James N. Carder
JNSL: Today is Wednesday, July 15, 2009. My name is Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent.
EG: Elizabeth Gettinger.
AS: And Anne Steptoe.
JNSL: We have the honor today of interviewing James Carder. We are here at Dumbarton Oaks to speak with the Archivist. Do you guys want to start with a question?
EG: Sure. So, I guess just a sort of start up question – we see that you were a Junior Fellow here in the '70s?
JNC: Yes, I was.
EG: And so we wanted to hear how you first got involved with Dumbarton Oaks and what your initial impressions were.
JNC: I actually first got involved very modestly when I was an undergraduate. I was working on an excavation in Yugoslavia at the Palace of the emperor Diocletian and wanted to read an eighteenth-century description of the palace by Robert Adam, a rare volume of which the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine library had a copy. And I somewhat naively came to Washington to work in the library as an undergraduate and learned – then as now – that undergraduates don't have easy entree, but I did manage to get a photocopy of that book sent to me, which was otherwise hard to come by. I was on a Ford Foundation Archaeological Traineeship Grant, so there was money for doing that sort of thing. So, that was my first introduction in the later '60s, and then when I went to graduate school I applied for a Junior Fellowship and received it, as you said. It was a two-year – it turned into a two-year fellowship at that time and I finished my dissertation at Dumbarton Oaks.
EG: So, what was the fellowship program like when you first arrived here?
JNC: It was, I think, pretty much the same as it is today in many important aspects. Like today there were more Byzantine Fellows than Pre-Columbian or Garden and Landscape Architecture Fellows. One difference that I remember, and I think it might have been both a difference of chance and possibly a difference of design, was that there were more art historians in the mix of Fellows than there has been in subsequent periods. There were easily five if not six art historians in my group, which made for a very nice situation in terms of getting intellectual stimulation from your peers. Ioli Kalavrezou was a Junior Fellow as was Ruth Kolarik and Jeffrey Andrews and Kathleen Shelton. And Rob Nelson was a Junior Fellow in my second year. And besides that, Otto Demus and Hugo Buchthal and Carlo Bertelli were Fellows, and Ernst Kitzinger came occasionally from Harvard. And, of course, Bill Loerke was Director of Studies, so there were a lot of Byzantine and Early Christian art historians around. The other thing that I remember very much about my fellowship years was that there was a great camaraderie, and the Fellows themselves organized parties and all sorts of events, sometimes costume parties, where, for example, at Seka Allen’s home, we put on elaborate silk and brocade clothes and masqueraded as some historical figure, real or imagined!
JNSL: What did you dress up like?
JNC: I think I was an emperor. It wasn't very – my costume wasn’t particularly successful, as I remember, but I tried. Many of the staff, including Sue Boyd, who was assistant or associate Byzantine curator at the time, as well as Seka Allen – Jelisaveta Allen – a research librarian – were very conscientious in inviting Fellows to their houses or otherwise organizing events for them. There was a real spirit of being part of a group that was well taken care of.
AS: Did this social camaraderie extend between Byzantine and Pre-Columbian fellows, or was it more of a Byzantine community?
JNC: It did extend among all of the Fellows. I believe – and I really should check the archival record on this – that there couldn't have been more than two Pre-Columbian Fellows and maybe only two Landscape fellows, or possibly only one. The numbers in those junior programs – junior in the sense that they came later in the institutional chronology than the Byzantine Studies program – and really only began having Fellows in the early ‘70s. I remember Frank Alvarez in Garden and Landscape and Peter Joralemon in Pre-Columbian. But even though there were only three or four non-Byzantine Fellows, I think they were always included in the parties. Then occasionally there were Byzantine-specific activities, such as an exhibition at the Walters or something like that – then it was just the Byzantine group that went.
EG: How did you find the atmosphere here academically; was it an easy place to work on your dissertation? What resources were of the most value?
JNC: It was a dream. I didn't have too much to compare it to, though I'd had a Fulbright the year before I came here in Germany, and I was using primary material libraries in Wolfenbüttel and elsewhere and not necessarily so much using secondary resources. But I had that as a benchmark. But here, even before I came, I received communications asking what microfilms or -fiches I might need that I would be expecting to work on as they wanted to check whether they had them or not. And if they didn't have them, they'd do what they could to get them, which I just found wonderful and remarkable. I don't think I ever needed a secondary resource, a book or whatever, that they didn't have or couldn't get. And at that time there was a liaison person to the Library of Congress, and he had the wherewithal to make a weekly trip to the Library of Congress and bring back materials that Fellows and others had requested. I don't think that program lasted much longer, but it certainly was in effect the two years I was here and that, of course, just doubled the possibilities of doing research. So, I thought the resources at Dumbarton Oaks were terrific, as I believe people continue to think to this day.
AS: Were there any academic mentors that you met and became close with during those two years?
