Stephen Houston

Oral History Interview with Professor Stephen Houston, undertaken by Clem Wood at Stephen Houston’s home in Cranston, Rhode Island on August 22, 2008. At Dumbarton Oaks, Houston was a Junior Fellow (1985), a Summer Fellow (1994), and a Fellow (2007–2008) of Pre-Columbian Studies.

CW: So, I’m Clem Wood and I have the great pleasure of interviewing Professor Stephen Houston of Brown University at his home in Cranston, Rhode Island on August 22, 2008. And so, my first question is just how you first came to Dumbarton Oaks in the ’80s and what your impressions of the intellectual and social atmosphere there at the time were.

SH: Great, yeah I was a Junior Fellow there in I believe 1985 only for one semester because I was heading off to do an excavation, or work on an excavation, in Belize at a place called Caracol. It was at that time a subterranean location; we were down in the basement surrounded by the books, and in a way my perception of Dumbarton Oaks had at that time everything to do with my lowly status in the field. So, obviously one’s perception of the place is conditioned by who you are in the field, and that changed later. It was a very small group of Fellows, much more intimate. And it was not that long after Elizabeth Boone had taken over Pre-Columbian Studies. I think there were still some political ripples there from the major shifts that had happened a few years before with the departure of Betty Benson and Mike Coe as their principal adviser. And a sense that it was moving more closely into the control of Harvard, which has obviously been the long term trajectory there, or increasingly so. Then the next stay was as a Summer Fellow where I was asked by Elizabeth, who’s a good friend and I respect enormously, to organize a session in a fall conference on Maya architecture, and she also very kindly and generously allowed me to put together a summer session where we could throw open a national search for Fellows along with a core group that I pre-selected, and that was quite productive and led I think to a successful conference which I then edited and which came out in 1998. That’s a Dumbarton Oaks – is very different. My first Dumbarton Oaks was fall, it was getting into a gloomy winter. This was the summer tour, in a humid Washington, D.C., and so physically it was a very different place. The last day was of course in the last academic year when I was there as a Fellow, completely different place, physically, institutionally, and of course my role in the field has changed. I had been a Ph.D. candidate at Yale when I was there the first time. The second time I was in a transition from one job to the other, eventually went later that summer to Brigham Young where I taught for ten years. The last experience was as a much more senior figure, so the experience was really quite different.

CW: Weren’t the Pre-Columbian Fellows, when you first arrived, in the basement? You mentioned it was a subterranean atmosphere. And was Gardening Landscape down there also?

SH: It was truly a labyrinth, and you could easily get lost going from area to area. To some extent it’s still that way in the basement, but as I understand it very few people are down there other than the photographer and some of the museum staff. But in those days it was a veritable warren of ad-hoc arrangements. I think Maria Cesa was stuck over in one little corner alcove, and you really had to know your way around. Landscape Gardening was pretty much right, as I remember it, right under their library, close to it. And so, those Fellows would kind of erupt from the earth and go above ground to their library holdings. And we were down in the basement. It had been before a different space that had been used for the Ottoman projects I think, having to do with Hagia Sophia. And so it did have a fairly open room, large carrels, but everyone was stuck together, particularly the Junior Fellows. And that’s something I’ve noticed over time, is that in Pre-Columbian, there’s more and more a sense of privacy and of being able to isolate your mind in a productive way. In the old days you were more of an open office setting, at least for the Junior Fellows. And I did not mind it, other people disliked it intensely because you didn’t get any sunlight aside for the rare book room which had this nicely paneled area where they restore some of the more valuable volumes. I sort of liked it because it would cancel out the sense of passing time. Often when you’re above ground you get a sense of the day moving along at an inexorable pace and you get this feeling of having done much less than you wanted to during that day. So, I rather liked that mole-like atmosphere, but I think I was a little unusual in that respect. The space was pretty much a warren and it was very similar to that in my experience in the ’90s, the difference being that with Gordon McEwan in there, they got much more aggressively to collect, and this was the pre-digital age so D.O. was acquiring a lot of unpublished Ph.D. theses, which were added to a lot of bulk, but it meant that the library holdings were really maxing out the space when I was there at that time, and they were increasingly in a building below and attempting to jerry rig a little more room for all of the volumes they expected. And that obviously in the long term led to the crisis that Keenan attempted to address by commissioning to do the building. As you know, the Byzantine Fellows were also in the Main House and tended to be in much more lavish quarters. There were many more of them, and the relationships between the groups historically have been very much the following: that Landscape and the Pre-Columbianists tend to have a lot in common, we tend to be more interested in general questions, and then the Byzantine Fellows are in some ways in their very own world. Let’s break for a moment. I’ve lost a crown in my tooth.


