Robert W. Thomson
ABF: I’m Anna Bonnell-Freidin and I have the pleasure of interviewing at Pembroke College, Oxford, emeritus professor – emeritus Calouste Gulbenkian Professor of Armenian Studies – Robert Thomson on August 1, 2009. So, let me begin by asking you about your first impressions at Dumbarton Oaks in 1960–61 when you became a Junior Fellow.
RWT: Well, that was my introduction to the United States and a very interesting year it was. My first impression – well, I hope that a fuller picture will emerge as we go along. The year was very influential for me. It certainly focused my career in Armenia much more than I had been focused on Armenia before, and in fact it led indirectly to a position at Harvard, where I was the first Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, and then of course I went back twenty-odd years later as Director. I think I’m the first Director, perhaps still the only Director who was actually a Junior Fellow there and that, of course, actually colored my views of the institution as such when I went back later. Anyway, let’s begin at the beginning. Now in those days the young, unmarried – well not necessarily young – the unmarried persons normally resided in the Fellows Building, which is no longer used for that purpose. Those who were married were given an apartment, usually up on Wisconsin Avenue. There were about half a dozen of us living in the building at the time, and we were treated very nicely. We were given full board, except on Sunday nights we had to go out and find our own dinners. And we had the advantage, of course, of visitors coming who were staying just for a few days and that way we met quite a lot of interesting scholars who came and went. The Fellows, the resident staff – there were a good number, half a dozen or more, I can remember many of them now – the resident staff came in for lunch every day, at least every weekday, one or two others would appear at the weekends occasionally, so we really got to know them pretty well, and there was a good deal of give and take and so forth. What’s his name, Ernst Kitzinger, was the Director of Studies then in the Byzantine field and the Byzantine field was very much stronger relative to the other fields of studies in those days, so I really didn’t come across the people who were interested in Pre-Columbian Studies or Landscape Architecture at that time; it wasn’t really yet a fully fledged program like it was later.
ABF: So, did it feel like a Byzantine –?
RWT: It felt very much like a Byzantine institution, and the building was used pretty much entirely for the Byzantine program. The Junior Fellows, of which I was one, had a large desk up in the main room overlooking the front, which was acres of space; it was very spacious. Later on it became very much too crowded. Gradually the Byzantine program became more famous, more people applied, things got more crowded and, of course, that led to various expansions of the physical building. It was a pretty relaxed place. It was quite enjoyable socially. There were the, of course, the concerts, a regular feature, for which one had to dress up. We had to wear dinner jackets, and Junior Fellows had to sit in the back row, but that’s wasn’t a hardship. The Blisses were still alive and around. I didn’t see very much of Mr. Bliss, though once a year towards the end of the year they gave a big lunch party in their house; they lived a few blocks away. Mrs. Bliss was there much more frequently in the garden, usually, but they had a room at the end of the Orangery, I mean at the end that looks over the Orangery, which was called the Founders Room, and that was where they went. Now, these famous teas that were mentioned – I don’t remember it. There was tea served every day, but that’s not what you had in mind. There were these special occasions. I don’t really remember those. What I remember was that after the gardens had closed, then we were allowed – there was cheese served, and we went out into the Orangery. What should I say? Amongst the staff there, there were particular – the person who was the most influential in my personal career was Sirarpie Der Nersessian, a famous Armenian scholar, Armenian Byzantinist art historian. I had come to finish writing a thesis that I was doing for Cambridge University which was on Syriac and Armenian versions of the Greek, some of the Greek works of St. Athanasios of Alexandria, so I worked away at that, but Sirarpie Der Nersessian, knowing my interest in Armenia, got me working on other various non-related Armenian themes, which in the long run led me to concentrate on Armenian. The others, the other Senior Fellows, we met from time to time. Some of them were a bit more gregarious, as is natural in any group, some of them were more gregarious than others. Ihor Ševčenko, for example, always used to come out in the evenings with the Junior Fellows after the concerts, and we would go down and have a beer in one of the pubs down in Georgetown. Romilly Jenkins, who had arrived that year, wasn’t living in the building, but he always appeared, and we went for long walks on Sunday morning in the better weather. So, one did get to know people, but I would say most of my social life, by good chance, was without, was with people outside Dumbarton Oaks. Now, you won’t know the building of course, the old Fellows Building, but downstairs, and you went in the front door, you went straight into a very large sitting room, probably as big as this room we’re sitting in now, and on the right was the dining room and the kitchen beyond. Now, there was a very old radio or some such there, and we told Ernst Kitzinger that we, the Fellows, needed – the Junior Fellows needed something a bit more up to date, and we got a good stereo system. I went out and I bought some extra-long wires, so we were able to use this stereo system in the lounge, put the wires under the carpets into the dining room where we could have dancing in the evenings. Now, I met in my earlier travels in Turkey, I met someone, I met several people at the British embassy, and he happened to be posted to Washington when I was there with his family. Now he had young children at the time, and he had an au pair girl, a Danish girl, and through her I met a large number of people my own age, and so we had a number of very pleasant evenings in the Fellows Building.
ABF: And you were about twenty-six years old?
RWT: Let me see, well, sixty years. That was a very good guess on your part, exactly. I’d spent a lot of time before going there, I must admit, after I finished my undergraduate degree in Classics. I wanted to go to Greece, and I applied for a traveling scholarship, and I couldn’t get the traveling scholarship. It was given to someone who’d been to Greece before, which I thought was a bit unfair – never mind. It was much more influential, I was offered a chance to go to a Greek college in Istanbul, which was then flourishing, later, of course, the Turks closed it.
ABF: Was this the Halki?
RWT: Halki, yes, Halki Theological College. It’s not just theology. They had a large number of orthodox who weren’t necessarily Greek from all over the world, and many of the students did not intend to become priests or anything, but a number of them did. Anyway, I spent a year and there was able to travel very extensively in Turkey, going to the east. And I returned several summers later, I mean consecutively for several summers. I went to Trebizond and helped with the cleaning of the frescoes there at Saint Sophia in Trebizond, for example. I happened to know Talbot Rice because I lived in Edinburgh and he was professor of art at Edinburgh, so I got to know him, and also other people who, including Michael Gough, who later became the director of the British School there, in Ankara in Turkey.
