The Oaks News
Dumbarton Oaks Launches Online Resource
Museums mark the streets. Their names are familiar; emblazoned on brick walls or carved into stone plinths, they summon up notions of extensive collections, tastefully displayed, that emanate the mute grandeur of faits accomplis. The beauty of the objects seems to seal them in the moment. But we hardly give a thought to the personal passions that chose this painting, that vase, or the quirks and whims that stocked the galleries and that, in many cases, still guide the collections.
The effort to examine the founding philosophies of some of Washington, D.C.’s renowned cultural institutions is at the heart of Dumbarton Oaks’ Mapping Cultural Philanthropy project, which launched earlier this year. The project, in development since 2016, presents an online mapping tool featuring rigorously researched entries on institutions like the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. The entries describe not only the institutions and collections themselves, but also the personalities—grand or self-effacing, minutely focused or broadly piqued—that brought them into existence.
“What we’re not doing, by design, is chronicling people that gave a lot of money but otherwise weren’t impassioned about their collecting,” Dumbarton Oaks Archivist James Carder, who has supervised the project since its inception, explains. “To make our list you really do have to have had a passion for the arts, theater, music—anything in the arts and humanities. And you have to have made it happen in a public way.”
Teasing out the little-known backstories of D.C.’s museums and collections reveals a web of philanthropic activity. As Carder explains, the project, initiated by Director Jan Ziolkowski, sprang from a desire to contextualize the beginnings of Dumbarton Oaks and similar institutions in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. “We wanted to map what had happened in Washington, D.C., not only to better understand who the Blisses were and what milieu they moved in,” Carder says, “but also to show that Washington was an important nexus for, frankly, wealthy and passionate collectors who wanted to make those collections part of the public landscape.”
In many ways, the private philanthropy of the mid-twentieth century continued the thread of nineteenth-century philanthropic endeavors, though this began to change as the century waned. In charting this evolution, the project gels nicely with recent efforts by Dumbarton Oaks, including its Wintersession course for undergraduates, to examine the changing face of philanthropy in the twenty-first century. “In the last part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, philanthropy has started to be redefined,” Carder explains. “We’ve entered into questions of effective altruism, so that private philanthropy has started to move away from the arts and humanities and into different, perfectly valid, and perfectly respectable fields, like medicine or education.”
The long-term project has seen contributions from a number of people, including a team of four interns during the summer of 2016. Recently, Humanities Fellow Priya Menon has worked to standardize some of the preexisting profiles in the catalog while also writing entries of her own. Her work has marked a shift into present-day studies, with a deeper focus on the use of primary sources. In developing an entry on the National Museum of Women in the Arts, for example, she had the opportunity to interview the collection’s founder, Wilhelmina Holladay, and has worked with other oral histories to develop profiles of more recently established cultural institutions.
“We’re really looking at private collections that eventually became public,” Menon explains, “and I’ve found that the project actually demonstrates that the public and the private can intersect in ways that are productive and even beautiful, and that care for future generations’ well-being—and that they’ve been doing this for a considerable length of time within the realm of art.”
Carder similarly pinpoints part of the project’s value in its illumination of the past and present, of the evolution of cultural philanthropy over time, and what these can tell us about the current climate of cultural institutions in D.C. The funding of a gallery or museum is typically piecemeal and complex. In addition to the legacy of the founding gift (which might include hobbling stipulations that disallow, for instance, the loaning of objects), many institutions run on a budget comprised of private donations, soft money made from museum shops, and, of course, federal money. “How all of that’s managed—and how the missions of these institutions are going to be effected—is really going to be fairly interesting in the coming years,” Carder says. “There are a number of institutions anticipating large cuts in federal funding. Right now, of course, these are just guesstimates—but who knows?”
After its launch, the project will continue to expand, adding new entries at a regular pace. Though the site’s current entries have benefitted from the use of secondary sources that lay out general histories and missions—prefaces to catalogs, for instance, or book-length studies of collectors like William Wilson Corcoran—future profiles will wade into what Carder deems “potentially problematic areas.” As the project shifts focus to more modern institutions and collectors, secondary sources will of course dry up, though all that means is a challenge, and the need to dig a little deeper. With plans to look at the founder of the Washington School of Ballet and a number of collectors who gave important instruments to the Library of Congress, future profiles will have to derive a little more from research and footwork, like the interview recently conducted with Holladay—“which is really the right way to go,” Carder says with a chuckle, “because she’s alive.”
The standardizing of the profiles—making sure one biographical section isn’t five paragraphs longer than another—has been helped along by Lain Wilson. As Digital Content Manager at Dumbarton Oaks, Wilson has helped advise the project, editing profiles and managing its design process. As Carder explains, “He’s been invaluable in terms of taking our suggestions and talking reality, and consistency, and length, and graphic style, and all the things that our pie-in-the-sky ideas hadn’t considered.” The result is a fluid interface—produced by Image Conscious Studios, an external firm—that will also double as the first phase in a broader restyling of Dumbarton Oaks’ main website.
As Wilson explains, the diversity of the project—its contributors, subjects, presentation, and approach—is built into its design. “The idea was always to have a flagship project that would run across several years and involve multiple cohorts of fellows and interns,” Wilson says. “The goal of building a project that speaks to Dumbarton Oaks’ institutional mission and history, and puts it in a broader context of cultural philanthropy in the D.C. area, is well served by many hands.”