SH: I was mentioning to you, Clem, about the interactions between the different programs. And at that time, of course, Byzantine Studies received a disproportionate number of the fellowships, as far as I could tell anyway, and they had lavish quarters. And probably that’s been one of the big shifts, which was to establish much more of a parity between the programs. Obviously, Pre-Columbian has benefited from that. Byzantine Fellows at that time were much more traditional, conservative, and the philological interests that they had, even the thematic ones, were not very general, and it meant that lunches could be very painful, because you would as a Pre-Columbianist or a Landscape person really have to stretch outside of yourself to envelope these people in conversation. I often found it absolutely a struggle to get them to express any interest in anything else, but there were always exceptions. There was kind of an outlier effect with Fellows in some of these programs, where some really liked to hang out with people that aren’t doing what they do, and partly alleviate some of the tedium of being around the same people all the time, and they genuinely find it stimulating. So, when I was there, I made very good friends with an English scholar who is now at Oxford.


SH: So, basically lunches were very painful. They used to take place – Bess, I believe was the name of the chef – over in the carriage house. I don’t know what they’re calling it now, but then it became the Fellows’ Building; now I think it has another name. The meals were often very, very heavy, and Bess had a kind of tyrannical authority over the Fellows. I remember on one particularly ridiculous occasion, I literally drove all night with my newborn son and my wife to make it to lunch because we had not been able to tell Bess that I would not be there on Monday. This is something I wouldn’t even remotely do today, and it’s a much more relaxed setting now, kind of a banquet style. You serve yourself, I guess, or a buffet style – so much more formal and more of a sociological distinction between ranking members of the staff, you might say, and the Fellows. There’s much more of an exalted sense of the Fellows being pampered guests, members of this institution. And that has changed enormously. When I was there last year it was, for better or worse, I don’t want to sound snobbish about it, but it’s really like a cafeteria now. There’s a table where all the staff sits, they’re the closest to the food. And the atmosphere has changed quite a bit. Is it better? I don’t know; it’s certainly different. I personally think, probably in my two years there, as someone who’s actually consuming food at the Dumbarton Oaks table, I probably found that the most useless experience in that you’re compelled every day to see the same people, and you really have to almost think in advance of suitable topics for discussion. In the old days too there were rather rigid rules about having to mix. You were really encouraged not to sit with the Pre-Columbian Fellows. That’s all gone by the wayside so now it’s almost worse in a way because we just sit with people we know well already and spend all the day with. I know that was intended by the Blisses to be an important part of the Dumbarton Oaks experience, but I’ve never found it very helpful or useful. Particularly because Pre-Columbianists tend to be more relaxed. I’ve noticed that, particularly in the last year, the Byzantine and the Landscape people tended to treat it almost as work, sort of part of the study session. Michel Conan was extremely rigorous in asking questions and maintaining an elevated level of conversation while we would talk about sporting events or what we’d done over the weekend or movies we might want to look at. And so maybe those people got more out of it as a result because it was very focused and directed conversation. I don’t know if you see that when you’re there hanging out, but Conan has now left as I understand it with someone else coming in. But he really kept a tight control over it. And then the Byzantine Fellows were all expected to descend from the Main House at the same time. This year there was a rebellion among the Fellows because of the problems with this retched system, that allowed the books to be transported back and forth from the Main House. And many of the Byzantine Fellows had had it, and insisted on spaces in the library to get around that issue. And so that kind of sense of a cohort that would descend on last to eat has changed somewhat this year.

CW: In part because of the new library?

SH: Yes, and partly because they’re now split up, they’re not directly under control of the Byzantinist, Alice-Mary, and offices nearby. And they’re more willing to just go on their own because they have separate spaces. It’s a fascinating place just in terms of the sociology of space, because you can see how human behavior and interaction, intellectual and otherwise, is conditioned by the physical setting. And so large scale decisions made, let’s say in the last decade by Ned Keenan, have really had an impact on the way the space is experienced, the way you interact with other people, and to some extent the memories you take from it. I find the new space oppressive, and I think that’s widely shared by many people, particularly the new library.

CW: Would you say it encourages less – or discourages interaction among people?

