The Oaks News
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.
All that Glitters: Gold of the Circum-Caribbean
All that Glitters: Gold of the Circum-Caribbean, a book exhibit on the gold of Panama, Costa Rica, and Caribbean Colombia, will be on view in the research library through March 2014.
The exhibit is presented in association with the workshop in Pre-Columbian Studies, “Ancient Central American and Colombian Art at Dumbarton Oaks.” In addition to books, the exhibit also includes jewelry reproductions of Pre-Columbian objects from the Dumbarton Oaks collection. The reproductions, which are available for purchase from the museum shop, are created using the lost wax process. They are cast in bronze and plated, first in silver, then in gold.
The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) presents Before Byzantium: The Early Activities of Thomas Whittemore (1871-1931). This online exhibit focuses on Thomas Whittemore’s activities prior to founding the Byzantine Institute in 1930. Bringing together three of ICFA’s archival collections – The Thomas Whittemore Papers, Early Archaeological Projects Associated with Thomas Whittemore and The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers – the exhibit illustrates how Whittemore’s early and mid-life experiences enabled him to create and sustain the organization that would subsequently breathe life into the field of Byzantine studies.
Before Byzantium features four sets of photographs, taken between the 1910s and early 1930s, which document Whittemore’s activities in Egypt and Greece, as well as the Byzantine Institute’s first fieldwork project at the monasteries of St. Paul and St. Anthony along the Red Sea. These black-and-white photographs depict excavation sites and monasteries, along with local workmen, archaeologists, monks, scholars, and Whittemore himself. The images are contextualized within an intricate narrative that traces Whittemore’s evolution from an English professor, amateur archaeologist, and humanitarian to the founder and director of the Byzantine Institute. In addition, there is an interactive map to enable users to visualize where Whittemore travelled and worked at the beginning of his multi-faceted professional career.
A new online exhibit from the Rare Book Collection
In 2012 the Dumbarton Oaks Rare Book Collection participated in a project, organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, to celebrate works by great women artists in Washington, DC museums. The artist we selected is the naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), and specifically her 1719 publication Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (first published in 1705).
To accompany Dumbarton Oaks’ participation in the NMWA exhibition, the Rare Book Collection presents an online exhibit featuring information about the artist and images from, among other sources, Merian’s Metamorphosis.
A new online exhibit highlighting the Dumbarton Oaks coin collection
The Byzantine Emperors on Coins exhibit provides high-resolution images of one hundred and twenty seven coins drawn from the Dumbarton Oaks coin collection, which numbers twelve thousand coins and includes all Byzantine rules and denominations. The selection featured here, with one coin from each reign, provides a portrait gallery of all the emperors and usurpers that governed Byzantium over the eleven centuries of its existence. At the same time, the selection suggests major changes that affected the Byzantine coinage, both in numismatic and iconographic terms (for example, the growing presence of Christian themes and symbols).
The high-resolution photographs, in combination with a state-of-the-art zooming tool, offer an extremely detailed view of each specimen, a viewing experience unattainable in traditional on-site exhibitions of coins. In order to maintain accurate relative sizes all the coins are shown on a single scale. A cm-scale accompanies all the images.
The online presentation of the coins is broken into six sections that follow the chronological unfolding of imperial rule and the various governing dynasties. In each section the coins are placed in a sliding bar; clicking on the image gives the viewer information about the coin and activates the zoom feature. The slider serial view renders immediately apparent the similarities and dissimilarities among coins, as best seen in significant numismatic changes that affected the coinage over its course. Each coin is accompanied by information about its issuing and properties. More content will be added in the future.
An interview with Dumbarton Oaks museum staff on the making of the All Sides Considered interactive exhibit
Gudrun Bühl, Museum Director
Can you describe the concept behind the exhibit?
Exhibition-making starts with an idea around selected objects rather than with a fixed display plan. In the case of All Sides Considered, which was developed with the intention to highlight and exemplify the research of objects in our Maya collection, we were interested in exploring the many layers of each selected object or case study – the material specifics and cultural signifiers studied by archaeologists, art historians, scientists, and anthropologists. To bring the scholarly and scientific analyses into the display, expansive label text was of the essence; yet, so as not to distract from the aesthetic value of the objects, a display setting had to be created that would be able to bring these two sides into play and keep them in balance.
The solution we came up with was this: approaching the gallery from the museum entrance, the visitor perceives mainly the colorful accentuated pedestals carrying the highlighted objects. Text and further interpretative material comes into sight only after the interested viewer has entered the area. In general, our interest in experimenting with settings is a crucial aspect of the museum’s exhibition program to activate the relationship between art, art scholarship, and visitors.
