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.
Dumbarton Oaks Gardens Closed to the Public from July 10, 2017, to March 15, 2018
At Dumbarton Oaks, we are committed to preserving and maintaining our historic gardens and collections to the highest standards, while incorporating technological improvements that will ensure their good repair and longevity. We are just finishing a yearlong renovation of the museum, which will reopen in late April.
The time has now come to undertake large-scale improvements to the gardens’ water-supply network, which dates to the gardens’ original creation in the 1920s. We are therefore obliged to close the gardens to the public from July 10, 2017, to March 15, 2018. We will take this opportunity to enhance storm-water management throughout the property, in keeping with our commitment to sustainability and the environment. We invite you to enjoy the gardens before their temporary closure on July 10; you can purchase a reduced season pass here. (Admission is free until the beginning of our regular season on March 15.)
These are the prorated rates for unlimited reduced season access with a Season Pass:
- $40 Single Season Pass
- $50 Double Season Pass
- $60 Family Pass
For further inquiries, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org. We would be happy to put local media in touch with garden staff who can speak about the upcoming work in the gardens in greater detail.
We invite you to use any images from our online press kit, with credit to “Dumbarton Oaks.”
Authors Strassberg and Whiteman Recognized for Contribution to Garden History and Landscape Studies
Dumbarton Oaks Publications is pleased to announce that Richard E. Strassberg and Stephen H. Whiteman, authors of Thirty-Six Views: The Kangxi Emperor’s Mountain Estate in Poetry and Prints, have been awarded the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize from the Foundation for Landscape Studies. The award is given to books that break new ground in method or interpretation and that contribute to the intellectual vitality of garden history and landscape studies. This is a prestigious award, and we could not be more pleased and proud of the volume and the authors who envisioned and created it.
Thirty-Six Views presents for the first time a complete, annotated translation of the Imperial Poems on the Mountain Estate for Escaping the Heat (Yuzhi Bishu shanzhuang shi), originally published by the Kangxi emperor in 1712. The emperor published this unprecedented book to commemorate his recently completed summer palace; it contained poems and descriptions of thirty-six of the palace’s most scenic views. He was closely involved in the production of the book and ordered several of his outstanding court artists—the painter Shen Yu and the engravers Zhu Gui and Mei Yufeng—to produce woodblock prints of the Thirty-Six Views, which set a new standard for topographical illustration. He also ordered Matteo Ripa, an Italian missionary serving as a court artist, to translate these images into the medium of copperplate engraving, which introduced this technique to China. Ripa’s hybridized interpretations soon began to circulate in Europe and influenced contemporary aesthetic debates about the nature and virtues of the Chinese garden. This unique artistic collaboration between a Chinese emperor and a western missionary-artist marked a significant moment in intercultural imagination, production, and transmission during an earlier phase of globalization.
Richard E. Strassberg received his PhD in East Asian Studies from Princeton University and served as a Professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He specializes in traditional Chinese literature, with a particular interest in landscape and garden culture. He has served as an adjunct curator at the Pacific Asia Museum and was a senior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. He is currently a member of the advisory committee for the Liu Fang Yuan Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
Stephen H. Whiteman is Lecturer in Asian Art at The University of Sydney, Australia. He received his doctorate in art history from Stanford University and has been the recipient of fellowships from Dumbarton Oaks, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art. His essays on garden history and historiography have been published in Ars Orientalis, Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, and the anthology Chinese History in Geographic Perspective.
Strassberg and Whiteman have been invited to be guests at the Foundation’s 2017 Place Maker I Place Keeper benefit on May 10, where Thirty-Six Views and their valuable contribution to the field will be recognized.
Dumbarton Oaks Acquires a New Collection of Images
There are a few quirky constants that show up in Frank Kidner’s photographs of the Syrian countryside. He snaps errant debris that he describes, in a sharp script penned along the rims of his slides, as “decorative rubble.” He photographs children playing among the ruins. He looks for wild flowers, anomalous blooms in the dry hills of the Belus Massif.