SH: I would say that it gets at a separate issue, I guess, and maybe it’s part of the questions you’d be posing, but it’s very clear that the changes made under Keenan have reconfigured the DNA of Dumbarton Oaks. There had been much more of a sense of coherence in some of the programs, particularly Pre-Columbian, because the Director used to control the collections, the Director would control the library, the Directors of Studies would have very close contact with the Fellows. And I thought those synergies worked very nicely. There was a feeling of everything clicking. And I really, really believe that probably it was the Blisses’ intention not to atomize it into separate bureaucratic structures, which was done in the Keenan term, the Keenan administration. The other issue is pretty obvious too, in that the head of the library is the head of the library, and that means not only the books but also the space, because books require certain kinds of maintenance, they require certain kinds of physical control of environmental settings, so that the books can be preserved in the long term. What this means with the new system is that all the programs exist in spaces controlled by a separate branch of the institution. The analogy would be, at Harvard having the Department of History in space that’s controlled by Biochemistry or by the Department of English. The tensions from this arrangement are inevitable, and could have been avoided somehow by thinking through these issues in advance. I didn’t know Keenan very well, I only met him a few times, but maybe it’s his study of Russia and that kind of system, but this is a guy who was really quite authoritarian. I’m not sure he was widely consultative in looking at how the best way to configure this space would be. But this is just second hand, and I should try to be fair. But anyway, that really was a major shift. And admittedly there was a kind of idiosyncratic, ad hoc quality to the configuration of space in the old days, but the fact that something’s idiosyncratic isn’t a reason to change it. The fact that it’s ad-hoc and historically mutating and plastic doesn’t mean that you have to change it. In the same way that a rational systems analyst descending on Oxford is going to want to do away with all the colleges and it would just crush the spirit of the place. And I think that some of that, in candor, happened under Keenan. And so, to me, it’s both an augmented institution in that we have more Pre-Columbian Fellows; it’s a grander place physically; it’s good to have the library properly housed and put together and run by a coherent organization; but the spirit of it really was altered and I think diminished. So, to me it’s become much more like something you would just happen to see on the Harvard campus. It’s much more of an institutional and colder environment than it had been in the past. The other key mistake, in my opinion, of Keenan was, again, I’m not sure he listened much to other people. I got this impression from some of the Senior Fellows – and so I don’t get the feeling that he understood exactly what he was doing with the configuration of the space. Maybe he did. Maybe the idea was to kind of streamline administration so more control could be placed in the hands of the Director. What he did, which I think was really imprudent, was to elevate certain support staff such as the library or to some extent even the museum on a par with the programs of study. And it’s really the programs of study that are the intellectual pulse of the institution. It’s not someone who knows how to scan a slide or catalog books and preserve them for the long term. These people are to me support staff. And by reorganizing things like he did, Keenan diminished the capacity of the institution to function at the level it had been before. It was very clear to me, without going into details or naming particular names, that it wasn’t last year a very happy institution in these constant frictions between the programs and the librarian and to some extent even the museum staff. You felt like an interloper in the library and in your own office. Many complaints of this sort were made to the current Director. This is a guy who listens, who pays careful attention and cares. I would suspect that maybe the prior Director didn’t have quite all of these sterling attributes in the same measure. The question for me, as I was there last year, was what can be done to preserve some of that sense of community and atmosphere. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of organizing more parties or having more formal dinners. It really emanates from the configuration of space, and “who owns the space,” and what is the mission of the place. Even if you look at the website, Clem, research is way at the bottom. It’s sort of way over at the right side. They’ve got library. It constantly became clear to me that I’m not here to use these particular books at Dumbarton Oaks. It’s a strong pre-Columbian collection, but I could have just gone up to Harvard to use them. I have a personal library that comes close in certain aspects to what’s offered there. I didn’t go there to be under the control of a librarian, I went there to be a Fellow of Dumbarton Oaks, which used to be, as you know, a very exalted kind of status. You almost felt like you were an honored guest at a private estate. And I would say going back to the early years – and I think I was just at the tail end of this in the ’80s – you still got the feeling, and I mentioned this to other people as an analogy, as though you were the house guest of a very wealthy couple, but the difference being that your hosts were dead. And yet all of these habits and customs were kind of chugging along in the background. There was the sherry hour, which I imagined they would do. I don’t pretend to understand what it was like when the Blisses were still alive, I think it was yet more formal. And I think there was a lot of close attention to how you would dress and how you would comport yourself, because what the Blisses were doing, I imagine, is they were drawing these young scholars, often males I understand at that point, into their social world, and part of what they were doing there was supposed to entertain themselves by having these bright young intellects around. But also, I think they almost saw it as a kind of finishing school where they were imparting polish and socializing these people into how gentlemen should behave. And I think there were just the slightest echoes of that when I was there in the ’80s still. But Betty, of course, knew the Blisses. Mike Coe knew the Blisses too. And so they would know much more about them.

CW: Were there still teas when you were there in the ’80s? Or did you go to the concerts, those kinds of legacies of the Blisses?

