing that was instituted during my tenure and it was not something that I – you know it was instituted by Dumbarton Oaks as an institution – was a series of joint appointments. And Giles instituted those. He had one with Georgetown; he had one with Johns Hopkins. And so, a person, an assistant professor would be hired, half time research at Dumbarton Oaks, half time at the institution teaching. And we started one of those with Johns Hopkins. The first person was Dorie Reents and Rebecca Stone. And it ended after that. It was about a three-year pilot. I think there was one in the University of Maryland, and I think Joanne may have held that. And the idea was to encourage these universities to hire pre-Columbianists, that Dumbarton Oaks would help them, and then the university would pick it up after that. It’s happened somewhat at Johns Hopkins, but the person that they hired is working more with the museum and teaching as a lecturer, but not as a tenure track line. And I don’t think Maryland has had a tenure track line after Joanne left either. So, that would be something that I would love to see reinstituted. But I think – and I see people who are retiring, whose lines are being closed down. And more and more people are thinking, well there are not any pre-Columbianists coming up so we should focus on Colonial. Colonial is a big field these days. But its bubble maybe. Well, it’s hard to know; these things go in waves. It may just be a stochastic variation. It’s hard to know. But at the February meeting of the College Art Association there’s a session devoted to the future of pre-Columbian art history by senior figures worried about the future I guess, let’s say.
JC: I think, unfortunately, that to many the arts and humanities seem less and less relevant to our daily culture and our lives. Students particularly find it difficult to connect themselves to a discipline that may or may not allow them to have a livelihood. That’s the hard part.
EB: That’s right. It may also be that art historians who come up as pre-Columbianists take museum positions, and then they are not training students. One of my best students, Bryan Just, is an associate curator at the Princeton Art Museum, and he’s teaching adjunct at Princeton. But, he’s not developing a big graduate corpus, you know. And, some of Mary’s students are in museum positions. So I think, a number of art historians are being—I don’t want to say sidelined—but they are not training the next generation. So, that’s a little bit of a concern. I’d like to see art history – I think it’s imperative that art history remain strong at Dumbarton Oaks. Now it shouldn’t be everything, the way it was in the old days. But, it needs to be there. It needs to be vigorous.
JC: Dumbarton Oaks was and is a collection-centric institution, even though fellows aren’t necessarily compelled to research the objects of the Collection. It’s still is an art collection, it should spawn interest.
EB: One thing—this is not necessarily part of an oral history; it’s a matter of opinion—is that I mourn in some ways the division, the separation of the library from the program, and the museum from the program, and the Collection from the program because I thought it was so important to get the fellows involved in the Collection, and you could do that in a very organic way. And the library, I think, as far as the catalogue and all that makes sense, and I guess the library is big enough that it has to be its own entity. You know it was fun when I was here to be doing all of that.
JC: It’s profound change too.
EB: It’s a very different institution. It was very homey then. You knew everyone then. You knew the guards, the housemen. You had personal relationships with them. I remember Tony, I did something to make him mad, and he wouldn’t speak to me for three weeks. And then he forgave me at some point. And now every time I see him it’s as if I’m his long lost daughter or something like that, but I do remember that time he had a temper. It was a very familial place then, and of course it couldn’t remain that way. I mean, it was small enough to be familial, but as it grew it had to change as an institution. And I think one of the things the separation has allowed the director of studies to do is really to concentrate on the scholarly program. To the extent that Joanne has any number of really interesting conferences and meetings and lectures and gatherings, and has done wonders much beyond anything I could have ever thought of doing just because there wasn’t any time or resources or things like that. So, the growth and the separation have enabled that.
JC: Is there anything else you can think of that we haven’t covered?
EB: Well, I’m not sure. Let me just – can be take a break? [pause] We talked about summer fellowships; we talked about the OAS. Just, two things: One about the conferences, the way the conferences were originally organized. Betty in consultation with the Advisory Committee would select a topic and then she would invite people to come. There were small gatherings and they were by invitation only. So they weren’t open to the public. And there was usually a day of formal, invited presentations, and then there was what she called a rump session, which was a Sunday morning of volunteered papers, often by graduate students. We, in fact, my first year – I used to tell myself that the first two years I would try to do everything just the way Betty Benson did it. But I realized that I wasn’t doing everything the way Betty Benson did it. But I had that in my head that I was trying to do it, and then we began to change things. Immediately we got rid of the volunteer papers, so we had papers for a day and a half. And because money was tight then, we had to charge registration. We still fed people a lovely, catered, served lunch on the Saturday. But we started charging registration fees. The first one was by invitation, but after that we opened it up to scholars active in the field and advanced graduate students. The Music Room could hold more than it can hold now, and we could cram two hundred in there or two twenty because you know that not everyone’s going to come. So we did have some that were just huge. The Aztec Temple Mayor conference was just a monstrous conference. And Betty, her – during those conferences, there was discussion among conferees, and those things were all taped. And, all of those tapes were meticulously transcribed. And then—I did this for one conference only—we transcribed them, we edited them, and we sent them to the speakers and asked if they would approve. And of course most of the speakers by that time had changed their minds entirely or didn’t really want to be on print saying that. So, half of the discussions that had been included in previous symposia volumes were denied by the speakers so we did away with it. So there were no more discussions or publications of discussions after a paper. And then we instituted a registration fee and then a lunch fee. As these things got bigger and the public became more interested, we had to make them a little bit more official.
One of the things that was interesting to me when I came is that the publications were distributed out of Dumbarton Oaks. And I can’t remember whether we, Pre-Columbian Studies, sent them out in little envelopes or little boxes through the mailroom or whether someone upstairs did. We probably took the orders because there were lots of cupboards with books in them. And of course all of that’s been systematized. But one of the things I did the first year was create a brochure, a publications brochure listing the publications and the prices, which we sent out to our mailing list. And I think we may have even sent it out to the SAA mailing list, because there was no distribution network. And, that’s what was so interesting about it, there wasn’t anything. And now, of course, there’s everything. But I guess… I think that’s probably about it.
JC: Well good. It’s been really enjoyable. Thank you very much.
EB: Well it’s been wonderful to be thinking about this again. It was wonderful going back over some old correspondences. I mentioned with Gordon Willey, who was just a dear man, wonderful, the most gentlemanly person in the world. He used to come down, and he would take me to dinner at the Cosmos Club. He would always stay at the Cosmos Club. Women were not allowed in the front door then, you had to go through the back way. But, they were allowed to go in the dinning room, not in the main dinning room, but the women’s dinning room, well you know, whatever. And he loved chartreuse, and so I came to love chartreuse. But he was a wonderful man, and we worked well together. And then we worked well with Giles. The three of us, it was a very important. I felt supported and encouraged. So that was nice. Well it’s nice to talk about this, and it’s been lovely, wonderful being part of a great institution. Thank you, James.
JC: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
EB: You’re welcome.