Freer, Sackler, Folger, Corcoran—names that dot the map and bear stories of individuals with singular passions. As the Mapping Cultural Philanthropy project launches—and in the months ahead—they’ll share the digital grid with institutions like the Textile Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Phillips Collection, and—of course—Dumbarton Oaks.
Tyler Fellow John Davis Creates Online Map of the D.C. Watershed
As in so many other cities, water is everywhere in Washington, D.C.—and yet it remains largely invisible to most of us, taken for granted or ignored. But D.C.’s waterways and plumbing shape the civic, social, and even commercial lives of its residents just as much now as in the past: the Anacostia, the Potomac, the C&O Canal, Rock Creek. And the crisis in Flint, Michigan, has shown that the questions of where and how cities find their water have tremendous importance for public health, down to the last pipe.
“It’s interesting to be able to visualize things that aren’t always apparent when you’re walking around the city,” says John Davis, Tyler fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. “It’s a totally different conception of how the city works.” During his time at Dumbarton Oaks, Davis, a PhD candidate in history at Harvard working on the history of engineering and infrastructure, has created a digital atlas of Washington, D.C.’s watershed. The “Water Atlas,” as he calls it, shows the development of the city’s water infrastructure over time, from large features like canals to the sewer grid and water treatment facilities.
Unlike a traditional atlas on paper, the online atlas gives the user a clearer sense of the relationship in scale between a city block and the course of an entire river. It also facilitates visualizing changes over time in layers or phases, rather than having to combine those phases into a single diagram or distribute them over several maps. Davis’s atlas further highlights how different the city’s landscape might have looked if certain rejected projects had been realized. One area of the map allows viewers to see how a proposed dam on the Rock Creek would have created an enormous reservoir in the north part of the city.
Davis created the Water Atlas using a free open-source application called QGIS, which is widely used for cartography. By tracing information from scans of historic maps found in archives onto existing geospatial data from the United States Geographic Survey, he was able to create a single digital composite that could illustrate changes over time. Davis says that he could imagine this approach being adopted to illustrate infrastructural history for any city: “Every city has documents and maps—the exciting project is assembling the paper data and then digitizing it.” Indeed, he adds, if you had such data for multiple cities, the payoff for historians would be that you could “compare cities and their infrastructures.”
Davis hopes that the Water Atlas will be useful for both the general public and professional researchers, and also that it might help bring the two groups together. Asked to envision an audience for the project, he describes “a range of people, from academics, or people who have an academic interest in D.C. history, to people in the D.C. area who might be curious about how their water gets to them.” It’s important for academics to invest time in projects like this, he notes, because of the likelihood that the skills of cartography and digital publication will continue to be important to future work in history and the humanities: “Digital maps increase accessibility. You don’t have to go to a library to use them.”
Davis and Dumbarton Oaks hope to release the Water Atlas to the public by the end of the summer. Please watch this space for updates about the project in the months ahead!
A review of Dumbarton Oaks online publications and projects
The popular blog, The Ancient World Online (AWOL), ran a feature highlighting Dumbarton Oaks’ online publications, and various digital projects, on October 9. The blog post was written by Charles E. Jones, head of the library at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. The post provides links to some of our online publications from our three areas of study, as well as to blogs and online exhibits.
On Thursday 18 October, the digital humanities group welcomed Bob Horton, the Associate Deputy Director at the Institute of Museum and Library Services (based here in Washington DC). Bob described some of the challenges he faced at the Minnesota Historical Society regarding archiving and curation of archives, and how that experience shaped his current set of responsibilities. There was also discussion of the Digital Public Library of America and the ILMS’s commitment to helping see that off the ground. Bob mentioned Europeana as a forerunner, and noted the crucial importance of shared standards. The visit was of great interest to a number of Dumbarton Oaks staff involved in ongoing and future digital projects.
In the three years since Perry Hewitt became the Chief Digital Officer at Harvard University she has revitalized the university’s online and digital presence. On Friday, June 15 Perry gave a talk to Dumbarton Oaks staff and interns about the role of social media and digital trends at Harvard. Perry spoke about the challenges of the constantly changing digital landscape, and the delicate balance between control and influence in providing open access to an ever wider array of resources. Mobile devices have revolutionized the media industry, and social apps have come to define institutions’ online identities. The creation, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge remain central to all of the university’s digital efforts. Following Perry’s presentation, Dumbarton Oaks staff presented various initiatives in the field of digital humanities and social media, from the ongoing digitization of 17,000 Byzantine seals to intern and project blogs.
3D Modeling of Cultural Heritage
On Friday, April 6, the Dumbarton Oaks community enjoyed a visit from Bernard Frischer, Professor of Art History and Classics at the University of Virginia, where he is also Director of the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory. Professor Frischer gave an engaging multimedia presentation in the Founders' Room on his team's application of 3D digital tools to the simulation of cultural heritage artifacts and sites. The talk was timely, since the VWHL projects help identify issues and challenges that Dumbarton Oaks will want to consider as it develops its own 3D digital models.
One of the 3D models presented by Professor Frischer was of fourth-century Rome, digitally rebuilt and designed to be a pedagogical tool. He noted that the process of assembling the model prompted scholars to make new observations and discoveries. Other examples of his models can be viewed at http://www.digitalsculpture.org/, which tackles the barriers often faced by 3D modeling when attending to the complex geometry characteristic of sculpture. Showcasing sculptures from the University of Virginia (Caligula) and the Dresden State Museum (Pan-Nymph), Professor Frischer demonstrated how difficult art-historical questions of interpretation can be illuminated using computer modeling.