ABF: Did you have any contact with Paul Underwood when you were there?
RWT: No. I knew Paul Underwood later on, when I became a Junior Fellow. I did have some contact with the Byzantine people who were working there, but that was rather by the way. I wasn’t at all involved with it, but by good chance I did meet one young chap who was involved at Hagia Sophia, a young Russian, I’ve forgotten his name now, and he was able to me get up right onto the roof. And we got into Hagia Sophia, right up to the top, ‘round that terrifying passageway under the dome, out onto the roof. I was young at the time. I’ve been up on the top of Hagia Sophia – very impressive place. So, I got sort of – I didn’t know much about Byzantium before going there – so it got me greatly interested, and of course in the eastern part of the country I was introduced to the Armenian patriarch and various other people, so that sort of sets a scene. Later, when I was back in Cambridge, I was encouraged to study Armenian. I got my first lessons in Vienna, on my way back to Istanbul a couple of years later, so all this was, what should I say, not distracting, it was all very interesting but it meant that my years after being an undergraduate extended a little bit more than the usual three. So, when I got to Dumbarton Oaks, Sirarpie Der Nersessian knew of my interests in Armenian, but of course, I had already been studying it. I started in 1958 in Vienna, I took lessons with the lecturer in Armenian in London, there was already one position in this country then, and so I was able to work with the texts reasonably well. I also polished up a few other skills – well polished, not up, but polished a few other skills while I was at Dumbarton Oaks. Irfan Shahîd, whom you may have met, was there, and he, I believe he wasn’t married then, so he wasn’t living in the building, but he spent a lot of time there. He helped me with my Arabic, because I assisted him reading Syriac texts, so that helped. Anyway, I finished my basic work for the thesis and just had to put the finishing touches on when I went back to Cambridge. That would have been in the summer of ‘61, and so Sirarpie Der Nersessian encouraged me to go, to take a trip up to Harvard. I obviously was looking for possibilities of further research or perhaps an appointment or something in the field with my background of Classics, Syriac, and Armenian, and totally unbeknownst to me, there had been, for the last two or three years, an effort at Harvard to establish a position in Armenian Studies, basically founded and funded by an organization of the Armenian community there. Now, I didn’t know anything about that.
ABF: The Armenian community in Cambridge?
RWT: In Cambridge and the larger Boston area, yes. So, they had already appointed a junior, a junior position, someone by the name of Avedis Sanjian, who later went to UCLA as a professor there. Now, when I went up to Harvard, it was a very interesting three or four days. I had some friends there from Cambridge and I should also explain that the director of studies that I’d had as a doctoral student was Robert Casey, and American Harvard product of the 1920s who died during the time that I was a graduate student, and he died in 1958. So, when I – he had many acquaintances, of course, and old friends back at Harvard – so when I went to Harvard I sort of followed these up, and met a large number of interesting people, and what was interesting was, since I didn’t know anything about this Armenian position, first of all, I went to the Classics Department, and then, the then chairman of Classics Department said “Oh, this is all very interesting, but I don’t know that we can help you. On the other hand, don’t worry, you can get a good living teaching Latin and Greek in one of the good schools around here and you can continue your interests in Armenian on the side.” That wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Then I saw Robert Walsh in history. I went to the Middle East Center and I saw all sorts of other people, including Richard Frye, who is still alive, and he put me onto the Near Eastern Languages Department, and I went ‘round there and I discovered that they were quite interested in Armenian, and at first the chairman thought I wanted to study Armenian. Well, I mean I wasn’t averse to that, but then he realized that I was about to get my doctorate, so he said, “It would be interesting if you could do some post-graduate study with Professor Garitte in the University of Louvain, Belgium.” They tried to get Garitte to come to Harvard and he wasn’t having any of it, nor did Sirarpie Der Nersessian want to take up a position there. In fact, all of the senior people that they’d approached turned it down, so they packed me off and that was very nice. So, I had a year in Louvain, where I got a licence in doing the three Christian Oriental languages, Armenian, Arabic, now I was going to offer Syriac. But the man in charge of Syriac, whom I met before, was an old friend of my deceased supervisor. He said, “No, don’t be silly, you’ve already done Syriac. You must do Georgian.” So, I did, you had to offer three languages, so I offered those three, which was quite influential. And then I was – at the end of that – I was offered an instructorship back at Harvard, so there was a year’s gap, but I got married then, and Judith and I came over to Harvard in ‘63. So, my time at Dumbarton Oaks was very productive, especially in guiding my interests into Armenian and, of course, making this connection with Harvard. So, I was appointed for a three-year instructorship. Well, somehow it dragged out to thirty – well, never mind!
ABF: So, can you tell me a bit more about how your intellectual relationship with people like Sirarpie Der Nersessian and Ernst Kitzinger influenced your growth in those years after first coming to Dumbarton Oaks?
RWT: Well, obviously, at that stage, pretty much a neophyte in Armenian, Sirarpie was very helpful – guided me. I mean, she wasn’t a teacher in any way, but she guided me in various directions which one has to use one’s own, what should I say, one’s own mind. Ernst Kitzinger was, I mean, he didn’t have any direct impact. He wasn’t interested in the topic that I was doing for my thesis. In fact, some of the topics I discussed with visitors like André Grabar, who was visiting, and there were things that arose out of this particular text that I had, this very curious collection of Syriac translations that he was helpful with. And various other people that one talked about this or that problem, so Ernst was very supportive, and of course, later on, he was a great friend of ours in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after he’d retired, not retired, after he’d left Dumbarton Oaks. I met a number of people later, Milton Anastos for example. I met him in UCLA on a couple of occasions – still it’s hard to say how they directly influenced one at the time, but they were all very encouraging and gave one all sorts of thoughts and ideas. Milton Anastos was a bit memorable because he had a Greek diary, or, not exactly a diary, it was a collection of funny stories, one for each day, which he got while he was in Greece, and he insisted at lunchtime reading us all the funny story of the day. Some of them were really not very funny. I remember groaning when he got up to tell us this funny story of the day. Now, I remember you asked or mentioned earlier the question of my relationship with the Director. Now that really didn’t – there wasn’t any. I don’t remember him at all except what he looked like. I must have gone to a reception in his house, he lived in the house that we later lived in, but there was really no contact at all. The contact I had was with the people in the Byzantine program.