Though none of these is the main focus of the collection. A self-described shutterbug, Kidner made six trips to Syria in the 1990s to document, in vivid color photography, the architectural remains of the country, eventually narrowing his focus to the Belus Massif, a limestone plateau in northwestern Syria. The final collection, which numbers more than nine thousand slides, was recently acquired by the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks.
The acquisition of Kidner’s collection is significant for a number of reasons. In addition to more than doubling the ICFA’s current holdings of Syrian images, it documents in rich detail countless sites, many of which have been fundamentally altered or completely destroyed in the years since Kidner’s photographs were taken. The collection’s vast scope also makes it a fundamentally adaptable resource, capable of being utilized in any number of projects, and the images themselves are beautiful and crisp, ripe for perusing.
The images center on the Dead Cities, a group of around seven hundred former settlements situated on the Belus Massif that exhibit a wealth of well-preserved architectural remains. So called for their abandonment in the eighth through tenth centuries, the Dead Cities provide a unique vision of late antique rural life, one that was remarkably prosperous and trade-driven, though not quite urban. As a result, the region serves as an excellent location for the study of largescale transition.
Kidner initially became interested in the Dead Cities after his first trip to Syria in 1993, which was largely a sightseeing excursion. Returning to the states and his professorship at San Francisco State University, where he has taught classes on the early history of Christianity, Kidner began to research work that had been done on Christianity in the area. In the process he stumbled upon a photograph-laden study written by the Princeton professor Howard Crosby Butler in the early twentieth century that catalyzed his interest: “It was very fragile, very brittle, down on a triple folio shelf—I checked it out and kept it at my home for years and years.”
Kidner’s photographic work in the region was driven by a desire to investigate the introduction of Christianity and the ways in which it adapted itself to the region’s preexisting architecture. “I tried to look at the built environment as a source for understanding how it was that Christianity managed to insert itself into these communities,” Kidner says. Since the villages of the Belus Massif were built around the same time that Christianity was making inroads into the region, their physical remains afford a unique perspective on the process of conversion.
Kidner’s fieldwork and photographs eventually resulted in a paper, “Christianizing the Syrian Countryside: An Archaeological and Architectural Approach,” which serves as an illuminating entrée into the collection. In essence, the paper argues that the manner in which preexisting structures were converted into Christian churches quite clearly delineates local attitudes toward the new religion.
Part of Kidner’s anthropological approach posits that architecture is a peculiar form of language, one that is ever-present and wheedling, suffusing the lived space of the environment and sending out ideological information constantly. This sense of totality also pervades his slides, which systematically document structures from every angle and distance; focused attention is given to each tumbled pediment, every shattered column.
St. Simeon’s Monastery, a sprawling complex located about twenty miles northwest of Aleppo, receives just such a treatment from Kidner’s lens. It is captured at a distance, a mere smudge on the horizon; its facades are shot, as well as its baptistery and the innards of these structures; bemas and transepts are painstakingly documented; apses and friezes and narthices are snapped up in turn. Over three hundred slides are dedicated to the compound’s details, many of which are treated from multiple angles and in multiple lights.
Beyond the temples and farmsteads lie the fields, which Kidner captures now and again, snapping the deeply lichened stretch of an old stone wall or handing the camera off to pose by a beaten track running along and through the stony heights of the massif. There is a timelessness to the landscape and its simpler elements that at times runs counter to Kidner’s other errant shots, which often capture fleeting phenomena embedded among the ruins.
“There are two things that are sort of off the track as far as the built environment is concerned,” Kidner says. “You have the hollyhocks and pictures of wildflowers—I’ve been a gardener all my life—and then you have the kids. And looking back now, I think in a way they’re the most poignant aspect of the collection. God knows they’re all grown up now; God knows what has happened to them.”
In the course of his travels, Kidner met the children—or, as the scribblings on his slides deem them, “moppets”—of the region. “I’d start photographing, and these kids would pop up, and trail around after me, and ask if I could take a picture of them.” Often enough, his visit to the site would end with an improvised shoot, the kids bunching themselves together against ancient walls buttressed with concrete or else standing aloof and alone, a little wary of the man with the camera, a little curious about the device itself.