SH: Yes, the concerts were still going on. When I was there as a Junior Fellow it was very different because I had a young child and a son, who was a newborn, and I don’t know if this was some long-term disquiet of the Blisses with raucous family life and having kids that couldn’t quite be controlled or whether it was something to do with the intermediate directors and other authorities there in the intervening years, but they were not family friendly, to use that expression. You were not given housing; you had to go find housing on your own. And it became quite arduous because they would barely assist you in finding any place to stay. I remember for the first month I was there, I had to commute from a friend-of-the-family’s home, and literally it would take me two hours one way because it was on the other side of D.C. over in Maryland, beyond Anacostia. There really wasn’t a great deal of sympathy for this at D.O. and again I don’t know, because I wasn’t there in the ’70s or before, whether this came out of the Blisses’ attitude toward scholars. As you know, and you’ll find out when you go to Oxford, historically places like that are about young singles, usually single men. In the old days in Oxford, you’d better not get married or you would not stay there as a Fellow, and there’s a little bit of that that transferred itself to D.O. It was maybe not quite the thing to have children and families. We would get invited to certain parties, let’s say. The staff had parties, and the associate director at that time [Judy Ullmann Siggins] was really quite lively. I’ve completely forgotten her name, but she went on to marry Bill Isbell, and left D.O. and had been there for many, many years. Judy? Anyway, it’s completely escaped my memory. But there were a few openings where families would be included, but generally you were kept at arm’s length. There’s still a little bit of that. There seems to be last year a lot of paranoia about letting the wrong people in, or people that just had to be girlfriends. And you had to specify when you had been dating someone, because if not they would not be permitted to come in as girlfriends. Just strange rules, as though there were hordes of unwashed people at the gates, desperate to get in and attend these parties and social gatherings at D.O. So, that’s been a long and established tradition at D.O. But it’s nothing new, but it just goes through strange permutations.

CW: On a more scholarly side, when you first arrived were there any older Fellows there who mentored you? I guess you had had this relationship with Mike Coe, so maybe you knew something about his D.O. experience?

SH: None. I would say that because there were such a limited number of Fellows, you didn’t. When I was there as a Summer Fellow, Elizabeth was on her way out and Dick Diehl was there, so it was too much in flux. And at that point I had a fairly clear idea what I wanted to do. As a Junior Fellow, I think I was kind of clueless. And I did have good interactions with Emily Umberger who was a more senior, I think at that point tenured person. But there were other tensions with my cohorts, between some of the other women. But I just, probably because I was always compelled to live off campus, I couldn’t involve myself as much. And I was there for a shorter stay because I really felt I needed fieldwork experience. And in my discipline, the time to dig is in the spring. That’s really the only time when the rains allow you to go off into these very remote areas and do excavation. So, I think I took that fellowship too early; I should have waited another year.

CW: Because you were still a Ph.D. student?

