Peter David Joralemon
EG: Today is July 29, 2009. I’m Elizabeth Gettinger.
JS: I’m Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent.
AS: And I’m Anne Steptoe.
EG: And today we have the pleasure of interviewing Peter David Joralemon in his office in New York City. Thank you for sitting and talking with us.
PJ: My pleasure.
EG: So, I guess to start things off, could you tell us about how you first came to hear about Dumbarton Oaks and work there and what your first impressions were?
PJ: I went to Yale as an undergraduate. Michael Coe was my advisor and George Kubler was my advisor, so you can imagine how difficult that was. And since they were both on Dumbarton Oaks’ board and since I was really doing a great deal of art and iconography even though I was studying in anthropology, Dumbarton Oaks was an absolutely key collection. The books and publications were important. So, it was from the time I first went into pre-Columbian studies, it was a really key source and I visited the collection and participated in conferences, and so forth. But my involvement in pre-Columbian was somewhat by accident. When I first started out I was more interested in the ancient Middle East and I took courses in Mesopotamia and Babylon, and Yale had some extremely good professors and I worked closely with an Egyptologist named Kelly Simpson. At the same time I was taking some social science classes and I think I had already taken a course from Coe. And Simpson took me aside one time and he said, “It’s time to have one of those difficult conversations. You are legendary,” he said, “at being inept at foreign languages. Now, if you’re going to become an Egyptologist you have to know Greek, Latin, Sumerian, Hebrew, several kinds of other Middle Eastern language, French, German, Italian, and then you will discover that this is a pretty exhausted field. It’s been going for hundreds of years. There’s very little left to do. But I understand you also have an interest in pre-Columbian and even you can figure out how to pass a reading course in Spanish. And it’s a brand new field with very interesting things yet to be discovered. So,” he said, “if I were you, as much as I would appreciate your staying in Egyptology, pre-Columbian is a much more vital field.” So, I was somewhat disappointed, but you have to imagine what Michael Coe was like in those years. He was quite young. He had just come back from doing ecological archaeology. He was an electric personality in the seminars and lecture classes, irreverent. He was many, many things that were really pretty exciting. So, it was not a great tragedy to leave Egypt and jump into that. It was also the time when Coe was – you know, he made many transformations in his life. But this was about the time where he was at the flood tide of San Lorenzo and finishing the San Lorenzo reports and already getting very interested in ancient Mexican thought and religion and iconography and symbolism, and there was another whole phase of his life which began with Olmec iconography, then Maya, and Teotihuacan, and so forth. So, it was – the late ’60s, early ’70s was a time of terrific excitement from his point of view because he knew the archaeological material and he had an extraordinary insightfulness and excitement about ancient thought process. So, I sort of dropped in right at that time. So, it was very exciting. He also – he is a kind of a very traditional, old-fashioned kind of fellow, and the idea that I really wasn’t particularly interested in digging up ruins and taking pollen samples was fine with him. He said, “You know, so many people do that and they do it well, and nobody’s doing the study of ancient art except the art historians under Kubler, and you know what I think of him.” There was no love lost between those two gents. So, in fact, instead of saying, “Oh, I’m really disappointed. I think you’ve got to rethink your career,” he was encouraging. And Coe always had a great interest and insightfulness about art, whether it was Cambodia which he’d circle around and come back to or other things. But he was an astonishingly electric teacher and a great mentor. I remember the first seminar I took with him he said, “Well now, I don’t want to bore you all, you’re all intelligent. You’re going to work hard. So, starting next week, you’ll take the class and then you’ll take it after that and, oh, after this I want a publishable manuscript from all of you.” And I was, what, nineteen or twenty. Oh, sure! “Oh, and I want it all to be original research, don’t just get lost in summarizing what other people have said.” So, he really launched you and then he didn’t interfere too much. He just assumed that you’d go out and do your things and make discoveries and come back and tell him what they were. And of course he was a great critic, but I don’t think that’s a convincing argument. So, that was fun. But Dumbarton Oaks was such an important place at that time because it was still ruled by the art people. Coe was an art person, Benson was an art person, Kubler. It hadn’t gone through its kind of rebranding to become much more archaeological and, I mean, you know how nasty and horrible that transition was. So, it was the place where the intellectuals that worked on ancient thought, religion, iconography had a home, and there were almost no other places where that was the case nor are there now.
EG: Was your first real interaction with it through the publication that you worked on, I think, with Betty Benson? The study of Olmec iconography?
PJ: I’m almost certain I visited Dumbarton Oaks before and I’d certainly met Betty Benson before and I knew Kubler and Coe and I knew the collection books, you know, the old Nicholas Mori catalog, and of course the different papers that had been written. So, it was sort of a combination of a visit and knowing the intellectual stuff that had come out of the publications, and that’s really how I learned about it. The Dumbarton Oaks publication of my Olmec piece – that was my senior essay at Yale, or a version of it. And that was kind of a strange thing because in those years Yale had pretty distinct majors.
JS: When was this?