JNC: Yes. As you probably know from the history of Dumbarton Oaks, there actually were, in the early period, faculty members – permanent faculty members – here, and that was just being dissolved, in a way. But Ernst Kitzinger was still here – or at least occasionally – when I was a Junior Fellow. Although he was frankly more in Cambridge than at Dumbarton Oaks, though he did come to Dumbarton Oaks for several months and, so, he did have a presence. And he and I discussed many aspects of my dissertation. Hugo Buchthal, I don't think, had a professorship but he had an appointment of some sort while I was here, and he was invaluable. And then people like Kurt Weitzmann would come around, and he had asked me to write some catalogue entries for the “Age of Spirituality” exhibition that he was planning for the Met, so we knew each other in a way, and his advice was great. But I also think that my peers were terrific. We did the same thing that's done today, we gave progress reports on our dissertation topics or our research topics depending on our level. And it wasn't pro forma; people thought about them and critiqued them, and if there was some tangent that perhaps the speaker hadn't considered, someone in the group might say you should look at this book or you should consider this primary source of some ancient author and see what they have to say. I found it invaluable.
AS: How often did those occur?
JNC: Those research reports? I think on average once a week, as they do now, scattered throughout the academic term – followed incidentally by a sherry hour. There was also sherry served before lunch on Tuesdays, I think it was. I think Jan has now revived this and has it at his house, but that apparently was a tradition that Mildred Bliss had inaugurated before her death in 1969, and I don't know if it had continued unabated until my tenure here in the mid-'70s, but I think it then sort of fell off the board soon thereafter.
JNSL: Did you ever hear any anecdotes from the older, say, the older Fellows or older scholars about Dumbarton Oaks while you were here as a Junior Fellow or any stories about some of the early days that caught your ear or that stand out in your memory?
JNC: I didn't – I don't remember much, if I did, and so consequently I think I didn't. I heard innumerable times the story about climbing over the perimeter walls to swim illegally in the swimming pool. I must have heard that fifty times from fifty different people or people reporting on their best friends who had come over the wall at night to swim, and otherwise I don't remember anything either boring or juicy. I'm not sure how much I was really aware, too, of the institution and its institutional history. I don't know how much I was aware of the Blisses, although I did meet Jack Thacher who was still alive at the time. I had a friend at the Carnegie Museum of Art, David Owsley, a curator, who knew Jack Thacher, apparently fairly well, and he suggested, since he knew I was coming as a Junior Fellow, that I – that Jack Thacher invite me over for tea or something, which he did. He talked about the Blisses, and I remember now that you mention it, thinking that I should somehow know more about the Blisses. It's too bad I don't have a time machine and could go back, as I know a great deal more now. But he talked about Mildred Bliss at this tea.
JNSL: And how did you come into your current position today? What was the story behind that journey?
JNC: When I finished my dissertation and left Dumbarton Oaks, I started as an assistant professor, first at Case Western Reserve University while someone was on sabbatical, and then I came back to Washington where I was at Mount Vernon College and then at George Washington University at the Mount Vernon Campus. And in 1989, I received notification from Sue Boyd that there was a notice of a job position – but it was a part time job position – at Dumbarton Oaks for someone to advise on the objects that are now formally known as the House Collection. Apparently, the president of Harvard University had received some letters questioning whether some objects were in the best care, and the president had written to then director Angeliki Laiou, asking if there was curatorial responsibility for these prints and drawings that were hanging on walls and that sort of thing. And so she realized in a way that there wasn't – there was a Byzantine curator and a Pre-Columbian curator and so forth, but the so-called House Collection was not particularly well situated in anyone's sight lines. So, I interviewed with her and was offered this job, and the first element of it was to do an assessment, a condition assessment of things – especially things of value – and things that were possibly in harm's way. And I did that, and while I was doing that assessment I was also trying to get any information on these objects, because there were no dossier files and, really, no sort of curatorial management for this part of the Collection – the House Collection, as we know it today. So, I was bothering people asking where invoices might be kept or where conservation reports might be kept, and so forth. And that caught Angeliki Laiou's attention. So, she asked me to start putting together a complete dossier for the House Collection. You can see the snowball moving down the hill here!
EG: When was that?
JNC: This started in '89, as an advisor; and I became a staff member in ’92. So, I was here during her entire tenure. When Ned Keenan came, early on he talked to me and said that he wanted to revisit the new library project and even revisit it situated under the North Vista – that very controversial location where it had started out in the 1970s. He said, “I need to find all the plans and all of the correspondence and documents from the '70s to see where things were left off.” And so he went around looking for them, and of course there was no Archives at the time and things were where you might least likely think they should be. But since I had also taken this route trying to put together things for the House Collection dossiers and had literally looked in the attic and in the basement and in people's file drawers – really just any place – I had something of an unwritten road map of where things were. So, I was actually able to put my hands on these drawings which I knew to be rolled and stored under this building in not the best of circumstances, and I also was able to put my hands on the correspondence files. But there was no logic to it, and they were in cardboard boxes, and I think they were labeled but there wasn't any reason to know that they were there. So he was both horrified – Ned Keenan was – and relieved, and he said, “Would you be willing to take on the reorganization of the archives in much the same way as you took on the dossier building of the House Collection?” And I said, “Yes.” So, that's how I came to be House Collection Manager and then later Archivist.