All in all, Kidner’s collection straddles the gap between the personal and the historical. Images of St. Simeon’s Monastery rub shoulders with those of thick-stalked, vibrant hollyhocks, while imposing stone walls contrast with the sunsets Kidner describes as his “Condé Nast” photos. Even in the collection’s ostensible focus—the architectural images—it’s not simply academic thoroughness that drives the photographing of the built environment, but curiosity, and a predisposition to the contemplation of ruins.
Look even briefly at Kidner’s shot of arcosolia (recesses, typically above ground, used for entombment) in the mortuary chapel at St. Simeon’s monastery, and it quickly becomes clear that a somber mood has overtaken the documentary drive; the gaping hollows and the mineral stains bearding the walls evoke a sense of ancient emptiness, one that is both difficult to fathom and hard to shake.
Kidner’s own old preoccupations emerge in these moments. “I certainly had an interest from the time I was quite a small kid in seeing old things, and not necessarily old things in museums,” he says. “I would pester my parents, when we were out on a drive, to stop if there was an old Wells Fargo station, or, in California, a few Gold Rush things.”
It’s not difficult to picture Kidner pausing over the crossed lintels and intricately carved stonework strewn about the grounds at Qirqbizeh, a site west of Aleppo. The images that emerge are of stones among stones, singled out more than anything else for the delight they give, the mandala-like finery set into their weathered faces.
In short, Kidner’s collection is alternatingly comprehensive and composite; it obsesses over monumental arches one moment and drifts off among the flowers in the next. The vivid reality of its shots, charged with an almost unearthly color, brings to life a moment in time that is frequently undercut by a sense of absence.
In a distant image of St. Simeon’s taken from the nearby site of Takleh, the zigzag of a road dominates the background, while a stone wall interrupts the foreground. In the middle of the image spread fields that were once worked and might be worked still. It is a view of many worlds held together by space and the miracle of a well-composed shot.
Director Jan Ziolkowski Remembers Shahîd’s Scholarship and Long Association with Dumbarton Oaks
Irfan Arif Shahîd, born in Nazareth to an Arab Christian family in 1926, passed away on November 9, 2016, in Washington, D.C. He was ninety years old.
The world has lost a colorful, learned, and urbane man. Irfan Shahîd held degrees from Oxford and Princeton. He spent the bulk of his career at Georgetown University, of which he was professor emeritus.
Dr. Shahîd has been associated for decades with Dumbarton Oaks in a unique category as a long-term fellow in Byzantine Studies. He is known internationally for his many articles and books. A particular tour de force was his Byzantium and the Arabs, with one volume each on the fourth and fifth century and fully four on the sixth century.
His prodigious memory included large amounts of verse in at least one half dozen languages. His inaugural lecture to his named chair in Arabic and Islamic literature was on Omar Khayyam. Still more impressively, a casual encounter with him could elicit the quotation of an entire Horatian ode or Shakespearean sonnet. His deep love of poetry was a characteristic that struck everyone with whom he spent much time.
In recent years, Dr. Shahîd would often utter witticisms about crossing the Rubicon of longevity. He has now made the passage beyond mortality. Among an extended family of relatives in the area, his widow Mary Shiber Shahîd merits particular remark. An inseparable companion and collaborator, she has been a familiar presence at Dumbarton Oaks for as many decades as was her late husband.
Dumbarton Oaks’ New Director of Byzantine Studies
“Strange images find me,” says Elena Boeck. She pauses briefly before continuing: “I think I have a natural affinity for outlying images.”
“Strange” and “outlying,” “liminal” and “borderline”—these words crop up frequently when Boeck, who recently began her five-year tenure as director of Byzantine Studies, speaks of her work. Perhaps because her research centers on the odd, out-of-place, and oftentimes mysterious visual clue, her way of speaking is staunchly investigative; her sentences advance steadily and logically, extended every now and then by a favorite phrase: “This is why . . .”