It was important to place the objects in prime locations within the narrow gallery. Set in cases that are positioned perpendicular to the walls, the artifacts are accessible from all sides. At the same time, the placement prescribes a passageway through the display; the visitor walks right up to the artifacts and then is gently forced to ‘slalom’ around them.
Each case study is equipped with a stool that resembles not unintentionally a lab stool. It invites the visitor to linger and engage with each object and the rather text-heavy information, which includes ‘hands-on’ items, slide shows, and a movie clip.
Hillary Olcott, Museum Exhibitions and Programs Coordinator
What are some new elements that you incorporated into the display?
One of the novel things about All Sides Considered is the interactive nature of the displays. Incorporating the interactive elements into the labels presented several challenges to the museum team. The most difficult elements to incorporate were the iPads. The challenge arose during the design phase of exhibition planning. We needed to come up with a way to incorporate seamlessly the iPads into the labels so that visitors would feel as though they were interacting with the exhibition itself, not with iPads. It was also imperative that the design allowed visitors to use the touchscreens without access to any of the buttons. While we did not want visitors turning the iPads on and off, we needed a display that allowed the museum staff to do so. Similarly, we needed a design that securely held the iPads but made it easy to remove them when maintenance was needed. After many hours of brainstorming and several prototypes, we came up with a successful design. However, it was not until the displays were installed, the labels applied, and the iPads running that we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and stepped back to admire our work. Although the iPads require some maintenance, they are an absolute success. They allow visitors to touch, hear, and explore the Dumbarton Oaks Collection like never before. I look forward to dreaming up new ways to use this exciting technology!
Miriam Doutriaux, Pre-Columbian Collection Exhibition Associate
How does the exhibit reflect the current state of/trends in Maya scholarship?
The exhibit showcases several exceptional Maya objects from the Dumbarton Oaks collection that were carefully reexamined by experts over the past three years. It focuses on the objects and the science behind the recent Dumbarton Oaks publication Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Six case-studies outline recent findings about the Maya, and illustrate some of the epistemological underpinnings of current Maya research.
Much knowledge about the Maya is derived from iconographic analyses, as evidenced in the comparative dating of 2,000-year-old etchings on a greenstone pendant. Careful observation and informed comparison with other objects often leads to new findings, including the discovery that four carved spheres in the Dumbarton Oaks collection are the earliest known Maya bone bells.
For example, experts in the fields of geology, mineralogy, conchology, biology, and physical anthropology contributed scientific opinions and analyses – from radiocarbon dating to X-ray diffraction analysis – to the study of a Maya mosaic mask. New technologies are also helping scholars to better visualize and experience the objects they study. A 3-D digital model revealed subtly carved features on a Maya stela, and X-rays exposed the production process of a rattle bowl with a hollow base.
Mayanists also rely on experimental archaeology to refine their understanding of ancient practices and production techniques. A carving station in the exhibit allows visitors to experiment with tool types used by ancient Maya carvers.
The exhibit is about the scholarly research process – the slow, painstaking work that underlies groundbreaking discoveries about the Maya. As museum visitors listen to a rattle bowl, flip through x-ray images, examine a 3-D digital model, and compare images or specimens, they are taking a scholar’s approach – and perhaps gaining a new appreciation of the thrills of Maya scholarship.
Chris Harrison, Senior Exhibitions Technician
Watch this video, in which Chris describes the workstation designed to allow visitors to experiment with tool types used by ancient Maya carvers.
Mesoamerican and Andean Timekeeping
The Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations used complex and multiple timekeeping systems for purposes of agriculture, worship, and political authority. Because little of the material record of the pre-Conquest peoples of the Americas survived, scholars through the ages have had limited primary sources to study in order to reach a comprehensive understanding of timekeeping in the Americas.
The Library’s newest exhibit was prepared to coincide with the recent Pre-Columbian Studies symposium, "The Measure and Meaning of Time in the Americas." The online exhibit further explores these themes.
A featured item from the Library exhibit Rome Re-Imagined
Sarah Burke Cahalan and Deb Brown
Historical and archaeological research into the ancient and medieval periods of the Maghreb must confront the legacy of nineteenth-century colonialist enterprises. In honor of the Byzantine spring symposium, "Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic North Africa, 500-800," a rare-book exhibition in the Library invites viewers to reflect on the nineteenth-century authors and publications that contributed to this legacy.