EG: So, what were some of the goals of the archives project and what was the organization of it?
JNC: The mission of the Dumbarton Oaks Archives is to retain and conserve in perpetuity any item that is of importance to the institutional history of Dumbarton Oaks. And that, of course, can be interpreted broadly or narrowly, and a caveat to that is to understand the physical limitations of space, at least in terms of hard copy or hard object storage. So, not every scrap of paper that happens to have survived is fair game for the Archives because it would overwhelm the real estate. So, the first objective was to find out what was still around that really was critical to retain and, if it was in deteriorating condition, what to do to make an analog copy of it somehow to keep its shelf-life going. Then, to find a way to organize it so that it could be easily accessed by people who would want to see this material in the future, and to weed out things – but not capriciously – weed out things that shouldn't be saved. And so I spent the first two years of my life as an archivist just interviewing people in their offices and seeing and telling them that I thought that it was very fair game if they were actively using files or materials that these files should continue to reside with them, as that was a very good use of institutional space and resources. But, if they had things that were just clogging their file cabinets that they themselves felt should be retained for the institutional memory, these should come to the Archives. And so, things began to flow in, and it was greatly interesting to me to make coherency out of all these disparate files and images and objects. And the system I devised now can be added to very easily. For example, when Alice-Mary Talbot retired recently – although she had been a very faithful contributor to the Archives – she did one final sweep of her office files and took things out that she didn't think Margaret Mullett would necessarily need and sent them down to the Archives, and that's how it's grown. And it works pretty well, as I think you can attest because you've been using files from the Archives.
AS: What role do you see the Archives playing at DO?
JNC: It has an absolutely critical role in that we've never written either a periodic history, other than the annual reports or biannual reports, or an official history of the institution. There are a number of history-like discussions – the Pre-Columbian Studies program has a good one and so forth. But, there's a lot of very important institutional activity from the past that hasn’t been chronicled in a historical narrative, but it is captured in the correspondence and in the interim reports to the president of Harvard University and so forth, and this material sits waiting for someone to rediscover it. And this material really informs us as to what happened and what people thought they were doing and how they went about their business as they defined it at the time. And it shows that there were mistakes and how people learned from them and how the institution moved on. I think every institution needs an archives and it should use its archives to find out who it was. Here we also use the Archives to check when scholars propose things to us – either fellowship applications or research proposals or what have you. We can go back and see what they've done for the institution before, what we have on file. It's not always complete, but it’s very useful. And unfortunately when a scholar dies we often use the preserved archival material for writing an obituary, because sometimes we're the institution that has the best knowledge of the contribution that that particular scholar has made to the field of Byzantine or Pre-Columbian or Garden and Landscape Studies
JNSL: Could you perhaps comment on the uniqueness of Dumbarton Oaks in terms of an institution and what its mission is – both the museum and the professional library, the fellowship program, and its sort of general position here in Washington?
JNC: In a certain sense, Dumbarton Oaks is not unique, in that it's a research institute. There are many research institutes, and they tend to have all of the same phenomena: they have libraries, they occasionally have collections that support the focus of the research, they have a fellowship apparatus, and so forth. But Dumbarton Oaks is, to a degree, unique, and part of its uniqueness is the mandate of its founders, the Blisses. They wanted the institute Dumbarton Oaks to be in Washington, D.C., and although it was to be administered in many ways through Harvard University, they did not want it at Harvard, and during their lifetime they were very clear on that point. They thought things that happened at Harvard were perfectly wonderful and that the student body and the faculty interaction with the student body and all of these good things were what a university of great standing such as Harvard should have. But, for them Dumbarton Oaks was something other, it was, in a way, a retreat, and although they wouldn't have used and didn't use the term “ivory tower,” in a way it was just that. Dumbarton Oaks was something other than an urban campus, it was sixteen acres of beautiful gardens, it had an ambiance of sophistication and, to a degree, elegance in the architecture and appointments of that architecture. It allowed people the breathing space and the environment in which to be reflective in their studies. And then, of course, the studies programs themselves are not your average studies programs. You don't have a choice in Byzantine studies between twenty different research studies programs so that you might apply to them all and choose the best one that responds. If you're a Byzantinist and are going to go to a research institute in America, Dumbarton Oaks' Byzantine studies program is probably the first and, to a degree, only choice, and Pre-Columbian and Garden and Landscape Architecture are very similar. In a way, the narrow foci of this institute ensure its quality and ensure its ability to remain vibrant and relevant. If we did twelve other things from ancient to contemporary abstract expressionist studies programs, we would dilute ourselves. You have to be very wealthy to do that. CASVA is very successful because of its high level of funding and amazing resources. But to be a CASVA you have to be very wealthy and you also have to be very astute at what you collect as research materials and what mix of people you bring together in a far-ranging research institute. So the very small focal nature of Dumbarton Oaks makes it unique, I believe.
EG: Could you speak a little bit about the relationship between the Dumbarton Oaks Archives and the Bliss archives at Harvard which I believe were moved to Harvard in the '80s?
