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Seventy-Five Years of Arts and Humanities at Dumbarton Oaks

Posted On November 17, 2015 | 14:31 pm | by meredithb | Permalink
Jan Ziolkowski’s Welcome to a Concert by the Dover Quartet, with the World Premiere of Caroline Shaw’s Plan & Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)

Before the treat of music, you must endure, in the form of my palaver, the “trick” part of “trick or treat!” My name is Jan Ziolkowski. As director of Dumbarton Oaks I take profound pleasure and feel deep appreciation in welcoming you. Today we celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of this institution. Yesterday was Halloween, and in many Christian calendars today is All Saints’ Day. But the holiday has not determined why our own joyful solemnity takes place on November 1st. Instead, the explanation is that on this very date in 1940 Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss hosted a black-tie reception to mark two interconnected events. One was the transfer of Dumbarton Oaks from the Blisses to Harvard. The other was the foundation of a research study program in Byzantine art and culture.

Even (or do I mean especially?) in D.C., not everyone likes formal socializing. In many circles the eighteenth-century Englishman Horace Walpole is best known for the Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto. Around our horticultural institution he is more famous for having revived the Gothic architectural style in Strawberry Hill House, with its marvelous gardens. In a letter, Walpole once observed: “They say there is no English word for ennui: I think you may translate it most literally by what is called ‘entertaining people’ and ‘doing the honors’: that is, you sit an hour with somebody you don’t know, and don’t care for, talk about the wind and the weather, and ask a thousand foolish questions.” To make this evening sheer joy, let’s swear a no-wind and no-weather pact. To render at least the men more comfortable, we have dispensed with the black-tie gear required in 1940. Finally, we will furnish the treat of music.

I relish get-togethers like this one. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, cultural institutions and universities specialize in transmitting all sorts of things across time. Thanks to libraries and teaching, we store and build knowledge and memory. We safeguard money in endowments and objects in museums. Perhaps most importantly, we perpetuate passions through decades and even centuries. As far as names go, our donors laid out with great rigor their causes but forwent any naming opportunity. Yet, even if only in photographic portraits, Roberts Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss will oversee us at the post-concert reception. I exhort you to come: the food, view, and company will be glorious.

In envisaging this session, my team hoped for just such a gathering of old and new friends as we now together form. Among us I see cultural attachés, directors and staff of museums, institutes, and associations, close allies from throughout the region who have helped us in multiple capacities, including legal and architectural, our friendliest Friends of Music, and faculty members from D.C.–area universities. Finally, we have Fellows from this year’s cohort and staff from Dumbarton Oaks. I cannot imagine a nicer or more appropriate group with which to fete a special day.

To everyone I am grateful for coming, but I wish to express special appreciation to cherished colleagues in teaching and administration from Harvard who have made the trek: my dean, Diana Sorensen; her associate dean, Mathilda van Es; our HR consultant, Andrea Kelton-Harris; the Classics departmental administrator, Teresa Wu; the retired project manager for our new building, Peter Riley; and colleagues John Duffy, Ioli Kalavrezou, and Michael Puett. It means the world to have you here, only the latest token of your backing.

If I feel blessed in what can be the painful posture of having my feet planted over four hundred miles apart, it is from having the greatest imaginable collaborators at both ends of the straddle. In nine years I have flown nearly a thousand flights on what has morphed into American Airlines, mostly hops back and forth between two remarkable regions. Last winter I understood Raymond Chandler’s dictum: “I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday.” But never once have I felt like agreeing with Fred Allen, when he wrote to Groucho Marx: “I have just returned from Boston. It is the only thing to do if you find yourself up there.”

Today is about here, the here of Dumbarton Oaks. By the intent of the donors this is an elegantly but strangely complex place. For that reason, I should clarify what we are. Our establishment serves and preserves the humanities. As gardeners, we cultivate cultures we are charged to protect and propagate through such disciplines as art history, history, and philology. At the same time, we endeavor to benefit international and national communities, Washington, and Harvard. It can become a tricky balancing act, but it is unfailingly a rewarding one.