Professor Boeck comes to Dumbarton Oaks from DePaul University, where she holds a professorship in art history. She received her BA in that subject in 1996 at Boston University, followed by an MA and PhD at Yale. After completing her PhD in 2003, Boeck quickly settled at DePaul, where she has taught in various capacities since 2004. In addition to her scholarly work, Boeck brings strong administrative experience to her directorship at Dumbarton Oaks; she served as principal organizer of the 2011 Byzantine Studies Conference, and as a member of the governing board of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America between 2008 and 2012. (Having reassumed this position in 2015, she will now serve until 2019.)
Boeck, who hails from Riga, Latvia, originally intended to study physics before coming to the United States to pursue her undergraduate studies. But once she arrived, a natural inclination to the study of images drove her to major in art history. (Her conversion to Byzantine art history came later, during a trip to Istanbul).
Despite what might seem a jarring shift, she insists there are strong parallels between the fields: “In physics, one studies laws which have been made manifest in physical form . . . and the same thing applies to art history. Objects have a created reality, but there are laws and rules and there are structures—the creator’s intellectual processes—which bring them into existence.”
Boeck’s fascination with the hidden origins of images, and her belief that precise ideological structures often stand behind the art that surrounds us, are perhaps not so surprising, given the environment of her youth. “The other side of the story,” Boeck says, matter-of-factly, when explaining her proclivity to art history, “is that I grew up in the Soviet Union; I’ve seen images and the way images are used for political purposes—and one understands how to read these kinds of narratives, and what to do with them.”
Boeck’s approach to the visual is undergirded by a healthy skepticism, a natural corollary to recent trends in Byzantine studies. Although Byzantine culture has long been recognized as a “distorting mirror,” Boeck writes in her 2015 study Imagining the Byzantine Past that “only recently have that mirror’s characteristics started to fascinate as much as its distortions.” Though the positivist fact-mining that dominated manuscript studies in the first half of the twentieth century can still yield useful historical information, Boeck’s work arises from the more subjective sphere of rhetorical nuances and narrative strategies.
As a result, her work can be both precise and expansive, detail-oriented and theoretically minded. In her own words: “I’m an art historian, but I think about myself as doing intellectual history.” In line with this self-assessment, Imagining the Byzantine Past showcases her method of working backward and outward from discrete visual curios to develop a convincing revision of historiographical approaches to Byzantium.
“Byzantinists love the Skylitzes manuscript so much that they don’t want to look at it critically,” she says of one of the central object-studies in Imagining the Byzantine Past. “Because it is so vivid and so rich, it has to be the reality.” And yet Boeck concludes that the Skylitzes manuscript, commissioned by Roger II of Sicily in the mid-twelfth century, is in fact a purposive construct, designed in opposition to the Byzantine cultural model.
Setting the Skylitzes manuscript against another, more laudatory manuscript—an adaptation of the Manasses chronicle, produced for Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria in the mid-fourteenth century—Imagining the Byzantine Past attempts to display the deliberate and exploitative nature of both works. One is valedictory, one denunciative; one aims to condemn, the other to incorporate—and yet, as Boeck insists, both are suffused with a creative energy, both fundamentally aware of the power to be gained in co-opting history: “They take the foundation—the texts—and they completely transform them.”
Disjunction—between image and text, between truth and narrative, between cultural centers and their peripheries—orders much of Boeck’s scholarship. At the most particular level, this disjunction is evident in the befuddling images that offer glimpses of obscured ideologies: a saint who should know better raises his robes and exposes himself; an iconoclast, denounced by the accompanying text, appears, improperly haloed; a Virgin figure, holding her child, sprouts, for no obvious reason, a third hand.
But more broadly speaking, these visual oddities offer a portal on conflicting historical frameworks that Boeck has worked tirelessly to unearth and interrogate. “As scholars, we all operate with a sense or set of assumptions . . . we create our own versions of Byzantium, and our own interests drive us,” she says. “When we come across images or objects which defy these cultural assumptions—that’s when people have to articulate what they expect from images.”
Boeck is open about her own expectations, as well as the sympathy for peripheral things that often structures her work. (Imagining the Byzantine Past acknowledges its genesis is owed, in part, to its author’s youthful experiences “on the fringes of a collapsing empire.”) Her theoretical background shines through in her choice of words; the language of obliquity—“decenter,” “othered,” and, of course, “periphery”—reigns when she muses on narratives of Byzantium.