JNC: In 1982, right? In 1982. That was, of course, before my time. I believe from what I've read is that the Blisses themselves had deposited at Dumbarton Oaks a considerable collection of their correspondence and memorabilia. How well organized it was and how topically organized it was I can't say because I know it was completely rethought and re-catalogued at Harvard and wonderfully so. The woman who took that on as a six-year project – I don't believe she was working on it full time necessarily, but I think she was working on it consistently – she did a really remarkable job putting together a first rate finding aid and so forth. Anyway, Dumbarton Oaks had this on its premises, and it had other related things that the Blisses themselves had not accumulated. And the librarians here put this material into folders and boxes because they were, I think and rightfully, concerned about it: one, in terms of making sure that it didn't get lost or misused or thrown out or left to deterioration, and two, they were concerned that they didn't really have the physical room to store it. Until the new library was built, the Main House, as you well know, served as the complete campus with the exception of the Fellows Building, and that really wasn't used for much other than the purpose of feeding and housing Fellows. So, the Main House was really everything: it was library, it was research space, it was meeting space, it was museum space, it was everything, and as Ned Keenan was fond of saying, it was at two hundred percent capacity when he came as director, and that was very true. There were bookshelves in the hallways, and there were often bookshelves in people's closets. And, you know, if you said, “I have 125 linear feet of Blissiana memorabilia, where shall I put it?,” there wasn't an easy answer. So in 1982 under Giles Constable, it was decided that everything sort of pre-1940, the date of the Blisses’ gift of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard, would be sent to Harvard which was willing to accept it to establish the Bliss Papers, and that was done. And everything 1940 and after would remain at Dumbarton Oaks. But as I've said, not much was done with this later material until the '90s. It was in boxes and filing cabinets, and I don't think anyone much cared about these archival materials. The problem with the decision was that there is now a segregation: there is a sort of Bliss family, residential pre-1940 group and a Dumbarton Oaks institutional, post-1940 group of documents. So, there is a segregation. But, there is in fact a seamless continuity between these two groups of documents, and anyone who is researching the origin or the early years of Dumbarton Oaks has to use the Bliss Papers at Harvard to get the complete picture. So, it's a little inconvenient. On the other hand, Harvard is a wonderful caretaker and curatorial manager of such things and they're in perfect storage conditions and housings. Although I personally would like to have the Bliss Papers closer to hand, but I don’t think they need to be sent back here. I'm not going to compare them to the Elgin Marbles, because I don't think we would have lost this material, but they're at Harvard and well cared for in a way that perhaps historically Dumbarton Oaks wouldn't have had the physical space or the staff to look after them.
AS: After the Archives, you've had the opportunity to work on a number of publications, lots of cataloging projects. Can you talk a little bit about some of the most memorable projects?
JNC: Yes. I started using the Bliss Papers in order to complete the dossier files for the House Collection, learning, as I just explained, that many of the pre-1940 documents were at Harvard. And since many of the objects that the Blisses acquired that are now at Dumbarton Oaks were acquired before 1940 – in fact the vast majority of them were – much of their dealer correspondence and any other kind of ephemeral reference to an object that might be in the House Collection would be at Harvard rather than here. So, I was able periodically – usually yearly – to get a small budget line item to go to Cambridge and sit in the Archives for a week or so and just call up box after box after box of correspondence and either key-enter it into my laptop or get a Xerox of it and enter it into the dossier system. And that really allowed me to get a much better understanding of where the Blisses came by their Renaissance, Baroque, Western Medieval, Asian, and other collections, the documents for which didn't end up in the Byzantine Collection department because they weren't relevant. As you can imagine, for one good document you read five hundred that are very interesting but aren't relevant, so I also knew to a large degree what else was going on in the Bliss Papers, and I soon realized that there was a player out there in the Blisses' life, Royall Tyler, who was just absolutely instrumental in forming the Blisses’– that is the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. I mean, but for Royall Tyler, I think the collection as we know it today would not exist. And as it happens, the Royall Tyler Papers are also at the Harvard Archives. These are a long series of correspondence between 1902 and 1952 mostly from Royall Tyler to Mildred Bliss. And when I was asked to do some catalog entries and essays for an exhibition in Athens, Georgia – when Byzantine objects and American paintings from the House Collection were asked to go on loan there – I alerted Rob Nelson, then at the University of Chicago, now at Yale University – who had been asked to do the Byzantine Collection essay for that catalog – that he should look at both the Royall Tyler Papers and the Bliss Papers at Harvard. And he did, and it opened his eyes as it had mine, and so we then began to think about how useful this correspondence would be if it could be transcribed, annotated, and published in whatever format – hard copy or perhaps electronically, or both. And so, we wrote up a proposal, and the project was put into the works. And so, now when I go to Harvard, I'm also looking at the Bliss-Tyler correspondence. The correspondence starts in 1902 and ends roughly in 1953, the time of the death of Royall Tyler, and I'm through '35 on it. The '30s is the most voluminous part of the correspondence run, and '35-'39 is still a sizable chunk, but in the '40s and early '50s it drops off, so I'm about eighty percent done with the transcription. I've written an introductory essay