ABF: You have perceived, you must, when becoming Director later on, the way that the institutional character changed based on the directorship. So, I was interested if you had any impressions of the Director at the time when you first arrived in 1960?
RWT: Well, of course, I never met Jack Thacher again because by the time that I became a Senior Fellow he had died, and I didn’t know his successor Bill Tyler until I went there in the ‘80s and he, Tyler, also had retired. I didn’t see him very often, just two or three times socially. He was a bit reclusive, but we managed to persuade him to come have lunch with us one day, so the directorship was very different, I think, from what it was, at least in my immediate time, and probably in Giles’s. Because Thacher was very much involved with the running of all these projects that Dumbarton Oaks had in Turkey, in Istanbul, in Cyprus, and elsewhere, so I got the impression. And that, of course, didn’t affect me in my work at all. So, he was, he was doing things that I, as a Junior Fellow, never came across.
ABF: Because other people have talked about the fact that Thacher had a relationship with Mrs. Bliss, for example, and they were from the same social world.
RWT: Exactly. And he – it was Thacher who sort of ran the place from the beginning, and it was Mrs. Bliss who – and Mr. Bliss but especially Mrs. Bliss, a very strong-willed woman – who pretty much indicated what she wanted him doing.
ABF: My impression from listening and reading some of the interviews was that, whereas some of the later Directors such as yourself were very much primarily interested in being scholars, he once even told one professor at the institute, to a Junior, I guess, Fellow, he said “I am not a scholar,” at one point, implying that perhaps –
RWT: Well, I think that he was certainly very well aware and informed of what was going on, indeed. But he wasn’t involved in scholarship in the way that the people like Milton Anastos and Kitzinger and Cyril Mango and Ševčenko, and all those others, Glanville Downey, all these other people, not at all. So, that’s, from my own personal point of view, they’re pretty much blank.
ABF: So, let’s move on to your years as a Senior Fellow after you’d been at Harvard.
RWT: Yes. I’d been at Harvard. I didn’t really – I went to one or two of the annual symposia, early in the ‘60s – but I really didn’t have much contact with Dumbarton Oaks for a long time. By chance, the last time I was in Trebizond with my wife, we happened to meet Giles Constable in a restaurant, and he thought that Judith and I were just going around in our usual fashion, taking the buses. We were going into the Soviet Union afterward and all the way up to Georgia, but we were at Trebizond. And he, Giles, and his wife had a car and chauffeur, so they very kindly took us along. He asked me to be his interpreter, not that my Turkish was brilliant, but I certainly had spent a long time in the country and was able to get around. And so we were able to go visit a number of Armenian sites, like Ani on the border and so on. And he went off, and we went on into the Soviet Union. So, he must have been aware of my interest in that part of the world and in the ‘70s, I presume, when he became Director, he thought of me as a possible Senior Fellow in that area. Anyway, I don’t know who did it, but he was the director when I was appointed one of the Senior Fellows in, what was it, ‘78 or something like that, can’t remember exactly. I remember, do you know Alice-Mary?
RWT: Alice-Mary Talbot. Well, we, she was a Senior Fellow at the same time, and her period, she only served about three years or something at the time, and I remember saying goodbye to her at National Airport even before I became the Director, thinking that was probably the last time we would ever meet. And it was kind of amusing to see her back at Dumbarton Oaks later on. So, there were several interesting collections of people, and we would meet twice a year, sometimes more often if there was something really urgent. Our main task, of course, was the selection of Fellows, junior and senior, from all the applications, so we would spend a weekend at the beginning of the year in January interviewing the junior ones and discussing the senior ones; that was interesting. Then we had to share discussions about projects that were going on and any other serious academic business because there was not a Director of Byzantine Studies. The great change came, I don’t know whether you’re going to interview Giles Constable –
ABF: We are, definitely.
RWT: The great change came with him from Bill Tyler, who took – continued the Thacher tradition, and having then someone there to run the Byzantine program. I think Bill Loerke was for a while, but I’m not sure about that – before my time. Then, there was quite a revolution, if that’s the right word, because the Director was appointed from Harvard, an academic, and, in fact, Giles and then myself acted as the sort of chairman of the Senior Fellows in Byzantine Studies. I don’t think you could have called us directors, not me certainly, Director of Studies, but simply we coordinated the efforts of the Byzantine program, the Fellows and the publications and all that.
ABF: What did you think of this new institutional arrangement?
RWT: Well, it seemed to me very sensible, not having of course – I didn’t experience what it was like – whether Jack Thacher, in those days, needed any outside committee, I have no idea. I don’t know – he had a whole bunch of people. How these senior people all got on together is a more tricky question. I don’t really know. Of course, I had plenty of friends of my own I had to amuse myself with and wasn’t involved with any of the problems of the institution.
ABF: How did you perceive the change between when you were there as a Junior Fellow and then as a Senior Fellow, some eighteen years later?
RWT: Yes, it must have been about eighteen years later.
ABF: Yes, sixteen, ‘79.
RWT: I don’t know that I noticed particularly any great difference.
ABF: Well, the Blisses were gone.
RWT: No, the Blisses were gone, right. But really, they had not influenced the life of the Junior Fellows all that much. They were sort of talking points. They were no longer around. The Junior Fellows and the Byzantine Senior Fellows – the Byzantine Fellows would come and go just as they had done in my time. I thought that life for them was pretty much the same as it had been for me, so I didn’t, from that point of view, notice any sort of difference. But it was apparent when I took over in ‘84 that there were still some dedicated but very long-serving staff there and that there had been quite dramatic changes from their point of view when an academic came in and also had to organize the place both financially and in other respects much more in conformity with the way universities are run. Not that the university interfered, but we didn’t have control of our own funds, as perhaps you know. The Blisses’ moneys became part of the Harvard endowment, and they – of course, it was like having a certain number of shares, if you like, in the funds. We had our budget, over which we had control, but thank goodness, I wasn’t in charge of trying to invest or whatever the actual funds did. We just operated with a large budget that was done through the Harvard Financial Office.