SH: Yes, I was a Junior Fellow. But I think I wasn’t personally ready at that time to do it. It’s – as you’ve probably heard from other Fellows – very, very common to putter away a lot of your time with little projects because you feel like you have all the time in the world to finish the thing you’ve come there to do. And suddenly the year, the term, is over and you have the feeling of not quite getting accomplished very much. And it is, unless you’re remorselessly single-minded about doing just this book or just this project, very few people ever finish stuff there. It’s very, very hard to do it. And I would even say that when I was there – and I haven’t seen many of these lately – but when I was there as a Junior Fellow, there were many more of these multi-year postdocs at D.O. There was a guy named Bob Edwards, not the guy on NPR. But I believe his name was Bob Edwards, who did Armenian fortifications. And there was another guy named Denys Pringle who was also there doing Crusader forts or the like, and they had multi-year fellowships. And those were people who I think were able to get projects done. I don’t personally think the one-year fellowships are tremendously productive for really doing and wrapping up a big work. It just isn’t doable. And so we tend to be there to work on fragments or portions of them. Some people who come there with big chunks of their Ph.D.s done, and I’m thinking now about Junior Fellows, might be able to finish their projects by the end of the year. And that happened when I was there with Alex Tokovinine. He was able to finish up. But he came with a lot of it already written. I think one of the conceits of the place is that you go there, you do this project, you finish it, you leave, and then on to further glories, but I don’t think that happens very often. The reports that you see are obviously going to be a lot of spinning about how I got tremendous amounts done, but the reality is a kind of cycle, in which you first dither away a lot of your time on this article or that talk, panic sets in usually right after Christmas, you beaver away at something energetically, and then two things happen a month or two before the end of the term: you either get really desperate, unhappy, gloomy, or you descend into a kind of late term frivolity with late term gatherings by the pool and wine tastings. So, I think the final month tends to be a disconnection. It’s a disconnecting process. Just as the first several months is attempting to get up to speed, you’re on that bike and you’re trying to get those pedals working. And then you’re coasting at the end, because it’s very hard to engage in something where you know you have to shut down in a month, and you have to pack up everything. Again, just the peculiarities of this changes. I really think the library is the big issue there. Because in the old days, it was so easy just to walk out four or five feet and you just grab the book you need. And now with the so-called rationalization and institutional rationalizing of the library, they’ve made all sorts of decisions that really make no sense to me and actually diminish it as a research institution. For instance, rather than having a seminar format where the books are close to the people that are going to them – and this isn’t a library that a lot of people use. It’s basically for a handful of Fellows, maybe a few dozen people. There are lots of readers with those little badges and the red cards, but they’re never there. You almost never see them. But instead what they did was they put the books that are most widely used the furthest away from the Fellows, down on the bottom floor. I’ve heard there are weight considerations because of these devices they have that compress the stacks, but surely there could have been some other arrangements. And then by the Pre-Columbian Fellows, they put all of the large folio that we never use and that are not used by anybody. And these are relatively rare works. I imagine they’re quite valuable. So, what do they do? They expose them to the most light. And then vast quantities of space that don’t seem to have anybody in them, and large archives where I’d imagine this thing might go eventually, that again don’t seem to have any living bodies down there. And at the same time just vast numbers of librarians, but you don’t really know what they do. It’s sort of fascinating watching an institution, and again I’m thinking in abstract, sociological terms – but having detached these entities and making them commensurate or putting them on par with each other, then each one of them goes into a busy mode, where they start trying to hire more and more bodies. Again you acquire strength institutionally, you acquire momentum, by getting as many people under you as possible. This seemed to be an effort in the library, just hire more and more and more librarians, and this was clearly another source of tension at the place. When I was there, they were advertising for somebody to start a Pre-Columbian imaging collection, and there are no images, as far as I can tell. The images that were purchased from Nicholas Hellmuth many years ago of all these Maya objects, they’re over in the museum. So, I thought the whole thing was just in a way sad, because I do love the place, but also kind of comical and sociologically predictable in a very, very obvious way. In a way it’s easier to see these things because you’re only there for a year, and to a certain extent you care and you want to give advice as far as it’s listened to. But we’re not citizens of D.O., we’re not a member of a republic or the monarchy I should say, so we’re out of there, but it makes it a little easier to see what the impact of some of these decisions might be. I think the other important question is just what’s going to happen to D.O. in the long term. It has obviously a ton of money, although I think the lavish expenditures under Keenan and the radical expansion of the physical plant, some of which I’m sure needed to be done, I’m sure the buildings probably needed help. The question of course is what is going to happen to it in the long term. I’m not sure it can change a great deal without breaking apart and rethinking the space. Something I mentioned before, again as an anthropologist I’m very aware of the fact that space conditions behavior and influences how people interact, and these decisions about the way the buildings were configured in previous terms particularly under Keenan are not easy to re-shape. I’m not sure how it can be done in some ways. Again I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I do have a suspicion that towards the end, maybe Keenan was – there’s a moment of excitement – I see this with the directors there – there’s a moment of excitement and initial energy. They try to make certain changes. And then there’s clearly at the end, where they’re looking ahead and thinking about other things, and it could be that some of the most crucial decisions in the history of Dumbarton Oaks were made at the time when the Director was looking elsewhere and thinking towards retirement. And again I didn’t know the guy, but I don’t get the feeling he was someone who was tremendously consultative, from what I understand from other Senior Fellows’ meetings. He was not a guy who listens a lot. And then a kind of over-lavish, slightly opulent, almost imperial quality to the physical plant which I think really didn’t work out very well either, the decision to acquire this house that belonged to the Senator Warner, Elizabeth Taylor, for a great deal of money, lavish gardens. We have, at this point, a modest, very mellow, nice guy who I’m sure would have been just as happy in the old director’s quarters where we now have dinner, or lunch rather. But there’s a kind of personal impress from Keenan that is really permanent, I don’t know how to change it, and yet involving decisions that really weren’t sensible. And so personally I feel a lot of anxiety for the institution, because it still has a lot of resources, it’s obviously going to chug along, it’s always going to get great applicants, important work will be done there, but it’s too bad it isn’t as pleasant a place as it used to be, that it isn’t a little more congenial. It would often hit me when I was there, and to some extent this is a lamentable bi-product of having been a Fellow there in three separate decades, is that I have a base for comparison. And the other people that were there just thought, “Well, this is the way it is.” But I remembered much more collegial, probably a more amiable place in some ways in earlier periods. Although I’d have to say that independent of what kind of person you were, of what kind of Fellow you were, if you were a young, Junior Fellow with a young family, maybe it wasn’t such a warm and hospitable place. I do worry about it. I’m not sure what can be done in the long term, or what will happen during the long term. The other thing that probably is an issue at D.O., it probably needs to, even though it’s obviously a very traditional and indeed backward-looking place – this project you’re doing is backward-looking in a way – it needs to get much more focused on the cutting edge, digital initiatives. I think there has been resistance to it, but it’s something they really need to embrace, in terms of databases. We’re probably leaving the time behind, in my opinion, where maybe libraries will not have the same role. A lot of these things, these images can be digitized. It can be made into a very different kind of location. The libraries can be virtual, and the databases, which are elaborately prepared by people like Grierson and others there, they probably shouldn’t be in these over-produced books with very expensive paper and varying degrees of editing. And I really don’t see any signs that D.O. is changing very much there. I don’t think the investments are going to be made.