to what will be the first chapter, and I've annotated the letters from that first chapter. I'm hoping soon to do the second chapter, and Rob is working on the '20s and '30s material – he's working on the '20s material now. And when the '30s’ correspondence is transcribed, that will chronicle the meaty, Byzantine-centric part of their buying and corresponding. So, we hope in a year and a half time, if that's not too ambitious, to have this at least in a good draft form. It's going to be huge – that's the unfortunate part of it. It's – if you publish every letter, which I think we should, even the ones that say “Thank you very much, it was a delicious meal,” and they occasionally do that, although these are intellectual people who take some time to write what they want the other person to know about life as they see it and art as they know it. I think if we publish it all, it's going to be very lengthy. If it's in hard copy format, it would certainly be two or more volumes, and there's cost implications there. If we publish it electronically, it'll be very usable by people in the future no matter how it ends up, because you can search it – if the spelling is correct, hopefully it will be. And, for example, I was talking with Gudrun – I don't know how anecdotal you want this interview to be, we can scrap this at the end if you like – who was interested in why the Blisses never acquired significant enamels, Byzantine enamels. And I said, “Oh well, you know, they really wanted to and they wrote to Tyler and Tyler to them about getting a significant enamel,” and she said, “Oh, that's very interesting. I'd always wondered if they just didn't like enamels or what.” And I said, “You know, once this document is done, you'll be able to, even in a Word format, type in the word enamel and just graze through their correspondence finding every time the world enamel is mentioned. It'll just be easy to sate your curiosity as to what the Blisses were doing with enamels, or icons, or manuscripts, or Stravinsky, for that matter. It's just going to be much easier to do research on the Blisses, if anyone is interested to do that. So, those were my two primary uses of the Harvard Archives, for the House Collection dossier files and this Bliss-Tyler project. And, in the interim, every time I've found something of interest to me about the Blisses or about Dumbarton Oaks, I've typed it in a document, a so-called chronology, called “master chronology,” that is easily three hundred pages long now in Word format, and is just date, line item, and the source, taken both from primary materials such as the correspondence and secondary materials that tell the life of the Blisses and Dumbarton Oaks.
EG: Is that something you intend on publishing someday?
JNC: I don't at the moment, although I think a history of Dumbarton Oaks is long overdue. Certainly this chronology will remain at Dumbarton Oaks, and it can be migrated to whatever technology is used in the future.
EG: So, in terms of your role as the manager of the House Collection, could you speak a little bit about what your impressions were of the Blisses' mission in collecting the House Collection and about their acquisitions there?
JNC: Yes. If I could answer it slightly differently, I would say that when I came as a Junior Fellow to Dumbarton Oaks and long thereafter when I talked to people at Dumbarton Oaks or colleagues at Dumbarton Oaks I always had the strong impression that the Blisses collected Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art and rare landscape books and sometimes botanical prints and manuscripts, and that they had a focus of collecting that brought about the collections as they were then displayed. And then they had some household furnishings and some paintings and sculptures, but in a sense just as they had clothing and a wine cellar: these were part of the comme-il-faut nature of being a wealthy resident. Since I have taken on a curatorial role as House Collection manager, I realize that the Blisses were considerably broad in their collecting interests. And we tried to make this point in our first special exhibition, “The Collector's Microbe,” where we talked about how the Blisses not only collected Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, but also Asian and American and this, that, and the other. And I see my role as House Collection manager not only as a true curatorial position to protect and catalogue the collection as it has come down, but also as an advocacy position to make sure that the Blisses' vision for Dumbarton Oaks, in terms of art, isn't interpreted in as narrow a way as I understood it initially and I think others have understood it. And this is proven, I think, much beyond a shadow of a doubt, when you look at what they collected in the '37 through 1940 period when they knew that they were gifting the property and its collections to Harvard. That's when they bought a Degas and a Riemenschneider and a Rouault and other great paintings and sculptures knowing that they weren't going to ever really live with them, but believing that this “home of the humanities,” the famous phrase that Mildred Bliss uses in the preamble to her will and testament and was used other times in her correspondence, needed to have these great things; that great art inspired great conversation which inspired great research. And the same was true with music. There is absolutely no reason to continue musical offerings at Dumbarton Oaks in a Harvard institutional fellowship arena, because it wasn’t a music research institution. But the Blisses were adamant about that and really hoped Harvard would find the wherewithal to continue some kind of musical programming. And the Friends of Music series, which was inaugurated in 1946, was the result of that. All this they saw as being for the Fellows. The music was for the Fellows. The art was for the Fellows. The garden was for the Fellows. Yes, they eventually were opened to the greater and broader public, but that isn't the Blisses’ initial interest. The uniqueness that we talked about earlier in the Blisses' vision was that this was for scholarship and fellowship enrichment. So, I see that also as part of my job description to try to make the House Collection a little bit more integral to the institutional wealth.
JNSL: What is the most exciting project that you have been a part of in your time at Dumbarton Oaks, of all these wonderful things, the one closest to your heart that brings back the happiest memories?