ABF: So, when you became Director, what was it like to take over from Giles Constable, who had been something of a controversial figure?
RWT: Well, I think he was controversial because he’d had to introduce these changes. I mean, they were – he wasn’t the ultimate boss. The ultimate boss was the president, and in those days – I think there’s been a big change now – but in those days one reported directly to the president, there was no intermediary. My relationships with Derek Bok were very good, he left us pretty much alone, I must say. The only times I was ever worried was when he said, “Now, Robert, are you sure that you wouldn’t like a little help?” And I always dreaded that and I thought, “No thank you! No thank you very much!”
ABF: What did he mean by that?
RWT: Well, I was never quite sure. Whether he meant that a little bit more direction from Harvard would be required I don’t know. Anyway, nothing ever came of it, but he was supportive of the things we wanted to do and helpful if I had problems. The only thing that slightly worried me was that he did want to use Dumbarton Oaks as a place where he could meet people in the government. How much – my wife thinks I’m a paranoid about that. I didn’t like – except on a social level, we had good relationships with a number of people in Washington, we’ll come to that later – but I didn’t like that. Now, so far as following on from Giles is concerned, I didn’t notice any difficulty, because that was the system I was used to. I wasn’t immediately aware that many of the staff had been disrupted or things had changed and they didn’t like them, and so I must say, I felt my first year or two was very much a time to just be quiet and let things settle down and not do anything too dramatic and try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I don’t know, I mean, I’m not the one to judge what it was like to be there when I was the Director, but I certainly was aware of that.
ABF: But did you feel that things had been unsettled when you came in?
RWT: No. I mean, the programs were running properly. No. I mean, one shouldn’t exaggerate that. It’s simply that I was aware that some of the staff who had been there a long time felt that changes had been made, changes which basically I certainly approved of, in the way of accountability, that was apparently one of the most extraordinary things about the way the budget was presented. Giles used to say, and then I can’t speak to this except what I remember him saying that the budget used to consist of three lines, but I think that was an exaggeration. But there was much more accountability required, just as there is at a university these days. So, I’d been chairman of my department before going to Dumbarton Oaks for quite a long time, and Derek Bok and Rosovsky, Henry Rosovsky, the dean at the time, they had introduced a much more rigorous way of doing business. I suppose as you grow up you don’t think about it, but if you live through a change like that some people do notice and regret it, as it were. No, I didn’t have any serious problem with that. I didn’t want to change the way things were run particularly much, no. But there’s always a problem, and one has to be a bit tactful here because if you come in to run an institution and you aren’t going to be there permanently – it’s different if you’re going to be permanent, I said to Derek Bok that I would to take it for five years, and I did; I didn’t stay on. I mean, you can’t just hire and fire everybody, especially at university, and sometimes people are not exactly the kind of person that you would want in that job if you were ultimately in charge of the whole proceedings, in other words, there were some very good people at Dumbarton Oaks, excellent, and there were some people that were very efficient but whose attitude toward life didn’t exactly conform with mine and whose way of treating staff – that’s some cheeky business – who treated the staff in a very offhand fashion. I don’t mean the academic staff, there were a large number of people just running the place. There are about ninety or so on that list, I don’t know whether they still produce a list of all the staff, do they, these days? We used to produce a card every year.
ABF: Yeah, I’ve seen them.
RWT: With all the staff. Now, of course, out of the ninety, about twenty, twenty-five, thirty might be academic in some way or another, but a lot of people are just keeping the place going, and they have to be happy, and so that was a problem. And it requires a certain amount of what I call emotional energy to deal with those problems.
ABF: Speaking of keeping people happy, what was your perception of the relationship and relative parity or lack of parity between the three programs?
RWT: What was my perception of it? Well, it’s very interesting in different ways; it’s quite clear though that Byzantine Studies had started with a big bang and had flourished. In fact, Dumbarton Oaks in that regard had made a great difference to the discipline the world over, the vast numbers of people from every country who wanted to come and be a Fellow are just a small indication of that. The Pre-Columbian program, in a much more modest fashion, was doing the same. It started later; they had that wonderful museum and collection, and that has probably attracted more visitors than the Byzantine museum as such. I don’t know about scholars. Landscape Architecture was a bit more diffuse. It had been, of course, an interest of Mrs. Bliss’s, hence those three subjects, so diverse. Nobody these days sitting down would think, “Oh, what a wonderful idea, let’s have a research institution with these three subjects.” It’s a historic development. It didn’t bother me. I sometimes wondered whether the people in the other programs were sort of jealous of the relative funding. If so, they never made it apparent, or they never said so overtly. There was never, on anybody’s part, an effort to say, “Look, we’ve got three programs, we need to divide the kitty up exactly into three.” No, no, no. No such suggestion, and I found it very interesting, especially the social side of it, there were significant differences between the Fellows, the Junior Fellows who came to do Pre-Columbian Studies, their backgrounds their interests, et cetera, were very different from those who were doing Byzantine Studies or Landscape Architecture, which was also very international. So, it was an intriguing thing, but it didn’t bother me, and I hope that the people in the other programs thought that they were reasonable treated.
ABF: Did you, were you involved in changing any policies for the allocation of funding?