PJ: This was between ’65 and ’69. I graduated in ’69. So you could be an art historian or you could be an anthropologist or you could be a sociologist. So, here I am, this mess interested in history of religion, very deeply, in pre-Columbian iconography, pre-Columbian art history, and pre-Columbian archaeology. So, Yale realized that there would always be people that didn’t fit into these traditional things so they created something called a Scholar of the House. And Yale had twelve residential colleges and they were willing to appoint one person for each of those colleges who was basically removed from all class work for your senior year, you had to make a proposal of what your senior project would be, you worked with an advisor, and, “So long! Give us the manuscript when it’s done.” So, we had all of these people that were cross-disciplinary. Now it’s very common for people to be able to cross lines, but then it was very much not common. So, because of that combination Dumbarton Oaks was the logical place to publish that. So, I think I wrote it when I was twenty. And I wrote it really quickly, because I’m a really terrible procrastinator, and I did a lot of drawings and a lot of drawings, and Coe kept saying, “Now let’s see a little writing here.” So, finally I put it together. And then Betty, who was a wonderful human being and a great editor, pulled it together, pointed out some inconsistencies and said, “Well, I think we should just go ahead and publish this. At the very least it’s a big bunch of drawings that no one’s ever seen before.”
EG: And were you working with collections from Dumbarton Oaks or were the collections mostly from Yale or other places?
PJ: No, I worked – even that’s a slightly odd story. My original Scholar of the House project was supposed to be on the burials from Tlatilco, which is a big, big group of archaeologically excavated objects in Mexico City. And so I got a grant to do it, the Scholar of the House people accepted that as my senior thesis, I went to Mexico and they were very happy to see me, and they said, “Unfortunately, until we publish the Tlatilco graves as osteology, we’re not letting anybody publish them at all.” So, there I am. I’m in Mexico with my grant, with a project I can’t do. Coe was out in Contreras sorting millions of San Lorenzo pot sherds and writing up his final San Lorenzo report. So, I trooped out there, and actually that’s when I first met Gillett Griffin, who I think was also on the Dumbarton Oaks advisory board. And I said, “What do I do?” He said, “Okay, figure out Olmec iconography. No one’s done it really for a long time so go photograph and draw every single object you can find anywhere, whether it’s in a museum collection, in a private collection, in a book, in a photograph, just draw it and make sure they’re accurate drawings because at some point they’ll be reproduced and may become the only record of something for many, many years.” So, I went back with my little pad and went to the National Museum and started to draw everything. So, it was being blocked by the Mexican archaeologist who hadn’t finished with the study of the bones that kind of indirectly led me to a completely new idea. And Coe had also I think just published the Las Limas figure and he was really pretty excited about how that was going to give us a new understanding of Olmec religion. So, that means I drew everything in the Dumbarton Oaks, the Natural History Museum, the Metropolitan, the Mexicans. And I would pore through Coe’s books finding obscure photographs or catalogs that I’d never seen before. So, it was really about building up a corpus of Olmec things. And he said, “You know, you may be utterly, inconceivably wrong, but at the very least you will have done a lot of the leg work which other people will be able to build on.” Unlike other – I mean, Coe was part of an extraordinary little group at Yale: Floyd Lounsbury, who was at that point a linguist with a hobby in Maya glyphic writing, but it was only a hobby; and there was Asger Aaboe who was a historian of science, who was interested in astronomy and so forth; and Kubler. And there were some people in the history of religion. It was one of those amazing times where people from different disciplines were all kind of looking at pre-Columbian art. But Coe was always a skeptic, and Lounsbury was really a skeptic. Lounsbury’s opinion, which few glyphic people follow anymore, is that you have never proved a decipherment, you just haven’t yet disproved it. And that’s when Coe said, “You’re going to do a lot of work and you may be completely wrong or you may be right, but time will tell about that, but this is the corpus building time. This is the time to really – ” And he said, “Unfortunately iconography in Olmec is so often related to incised designs and low relief carving.” And he said, “Frankly a lot of times you can’t see in a photograph, even if it’s a very good photograph, where you see part of it and you can’t see the other part.’ So, he said, “Try to really schematically map this stuff.” Well, my drawing experience was zero, so I got a little photograph and some tracing paper and off I went. And little by little I got great stacks of things, and unfortunately there was no computer thing, no scanning, none of that, so this was very hand-made. So, it was: gather the data together. As you’re doing it, you’re going to start thinking about things and have hypotheses. But he said, “I will guarantee you that the kind of previous theory about Olmec religion is wrong, that this is a much more complicated polytheistic operation very much like the Aztecs.” And of course he and Kubler were going nuts about this at the time. I remember when I finished the senior paper, I gave it to Kubler to read and Kubler was also a classic and fascinating man, very old-fashioned, very traditional and very much the kind of professor who would like you even though he hated your ideas. He said, “Mr. Joralemon, this is extremely interesting. I agree with many things, but agreements are never really that interesting. So, let me talk about the first line in your paper.” Two hours later what we were doing was battling about whether pre-Columbian religion was based on gods or sort of spiritual forces of nature more like Buddhism and Hinduism. But unlike many, many professors who really meld their personalities and their ideas, Kubler was perfectly happy to disagree with you but it never had any relationship with the respect he had for you. And that was a very old-fashioned idea. So, at the end of it I put together a huge number of Olmec drawings, which I’ve continued to do. Probably thousands of them.
