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Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy and Diplomacy in America

Wintersession Course for Harvard Students | January 8–15, 2017, at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.

Course Leader

Jan Ziolkowski, Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin, Harvard University; Director, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.


This week-long winter course will take place at Dumbarton Oaks, a humanities research center, museum, and garden operated by Harvard University in Washington, D.C. The course will explore the intersection of art, philanthropy, and diplomacy in twentieth-century America, with particular attention to art collecting, competitive giving, the architecture associated with power and philanthropy, and theories and practices of the gift. Daily seminars will be complemented by guest lectures and trips to cultural institutions in Washington, D.C.

Location and Themes of the Course

Dumbarton Oaks provides an ideal setting in which to explore the relationship between culture and power in modern America. Robert and Mildred Bliss donated the estate, their art collections, and a large endowment to Harvard University in 1940, with the aim of furnishing a “home of the humanities” for present and future generations of scholars and the public. Today, Dumbarton Oaks supports higher learning internationally, nationally, and at Harvard through its fellowships, research projects, events, and publications in the fields of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies. It serves a broader public with access to its historic gardens and museum. 

Every year since January 2015, Dumbarton Oaks—a humanities research center, museum, and garden operated by Harvard University in Washington, D.C.—has offered a one-week course during the Harvard College Wintersession. Titled "Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America," the course tackles questions such as: what is the place of philanthropy in a democracy? What are the ethics of donating money to a museum as opposed to, say, medical research? How does culture serve as a kind of diplomacy? And how was cultural philanthropy involved in creating an American sense of self in the early twentieth century?

Students visit a range of cultural institutions in the city (past years have included the National Gallery of Art, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the UN Foundation, the Hillwood Estate, the Textile Museum, and Phillips Collection) and enjoy behind-the-scenes talks with museum administrators, curators, exhibition planners, and archivists. Dumbarton Oaks's teaching staff includes Jan Ziolkowski, Porter professor of medieval Latin at Harvard; Dr. Yota Batsaki, executive director at Dumbarton Oaks; and Dr. James Carder, Dumbarton Oaks' archivist. Over the course of the week, students reflect on the histories of various D.C.-area cultural institutions while preparing case studies of their own for presentation at the end of the week. The course is limited to 12 participants; round-trip airfare, lodging, and lunches and dinners are covered by Dumbarton Oaks.


Enrollment is limited to 12 students for reasons of on-site residential capacity. Past students have included freshman and seniors, humanities and science concentrators alike; what we are looking for is an openness to new academic experiences and a desire to think across disciplines about art, ethics, economics, politics, and culture. 

Interested candidates should send a résumé and a one-page statement of interest to by October 31, 2016. Successful candidates will be notified by November 15.

Cost and Attendance

Dumbarton Oaks will reimburse travel costs (economy round-trip airfare or equivalent up to a maximum of $400); cover course materials and class trips; and provide on-site accommodations and weekday lunches and dinners for the duration of the course. Students will be expected to arrive in Washington by 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 8, and will depart after 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 15. All students will be expected to complete course readings, a blog post and social media postings, and a final project.