RWT: There wasn’t much change, no. In my five years as director, we didn’t make any significant difference there, no, not at all. Now, as I was involved in the programs, each of the three programs had its little committee of Senior Fellows, and the smaller programs, interestingly enough, had their Director of Studies, Elizabeth Boone for the Pre-Columbian and Elisabeth MacDougall for the Landscape Architecture, and when she retired John Hunt came. Now, they had in their small group of Senior Fellows, some of whom were very interesting. Some were in Washington – I met a number of people that way – and some of them came from further afield, so I was always a member of that group. Now, I don’t think my name would appear on the card, but I went to the meetings of the Senior Fellows and joined in the discussion and so on. So, it was my job to try and mediate any difficulties that might arise. So, it is quite possible that, since space, for example, was limited, we couldn’t have all the Fellows who wanted to come, junior or older, that we would have to have a little bit of give and take about how many we’re going to have this year. I’d read all the applications in all the fields – that was quite interesting. I didn’t get too much involved in the publications outside the Byzantine area, relying more on – that’s very much a technical expertise, but I didn’t myself, don’t remember that being a difficult aspect of the job, no.
ABF: So, you had a relationship with people like Elizabeth Boone and Gordon McEwan and John Dixon Hunt?
RWT: John Dixon Hunt, yes, he was a Senior Fellow in that program, and then he took over for Elisabeth MacDougall. Yes, these were all colleagues and friends, yes.
ABF: So, can you tell me a little bit more about the relationship between Dumbarton Oaks and Harvard at that point, because you mention sort of in passing that you felt that Bok was trying to use –
RWT: No, well, don’t say that he was – oh, I see, he was trying to use – yes, he was pretty standoffish about it, but he did, on occasion, want to have events at Dumbarton Oaks, which were to do with his relationship with various government bodies. A lot of funding comes to universities from the government, and so maybe I shouldn’t have made too much of that. The relationship with Harvard in my time was remarkably easy. I would go up twice a year for a discussion about what was happening, I would present a report, of course. The budget had to go through the financial office, but I don’t remember any problems about it. The lawyer for the president was occasionally involved in one or two things and he was very helpful. So, they had a small committee of advisers, the president, the dean, and somebody else I’ve forgotten, but I can’t say that they really took much of a role. I think they thought the place was going along alright, and that was fine. The question that did arise was that of the library. That was an on-going thing which later directors had to deal with. It started – I can’t remember exactly when it started. The problem of whether there should be an integrated catalog, which of course there is now, the union catalog, of all Harvard holdings and Dumbarton Oaks’ included, like Villa I Tatti, I presume, and so on, and the Hellenic Center, and then, well, should all institutions have the books that they want or should the system only buy one or two books, the very expensive kinds. These were the sort of nitty gritty questions that the librarians would get all uptight about, but it’s an interesting and serious problem. The costs of cataloging – for example, if Harvard doesn’t use – does Harvard use the Library of Congress system or not? They certainly didn’t in those days. These are sort of difficult problems and especially, I would say it falls into a category somewhat similar to the idea, Giles’ idea, at least it came about in his time, that Dumbarton Oaks should sponsor university positions. Now, as you know, at Harvard there are three professorships that are partially funded by Dumbarton Oaks money. I don’t know to what extent the system of junior positions in other universities, which are meant to be a kind of seed money to encourage that university, Johns Hopkins, The Catholic University, Georgetown University, and elsewhere. The idea was to encourage them to appoint somebody in Byzantine Studies on the understanding that that person would make good and be continued; that’s always a bit of a risk – some worked out and some didn’t. So, that was what you might called a diversion of Dumbarton Oaks money outside Dumbarton Oaks, that was always a rather tricky sort of question, different from a project which is a one-time thing: you go and restore the frescoes in such and such a church in Cyprus or what have you; but these were more ongoing things.
ABF: So, that brings me to another question that I hadn’t thought of until this moment: Dumbarton Oaks had stopped funding excavations and projects in Turkey, for example. What was your opinion on that and that use of money?
RWT: Well, I mean, in the days when I was involved with the budget, the amount of money Dumbarton Oaks had was not all that great. You couldn’t run down to the business men and say, “Well, we need an extra hundred thousand dollars.” It certainly was a question of priorities. There was another point which was that permits for excavation were not always very easy to get, and there was a third point which is more of a psychological point, that not all of those projects had been published or published properly. That was a sore point with many people. They’d say we’d spent all this money and there’s nothing very obvious to show for it, and that was a serious, I think, it was a serious problem, that people who had been supported to do projects, interesting, valuable, I’m not against that, did not come through and produce the reports and the final publications. That’s why we had some trouble trying to persuade people that, people who shall be nameless, who had been ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty years behind them, sometimes they wanted money, sometimes they didn’t, but it was very difficult – that I found a tiresome business.
ABF: So, was it for these reasons or is it something that should just be in the nature of the job to just take it for five years? What’s your opinion on a term limit?
RWT: Oh, alright, just change the subject to that. Well, it’s a very tricky question. It’s a fairly small institution; it’s run by the university. If the – let me start from the beginning. When Derek Bok first asked me – I was still at Harvard, I think I’d stopped being chairman, anyway, never mind – would I take on the job, I said, “Well, I’m interested in my academic work. I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll do it for five years.” I think five years came pretty much off the top of my head but it turns out to have been about right for me, I’ll explain later. So, he said, “Well, you could always try it. I mean, you won’t lose your position here. If you go down and you don’t like it you can just come back.” Now that of course is a kind of relationship that if you’ve had a permanent Director could not possibly work, because if for some reason or other the people at Harvard who are ultimately in charge and the Director did not get on then that Director would have to look for another job. Now for a man – oh I don’t know how old a Director might be, but certainly Jan is reasonably young, and Jack Thacher of course was much older when he left – but shall we call him someone between the ages of about forty-five and sixty-five, it’s not always very easy just to leave your job and find another one. I mean, even if you are a very respected scholar, not everybody is going to offer you a job, so I can see the advantages of that relationship and the reason why the president might not want to have somebody there too long. Now, I know the previous director, Ned Keenan, was there for ten years, which strikes me as quite a long time. So, what do I think about it? I don’t know. It’s a very tricky situation. I don’t have any strong views. I think if it’s going to be run as an academic institution there has to be a kind of lifeline for the Director, because I can imagine some people not enjoying it. On the other hand, see what happens if the chair does enjoy it? Some people do not, this hasn’t happened to the Directors, but I’m just speaking in general of people I know in the universities here and at Harvard and elsewhere, who, after they’ve reached a certain age, have accomplished many of the academic things they’ve wanted to do, and are very interested in going into something more administrative. A fair amount of that goes on here at Oxford, and probably at Harvard, I don’t know. So, I could easily imagine somebody who at the age I was – sort of middle of my life – went there, became very interested in Washington, one had an entree into all sorts of different fields – I’ll come back to that later if you’d like – it could be very interesting and you might want to make a career out of it. But if you did, the people at Dumbarton Oaks might not be very happy with that. They might want you to concentrate more on what you’re doing at home, I don’t know, so I think there are pros and cons, and since I’m not in charge and I don’t appoint the Directors I think that’s as much as I can say.