EG: And is that related to the Olmec project that you worked on at Dumbarton Oaks? Is that similar?
PJ: Yeah. That was basically the publication of that particular slice. I’d put all of the stuff out that I’d drawn, I grouped them into things that meant something to me, and it had a great deal to do with Coe’s hypothesis about the meaning of the Las Limas figure. Since I was happy to do that, that might have been Kubler’s formalistic training where he was so hesitant to assign meaning to things, that I was perfectly happy to say, “Here’s the corpus, here are the ways I think these things group together, and here are some brief speculations about what on earth this might mean,” but I didn’t have my heart in that, because I didn’t quite know. And it was fine for me to not know. Now people even though they don’t know are happy to tell you what it all means. But, you know, that was the beginning then and I’ve continued to do the research and I still do. But also, Coe introduced me to many other things that sort of grew out of Dumbarton Oaks, not only the archaeological study of art but also the need for anybody that’s doing that to have knowledge about forgeries. And Dumbarton Oaks, of course, has a long history of complicated debates about some of the very important pieces in the collection, you know what they are. So, he said, “If you’re going to publish these you should be quite certain that they’re real, otherwise the corpus will be infected with fantasies of other things.” I mean, if the birth goddess and the rabbit at Dumbarton Oaks aren’t real – which I am pretty sure they’re not, in my opinion – then they’ve invaded Aztec publications and Aztec thought. I mean, they’re constantly referred to. So, that was another thing. And Coe and I would look at objects and, “I don’t like that, I think this is funny,” so that was part of what you had to learn if you were going to be an armchair archaeologist and not have the luxury in digging it up.
EG: So, the goals of the Olmec project were really just to create a really large corpus?
PJ: The biggest corpus that I could put together, and to divide the corpus into groups of like objects, and then to do some thinking about what those religious images might mean, and the raging theory of the moment was ethnographic analogy. Unlike Kubler, who saw disjunction as the reigning fact of Mesoamerican archaeology, Coe saw vast similarities and sort of structural similarities between Olmec and Aztec. So, for him reading Aztec ethnology and studying Aztec iconography could give you insight into things that were thousands of years earlier. For Kubler it was ridiculous. And he would pick out Panofsky’s different places where form and meaning have become distracted, or disjointed, and Coe then furiously said, “Well, that’s what happens when you have exclusivistic religions, when you’re slaughtering people that don’t believe in you, things come apart. That doesn’t happen in Mesoamerica.” So, there were many things going on in that time: the debate about ethnographic analogy; the debate about whether pre-Columbian people had gods or not; how to read art. It was a very interesting time. And of course the professional archaeologists were absolutely appalled, and continue to be. They don’t – I mean, first of all, everything at Dumbarton Oaks is looted. Every single thing. So, that’s the beginning of that debate. And looted means no context, no context means no meaning. And Coe and others after that, I just think that’s the silliest, most infantile, self-serving thing that you can imagine. An object without context has lost some meaning, but there’s still the object itself. What is it made of? What’s on it? Jeez, there’re forty-five hieroglyphs on it, and thirty-five figures on it. Well, that’s still something there. It’s obviously not everything that you’d like to know because context is certainly important for meaning, but it doesn’t mean that you just put them aside as objects that have no utility and no purpose to study. I mean, what would the study of Greek vases be if you eliminated every Greek vase that wasn’t scientifically excavated? So, these battles just continue. There’s no end to them. And they get very mean and very nasty and vindictive and terrible, and Dumbarton Oaks was sort of part of that battle that was going on there. But when I finally finished my research and went as a Fellow to Dumbarton Oaks, you know, it’s a glorious place. I’d never been in a think tank before where basically all of your needs were just taken care of.
JS: What year were you a Fellow there?
PJ: You know, I can’t remember. It must have been the early ’70s, because I had a period where I went to Yale Divinity School and I think that I went to D.O. before that.
EG: So, how did you end up being a Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks after you worked there – ?
PJ: Coe said, “Well, this is kind of a useful thing as you move toward a dissertation and it’s a great place to do research. You’re surrounded by an exceptionally beautiful environment, glorious objects, a great library, wonderful photographs, Betty Benson. And it’s a great place to clear your mind and to do your focused research.” So, that’s what I did. And to sit in my little desk down there and have the Arroyo Pesquero figure on my desk, in my hands, drawing away – that’s a really unique opportunity.
JS: Did you pick up any lore about Mr. Bliss himself while you were there in those early ’70s? Because it wasn’t too long after he had –
PJ: I really didn’t. The only – you knew in general that he was a collector of jewel-like objects, that pre-Columbian was a side interest to his Christian and early Christian and orthodox kind of things, that that’s really where his great focus was. So, no. And Thacher was already dead. So Betty Benson was the link to the past, and there were certainly many people that had known them but it wasn’t talked about, at least around the people that I was around.
AS: I wonder, before we move too far into talking about the Junior Fellowship, if we can go back to Yale for just a second. You talked a lot about the very clear divide between art history and archaeology, but while we’re on the subject of divides and controversies and fights, we understand that there was a big Yale-Harvard rift at this time in pre-Columbian archaeology and I just wonder from someone who was at Yale at the time if you had heard anything, because we really have only heard it from the Harvard perspective thus far.