JNC: Had you not qualified your statement at the end, I'd have given you a couple. But, the most exciting event – clearly and without a doubt – was the planning for and all of the activities that ensued with the building of the new library and the renovation and rehabilitation of the Main House, including the Music Room. This would be the thing that is dearest to my heart and that makes me the happiest. But the whole renovation will stand out in my memory after I leave here as being my most important contribution. That said, it was arduous and it was painful and it was time consuming and often laborious, and I often thought I never, ever wanted to do that sort of thing again. There are the seemingly never-ending meetings over minutia on plans and the inevitable problems that come up when you're planning for new architecture and the renovation of historically significant architecture. But, it really was terrific; I learned enormously from it. I had great colleagues and superiors – Mike Steen, certainly, who was project manager on a consulting basis, and certainly the director Ned Keenan – and working with great architects, I really loved that. The renovation of the Music Room ceiling is probably my fondest part of the project, especially because the results were, to my mind, so stellar, and I worked with great people on that project as well. But the removal of a world class collection from its housing, the incredible amount of detail work of making sure you knew every object's condition and crate housing and shelf storage housing and this and that and then bringing it all back and making new mounts and new vitrines and designing all of that in the interim before it comes back…. Again, I never want to do it again, and probably won't have to, but those are once-in-a-lifetime curatorial opportunities that would probably be distasteful to many who are not curators, but I think are just the meat of what you do when you're in charge of a great collection.
AS: If we could go back a little bit to your curatorship of the House Collection, to what extent have acquisitions been active after the Bliss days?
JNC: The House Collection is not an actively acquiring collection. That said, we do still acquire, although not in the way or to the degree that the Byzantine or Pre-Columbian or rare book collections from the library might collect. They would want to collect great examples of their particular genres, if they can be acquired legally on the marketplace. That is their mission. Their collections are not necessarily static as they were deposited by the Blisses. The House Collection, on the other hand, is. What remains from the House Collection is a kind of finite collection of Blissiana material, some of which was sold off to increase revenue for collecting in Byzantine and Pre-Columbian. We don't do that any longer, but we do acquire for the House Collection occasionally. We acquire furnishings when things wear out, especially Middle Eastern carpets. We also – although we haven't done much of this in my tenure – we also buy Blissiana material, if it's relevant. We would certainly try to buy any portraits of the Blisses that came onto the market. And they had their portraits made many times – Mildred Bliss, in particular – but they didn't choose to retain them. The one painting of Mildred Bliss that hangs over the fireplace in the Refectory they actually gave away to a friend, who later gave it back to Dumbarton Oaks. If there was some significant object that the Blisses had owned that had left Dumbarton Oaks, we might try to get it back if it was relevant to us. There have been pieces that have come up for auction – furniture in particular – that we know the Blisses owned that we haven't tried for. We just don't need it.
JNSL: Was anything ever stolen? Was there ever any – as far as you know, were there any issues with that?
JNC: There have been a few thefts, particularly of things in the gardens. The Pan figure that sits in an arched bricked area pointing towards the Acadian pool that's called Lovers Lane Pool was stolen twice and returned once and not recovered the second time. The artist who did that sculpture was Francis Sedgwick. A cast of it had been acquired or given to his daughter, and she still had it. So, after much convincing and effort, the daughter agreed to make a new mold from her sculpture from which our Pan was recast. One of the eighteenth-century putti riding dolphins that are in the Fountain Terrace was stolen, also twice, once recovered, and once not. And fortunately they are an exact pair – they're not bilaterally symmetrical, as bookends are, they're literally the same object cast twice, so we made a cast of the existing one. There are two in the garden, and one of them is modern, cast from the other, which is the original. Smaller things have been stolen, but theft has been minimal.
EG: So, could you tell us a little bit about the interaction with the House Collections with the Fellows and the scholars and if that's changed over time?
JNC: I don't know if it's changed over time in the sense of predating my arrival here, because I don't really know what happened vis-à-vis the Fellows and the House Collection. When I first came, we used to do an orientation for the Fellows, which is still done, but that orientation also included a tour through the house and especially the areas where there was significant architecture and interiors or significant House Collection objects that might be of interest to the Fellows. They also had a tour with the Byzantine curators of the Byzantine Collection and they had a tour with the Pre-Columbian curators of the Pre-Columbian Collection. The House Collection tour got dropped after five years or so, I don't quite remember, because the schedule of what the Fellows did upon arrival just became somewhat onerous and the House Collection was expendable. So, we've never done that again except by request. And certainly when we reopened, there were a number of requests that I take people through the house and show them what happened during the renovation, and this involved taking both the docents and the Fellows. Also, occasionally, Fellows are interested in House Collection objects, especially the western medieval ones, and so of course they come to my office and, like any reader, they sit and read the dossier files and look at the historic photographs and so forth, but that's somewhat unusual. And every now and then someone is interested in the Blisses so they come and ask questions.
EG: Is that also true of the Archives? – interest in the Archives?