ABF: So, why was five years right for you?
RWT: Well, I think if I’d stayed away longer I would have got further, even further away from my academic interests. I taught once a week, every Thursday afternoon I set aside, and I had classes in Armenian and sometimes in Georgian, and for any students who wanted to come, and I had them from Catholic University, from Georgetown, and elsewhere. And so that sort of kept me awake, that was good, and it led, in fact, to some interesting publications eventually.
ABF: Was it something that you missed? Teaching?
RWT: I like teaching, yes. I knew nobody else around there was going to do any teaching in Armenian, and once you got involved in the field you want other people to share it, so I enjoyed that and thought it was important. I suppose if you’re in Byzantine Studies it’s a much better known field. Armenian is very small and very few people know it, so I don’t regret the five years. Of course, when I left I didn’t know that I was going to be invited here. I mean, I always thought I would go back to Harvard, so for various personal reasons, if I had known – but who knows the future – if I had known that I would be offered this position here, I might have said, “Well, I’ll stay seven years if that’s alright with you. Then I’ll go straight to Oxford.” But of course you don’t know the future. So, five years was fine.
ABF: So, your family came and lived with you in Dumbarton Oaks?
RWT: What do you mean came and lived with me? It was a family enterprise. We all moved there. Now, this was very important, and I don’t understand why Ned Keenan moved out of the place, he has his own reasons if you ask him, but we lived right – it wasn’t all that comfortable, it was fine for us – we lived there as a family and the boys had to share the attic. At least we had managed to get it air conditioned, can’t live the whole year in Washington without some air conditioning in an attic.
ABF: You were in the Refectory?
RWT: Yes, they call it the Refectory now, I understand. It was quite a nice house. We did a lot of entertaining there, and with the garden in front, and of course the gardens. I felt that while I was living there, this was my institution. I would get up in the warmer weather very early, go out into the gardens before the gardeners – what, they arrived about six or seven – go for a swim, get to know everybody on the estate. I had to look after the estate. I’d go around regularly with the head gardener. I would be in charge of everything that was there, the music, the programs, the connections to people outside Dumbarton Oaks in Washington. It was like running your own little estate. I thought that was very enjoyable. I remember the very first party we gave at Christmas the first year, and we invited children, people’s children, and we laid on various entertainments for them. One of the Junior Fellows came up – she was from Italy – and she said, “You know, we would never have a party like this in my country, where everybody from the Director to the doorman is all here.” And I thought that was very sad. Whether I succeeded, I don’t know, but that was the kind of place that I wanted to make it, and which made it enjoyable to sort of be right there and be involved with everything, get to know everyone.
ABF: How old were your children?
RWT: Jasper finished his high school, so he must have been fourteen, and his brother is three years younger, so he would have been eleven.
ABF: It must have been kind of magical to wake up and go out in these gardens. They probably didn’t think that.
RWT: I don’t know, you’ll have to ask them. The elder boy still lives – he got bitten with the political bug while he was in Washington, as so often happens. In fact, he worked for a while on Capitol Hill and he still lives there. The other one is a free spirit, he’s gone off to San Francisco. So anyway, it was a bit tricky, you haven’t had children yet. When I first broached the subject to the children, that we were going to move from where we lived in Arlington, Massachusetts, right next to Cambridge, to Washington, Crispin, he didn’t say very much, but Jasper said, “No, I’m not going. That’s fine, you can go and I will stay here and I will live with my friends.” And we said okay, and let’s see, and he said no more about it. Then some months later, out of the blue, he said, “Father, when we go to Washington, will I be able to do this?” So, he’d obviously got around to it without too much prompting and he obviously had a good time, we found a very good school. The other one was a bit more difficult, I don’t know. There are problems with having children, though. I’m afraid the local school is pretty terrible, so it’s: can’t send them to the local high school. It’s not always easy to find the right school for the right child, that’s the same anywhere, I guess, but it worked out very well.
ABF: Were there other families there with children, living on the property?
RWT: No, oh no, no. The head gardener, Don Smith, he had a little house down in the gardens. The Kazhdans lived – there was a house on the corner of S Street, at the end of S Street, there was a double house there – and the Kazhdans had one half of it and the other half, which is where Sirarpie Der Nersessian had lived when I was a Junior Fellow, was occupied by the assistant director, so they lived on property; there weren’t any children though. I don’t think that any of the other staff – we weren’t that friendly, I mean that close to any of the other staff who might have had children, so their friends were all made through school or the boys’ club. There’s a good boys’ club just down the road
ABF: Right, it’s still there. The Boys’ and Girls’ Club.
RWT: It was called the Boys’ Club then, I don’t know whether they had girls, I don’t remember. I remember Crispin breaking his leg there and just before we were going to have a big dinner party, and so Judith took him off to the hospital and I had to get Elizabeth Boone to stand in as the hostess for this big dinner party. She was a bit surprised, but it was very enjoyable and the staff there were very friendly, so it was, from that point of view, a very agreeable place. But also Washington was agreeable, it was a pretty dull place when I’d come there in 1960, well, I had a jolly good time, but that’s by the way. By the time I went back, there were good relationships with the Hellenic Center, Zeph Stewart, a classicist, I don’t know whether you ever met him before he died.