PJ: I think it had a great deal to do with Steve Williams, who I think was the head of the Peabody Museum, and it appeared that there – I mean, Yale and Harvard have had disagreements for a long time, but this kind of seemed to sort out to, “It’s time for a new age at Dumbarton Oaks, an age where archaeology is the focus of it, not elitist art collecting. Perhaps Dumbarton Oaks would be best if the pre-Columbian collection actually came to Harvard and was integrated with the Peabody Museum collection and then the building could be used in a more effective way.” Now some of that was rank rumor, I never knew exactly how much of it was true. But the old guard – the Kubler, Griffin, Coe, Benson – were clearly at war with a very different approach. And there were talks about raiding the endowment and I mean it was a very hostile time and it got, I think, quite personal and I can’t imagine what really went on in the board meetings. But it was in the air and it was very hostile. But it was effectively the art people versus the archaeologists, and it happened that the art people were Yalies and archaeologists were Harvard. So, it was a nice divide.
EG: We haven’t heard that perspective, really –
PJ: Have you talked to Coe?
EG: Yeah, last summer they talked to him.
PJ: Yeah, because it was way above my pay grade, shall we say, but it was definitely going on. And there were rumors of plans to move the collection to Harvard and that would be the end, because for the art people it was the end because what I think the art people valued is this unique place where Dumbarton Oaks is a place where archaeologists and art historians can actually, if not collaborate, at least be in the same peaceful and meditative environment and that there was no other place that you could really do that, and I don’t think there is even now.
EG: So, did you notice a tension even then between treating the collections as an art historical thing versus trying to turn it into more of an archaeological institution?
PJ: Yeah, that I think is what it was about and you could see it played out. There was kind of a shift in titles of the monographs and subjects of conferences and it was clearly in sort of a new era. And then also the resignations and removal of the old guard who all, I guess – did any of them survive? I don’t think so. I mean, it was really one of those, the end of Bliss and his immediate academic colleagues and the beginning of a different phase. And then it, largely I think because of Linda Schele, it then really got very involved with Maya glyphic studies and iconography and so forth and became a very important place for that kind of study. And now maybe the wars are a little less there. People are dead or retired or don’t care anymore or have lost or won or whatever, so I don’t think it’s quite the hot button issue. But it was a really impassioned time. It was a fight over the corpse. It was a fight over what Bliss left, and how that money would be spent and that money as it’s spent helps to create the agenda, that Dumbarton Oaks conferences were very important, so who chose the topic and who was invited. It was still a very elitist organization. It’s become I think much more pliable and flexible with different kinds of fellowships, different ways to do conferences, but in so doing it’s lost some of that uniqueness. Now it’s a little bit more of a study center and maybe there are other places that you can have study centers too.
EG: So, did you get a sense in working with the collection of Mr. Bliss’ goals or his tastes in acquisitions in collecting?
PJ: I think his taste is quite interesting and it’s abundantly clear: he was not a terracotta man. He was a precious materials man, whether it was gold or incredibly refined textiles or hard green stone. His comment to Stokes about the wood figure being eroded – he also liked things that were in very good condition, but wood wasn’t very precious.
JS: The aesthetic.
PJ: Yeah. So, the jewel box that Philip Johnson built kind of reflected the taste. It was very Byzantine taste; it was the precious materials, preciously made. And I don’t – I mean, there were other people who were doing the same thing. Bliss and Alastair Martin were tremendous competitors in art buying because they both had the same taste in pre-Columbian: gems. So Martin got the jade figure with the baby and Bliss didn’t because maybe Bliss didn’t like the fact that it was missing its leg. So, it was precious materials, preciously worked, in very good condition, that was another important thing. But the kind of divine preciousness that it has now is partly related to Philip Johnson’s building, because if you go back over the Nicholas Mori catalog, Dumbarton Oaks was a mess. That collection ranged from – there were many forgeries in it, there was material that was certainly tertiary at best, so there’s been a kind of an editing through time of the exhibit and what gets published and constantly gets repeated, which has left some of Mr. Bliss’ more unsuccessful acquisitions in the dust. In fact I don’t think they’re really recorded after the Nicholas Mori book. It’s interesting, Jainas are one of the places where he would get into terracotta. But there’s nothing more refined and courtly and elegant than Jaina figurines so he would do that. But there is a sense of preciousness and at least what’s there now is of unbelievable quality. But if you took the Metropolitan and the Natural History Museum and boiled them down and put kind of a Bliss aesthetic on, you still wouldn’t get to as many pieces, but you’d certainly have some awfully great ones. But he was an aesthetic collector and I’m not aware that he was much swayed by iconographic considerations or things like that, and I don’t think he much was interested in buying things that he didn’t like. So, in that way he was a very old-fashioned, aesthetic collector.
EG: And were there still acquisitions when you were at Dumbarton Oaks in the ’70s, or had that stopped by then?