CW: How do you view D.O.’s role in Maya studies in particular? I know you were involved in that NOVA program.

SH: I’m being candid. Too candid, probably. I hope Jan doesn’t listen to this. I would say that it’s overstated. That period of Maya research was useful. You started getting a lot of people together, speaking to one another, and until that point Maya studies had been really much more isolated with a handful of people working on it in very intermittent contexts. So, I would say the pulse got a little more intense, and to a minor extent, D.O. was involved in that. But it’s a little bit of a self-serving narrative about the people involved, how important they were, how wonderful this work was, but some of that research was done by other scholars, or it was already known. I’m sure it was very important for the people involved and that they got very excited by it, but I don’t see it as being tremendously important in that respect. It’s really much more in terms of the fellowships that I think it’s had an impact, and to some extent the conferences. I think the conferences were more important in the earlier periods, because there were not many specialized, focused conferences. The national meetings were probably a little less well developed. So, those early D.O. volumes on the Pre-Columbian field from the ’60s, into the ’70s, and even to some extent into the ’80s and maybe beyond that even, were I think really central to the field. You couldn’t wait to see the volume. They were important articles, a lot of data, great thoughts, and were quite stimulating. But quite simply no editorial or publication series or symposium series will ever reproduce that now. There’s just too much going on. And so where D.O. I think really can have much more of an impact, or much more focused on those seminar-like meetings where you would bring together a handful of people. And indeed that’s what the early ones were like. They had very few participants as I understand it, and in the earliest volumes, if you look at them, they’ll even have transcriptions of the questions, of the Q and A afterwards. That would be inconceivable today. So, that’s an intellectual art that I think really had its moment of electricity. I just don’t quite see it any more. The talks are kind of interesting and some of the sessions, and I’m involved in some coming up in a month or two and thereafter, but it just can’t have the same role it did before. I think there’s also a tension at D.O. in Pre-Columbian Studies between the two aspects of our field, one of which is just very archaeological, dirt archaeology. It might even embrace economic approaches. And then there’s much more of really the Blisses’ concern, and this was I think exemplified by the Benson and Coe years, where it was focused on imagery and concepts and ideologies. And that really began to change under Elizabeth Boone, I think particularly because of the Harvard influence. More and more dirt archaeologists were really controlling it, like the people under the Peabody, Gordon Willey for instance, and these people I really respect. But the fact of the matter is that that’s really not quite resolved and yet doesn’t easily go together either. So, at D.O. some of the conferences could be held at the Society for American Archaeology. I don’t think that that’s appropriate to be honest. I think there aren’t that many forums where we really can think about ancient thought and representation systems, and D.O. has traditionally been the place for it. Others can I think legitimately respond that, “Look, it’s a large house, it’s a mansion with many rooms, and why not open them all?” But there are other places that serve that purpose. Probably this could change even a little bit with the detachment of the museum, which is all about a cabinet of wonders and beautiful objects from the Pre-Columbian world, and now just basically taken away from Pre-Columbian Studies and under control of the Byzantinist ultimately. Again, these decisions made by Keenan will probably trigger potentially an intellectual reorientation, or at least for those that were there experiencing the institution. We were able to get over once or twice to look at some of the objects, but they were almost complaining about the way I was holding one of the pieces. You wouldn’t have remotely experienced that ten years ago or fifteen.

CW: So, you had more access to the collections, when you were first – ?

SH: Oh lord, yes. And highly controlled and to some extent what you see going on there, it’s almost – this is said to me repeatedly – it was about making it consistent with Harvard practice. It shouldn’t be a Socratic institution of some autonomy. It is an entity that is an arm of Harvard University and of its practices and of its policies. And again, it’s completely rational, but it has resulted in changes there. So libraries? Libraries are organized this way. Museums? Museums are organized this way. This is how we deal with objects. We don’t deal with them in this other way. In a way, the professionalism is there, but at the same time it has changed the atmosphere. So, what can I say about D.O? I think that the fellowships, the fact that you’re giving people a place to go and get away from the duties of their home institution, that’s going to continue to have an impact. The fellowships are where it’s at. I’m not a prophet when it comes to library science, but I have to believe in the long term that he library is going to change in its purpose and its mission at the institution, and that increasingly things will simply be digitized and the idea of this physical space where you store these objects on printed paper, that’s going to have to change to some extent. The question for me is whether this new world can be easily embraced by an institution that is to some extent channeled by earlier decisions.