And while, couched in these terms, Boeck’s concerns may seem intimidating, they translate easily into her coming work at Dumbarton Oaks. As Boeck sees it, Byzantine studies today is frequently interested in cross-cultural discussions that in turn reevaluate the very meaning of “Byzantium.” Though Boeck can cede that Byzantium has been consistently “othered” in the past and left out of “standard narratives of history,” it is an observation that is quickly tailed by further questions: “What do we call the center? And how do we define the margins, or the borderlands of Byzantium?”
“A simple example: there are modern-day countries which claim Byzantium as part of their national heritage, so in these countries Byzantium is in some ways written into history—it becomes part of standard textbooks. And people who come to it when it’s not part of their tradition, of course, will focus on other aspects of Byzantium—and so, we get different versions of Byzantium.”
One of the most valuable aspects of Dumbarton Oaks, Boeck acknowledges, is its ability “to get different people with different views of Byzantium together, to get them talking more.” In many ways Boeck’s work can be seen as an effort at disentangling—but in order to disentangle, one first has to recognize there’s a tangle at all. At Dumbarton Oaks, Boeck hopes to continue the healthy confluence of different constructs, narratives, and “assumptions” that abets scholarship of all types. In addition, she’ll aim to maintain the institution’s current spate of programming and fellowships—initiatives that Boeck herself can be thankful for.
Boeck previously spent time at Dumbarton Oaks as a junior fellow in the 2001–2002 academic year, an interval she remembers fondly: “It was such a good environment. You put books all around yourself, and you know Hector provided lunches—so it’s life completely worry-free, and you just write.”
More than a decade later, her office space has increased, though she is still surrounded by books, folders, files. Right now, in between her manifold duties—editing the Dumbarton Oaks Papers, working on budgets, coordinating programming—Boeck is composing a cultural biography of the Column of Justinian, which stood in Constantinople from the sixth to the fifteenth century. She’ll be attempting to prove that the column was the “greatest” monument of Constantinople throughout its long existence.
In the midst of describing this study, she pauses for a brief aside that seems telling: “Byzantinists,” she allows—with an air that seems to add, so it goes—“will not necessarily be happy with it.”
Three Young Humanists from Harvard Arrive for a Year of Practical Learning and Career Preparation
Dumbarton Oaks is launching a new fellowship program this academic year designed to bridge the gap between college and career for three talented young humanists. The Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellowships will place each of three recent graduates from Harvard College at a partnering cultural institution in Washington, D.C., for the fall term, where they will acquire skills relating to their long-term interests. In the spring term, they will return to Dumbarton Oaks to collaborate on a project that applies those skills for the remainder of the year.
“We felt that the humanities needed special support and attention” among the postgraduate opportunities already available at Harvard, says Jan Ziolkowski, director of Dumbarton Oaks. “One of the distinctive opportunities that we can afford is the chance to learn through working. There are many undergraduates who crave to know what goes on behind the curtains in a number of extremely attractive fields, like publications, museums, and archives—and we’re uniquely positioned to assemble a group of people to learn from mentors at a variety of career stages.”
In this inaugural year, Dumbarton Oaks’ partners include the National Gallery of Art, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum. Fellows live at Dumbarton Oaks and participate in weekly research reports as well as the other events for the institute’s fellowship community. In addition, the institute will host a series of six talks throughout the year where notable humanists—including documentarians, archivists, writers, and scholars—will speak about their own career paths and the state of the humanities now.
The first cohort of Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellows’ interests range widely. Rebecca Rosen, who will begin the year at the George Washington University and the Textile Museums, is interested in conservation and curation, as well as questions of gender and the distinction between art and craft as they pertain to textiles and the decorative arts. She majored in neurobiology in college, but by her senior year found herself wanting more and more to work with culture. She grew up sewing with her mother, and in her junior year took a course on quilts and quilt-making that helped her see textiles and craft works as objects for serious inquiry: “It was very accessible, but we were also doing real intellectual work.” By her senior spring, she was considering leaving science to work with culture instead. “I read an article about how conservators repaired a Monet painting that someone had punched a hole in, and I knew, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do!’” she recalls. “I love fine detail work and working on one square inch of something for hours and hours, as well as being able to bring art to an audience.” Rosen comes into the fellowship after spending a year after graduation working in jobs that included furniture repair and ephemera acquisitions for a vintage art company. She adds, “I’m really looking forward to looking at how museums work and learning what I can be a part of, as well as bringing to light art and stories that might otherwise go unseen and untold.” At Dumbarton Oaks, Rosen will be working with museum director Gudrun Bühl.
