The Oaks News
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives Launches Online Ephemera Collection
One often stumbles upon ephemera—those items, like pamphlets and postcards, designed only to last a short while—in the recesses of secondhand bookstores or at flea markets, stacked up wildly in crates and hardly cared for at all. Now they’ll be available in a new location, where, hopefully, they’ll be easier to peruse: online.
Dumbarton Oaks is pleased to announce the launch of its online Ephemera Archive, a tool that makes available to a wide audience the institution’s extensive and growing ephemera holdings. The Ephemera Collection comprises postcards, magazine pages, pamphlets, trade cards, and other materials related to Dumbarton Oaks’ three programs of study: Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape studies.
The catalog’s launch culminates two years of work on the ephemera project, an initiative started in 2015 to collect, catalog, preserve, and display institutionally relevant ephemera. Materials in the Dumbarton Oaks collection are typically taken from a fairly narrow time period—approximately 1890 to 1920—that coincides with a boom in printed ephemera production.
Lain Wilson, Dumbarton Oaks’ digital content manager, believes the catalog will open up a number of research possibilities: “It’s really going to serve students, scholars, and interested amateurs who want to look at these subject areas from the particular angle of their reception during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.”
For Wilson, who helped to develop the catalog’s interface, the value of ephemera lies in their ability to communicate subjective worldviews. “Ephemera reveal how people—some people—a hundred years ago viewed and valued monuments, places, and practices, many of which are still present, studied, and visited today.”
Behind the catalog lies meticulous research and labor. After images are carefully scanned and uploaded, they must be described with metadata (that is, data that describes other data, rendering it usable and searchable), an arduous process that can involve transcribing captions or translating the handwritten notes on postcards. And even after all of this information has been obtained and logged, ambiguities and unknowns often remain.
“One big challenge is that with a lot of our items, especially the postcards, we don’t have a lot of data to begin with,” says Lane Baker, a postgraduate research fellow in ephemera. “Though the items might be in great condition when we acquire them, with plenty of clues that suggest they’re from this or that period, it’s sometimes difficult to track down their provenance in a way that would be ideal for researchers.”
Even if the printer or photographer responsible for a particular postcard can be identified, there’s often little more information to be found. “Sometimes, these postcards were literally just the result of an amateur photographer snapping a picture and dropping it off with a friend who ran a local print shop, who’d then print them, just for that shop, and sell them to tourists,” Baker explains. “That sort of thing really doesn’t leave much of a paper trail to research.”
Regardless, the image remains, and perhaps even gains from the utter obscurity of its origins. Examining a postcard of the ruins of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia—a set of capsized stones half-sunk in a broad field—it’s difficult not to consider the combination of circumstances that brought it into existence. As an activity, however, this wondering quickly flounders. Though we know the name of the publishing house that produced the card (Arnó Hermanos Editores), the rest—the identity of the man posed on the stones or the individual behind the camera, the date the image was taken—is mystery.
Ultimately, the academic purposes to which the catalog can be put shouldn’t obscure the more fundamental pleasures of ephemera-gazing. Without exception, the ephemera collected by Dumbarton Oaks present some sort of joy to the eye, whether that means a beautiful tableau or a strange one, an accurate depiction of the past or a skewed one. A brightly colored image of the Tuileries Gardens, sparsely walked by soberly dressed strollers, adorns one card, while the Dome of the Rock dominates another, surmounted by a garish holiday message in flowing red script.
For now, the online catalog displays a selection of Dumbarton Oaks’ ephemera holdings, though items will continue to be added as they’re acquired and logged. “The nice thing is, not only does the catalog introduce people to ephemera,” Baker explains, “but it might also help us expand the collection by attracting the attention of dealers or people with collections of their own.”
As far as the health of the collection is concerned, Dumbarton Oaks finds itself in a good position. The diversity of research fields at Dumbarton Oaks allows for both focused and wide-ranging collecting. “Of course, we’re trying to remain focused on our institutional interests,” says Baker, “but we want to do that while also being expansive in the types of ephemera we search for, acquire, and use.”