Owing to the attractions of the library and collections, Dumbarton Oaks attracts residential Fellows and other scholars in Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies. It sponsors lectures and conferences, summer schools, and other such events. It publishes major books. In a delicate equilibrium, our institution opens to the public our museum and formal gardens. Last but not least, it presents regular monthly concerts. In all these ambitions we aspire to be what one idolatrous visitor described as “God’s temple, and a tribute to beauty.”

Our anniversary theme is “Preserving the Past, Inspiring the Future.” On our website under that heading you can find three sentences: “The United States was struggling to emerge from a prolonged economic downturn. Europe had to contend with extremist groups that made the future deeply worrisome. The humanities were the last thing on the minds of most people.” Those three dozen words relate not to any recent year, but rather to 1940–41. That was the first year in which Dumbarton Oaks operated under the aegis of Harvard University, after its gift by the donors. While celebrating seventy-five years of supporting humanities and arts, we are studying the state of our fields trifocally: how did they look on the eve of the Second World War, what is their current condition, and what will their future prospects be?

Above the wording of the theme on the webpage appears the inscription outside our library, excerpted from a letter written by Mildred Bliss to the director of the Fogg Art Museum, Paul Sachs: “If ever the humanities were necessary . . . it is in this epoch of disintegration and dislocation.” For all my preoccupation about what is happening right now around the globe, her perspective was far more apocalyptic than I feel either in general or today in particular. The world is far from problem-free, but reflect upon 1940. Militarily, it witnessed the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk Evacuation. In civilian suffering it saw the opening of Auschwitz and the massacre of Katyn Forest. In the holocaust to come, it brought the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto. Offsetting those nightmares we can point on the cultural side to the discovery of the cave paintings at Lascaux, the debut of Bugs Bunny, and the opening of the first McDonald’s.

What did our donors believe? From the vantage point of one-half decade later, Robert Bliss wrote in the forty-fifth anniversary report of Harvard’s class of 1900: “As the depression increased and Nazism gained control of Germany we knew war was a certainty and that inevitably this country would be sucked into the cataclysm. So we faced the future squarely and decided to transfer Dumbarton Oaks to the University in 1940. To ease the wrench, we assured each other . . . that to give up our home at our own time to assure the long range realization of our plan was the way of wisdom. Thus we are enjoying the transformation of Dumbarton Oaks into an institution—the only one of its particular sort in existence.” Bliss’s words still hold true.

What accounts for my own good cheer? Why do I consider our shared optimism anything but Pollyannish? Our calendar year of festivities began in January with a Harvard College Wintersession course on “Culture and Power: Philanthropy, Art, and Diplomacy in America.” The last fellowship year also saw our first composer/musician in residence, courtesy of our beautiful new Fellowship House on Wisconsin Avenue.

This evening we take delight in the spirit of fellowship in arts and humanities that the donors intended. For three-quarters of a century Harvard has husbanded their gift wisely. Lately the university has contributed ever more vibrantly through human resources. Faculty in the Arts and Humanities have participated in our intellectual life. Equally important, graduate and undergraduate students have come for classes, internships, fellowships, postbaccalaureate positions, and postdocs.

So if ever things appear to fall apart elsewhere, we should consider how lucky we are by constrast. In 1790, Edmund Burke lamented the closure of an era with a tone that seems very familiar from the more defeatist of humanists nowadays. He wrote: “the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of England is extinguished forever.” If we substitute the U.S. for England, this jeremiad might apply. But recall the context: Burke was bemoaning the unchivalrous treatment of none other than Marie Antoinette. He was not a true prophet, or at least not an accurate one.