Priyanka Menon, who will be embedded at the Folger Shakespeare Library this fall, is equally at home in the worlds of mathematics, social thought, and intellectual history. She wrote a thesis in math on ultrafilters—a concept important to the subfields of logic and topology that she describes as “a structured way to capture all the elements in a set.” Menon worked on a theorem about voting on ranked preferences called Arrow’s impossibility theorem, which uses ultrafilters in its proof—varying it to apply to contrasting kinds of sets, such as finite vs. infinite sets. Although the math is very abstract, the implications affect major questions in social and political thought, like whether the decisions of the living can or should bind the not-yet-born. “What I like about that thesis is that you’re working on very technical math at the foundations of logic, set theory, math itself,” Menon notes, “but you somehow still end up having knowledge that relates to ethical and normative questions directly or indirectly.” Menon also studied with historians Samuel Moyn and Sunil Amrith, and has done extensive work on twentieth-century Indian intellectual history, particularly on the concept of nature in the writings of both Gandhi and his critics. She is interested in the possibility of future work in history, political thought, and the legal academy. “I like math because it’s so abstract and the ideas are so pure,” she says, “and that blends so easily with intellectual history. I hesitate to say that I’m moving from the sciences to the humanities, or moving away from any field permanently. I’m interested in the middle ground, what I call the ‘fruitful cross-pollination’—finding unexpected connections and applications.” During her fellowship, Menon will work on Dumbarton Oaks’ ongoing project on mapping the history of cultural philanthropy and its effects on the city of Washington, D.C., with archivist James Carder.
John Wang, who grew up in Hong Kong, says that after taking mainly math, science, and language classes in high school, the first real humanities class that he took in his freshman year at Harvard transformed him: a class on American art and modernity taught by art historian Jennifer Roberts. “That was the first time that I saw art as not just about taste, but also society, culture, history, economics; I think the whole idea of ‘modernity’ first came to me through that class, too.” Though his strong interest and extensive coursework in social theory and intellectual history at first led him to declare a major in social studies, in the end he settled on art history, where he pursued the specialized track in architecture studies, taking architecture classes at the Graduate School of Design along the way. For Wang, who will be working at the National Gallery of Art in the first half of the year, both scholarship and artistic practice are entwined with questions of ethics and society—as are museums and the role they play in communities. “In the Renaissance or Imperial China, humanistic questions were thought to be part and parcel of how society should be—not a scientific or administrative question, but rather issues of how and what we should think,” he explains. “I see museum-going as more than just a recreational activity. I think there’s a strong civic dimension to it that fosters better citizenship and helps us be better people.” A practicing architectural designer in his own right, Wang’s design for a garden installation on the grounds of the Radcliffe Institute was recently selected from more than forty submissions. It uses granite blocks and wooden benches to echo the footprint of houses that Radcliffe College once used as classrooms—“an attempt to approach design practice with a more historical and humanistic bent,” he says. Wang also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity at Harvard, as well as the Phillips Brooks House Association’s Chinatown afterschool program. At Dumbarton Oaks, Wang will work with John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies.
Ziolkowski says that Dumbarton Oaks wants the fellowship to open up opportunities of all kinds, but impart a lifelong love of the humanities in particular. “If we get people to go into the humanities, that’s great. If they go into something else, but carry away good experiences, have learned from it, and can advocate for a liberal arts education who have an impact on other people, that’s great as well. We want to do everything Dumbarton Oaks can to help present the case for the arts and humanities, which is best presented by fostering people who love them, are willing to commit to parts of their lives to them, and speak about them.”