PJ: No, the Mixtec mosaic mask I think was bought about that time, but it was a combination of the archaeological-art history wars which I think basically ended acquisitions. I mean, there have certainly been many, many objects that have come up at public auction which fit anybody’s definition of politically correct – a Jay Leff piece that was exhibited in 1965 or 1957 – so I think it has nothing anymore to do with that. It has to do with money, that if the rumors are true that Harvard fixed its endowment, then it’s living on life support. I don’t know whether those rumors are true, but the rumors always were that Bliss was worried as any collector of that sort would be: “What happens after I die? If I maintain it as a separate institution, will my endowment last, or will a hundred years from now, we’ll be having a garage sale? Or do I merge it into an existing institution and sort of lose the personality of the collection? Or do I affiliate it with a university or some other institution which will guarantee its long-term survival but also allow it to be kind of a separate thing?” At one point I did quite a lot of research work for Robert and Lisa Sainsbury in England, and they were also competitors of Bliss and they faced the same problem. You know, you have this private collection. What do you do with it? Well, they went to – the British Museum wanted the Francis Bacons, and the Museum of Archaeology at Cambridge wanted this, and Oxford wanted that, so they ended up doing a Bliss kind of thing and giving it to the University of East Anglia where it is housed in a separate building – has a certain sensibility to it. Although Bliss wanted his house maintained. So, the rumor always was that Harvard guaranteed no loss but also that if Harvard made money, that was theirs. So, someone out there knows whether that’s true or not. But I think that Elizabeth Benson attempted to do some acquisition, I don’t know what literally the last piece was, but it was my impression that with X amount of money and so much money going into research and publication that it just didn’t make any sense. So, then it became a kind of a time capsule.
AS: I wonder, while we’re talking about Mr. Bliss and the issue of what to do with the collection, was there any talk of influence on his collecting habits or where it went? Because we heard from others, and I don’t know if this would’ve passed down to that time, but that it was something of an accident that he stumbled upon Harvard. Not stumbled, I mean he was a Harvard man.
PJ: He was a Harvard grad, right. I never knew any of the details, only that he felt that Harvard was certainly going to be solvent much longer than he could be certain that he would be solvent, and that that was agreeable. And my guess is only the National Gallery didn’t want it. Sure he was a big personality in Washington and they showed his things, but it wasn’t really the National Gallery’s interest. They probably thought it just belonged in the Natural History Museum.
AS: And from the pre-Columbian perspective was there, especially in the ’70s and as you probably know from when you were there, the Byzantine program was the giant in the room so to speak.
PJ: Oh yes.
AS: But the will seems very explicit that it’s an equal divide of resources and attention. Was that – ?
PJ: Well, that didn’t work.
AS: No, but was that something that was even known or talked about or – ?
PJ: I never heard anybody that saw the will or knew what the concept was. I mean, it was always supposed to be a tripod. There were three different things. But it appeared that Byzantine ran off with the lion’s share of everything: space, fellowships, library resources, and so forth. Gardens brought up the rear, and Pre-Columbian was sort of in the middle. That was the way it kind of looked, so I would be flabbergasted to think that Bliss actually saw this as three equally-funded, three different centers with equal gravitas. But maybe that’s what his – I mean, a lot of what this had to do – these battles – was what did Mr. Bliss want and does it matter. He’s dead. There are no heirs. So, had there been heirs, my guess is that the Bliss collection would have maintained its sort of 1960s self for quite a lot longer.
JS: Was there, at least on the social level, considerable interaction among the three fields, among scholars of the three fields when you were there at Dumbarton Oaks or did people really tend to be, sort of – ?
PJ: Kept to themselves. There was almost no interaction. I mean, you know, you’d see them around, but –
JS: Were you down in the basement?
PJ: Mmhmm. But you wouldn’t have conferences. There would sometimes be all-Dumbarton Oaks events for Fellows and so forth, and then everybody would get together and go to their own corners. So, I wouldn’t say that integration of the three disciplines was very successful.
AS: You were living in the Fellows Building or – ?
PJ: No, I was up on McLean Avenue. Is that right? Up at the top of the hill.
PJ: Wisconsin Avenue. McLean Gardens, that’s what it was called.
JS: Oh, way up there.
PJ: So, it was kind of a nice, brisk walk to work. I think I more or less took the bus home because that’s quite a hill. So, it wasn’t a living, working, eating situation. I was a little off campus, and that was fine with me. But the conferences were really fun and also the chance to meet the visiting dignitaries that would come for various reasons, whether it was to look at objects or do research, and have a chance to connect with some of your colleagues.
EG: Did you get a chance to work closely with any of the scholars that were coming in and out of Dumbarton Oaks at that time?
PJ: Nope. But you know there were very – I mean, who else was there when I was there?
EG: Gosh, aside from –
PJ: Was Barbara Braun there? Working on – ?
EG: I think that name has come up.
PJ: Well, she’s still around, she’s around. She’s a publisher. But check your list. I’m almost sure – maybe she was writing a monograph but wasn’t there, but I think that she was. Barbara Braun.
AS: You mentioned Linda Schele.
PJ: She was after.
AS: Oh, after.
EG: Was this the time of Gordon Willey and that Harvard contingent?