If ten years ago the Eeyores of our set obsessed with the ascendancy of economics, the wheel of fortune, economic and otherwise, has turned. Now the talk is all of STEM. STEM too will pass. Many of us will remember an oft-quoted exchange in “The Graduate,” a film made so long ago that by today’s standards it belongs with the Dead Sea Scrolls. In it Mr. McGuire says “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.” Benjamin (better known as Dustin Hoffman) responds “Yes, sir.” Mr. McGuire: “Are you listening?” Benjamin: “Yes, I am.” Mr. McGuire: “Plastics.”

Benjamin gets the last word by asking “Exactly how do you mean?” We are entitled to pose the same question. Before disavowing positive effects of liberal arts educations, we need to recall two realities. First, no one has performed well in predicting what jobs will be hot a decade hence. Second, careers require more and not less adaptiveness, flexibility, and change—all qualities enhanced by broad exposure to different ways of thinking. If ever what is dimly perceptible on the horizon argued against vocationalizing and narrowing education, it would be now. If ever we needed to ensure that learners were exposed to different modes of expression and interpretation, and to art and scripture from outside their own heritages, it would be now. And so here we stand, those of us in the humanities and arts, ready as ever to contribute, eager as ever to engage with new publics in new media by interrogating afresh old and new beauty alike.

As a medievalist, I am as fond of monophony as anyone. But who does not also adore polyphony? For the harmonic interdependence we call counterpoint, we need countervoices. We are those voices, relatively few but unquestionably strong. All the better that we sound our chorus here in the nation’s capital. Paul Sachs declared in 1932: “The importance of the fine arts in the life of a nation is abundantly testified by historic fact.” All cultural institutions represented here this evening can contribute much by reminding the public, including politicians and policy-makers, of that history. We have the duty to advance knowledge through research while simultaneously to demonstrate, in ever more engaging ways and ever more disparate media, our relevance and (maybe most meaningfully) our appeal.

Between 1940 and now the museum world, diplomats, journalists, and broader circles of Washington have become ever better acquainted with us at Dumbarton Oaks, and we with them. Let us now enjoy together, thinking back on seven and a half decades, and looking forward to seven and a half more (and then some!) to come.

The institution is poised for even stronger advances. After improving residential housing, and after increasing library study areas with a room of extra carrels and desk space, we have positioned ourselves to benefit more people than ever. We are gearing up to achieve greater outreach, so as to share knowledge and beauty of which we are fortunate stewards, and so that we may perpetuate fields we embody. But we will leave behind nothing that has made this institution the special place it has been. We sit here in the McKim, Mead, and White–designed Music Room, with the 1926 grand piano signed by Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Beyond spaces and Steinways, we are blessed in staff: I will not list everyone to whom I owe gratitude this evening, but I will at least thank department heads for their presence.

Taken together, all the buildings and grounds, objects, and people function as an integrated whole to support our mission. The basis for this totality was love between two people, for a place they made, and for a cause, which can be put most simply as humanities and arts.

A large mosaic that graces the floor of the foyer at the entrance depicts a woman flourishing a flower. It proclaims Apólausis, meaning enjoyment. The great historian Peter Brown defines this concept as “the shared enjoyment of the good things in life . . . a precious collective ritual, a celebration of the will to survive.” This time and place defy facile comparison with Antioch in late antiquity, but let us heed the mosaic by enjoying and celebrating together.

I will now hush up so that we may experience the collective elation of the Dover Quartet with Caroline Shaw. Like arts and humanities, almost by definition the concert mixes new and old. Like Dumbarton Oaks as a totality, it channels the past through the present into the future. For starters the Quartet will play the world premiere of Caroline Shaw’s Dumbarton Oaks commission Plan and Elevation (The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks). After a five-minute intermission (stay close!), we will hear Mozart’s Viola Quintet in C Minor. I cannot tell how grateful I am to Caroline Shaw and the Dover Quartet for performing, to all of you for being in the Music Room to hear, and to the Blisses and my university for making it all imaginable.