JNC: I have a lot of interest in the Archives from the studies programs, especially the directors. They change fairly frequently, as you know, sometimes every five years, sometimes every ten years, so they often, depending on their interests and the way they want to define their ongoing or upcoming projects – they want to see what's happened. Sometimes they have that material in their offices, but frankly a lot of the historical material is in the Archives, so they check out what they need. Also, by chance, I have a number of scholarly files that relate to research or projects that were given to Dumbarton Oaks by, especially, Byzantine scholars, although in one case by a Pre-Columbian scholar, and when Fellows are working on similar topics, they come and use these materials. However, I've had about ten Fellows in the twenty years that I've been here do that, so that's not a huge number.
EG: Is there much relationship between the House Collection and the Byzantine and Pre-Columbian Collections in terms of organization and exhibition?
JNC: Yes and no. The three Collections are all part of the same department, which is the Museum department. There's a little bit more of a sophisticated curatorial apparatus for the two primary collections, Byzantine and Pre-Columbian, less so for the House Collection, but we meet sort of on equal grounds otherwise. The exhibition space, so-called, for the House Collection is the Music Room, and it is by plan and tradition a different type of exhibition space than the gallery type of space that the Byzantine and Pre-Columbian Collections use. We have decided to retain a kind of residential, Edwardian, Kunstkammer look for the Music Room – no wall labels, no vitrines. Yes there are spot lights and there are a few museum fittings, but they are meant to be discrete. The only – I'm not quite sure how to answer your question, that's why I said yes and no. So, let me end by saying the new thing that we've done recently since the Collections were reinstalled is to bring collecting at Dumbarton Oaks and the Museum Collections at Dumbarton Oaks into something of a unified focus. And the Bliss Gallery – which was inaugurated with that reinstallation – has a vitrine which, as of tomorrow, will have an inaugural exhibit of animal bronzes, which come from at least two of the Collections. We had wanted them to come from all three of the Collections and they could have, but the Pre-Columbians needed their very few animal bronze sculptures for the permanent installation. We will probably do a hard stone exhibition there at some time, which will be House Collection Asian, House Collection European, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian, in order to show that the Blisses were interested in artworks made of hard stone from many cultures, and that way refocus attention on their collecting and collecting interests rather than on the cultural nature of the collection. And that certainly was true, as I said a moment ago, with the inaugural special exhibition – hallway exhibition – titled “Collector's Microbe,” which put objects from all three Collections into the same vitrines and onto the same walls in order to show that this was a Dumbarton Oaks collection in the singular, our literal and legal title – we are the Dumbarton Oaks Research Institute and Collection “singular,” and I think that use of the singular was purposeful – I think that was by choice.
EG: Other than the creation of the Bliss Gallery, the House Collection has always been housed in the Music Room?
JNC: Housed, in a public sense, in the Music Room. Housed, in an institutional sense, throughout the building, so the paintings and furnishings that you see on the first floor – what we call the first floor gallery, the hallway between the museum wing and the Founders Room, for example – the paintings in the Founders Room and so forth, these are all House Collection items, including the Founders Room itself, the boiseries, the wall paneling of the Founders Room – these are all accessioned House Collection items. They are now actually on public display to a degree because we've just started running docent tours on Saturday by sign-up appointment, but that's a very new and historically unique moment in our public persona. But, we've always had House Collection objects used the way the Blisses wanted them to be seen and that is as beautiful things to delight, inspire perhaps, staff and Fellows and scholars. So, there's a public space and a private space, and there's a big storage space where a number of things don't see the light of day at the moment, because there's no room for them.
JNSL: Are you aware of any attempts either in the immediate past or the more distant past to take some of the stories associated with Dumbarton Oaks and its history and turn them into any kind of dramatic or sort of novelistic element? Has anyone ever shown an interest in doing that, because when I listen to these stories I think sometimes it sounds like it would make a great movie, or make a great play, or make a great story?
JNC: I've never heard of such a thing. I do think that a history of the institution needs to be written.
JNSL: That's something that several people whom I've interviewed have said.
JNC: And I think through the Oral History interview project and through the archival holdings, both the Bliss Papers at Harvard and the ones that we've now talked quite a bit about, it’s all there. One might identify additional people to interview once one started writing a history, as always is the case with biographies or institutional histories. But easily eighty percent of it is already there, it just needs the time and the interest.
EG: So, have you noticed any significant changes over the time that you've been here since your undergraduate ‘til the present, in terms of the academic or social or even physical setting here at Dumbarton Oaks?