The Ephemera Collection Expands in an Upcoming Exhibit
It was “the supreme spectacle of the age,” according to one effusive advertisement. In 1922, the Astor Theater in New York screened Theodora, an Italian silent film about the scandalous life of the eponymous sixth-century Byzantine empress. The film featured live lions, a cast of twenty-five thousand people, and reconstructed Byzantine architecture, sculpture, and mosaics. Most important, however, was the “love-mad woman” at the heart of it all.
This film, like several others of its day, was born from a larger western fascination with the empress Theodora. In the early 1880s, average people in Europe and North America became increasingly interested in the aesthetics and style of Byzantium. The French playwright Victorien Sardou propelled the empire into the mainstream with his sensational 1884 play Théodora, which starred the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt as the empress and boasted extravagant sets and costumes. The following decades saw Theodora transformed from an obscure historical figure to an icon of fashion, theater, and film. Her face appeared on postcards, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. Many westerners received their first exposure to the Byzantine world through these imaginative renderings of Theodora.
The Dumbarton Oaks Archives is excited to announce the arrival of a new exhibit focusing on this cultural phenomenon. Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922, was curated by Lane Baker, postgraduate fellow in ephemera, in conjunction with the Dumbarton Oaks Archives’ Ephemera Collection, a new and growing assemblage of historical ephemera related to the institution’s three programs of study. The exhibit aims to expose viewers to the ways in which a single historical figure infiltrated popular culture and helped bring an awareness of Byzantium—albeit a skewed one—to the general populace.
Though Dumbarton Oaks began acquiring ephemera in 2015 and has continued at a steady pace since then, the collection’s focus on Theodora is a new phenomenon. In fact, many of the objects on display, which range from buttons to postcards to theater programs, are new acquisitions. “Part of the idea behind the exhibit was to assess the collection as a whole,” Baker explains. “We wanted to find interesting themes in what we already had, and then pursue more focused acquisitions from there.”
Of course, ephemera present their own unique curatorial challenges. “When you’re working with these disparate types of materials—buttons, postcards, newspaper advertisements—it’s difficult to tie them together in a compelling way,” Baker says. In the early stages of planning, Baker researched methods of displaying ephemera and other exhibitions that had effectively utilized the fleeting materials. Ultimately, he decided that an exhibit that relied solely on one type of object (like postcards) would be difficult to pull off.
Instead, Baker opted for a chronological approach, capable of encompassing a wide array of materials. “Essentially, the exhibit moves from the foundations of the Theodora craze, in Sardou’s play, all the way to the conclusion of the craze, with film posters from the 1920s,” he explains.
This broadened purview means the exhibit can include anything, from a set of cameo-bearing buttons—designed as party-going accessories that were meant to be affixed to a sash—to an elegant 1902 play program for Sardou’s Théodora, designed by the famed jeweler and artist René Lalique.
The program, as Baker explains, is a curio. “In a lot of ways, it’s really different from what we’d expect from a program—it has concept sketches, costume models, set designs, small bits of sheet music, some of Sardou’s notes. It’s sort of a behind-the-scenes view of the play.” The program’s assortment of background trivia that gesture at the mechanics of Sardou’s spectacle emphasizes that the play, like the larger Theodora phenomenon, was about the larger world of Byzantium as well.
“I think Theodora, as an idea and a cultural phenomenon, really captures a good idea of what ephemera can be, and what they can express,” Baker says. Not only did the empress-craze find its way into the manifold crannies of consumer culture—it also found there, in each postcard and button, a unique, and often beautiful, expression.
Imagining the Empress: Theodora in Popular Culture, 1882–1922 will be on display at Dumbarton Oaks in the Orientation Gallery when the museum reopens in spring 2017. In the meantime, interested readers can browse selections from the ephemera collection.