PJ: Yeah. Let’s see, Gordon was Mike Coe’s professor, so they were part of – Willey was really a little bit in the bind because he was an old-fashioned kind of archaeologist, but he had good relations with Coe and I guess fairly good relations with Steve Williams.
AS: Arthur Miller was there, but I think he was only for a year. He might have missed you by a year.
PJ: I think he was a little bit earlier. You know, I’m not so sure that I wasn’t the only one. I think they had one Fellow a year, and there were no Junior Fellows and all of these other ways to allow the collection to be used in a less formal way.
AS: I mean, this really was the beginning of the program.
PJ: I think so.
AS: Because I think we spoke with – or, we didn’t speak with Mary Miller but our Fellows last summer talked to her and she mentioned that you might’ve been the very first Junior Fellow before it was a Junior Fellow –
PJ: It’s possible, yeah.
EG: Now there was certainly a senior Fellow.
PJ: Who were the senior Fellows before?
AS: Arthur Miller was the first senior Fellow.
PJ: He was the first senior Fellow. So, I could have been the first or the second Junior Fellow. But you should look up Barbara Braun because somehow, either before, after, during, or I don’t know, she was somehow involved there.
EG: Was there some – I think your official title is the Robert Woods Bliss Fellow – was there any special significance to that or was it just the title, the name – ?
PJ: Just the title. Just the name. I mean, I remember another thing that was amazing. You know, Coe was all excited about Maya glyphs at the time or Maya iconography, and sitting at Dumbarton Oaks you could sort of – “A little tired of my Olmec drawings, so I’ll just go and look at this.” And the National Geographic had decided to do a thing on the Maya, and they wanted to film some of the things at Dumbarton Oaks, and they came and produced the first rollout camera that I’d ever seen, a little 35mm camera. And then I got right on the phone to Justin Kerr and I said, “Justin,” because he’d talked about it but had never actually done it. I said, “I’ve seen a rollout camera, a 35mm, and I think that there’s a possibility that it can be in a bigger format.” So, he kind of went to work and figured it out. But the Geographic brought a little rollout camera that they developed and they did roll out some flats. So, it was a time when my interest in Maya was going but Olmec was, sort of, finished up.
EG: What was the relationship like between the people at Dumbarton Oaks that were doing Olmec versus Maya? Because it seems now that it’s really mostly Maya-centric and maybe less Aztec and Olmec and other civilizations.
PJ: I don’t know how – I mean, who knows how the Fellows are actually chosen, but there’s certainly a feeling of who’s doing interesting research, who can benefit from Dumbarton Oaks’ resources, who might be opening up a path to some different ways of thinking. But Maya studies just went berserk with the death of Thompson and the rise of the phonetic school and Coe’s astonishing discoveries about Maya vases and symbolism and so forth. So remember, Coe tends to transform himself. So, I was sort of his Olmec phase, and then he moved on, he had a Teotihuacan phase, and then he jumped into Maya because his Maya phase began with the Grolier Club catalog, which is in the early ’70s. And that’s where he was surrounded by – a publishers’ company or a publishers’ group was doing a Maya show and all of the sudden he had this, “Oh my God, these are actually – ” and completely turned the field upside down. And then that came along with the death of Thompson and the rise of the phoneticists, and suddenly glyphs were making sense in ways that they didn’t before. So, there was a huge momentum for Maya studies that pulled many, many people into it. It was just a very exciting time. It was sort of one of those snap moments where an old way of doing things had just basically come to an end and there was a new way of doing things which was a very productive thing.
JS: How do you view Dumbarton Oaks as it serves the field of pre-Columbian studies from your perspective and from what you do today, if you could characterize that?
PJ: I still read the monographs. I think about the scholarship. But there are many other places that now do conferences that are kind of like Dumbarton Oaks, so Dumbarton Oaks no longer has the monopoly on that setup. There are other places that are good venues to do things. The collection is still a touchstone for anybody thinking about pre-Columbian aesthetics or art, and every once in a while you’ll have another a-ha idea that’s linked to a piece in Dumbarton Oaks, and then that becomes the center and then there are others that can be grouped around it, and you sort of have these a-ha moments. And I think one of the great a-ha moments was Peter Furst, where he was thinking about those jaguar transformation figures and came up with what I still think is a brilliant article, a volunteered paper at a Dumbarton Oaks conference, which really sort of opened people’s eyes to a different way of looking at certain things. And then ran off to – I mean, that idea has gotten rather sloppy, but it was a very nicely argued paper and it grew out of objects. So, I still think that Dumbarton Oaks, because of the quality of the collection, its fame, and the importance of those objects, often can precipitate very good research which then goes off in other areas. And that’s one of – Bliss I don’t think set out to do that – but it’s one of the things that happened, that those objects are really constantly touchstones. I mean, any museum exhibit needs to borrow this, this, and this, and this from Dumbarton Oaks. Anybody that’s doing a book on it has to have – so, that’s amazing actually, fifty, sixty years after Bliss was actively collecting, to have those objects still be able to be the centerpieces for people’s discoveries. And I can’t think that that happens very often.