JNC: Let me start with the physical setting. The physical setting was in need of renovation by the time that Giles Constable became director. He pointed that out in the interview that I did with him, and he wrote about it in his biannual report several times. He points out that well-made buildings are not like the buildings that he or I, as he put it in his interview, might buy because we can't afford to buy better-made buildings. We have to replace the roof every twenty years, whereas roofs on better-made buildings last for fifty years in all respects. But when he came to Dumbarton Oaks, the fifty year time bomb was about to explode. And it was absolutely true – the infrastructure of the physical real estate of Dumbarton Oaks was in dire need of renovation. And he was the one that reinforced the third floor – the attic floor, which is now used for the publications office space – in order to house shelving for the Byzantine library, and in Thomson's tenure, the courtyard gallery was built and all of that space underneath which had been just dirt was excavated to form a connection between the basement of the Garden Library and the Pre-Columbian Collection and underneath the Music Room, which allowed for offices and shelving and storage space and so forth. So, the physical plant improved fairly steadily. Air conditioning was added in the Constable era, and the physical plant continued to improve steadily in the years that I knew the institution. It improved dramatically in the '90s and at the turn of the century with the acquisition of new real estate: the director's house and the apartment building La Quercia, which took a certain amount of pressure off of the existing real estate, including some questionable legal pressures: the old director's house, now the Refectory, probably could not have housed a family of more than two people because using the upper floor as a bedroom space might have been considered illegal from a life-safety aspect. There were reasons to move on and certainly in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the decade we're in, the building of considerable new physical space – the library, the gardeners’ court – and the renovation of the existing physical spaces was a remarkable change. That's the easy answer. Socially, I don't know. I was in my twenties when I was a Junior Fellow, and the parties and the swimming pools activities and going into Georgetown for impromptu, on-the-cheap dinners and beers was great fun. Do Fellows still do this today? Probably. I think when you interview some of the younger Fellows or staff, that's an interesting question to ask. I see Fellows being very serious here. They're very nice and when I interact with them on a social level I always enjoy that, but I see them being very serious, and I have a feeling that was always the case. That hasn't changed, but possibly the pressures of the world and the paucity of job openings in academic humanistic professions and just the need to spend your money wisely and move on and get your research and your dissertation done or your next book done and so forth leaves you little time to have a beer and a pizza. I don't know. You had a third prong on that question?
JNC: Academically. Oh, the standards here have always been very high, remarkably high I think, in everything – the choice of people that come. I know that sounds slightly self-serving, so forgive me. But the publications, the programs and projects that the institution has sponsored – I mean, Dumbarton Oaks has a stellar record, and I don't say that because I'm “in-house.” I think I could write a critical review if I had to, but you know, you look at the history of what this institution has done in the world and here in its self-appointed research areas or interest areas, and it's just remarkable, it's remarkable.
AS: Has the evolution of the faculty to speak of here at Dumbarton Oaks changed the academics?
JNC: The Blisses and the early administrators wanted some kind of faculty presence, a kind of senior mentorship, I believe from what I've read. Let me back up to say that I think the Blisses initially just wanted senior research people here. When more junior people came and were given a kind of task working half day on their dissertations and half day on putting together a census of Byzantine objects in America or, if they were text people, looking at textual references for objects. (If you haven't read David Wright's paper on the early years of the institution, I highly recommend it to you.) I think the Blisses and the administration realized that there needed to be a kind of mentorship program for the more junior people who came – that this was something that would be very valuable. And because of the Harvard association, a kind of academic model was first chosen where there would be professors. But, it didn't make a great deal of sense because they didn't have students and they didn't give classes, per se. I mean, they might offer seminars maybe or give occasional lectures, but they didn't – it just wasn't a good model. And if they became tenured – initially a few of them did – what did they see their role to be? Did they see their role to be tenured faculty who fortunately didn't have to teach so they could spend one hundred percent of their time doing research, or just what? And so it was hard, it was a very hard model to keep going, and I think they were right in doing away with it, and in providing academic leadership and academic mentorship in other ways through having a coterie of like beings of all stages of life physically in one space. As is true now with the symposia and catalogue projects and the coin and seal seminars that are run in the summer, people with similar interests can come from different institutions and talk together, talk to senior members, talk to junior members. Dumbarton Oaks facilitates that, makes the bread and butter of that happen. It would only happen otherwise through email or through something much less interactive.
EG: So, sort of in closing, could you talk a little how you see the role of the Archives and the House Collection in the future?
JNC: The Archives should be exactly what it is today, only better. It should have every significant bit of Dumbarton Oaks institutional, intellectual history that's pertinent to the institution, housed there. It should be user-friendly, it should be – in a conservation sense – secure and well maintained. If we ever enter into an economic period and a digital period where things like that can be more easily accessible through digital technology, then that should happen. It happens obviously to a degree because everything you're doing will eventually become, if it hasn't already, part of the Archives and this comes in digital format, so the transition is underway. The House Collection should also carry on as it is, should maintain its course, ensuring that its role in both the Blisses' lives and in the institutional life of Dumbarton Oaks should not be forgotten. Its status should be maintained and honored because many of the art objects – by no means all, but a good many – are museum, world-class pieces that show a great level of connoisseurship and interest by the founders of this institution. Maintenance of this Collection should be insured, because it isn't inexpensive to maintain an art collection. But Dumbarton Oaks has and, I hope, will continue to do so. And I think that it should. In bad economic times, or when the world has moved on, one has to make choices, and it's possible that things will change, but for the moment I think we should stay the course for both the Archives and the House Collection.
JNSL: Thank you very much.
JNC: Thank you very much.
JNSL: It's been wonderful.