CW: You’ve done a lot of fieldwork. Do you know anything about project grants that D.O. has done for fieldwork?

SH: Yes, I know a little bit about them. I’ve never been a Senior fellow, so I’m not there for those kind of deliberations, but I believe that came in maybe during the Quilter years in Pre-Columbian Studies. And maybe they were there before, I don’t know, but there have been idiosyncratic or ad-hoc grants. I think money went to Arthur Miller, to the murals project at Teotihuacan. I’m not sure about that. But it makes sense to have small seed money for emergency situations, particularly sites that are in some danger and it might be useful. And with the collapse of certain funding institutions like FAMSI [Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies] in just the last year, it’s actually even more important that D.O. contribute to it. In terms of the selection of the proposals, there seemed to be a heavy skewing toward Peruvian or Ecuadorian projects, as far as I can tell. I haven’t done a study of it. There was probably a very big impact on Pre-Columbian Studies with Richard Burger when he was head of the Senior Fellows, and he has also been very much a friend and patron of Jeff Quilter’s, so he has had enormous impact in the last ten, fifteen years in a way that Mike Coe would have had in an earlier period. And sometimes that was expressed overtly through an institutional appointment, but it also was probably taking place behind the scenes. Many of the sessions would be like El Niño or the Inca, and some of these things would be of interest to Quilter and Berger with their focus on South America. And there probably needs to be – and I know Joanne is aware of this too – there needs to probably be a little more of the Mesoamericanist focus there or a presence in the staff, just by way of compensation. Historically, you know, D.O. has been concerned with “high civilizations,” which limits you to most of Mesoamerica and parts of South America, but it’s not going to take you to the Antilles or even in the lowland Amazonia. But right now it’s really Andean-centric, and it’s just an historical accident in the way people were hired, and who was there and who wasn’t there, but there is no one in the curatorial staff that has expertise in Mesoamerica, which is really one of the glories of the collection. The fields are sufficiently deep in their bibliography now and in the range of expertise required that that probably needs to be re-thought through. I know that an attempt is made at the level of the Senior Fellows to achieve a kind of balance between that. I know there are considerations of personality, whether people are clubbable or whether they could be reasonable or not, and also even things like gender, where you happen to teach – I do think probably during the Betty Benson and Mike Coe years, very, very focused on the Ivy League. And I think it was very well understood if you were a student of Mike’s, if you were a Yale student, you would stand a pretty good chance of getting a D.O. fellowship. Right now I think that’s much more democratic, and that’s probably a good thing. Honestly it is. That to me has been an improvement. I’ve been complaining about and being really quite critical of Keenan, but I do have to say in favor of the guy that he opened the floodgates to money for Pre-Columbian. Many, many more fellowships than were there before and the resources that he gave to Pre-Columbian were, I think, very welcome. That really has been a good thing for the field. So, when it comes down to it, I think D.O.’s resources are very well spent with the fellowships. They should issue as many as they possibly can because it increases the sense of a varied, diverse community that can talk about new things that would never have occurred to them before, but I think dumping lots of money into the museum or the library is really kind of secondary to the place. It’s kind of fascinating just looking at it institutionally the way you have decisions made by a variety of Fellows, you have the influence coming from Harvard because of its general policies and its administration, and then you have the vestigial and very tenacious personalities of the Blisses, whose personality has just saturated the buildings. What they thought was important is still there. I mean, the amount of money that goes in the garden – we love the garden, I’m glad it’s there – but it’s kind of an odd way to spend funding for an academic institution. It’s somewhat decoupled from the intellectual component of D.O. But again, it’s just a wonderful idiosyncrasy, and again, that really is what makes D.O. interesting. It’s not making it some carbon copy of the way that a similar, comparable entity would be organized in Cambridge. These tensions are never going to get resolved, and maybe that’s what will make it a little interesting because the fact of the matter is it’s not in Cambridge, it’s hundreds of miles away, although admittedly you can fly back and forth easily. And so to some extent it’s always going to have a somewhat interesting trajectory. Clearly Harvard’s aware of this, and they have multiple committees now that bring more and more Harvard supervision directly into the control over the place. That obviously is a long-term thing. It’s making it more of a kind of faceless component of the Harvard machine. I think that’s obviously a way it’s gone, and it’s not going to change from that. I don’t see any chance of it.

CW: As a kind of broad final question – and you’ve addressed this throughout – how have you seen D.O. changing the field, as a whole, of pre-Columbian studies, and then responding to changes in the field, the currents of anthropology and archaeology versus the more art historical approach?