AS: Do you think then that Dumbarton Oaks, to retain its position in pre-Columbian studies, ought to continue to collect and bring in new potential touchstone pieces? I mean from your perspective –
PJ: Oh absolutely. I think it was a terrible mistake for them to stop. And it was an unnecessary mistake from an intellectual point of view – from a financial point of view, I don’t know. But when a collection stops there is a certain death that happens to it. It becomes a time capsule. The Museum of Modern Art has been terribly worried about this. Are we a museum of modern art which stops at a certain time? Or are we going to continue to move forward and have what is contemporary art now and will be modern art later? But what Bliss was doing – first of all he had his own very specific taste, as we talked about, precious materials, preciously worked and in very good condition, but that’s not necessarily what another curator would have done in the 1980s. They may have been interested in a different kind of thing and refresh the collection in that way. Regardless of what kind of rules you have of collecting, which constrains what you can and cannot buy, there have always been things. And to me one of the important things is for museums to become the final home of these objects, where they really are not just on somebody’s mantle piece but they’re the subjects of scholarship and public enjoyment.
AS: Well, we’ve gotten the sense, I think, that Dumbarton Oaks is and will continue to be financially sound, but there’s a great feeling that the days of collecting according to proper academic guidelines are over.
PJ: They’re certainly radically restricted. But, for example, I was looking through a little, minor auction catalog. There’s a little Veracruz clay figure in it, which is an entire page in Jay Leff’s Brooklyn catalog. Good according to anybody’s definition of appropriate. It sold for 3,000 dollars. So, there are many, many objects out there that have histories that don’t always command enormous prices. In fact, part of what makes objects command enormous prices is the severe restrictions that museums have imposed on themselves about what they can buy. So, when the Kimbell Museum decided to buy the Maya incised celt, they paid nearly two million dollars for it. If that had not been something that was one of the only examples then that price might have been a fraction of that. But in general there’s a great debate in the museum world on what are called ‘orphan objects,’ objects that simply, whether they’re Byzantine or pre-Columbian or Chinese, there are tens of millions of objects that have now been rendered orphans by the American Association of Museum Directors, whose only sin is that they simply were not documented before an arbitrary date. If you talk to people in the auction business, for example, “Oh, I remember visiting Mrs. Smith in Milwaukee. She was 95. And on her bureau she had a Jaina figurine that her husband collected when he was in Mexico in the 1950s. I’d like to sell it.” No records. Only by repute. If that piece had been done in the Jay Leff catalog or the Arensberg collection or something it would suddenly be desirable or acquirable, and now it can’t be. Is it responsible for the museum profession to wipe clean millions and millions of millions of objects? And I’m paying attention to what that figure means. It means that any country of origin will not have a chance to pursue something that they in fact have a real claim on. What a museum needs to do is, “We have this. It’s on our website. If you have a claim that is legitimate then we will return it to you.” So, this condemns an enormous number of things to a kind of a limbo, not moving into the public realm, which is what objects at least in the United States have an almost endless ability to do. I mean, it’s only usually private ownership lasts two or three generations and then it ends up in a museum. And that has in fact been one of the great transfers of art from the private side to the public side, so that’s now stopped. The things are still circulating. They’re just going to countries and places where these particular rules are not applied. But I find it very – it’s part of the general concern. This piece is in Dumbarton Oaks. It was not excavated by a scientist. Therefore, it doesn’t exist. To me that’s irresponsible. It forgets the meaning that is still in that object that can be coaxed out of it, whether it’s new glyphic interpretations, or new ways to study the material itself, or, “My God, this jade is the same kind of jade that’s from the Rio Motagua River.” There’re all kinds of things. This is what art history does. That seems to me an astonishing censoring of objects based on how that object is moved through time. The only Olmec mask ever scientifically excavated, the only one, was found in the Aztec Templo Mayor. How does that help me understand Olmec art? It helps me understand a lot about Aztec, and I’m very happy because it really opens up an understanding of Aztec that’s very different, but it has nothing to do with Olmec. So, as Coe and his various things have said, these objects move through time. But for academics to eliminate evidence based on something that you can’t undo – you can’t send it back to the ground and say, “Archaeologists, dig here.” And the new museum attitudes have only cemented that. So, I don’t quite understand how that benefits anybody. That’s a long, complicated debate, which there are passionate positions on both sides and good arguments on both sides. But whoever is right, there are still millions of objects out there that now have no home.
JS: If I may ask a question of a slightly different nature, what is your favorite memory about your time at Dumbarton Oaks, the most precious memory that you have in terms of what the uniqueness of your experience was?
PJ: The most precious time was, I alluded to it, when I asked Betty Benson if I could have the Arroyo Pesquero seated jade figure, because I couldn’t, even with all of the beautiful photographs they’d done, I just couldn’t see all the design. And so she arranged for it to be brought downstairs and it was on my desk and in my hand and there it was: me and that object. No photograph, nothing captures the quality of the work and the sense of historical connection to a very ancient time. So, that was really a remarkable moment for me. I’ll never forget it
EG: Speaking more generally again, could you talk a little about what you saw as Dumbarton Oaks’ role in Olmec studies and if you see that as having changed today?