Captain Robert Murdoch Smith (1835–1900) and Commander Edwin A. Porcher (1824–1878), History of the recent discoveries at Cyrene: made during an expedition to the Cyrenaica in 1860-61, under the auspices of Her Majesty's Government. London: Day & Son, lithographers to the Queen, 1864.
Cyrene is one of the most famous ancient cities of North Africa. It was founded around 630 B.C.E. and abandoned sometime after the Arab conquest of 643 C.E. The extensive ruins of the city and its necropolis left a distinctive mark on the landscape. The ancient name for the surrounding territory, Cyrenaica, was still in use in the nineteenth century, when the region was nominally controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The visible ruins of the famed city attracted a handful of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European travelers, who described the necropolis and fountains, produced paintings and book illustrations, and dug in various spots for collectible antiquities. Robert Smith and Edwin Porcher were the first team to approach Cyrene with the expressed purpose of "scientific" exploration and mapping of the ancient city. The British government and the British Museum sponsored their project during the years 1860 and 1861. The museum received many of the finds from their excavations.
Porcher himself produced the drawings and watercolors that were later lithographed by T. Picken and produced for publication by Day and Son—it is worth noting that Day and Son, lithographers to the Queen, was the same lithographic firm (soon to become Vincent Brooks, Day & Son) that in 1852 produced the chromolithographs in Gaspare Fossati's Aya Sofia, Constantinople: as recently restored by order of H. M. the sultan Abdul-Medjid, also in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks Research Library. Porcher's original watercolors are now in the collection of the British Museum. The published chromolithographs (one of which is reproduced here) are valuable archaeological documentation of the site before the many excavations and restorations that followed. They also typify the picturesque quality of nineteenth-century images, frequently featuring small details that would increase their charm to casual viewers. In addition, the team used a camera, supplied by the British Foreign Office, but their publication includes only a few black-and-white photographs of statues which were found at the site.
Rare book exhibition in the Dumbarton Oaks Library
Historical and archaeological research into the ancient and medieval periods of the Maghreb must confront the legacy of nineteenth-century colonialist enterprises. In honor of the Byzantine spring symposium, "Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic North Africa, 500–800," a new rare book exhibition in the Library invites viewers to reflect on the nineteenth-century authors and publications that contributed to the creation of this legacy. Featured items include Alphonse de Lamartine’s Voyage en Orient, Charles Tissot’s Exploration scientifique de la Tunisie, Nathan Davis’s Carthage and her remains, the Beechey brothers’ Proceedings of the expedition to explore the northern coast of Africa, Smith and Porcher’s Discoveries at Cyrene, and items by Adrien Berbrugger, Stephane Gsell, and other influential nineteenth-century scholars of Roman Africa. The exhibition will be up through July 15 in the Dumbarton Oaks Library.
ICFA exhibition in the Bliss Gallery
The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) presents From Clearing to Cataloging: The Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics, an exhibit that highlights the Margaret Alexander Collection at Dumbarton Oaks. The Collection contains documents and photographs that relate to the fieldwork and publication of the Corpus des Mosaïques de Tunisie (CMT), or Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics. The CMT was launched in 1967 to create a catalog of Roman and Late Antique mosaics in Tunisia and was co-directed by Margaret Alexander until 1994. The project was administered through the Foreign Currency Program of the Smithsonian Institution, and was sponsored by various institutions such as Dumbarton Oaks and the University of Iowa. The CMT team focused on clearing, preserving, and cataloging pavement mosaics found in private residences and Christian basilicas. To obtain reliable dates for the mosaics, they used evidence buried in or near the mosaics, including coins and pottery fragments. The CMT team members carried out the archaeological work at four major sites in Tunisia—Utica, Thuburbo Majus, El Jem, and Carthage—before publishing a four-volume catalog of over 1,000 mosaics dating from the first to the fifth centuries CE.
The exhibit includes selections from the Margaret Alexander Collection in ICFA, and can be viewed in the Bliss Gallery during the Museum’s open hours. These archival items date from the 1960s to 1990s and demonstrate the process of the fieldwork and publication of the CMT project. The exhibit was developed to coincide with the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Studies symposium in April 2012, "Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic Africa, c. 500–800."
Robin Pokorski, ICFA Intern
Rona Razon, Archives Specialist
Hillary Olcott, Museum Exhibitions and Programs Coordinator
Christopher Harrison, Senior Exhibits Technician and Cabinetmaker