SH: I think D.O. shouldn’t take itself too seriously. As I said, it’s great that it supported people doing fellowships, and a lot of important products have come out of it. There have been useful little monographs that are part of the publication series but haven’t been so much lately and then these nicely produced symposia, but the editing process takes too long, the way topics are picked tends to be very safe, and so what it does is, it’s really on the cusp of the wave or even slightly behind it. And by the time the volumes come out, you’ll think, “Well this was a session that might have been handled five years ago at the SAA [Society for American Archaeology].” I think that’s the challenge, setting topics that are not going to be handled at these various national meetings, but which kind of mix them up with different kinds of people. The field would be impoverished if D.O. didn’t exist. We would be a very different kind of field, just in terms of productivity. I think it would be very interesting to tabulate how many books have come out of stays at D.O. I don’t know if that’s ever been done. They’re starting to do that a little bit in the library. I don’t know if you’ve seen the books by recent Fellows, but I think it would be very interesting to look into that long-term. It does tend to favor – and I’ve benefited from this personally – it does focus on a certain people. In part it’s justified because these people are productive, they’re hard working, they have things to say, but it has had that aspect to some extent. But there is a process by which people that are involved in the meetings often have been Fellows, so that definitely keeps that dialogue more restricted to some extent. An initiative under Quilter – and this is something that is going to be very interesting to see how this develops – is how to engage with Latin America. And it’s a big question because I don’t think Landscape Gardening has this at all. Byzantine Studies we know traditionally used to get scholars from the Soviet Union involved, and even private places of exile, comfortable exile. The question is I think what impact is D.O. going to have on the vast area that it studies, that is on the people that work there. It’s going to have an impact. Its impact will be a little bit limited because everything’s done in English. All the publications come out in English for better or worse. I don’t know if there are any exceptions to that but I think it’s very rare.  And it is hard sometimes to identify scholars who would apply from Latin America and bring them up because often it’s tough for them, in terms of their own appointments in Latin America, and because there are a lot of cultural aspects of working in an American institution that are not necessarily overt or easy to read. And so sometimes it can be difficult for them. Probably by bringing up more Fellows from Latin America it could have much more of an impact there. I know that Quilter had D.O. meetings down in places like Peru, and I know they just held one in Guatemala, as you know, so I thought that was bringing D.O. to the world, you might say, a sort of road show, Antiques Roadshow. But I know from the one in Guatemala they still tend to be a small group, and not many people actually came, as far as I could tell, from the community itself, despite the best efforts to hustle to get people to come visit. Personally, I think too that it can have more of an impact by picking big, long-term projects that only an institution like D.O. can sponsor. That is, what are the big scholarly efforts that need to be done? This was, I think, very capably executed by Byzantine Studies, with some of these great works that really had an impact on the field. These are inherently difficult decisions to make because it means committing a lot of resources and it means disfavoring to some extent other projects that might be done. But I think D.O. could have more of an impact through outreach, more Latin American Fellows, thinking through the digital initiatives as a way of disseminating and prompting further scholarship, and then creatively picking projects of broad scope that really will have a long term impact, that will change the field through their very execution, through the production of scholarly knowledge. It’s really hard to do. To some extent I think the other big change which you probably picked up – and this was one reason why I didn’t take the job when it was offered to me – is that they’ve got these five- to ten-year terms. And very few senior scholars have the wherewithal to basically take a five-year leave of absence or ten-year and do that, and then trust somehow, to the vagaries of the job market, later that you’re going to land on your feet. Jeff Quilter has a nice job at the Peabody right now, but this is a risky proposition. What they do is they want people to come in almost as visionaries and do all this work and set research agendas, and then they’re going to boot you out in five to ten years and so – it’s just tricky. The other question is what kind of directors of study you would hire, and I see two approaches at D.O. There’s a strong feeling among some that you get end-of-career people, people that are just about to retire, and in a way they have a lot of contacts. They know how to do the work. They have opinions about how things should be done. They have strong personalities. But you’re inevitably going to get fairly traditional, conservative people. The other tendency potentially is to pick younger people. When Elizabeth was hired and they offered a position to me, I was in my 30s at that point, and the idea would be to get people with a lot of bustling energy and maybe would want to be a little more experimental. Quilter did experiment with a lot of different forms, and so I think he really did good work there. But inherently I think D.O. should sort of get with it. Why appoint a librarian permanently and not a director of studies? I can see that maybe you want constantly to have a churning of directors of study because you want new approaches and ideas coming in. You don’t want to get people too entrenched, but it makes for a weird dynamic. What academic jobs are like this? I’ve never heard of academic jobs like this. Well, Clem, I don’t know what else to say about it. I’m obviously very fond of the place, it’s been very generous to me, it’s helped me pursue my career. I think really bad decisions were made about five to ten years ago that are going to be very difficult to rectify. Fortunately they’re not my problems to solve.

CW: Well, thank you.

SH: There you go. Okay.