Bliss Symposium Award Recipients
Dumbarton Oaks awarded five Bliss Symposium Awards to Harvard students to facilitate attendance of "Sign and Design." The Bliss Awards are intended to enrich students’ academic experience through attendance at Dumbarton Oaks symposia that relate to their fields of studies. Below are reports from four of the award recipients about their experiences attending "Sign and Design."
Emma Langham Brown
Emma is a junior at Harvard University concentrating in Medieval History and Literature and pursuing a secondary field in French Language and Literature. She is particularly interested in medieval materiality, and in conjunction with her department is currently designing a course called Taking Place: Medieval/Material/Culture that has an accompanying blog. Emma writes:
I am honored to have had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C in mid-October for "Sign and Design." I'm fairly certain I was the only undergraduate student there, and I felt a little nervous in the presence of such an array of scholars. But as it turned out, my questions were welcomed. All of the brilliant scholars I met at Dumbarton Oaks were more than happy to talk about medieval scholarship with me, despite my 20-year-old novice-ness. I came away from the conference with 12 pages full of notes, a head full of ideas, some wonderful new friends, and a thesis idea. I was so inspired by the last segment of the conference, "Instrumental Images," in which Ghislain Brunel of the Archives Nationales in Paris and Beatrice Fraenkel of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales gave brilliant papers that both played on the idea of the signature or the logo in medieval texts, that I would like to consider medieval insignia in tandem with the modern logo for my thesis next year. I am thankful for such a mind-opening experience.
Denva is a third-year PhD candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.
While at Dumbarton Oak’s "Sign and Design" symposium this weekend, I was reminded of the reverence given to the word in the medieval and early modern period. Christ was the word made flesh and even though we and theologians of the Middle Ages turn to his representation time and time again, it is actually the word that preceded everything.
Yet, how can we as art historians talk about words? Should we not leave this to our friends in the study of history and literature? I am reminded of the talks given by Katrin Kogman-Appel and Irvin Cemil Schick on Jewish and Islamic art in which words are not only used as signifiers to create meaning but also, through their careful rendering, are meant to be seen in the same light as images. They illustrate reverence; they presence the sacred. We also see that texts can be frames or storehouses for images. Cynthia Hahn in her talk on the Gellone Sacramentary showed us that not only do images punctuate the text, they stand as markers for our attention, focusing our gaze and centering us in the moment.
It has been suggested by scientists that we use the right side of our brain to process images and our left to process text. What, then, should we make of this slippery collision of two different forms of signification? Must we tease them apart as our brain does or can we see them as constantly referring to each other in a sort of dance? I believe the scholars at the "Sign and Design" symposium would suggest the latter and I think those who took part in the creation of the objects wouldn’t disagree.
Erika is a fourth-year PhD student in the History of Art and Architecture. Her dissertation research is on medieval manuscript illumination, monasticism, and Bibles in medieval Spain.
Prior to October’s "Sign and Design" symposium, I had visited Dumbarton Oaks on two occasions. Each of these prior visits had been organized as a full-day session for a group of students looking at some particular part of the collection, in one instance Byzantine ivories and in another a whole variety of objects from the Pre-Columbian Collection. These sessions were focused, intense, and very much object-based. They also benefited from the participation of fellows, who led us through discussions of objects they knew particularly well.
I bring up these previous visits to give a sense of the great variety of my experiences at Dumbarton Oaks. In contrast to these single-day sessions, the "Sign and Design" symposium offered me something of a very different nature. The speakers who presented papers during these two and a half days were selected meticulously and with an eye to fruitful discussions between scholars in different disciplines. Shared themes emerged elegantly in talks that were—at least superficially—very different. The potential for interdisciplinarity is inherent in the nature and mission of Dumbarton Oaks, but this was the first time that I had been able to participate in it so fully.
My participation in this symposium had almost immediate effects on my teaching and my own studies. Within a week, I was already incorporating some of the images and discussions from "Sign and Design" into the course I am teaching currently, “Picturing the Bible, 300–1300.” In particular, talks by Herbert Kessler and Katrin Kogman-Appel helped me to widen the scope of what I had been teaching.
My one-on-one interactions with the symposium speakers during lunches and evening receptions were also wonderfully and unexpectedly beneficial. I will relate but one single example out of many: although Irene Winter is a Professor Emerita in my own department, I had never had the chance to speak to her until this symposium. Although I am not working in her specific field, she was amazingly generous with her time, offering me some very thoughtful advice on starting (and ultimately finishing!) a dissertation.
I am filled with gratitude toward Dumbarton Oaks for hosting such a rewarding event and for making my visit possible through the Bliss Award. If "Sign and Design" is any indication of what one can expect of a Dumbarton Oaks symposium, then I look forward to many more years of symposium attendance.
Natasha is a second-year graduate PhD student in Historical Musicology. Natasha is also pursuing a secondary field degree in Medieval Studies. Her research interests include troubadour music and its reception history, as well as modern interpretations of Early Music.
The rich and sensuous spectacle offered by the gardens, the Music Room, and the presentation slides emphasized one of the symposium’s conclusions: to question the meaning of signs, designs, words, and symbols to engage all the senses. As a student of historical musicology—and in particular of the music and culture of medieval troubadours—this conclusion is especially meaningful to me. Auditory entities, particularly when inscribed and ornamented on the page of a manuscript, also function as signs that provide meaning unique and immediate to their cultures. While presentations recognized that symbols and signs are crystallized in the surface onto which they were inscribed, discussion returned these signs to their human creators and to their original status as objects deeply imbedded with immediate meaning.
I am deeply appreciative that I had the opportunity to participate in the "Sign and Design" symposium, and will forever remember the unique feeling of interdisciplinary, scholarly, and humanistic community that it fostered.