RWT: Yeah. He was very cooperative and we would, once a week, Fellows, some Fellows would come to lunch with us from over there and visa versa, so there was some give and take there. But the other institutions made, were involved in this sort of luncheon club, I don’t know what else really to call it. Fairly regularly, Zeph Stewart and I and the directors of various institutions in Washington would meet for lunch and talk about things of common interest. Hank Millon, who ran the institute at the National Academy, was called the Research Institute, I’ve forgotten the exact name of it, where they had some program in the study of art. They had Fellows and visitors and things. They were very agreeable, so we had – and the people from the Smithsonian, in fact, the secretary of the Smithsonian, Adams, he was friendly, too, and some of the smallish institutions, the Library of Congress, I met Billington and the Boorstins were very friendly; they entertained us. And Billington, he was then in some Russian center, I’ve forgotten what, so I thought of other museums, too. I mean, Dumbarton Oaks counted as a museum, so when Mrs. Bush gave a big lunch for museum directors, I was included, which was the only time I’ve ever gone into the White House, actually, but one met all sorts of interesting people that way. I was invited to their opening shows, etc., so I went, and of course there are always connections one then made with people in government. So, I can imagine someone getting very involved in that and it’s a very interesting life, but that’s not really what I wanted to do with myself.
ABF: It sounds like a very interesting intellectual world.
RWT: Well, it could be, yes, absolutely it could be.
ABF: What about the symposia?
RWT: Well, they were a long fixed, established tradition. We had lots of them, we had the regular spring symposium, and all, in Byzantine Studies. Each of the programs had its annual symposium which was important for that program and the people in it. So, a very large number of people came to Pre-Columbian and so on. And we had a good number of smaller gatherings, some of them really quite small, and on occasion we would let a Harvard group or something, in which people I knew could come and have their own little gathering. For example, there was one on philosophy which someone in my own department was interested in, so Dumbarton Oaks was host, as it were, to quite a number of occasions, not just the annual symposia. When I was here, we had the great big international symposium for Byzantine, whatever you call it, that occurs every four, five years. It was in London recently, so that was very funny, especially towards the end of the Soviet Union.
RWT: So, anyway, never mind, because, I can’t remember the names of all these people. Now, whether any of these were more valuable or more important that any of the others, I don’t know. I can think of several that I attended, but I – and in which I also participated – but I think they are an important feature of life and we continued that. I wouldn’t like to say that any one was better than any other, but I think that they were significant, and also these smaller gatherings.
ABF: Were there any papers that you delivered that were particularly interesting or memorable to you?
RWT: Did I give them? I don’t remember giving a paper while I was Director, though I went to conferences outside Dumbarton Oaks, so I did continue with my work, so, no. When I was a Senior Fellow there was a big symposium on Syria and, it was called East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia, and people like Marlia Mango and Tom Mathews, Nina Garsoian, myself, and others whom perhaps you don’t know, published this work which is in the field of Armenian studies still to be quoted, still to be used. I presume that in other subjects the proceedings of the symposia, whether they were published as such or included in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, would play the same sort of role.
ABF: What about your relationship with Angeliki Laiou, because I know that you –
RWT: With Angeliki?
RWT: I first met her soon after she became, soon after she came to Harvard. I don’t remember exactly when the first time was, but there, before I went to Dumbarton Oaks, I’d been appointed Professor of Armenian, and as I’ve told you, the community played an important role in founding this position. The Gulbenkian Fund had given some money, but nothing like the relative amount they gave to Oxford, so I had important connections with the community at large, which most academics don’t have. I mean, they don’t have a constituency – the Ukrainians of course did, and they were very successful in raising a vast sum of money. Anyway, never mind. Now, at the beginning, I thought it would be a useful idea to have a kind of committee of Harvard people, partly, between us, partly for show, but partly to perhaps get some interesting ideas in a broader sphere, because my interests in Armenian are in the literature of the classical and medieval periods, but Armenian studies encompasses quite a broad area, including archaeology and art and linguistics and so on. So, I got together about four or five of my friends and for history I was a bit puzzled, but anyway, I asked Angeliki, and she said yes, and we had the chairman of the linguistics department, an old friend of mine, and a colleague in archaeology, basically we just had a few pleasant lunches together, but the plan was, and it did work up to a point, the point was to think of ways in which the Armenian program, in a broader sphere, could be fitted a) into the university – well it was part of the university – but how it could incubate things a bit better. So, that’s when I first met her, but I can’t say our relationship was particularly close. So, she was really just a Harvard colleague of which I had a large number, we weren’t close friends or anything, and then when she took over I saw her once or twice, but not very often. So, I can’t say that we were – I mean it was all very positive, but it wasn’t very much. Why do you ask?
ABF: Oh, just because I was looking at your publications with DO and I saw that you published “The Crusaders through Armenian Eyes” in a volume.
RWT: Well, she published it with Roy Mottahedeh, and so they’d invited me and a whole host of other people to give papers. So, I gave a paper in it, that’s right, sure. So, I went back and gave that paper, but as I said, it didn’t really lead to any close relationship or anything like that.
ABF: She’s somebody like you who’s had a long history with the institution both scholarly and administratively.
RWT: I know when her appointment was announced and she came down for the day to talk to me and Judith about what went on and what was happening, she was concerned about the music. She said, “I don’t know anything about the music.” Well, I enjoyed that very much. I wasn’t totally in charge. We had a woman who’d been at Dumbarton Oaks for a very very long time who would come up with the ideas but I would make suggestions and had to approve things and so on. I must say, I enjoyed that. One was able to make hints and I said that on occasions, well you know, looking through, we haven’t had any Schumann in a long time, and then a month or so later we had an absolutely marvelous pianist who played the Symphonic Variations by Schumann. That’s the sort of thing you can have input to, it’s really very satisfying.
ABF: One more question about your directorship years. Since you were there through ‘89, and many people have talked about how Dumbarton Oaks had this European and also very East European feel.
RWT: East European feel?
ABF: At certain points. Ihor Ševčenko talked about it.