PJ: Well, Olmec is a tiny field in fact, and it may be that the next phase of Olmec studies is going to be more archaeological. At some point you’ve kind of run through the evidence that you’ve got and you just have to wait for more publications, more discoveries, more excavations. And I kind of have that feeling about Olmec now, that it’s moved more toward an archaeological side because the art is more or less known. I mean, it’s been published repeatedly. Many people have had comments about it, and I don’t know quite how you can adjudicate who’s right and who’s wrong, I mean, as long as the argument’s good. So, I don’t know that anybody is an important center for Olmec studies now. There are certainly people doing extremely important work, back to San Lorenzo which was Coe’s old place. And then there’s a whole, not yet going, but the study of the object itself. What Jeff Blomster’s studying of neutron activation of Olmec ceramics, which is suddenly bringing some very complicated questions to where things are found and how they got there and what the ancient trade routes are. And that’s not based on archaeological excavation. It’s based on a new way to study objects themselves. But no museum will let him study them because it requires slicing. But there may be other techniques that will come, sort of new ways to look at objects and certainly new ways to evaluate authenticity. And maybe someday there’ll be a real way to be certain about the Aztec birth goddess, not just stylistic but to really be quite certain. So, I don’t think that – Dumbarton Oaks can continue to play a role in Olmec studies, but there may well be other areas which it’s more important to support. It may be Chavín studies. It may be more Moche, or Aztec, or Veracruz, or who knows. But it does have a tremendous gravitas and ability to signal a certain important direction of research. And the conferences can be boring as can be, but occasionally they’re just electric. I mean, people really give astonishing papers and the way that they’re fashioned and put together I think is very important and the publication’s important. But I think Dumbarton Oaks has lost its – and perhaps just time marches forward – but it’s lost its kind of unique place as a special forum for art historians doing pre-Columbian. And the good news is, well, maybe there are now ten different places that you can kind of do that same sort of thing. But there is something so wonderful about the house, the gardens, the peacefulness of it, the collection, the kind of spirits of the people that have been there before, that nobody can equal. I think that’s still a very – it’s part of Dumbarton Oaks’ own history.
AS: As far as the D.O. influence through the symposia, are there any, just for the record, of the symposia that – you described some as electric, occasionally electric – are there any that you recall that were just – ?
PJ: Well, the Dumbarton Oaks conference on the Olmec was electric. I mean, Coe was presenting new discoveries, first had his thing, Tania was being difficult like usual, “Have you ever thought about this stuff? Maybe it’s just all archaism.” But that was the right people at the right moment with new points of view, and that’s very hard to make that happen. In fact, you can’t make it happen. You can bring all the right people together and it can be a complete dud. And you can have most of the right people and some wild people and that can be a dud. There’s no way to make it work. But you can certainly bring smart people with interesting ideas who listen to each other. And the ability to talk across your specialties I think is an important thing that Dumbarton Oaks can bring up, the bringing people together who are not normally in the same place. But I was lucky because Yale had a lot of this going on when I happened to be there. Some of that cross cultural – not cross cultural stuff, but people from different points of view interacting with each other, and then that goes away and doesn’t come back. You can’t hire it, you can’t make it happen, but boy you know when it does happen. The first roundtable at Palenque was like that. That was just one of those, ‘Wow!’ And then there’s been the attempt to sort of to remake Woodstock and it never is the same and it can’t be. It’s a bunch of wild-eyed, irreverent graduate students and a couple of very supportive Mexican scholars who were there and right time, right place. But I would love to be able to say Dumbarton Oaks should figure out how to do that and do it every year. But I also think that it’s been good that South America has a much stronger balance because I think the Mesoamericanists sort of ran away with the game for a while. But I could easily see interesting times coming from mixing the two groups. I mean, I know the Getty did an exhibition and symposium which brought people that study ancient funerary pottery together, so the Greek guys, the Maya guys, the Moche guys, all in the same room. Well, they never have anything to do with each other. And yet they’re all talking about pottery that’s in burials with mythic scenes on them. And I think there could be some very interesting, “Oh, what a great way to approach something,” you know, some cross fertilization. And Dumbarton Oaks has it there. I mean, you could certainly do cross-New World and still stay within the general “the subject should have something to do with what’s in the collections.” It would be interesting to expand that to all New World, but there’s no Native American stuff so it doesn’t really work. But academics become so tribal in a way. I mean, the Aztequistas barely know what the Mayanists are doing, and the Mayanists know what no one else is doing, and then you have these wild cross people like Karl Taube who will go from pole to pole. But that’s something that Dumbarton Oaks really could do, and I don’t know whether there’s any way to get from – I mean, have the Byzantine people ever been brought together with the pre-Columbian gold people to talk about materials, ornaments, liturgy, ritual? I mean, it’s just down the hall. And those are things that don’t happen. It’s too specialist. And maybe they don’t really work. Maybe they’re just interesting to think about. But maybe you’re so isolated that you really don’t think that way.
JS: Thank you so much for your time today.
PJ: I wish I could tell you more about Mr. Bliss but I didn’t know him and I only knew a little bit about him. But Stokes is a good person that really does remember, and have you talked to Julie Jones?
EG, JS, AS: Yes.
PJ: Okay, because you really have to start looking at who’s over 70. And I’m not sure who else I can think of that you haven’t already visited.