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Pre-Columbian Collection

The Pre-Columbian Collection includes objects created during three thousand years of history in Mesoamerica, the Andes, and the Intermediate Area of Latin America. Its holdings of over seven hundred objects include stone sculpture, ceramics, architectural panels, small metal objects, and textiles. Selected objects are on display in the Pre-Columbian Pavilion designed by Philip Johnson.

Robert Woods Bliss collected with passion and exacting care. Between 1912 and his death in 1962, he acquired works of art from some thirty ancient American cultures, many of them theretofore unstudied. His predilection for fine workmanship, high quality materials, and interesting or unusual designs shaped the collection and, in no small part, the broader emerging field of Pre-Columbian studies.

The Pre-Columbian Collection comprises objects from the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica, the Intermediate Area, and the Andes. Objects of personal adornment crafted of shell, jade, obsidian, gold, and other precious materials form a particular focus of the collection, as they represented to Robert Woods Bliss the pinnacle of artistry and craftsmanship. Such objects not only demonstrate the artistic achievements of these ancient cultures but also provide access to the ways in which ancient elites communicated messages regarding their religious beliefs, economic standing, and social status.

The collection also includes several important sculptures in stone, from elegant carvings of Aztec deities and animals, to several large relief panels bearing the likeness of Maya kings. Other stonework includes finely sculpted figurines and polished jade renderings of ritual objects from the Olmec culture as well as stone effigy ballgame paraphernalia from Classic period Veracruz. Vessels of carved stone and painted ceramic illustrate the courtly life of the ancient Maya, providing insights into the political and ceremonial pursuits of the Mesoamerican elite.

The collection also includes molded and painted ceramics of the Nasca, Moche, and Wari cultures, many of them bearing images of humans, animals, and supernatural beings. Gold and silver objects from the Chavín, Lambayeque, Chimú, and Inka cultures offer evidence of the expertise achieved by Andean metalsmiths, while over forty textiles and works in feathers testify to the importance of fiber arts in this region.

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Photograph and Fieldwork Archives

The Pre-Columbian Photographs and Fieldwork Archives (PCPFA) comprise over 10,000 images of Pre-Columbian objects, archaeological sites, architecture, monuments, maps, major codices, and illustrations. The holdings document places and objects from Mesoamerica, the Intermediate Area, and the Andes, and cover around two thousand years. They consist of photographs (black and white prints, black and white negatives, color transparencies, and color slides), as well as drawings, prints, and rubbings, many of which have been scanned and converted into electronic files.

Among the Archives’ main holdings are photographs of objects, including the Maya Ceramic Archive generated by Nicholas Hellmuth, the Paracas Textile Archive created by Anne Paul, and images of objects in Dumbarton Oaks’ Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. The Archives also contain drawings of objects, including the Dellenback Archive of stone sculpture from Colombia, and the Vergara Archive of pyroengraved gourds from Peru. Other holdings are the result of fieldwork expeditions, including the Thomson Expedition Archive documenting an 1888 expedition to Yucatan, the Roosevelt and Cross Archive documenting a 1934 expedition to Peru, the Bliss Travel Archive documenting a 1935 trip to Guatemala, and miscellaneous photographs of archaeological sites, colonial churches, historic towns, and landscapes in Latin America.

The Archives are accessible by appointment only. Please contact Juan Antonio Murro, Assistant Curator, Pre-Columbian Collection.

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History of the Collection

Robert Woods Bliss was initially attracted to Pre-Columbian art for its aesthetic qualities. The first object that caught his eye was a superb jadeite figure from the Olmec culture, which he saw in Paris in 1912 and purchased in 1914. Bliss was one of the first collectors to emphasize the artistic significance of Pre-Columbian objects, equating them with Greek and Roman antiquities and European paintings at a time when Pre-Columbian objects were generally placed in museums of natural history. Developing an interest in Pre-Columbian cultures, he and Mildred Bliss traveled to sites in Mexico and Guatemala and supported excavations in Panama by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. When selecting pieces for purchase or documenting those already in his collection, he sought the advice of experts, including Samuel Lothrop of Harvard University and Matthew Stirling of the Smithsonian Institution.

It was largely after the transfer of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard in 1940 that Robert Bliss concentrated on building his Pre-Columbian art collection, carefully editing and refining it over the next two decades. From 1947 until 1960, the collection was displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., garnering, as Bliss put it, the steadily increasing response of a large and interested public. During the 1950s, Robert Bliss lent objects to temporary exhibitions in Paris, Stockholm, London, Zurich, The Hague and Berlin. In 1957, he published a catalogue of his Pre-Columbian collection, arguably the first of its kind in the field of Pre-Columbian art.

In the late 1950s, Robert Bliss began to plan a permanent home for the Pre-Columbian Collection. He chose the architect Philip Johnson to design a structure that would be appropriate for the collection and that would complement the Byzantine Gallery and surrounding gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. After Robert Bliss’ death in 1962, Mildred Bliss saw the building project to completion. The Philip Johnson Pavilion opened in 1963.

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