RWT: Well, there were lots of people there, I mean, from very early on, who came from Yugoslavia or Eastern Europe but that’s not very Eastern, but still I wouldn’t say this was anything very new. What did happen, of course, by ‘89, was that once the restrictions –
ABF: That was going to be my question.
RWT: Ah, now, you see, what happened then was that the possibility of people coming became so much greater and the pool of applicants, people who wanted to come, was enormous. So, I mean, the Bulgarians are very strong in Byzantine Studies, not to say that people from Russia too and the Ukraine and everywhere. So, that creates a problem, simply because you have an even larger pool of good people and you can’t take them all – now that just has to be handled as best you can. I don’t know that these days any special consideration would be given. It was pretty difficult up until then to find people coming as Junior Fellows. You did get some from Yugoslavia. I’d have to look at the list; I don’t really remember how many Fellows or visitors we had from Eastern Europe. We had people from Poland, I remember, from Moscow, Leningrad. I don’t particularly remember. On one occasion we hosted a visitor, a Russian museum director, Piotrovski, from the Hermitage, and various other people from Moscow. I was slightly amused; I laid out a little reception in the Orangery and I insisted that we serve them wine from the Russian River, you know, in California? You know that part of the world?
ABF: I’m from California.
RWT: Oh, you know it well. Good. Well, it’s a very interesting part of the world, but I think the significance was lost.
ABF: It must have been interesting to see these, to watch Perestroika and Glasnost happen also through the eyes of people like Alexander Kazhdan, who must have felt very personally invested in the changes that were taking place in the Soviet Union – that just kind of embedded in the institution a story, the stories that I get about people like the librarian Natalia Scheffer Ihor Ševčenko talks about, so, I always wondered if there was a –
RWT: That was just happening by the time I left, so I must say that I personally wouldn’t have been much involved in that. While I could see it was going to be a problem from the point of view of trying to help all these people, there were just so many more who couldn’t easily come with no restrictions. That was a problem.
ABF: So, I guess we’re sort of coming to the end of your time at Dumbarton Oaks, but I kind of wanted to ask a sort of big picture question, or you touched on almost all the questions that I had put together. So, I wanted to ask, what do you see as Dumbarton Oaks’s role in the field of Byzantine Studies as a whole and do you see that role changing in the future?
RWT: Changing in the future. Well, it plays a very significant role, I think most of the prominent Byzantinists have had some connection with it and speak very highly of it as a place where one can go and do some quiet research. And that was my objective, too, as Director – was to make the atmosphere as relaxed as possible so that people could get on with their own work. Now, there are two ways to run, to think of an institution. One is to run an institution where the institution has objectives, and the objective is to produce this or that and the people who come are appointed to work on specific projects. Now, the other way of looking at it is to say this is a place where people can come, we provide the facilities and they can get on with their own works. Now, Dumbarton Oaks has been able to balance that somewhat, it’s a tricky balance. The more people you have in the institution working on a large project of the institution’s own making the less space and money there is for people coming to do their own thing; so I could imagine that balancing act continuing. I’m not sure that I would like to see it go one way or the other extreme; so I would hope that it does continue. Some of the projects in the last ten, fifteen years have been very interesting. They don’t affect my own research in my own field – it isn’t a corpus we see too much – but they’re obviously very valuable, but it would be sad if that became such an important feature that the possibility of people just doing their own thing was no longer there. This was one little problem I had with the Byzantine Dictionary, the famous Oxford Byzantine Dictionary, which had been started by Alexander Kazhdan under Giles’s time. The previous Director had wanted some of the academic staff to write the pieces and some of the Junior Fellows or especially those who had joint appointments, they were hard pressed because they had to get on with their own research, they had to teach for the institutions, and they had been assigned quite significant portions of work, and I thought that wasn’t quite fair. So, we tried to relieve the junior people of that, but that isn’t to say that an institutional undertaking like the Dictionary of Byzantium wasn’t a wonderful thing to have done, that was just a minor detail in it. I’m not going to be in charge, but it would seem to me that there is a role for both sides – if bounds can be kept so much the better. In the old days, that’s the way to put it, I mean forty, fifty years ago, the projects were mostly archaeological. These days the projects are mostly in the field of publication, that’s, I mean, it’s the same idea really, except that when you have people working on publications, things like dictionaries or the edition of texts can be done elsewhere, but there were quite a lot of things done in house, that does take up space and time and money, of course, so it’s a balancing act. I mean, it’s a balancing act, just as it is with the programs and, indeed, in the Byzantine world itself, how do you balance all the different areas in which Byzantium is of interest. It was often said that if somebody appeared, somebody made an application, especially a junior person, in a subject that the Senior Fellows didn’t know anything about, they’d be much more likely to get the fellowship, otherwise the Fellows would be rather more critical, as they would know the subject. Well, you have to balance all these things. Should you support research in Byzantine music as opposed to some aspect of art history or should you do this or that? You just – my philosophy is rather pragmatic – you just have to deal with things as they turn up. You must have something in your mind of what you’re doing, I don’t mean to be entirely frivolous, but the role of Dumbarton Oaks in the future I hope will include both aspects of this: a place for personal study in a congenial atmosphere where you can interact with other people and get some good ideas, but also some specific projects that are going to be a benefit for the field at large, so we shall see what we shall see.
ABF: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?
RWT: I don’t think so. I suppose if I were to reminisce, one of the more amusing things that happened when I was a Junior Fellow was that we would have visitors coming to the Fellows Building, staying a few days. We would see them, on those occasions we would see them in the evening, because dinner was served and the regular staff didn’t appear, just the Junior Fellows. One day Ernst Kantorowicz came and he brought some wine for dinner. He was absolutely shocked to discover that we did not serve wine with dinner in the Fellows Building. Well, it hadn’t been a policy. So anyway, we decided that we should rectify that policy and I was appointed the steward, so I collected one dollar every week from all of the people resident in the building and I went out and I produced wine. My only complaint was that the cooks kept the red wine in the fridge all the time, but it altered the tone of our conversations in the evening for the better. So, a little initiative can improve things within larger parameters. I am no revolutionary.
ABF: Well, thank you very much.