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The Benton Gospels

Dumbarton Oaks Museum acquires rare Greek manuscript

Posted on Sep 20, 2017 03:58 PM by Bailey Trela |
The Benton Gospels

With support from the B. H. Breslauer Foundation, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum has acquired an early 10th-century Greek manuscript of historic and scholarly significance. Known as Minuscule 669 or the Benton Gospels, this Byzantine codex contains the partial text of the four Gospels of the New Testament. Brought to the United States in 1844 by Reverend George Benton, an Episcopal minister, it is likely the oldest Byzantine gospel book in the US.

It provides insight into Byzantine manuscript illumination and calligraphy, such as the use of an unusual script known as bouletée élancée. Only about thirty manuscripts written in bouletée élancée are known. Scholar Nadezhda Kavrus-Hoffmann has written a detailed codicological and paleographic study of the Benton Gospels, which is planned for publication in an upcoming volume of the Dumbarton Oaks Papers.

In addition to the Benton Gospels, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum holds five illuminated biblical and liturgical Byzantine manuscripts dating from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Access to the Benton Gospels at Dumbarton Oaks offers unparalleled opportunities to scholars conducting paleographic, iconographic, codicological, and biblical research, since the institution is uniquely suited to conduct and facilitate specialized inquiry and interpretation in those fields.

Dumbarton Oaks holds the premier collection of scholarly literature on the transmission of the Bible in Greek and seeks to expand the scope of sources available to scholars. Byzantium’s role in preserving and transmitting early versions of New Testament texts continues to be a prime subject of research and scholarly discussion. Dumbarton Oaks’ focused collecting seeks to advance rigorous and detailed study of topics in the aid of understanding the complexity of human thought and activity.

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Contextualizing Robert

Garden and Landscape Studies 2016 Colloquium on Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture

Posted on Oct 18, 2016 07:10 AM by Bailey Trela |
Contextualizing Robert

On Tuesday, September 27, the Garden and Landscape Studies program at Dumbarton Oaks, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, held its annual fall colloquium. Entitled “Hubert Robert and French Garden Culture,” the colloquium, which featured six speakers, sought to examine the artistic and cultural contexts of the French painter and landscape designer’s work. The colloquium was held in conjunction with the exhibition Hubert Robert, 1733–1808, on view at the National Gallery from June 26 to October 2. (Dumbarton Oaks has a set of four pendant paintings by Robert.)

After brief welcoming remarks from John Beardsley, director of Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Therese O’Malley, associate dean of the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, spoke of the long history of collaboration between the National Gallery and Dumbarton Oaks, and cited the current colloquium as a welcome effort to revivify relations between the institutions.

Sarah Catalla, a PhD candidate in art history at the Université Lille III and a Mellon Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, began the day’s presentations by examining a lesser-known aspect of Robert’s work. Her talk, “Hubert Robert and the Amateurs: From ‘Educating the Eye’ to Composing the Landscape,” sought to foreground Robert’s time as an instructor of drawing to aristocratic amateurs.

In the course of her talk, she suggested not only that this endeavor helped, in a professional sense, to secure Robert connections with wealthy patrons, but also that it molded his understanding of the potentialities of the picturesque style and helped to shape his latter-day style.

Drawing on a rich corpus of sketches and drawings, Catalla discussed how the practices of teaching, touring, and sketching were linked with the evolution of Robert’s garden interventions.  She limned the amateur milieu prevailing at the time—in which the work of women amateurs was granted equal value—and raised settings and themes that would recur throughout the day, including the Tour de Guy at La Roche-Guyon, an important site in Robert’s career as landscape designer.

Dovetailing with the theme of an amateur milieu, Gabriel Wick’s presentation, “Between Artifact and Artifice: Hubert Robert and the Mise-en-Scène of History in the Aristocratic Garden,” charted Robert’s development during a period in which he helped to compose a series of landscape gardens for aristocratic amateurs.

At the outset of his presentation, Wick, a PhD candidate in history and cultural geography at University of London, Queen Mary, attempted to parse the precise nature of Robert’s involvement in the design of several landmark sites: Ermenonville, La Roche-Guyon, Betz, and La Chapelle-Godefroy. This is a difficult task, as Robert rarely worked alone, but often undertook his interventions with others, including, in one instance, a team of antiquarians and theorists.

Engaging in his own theoretical discussion, Wick went underground in an effort to explore Robert’s construction of false historical palimpsests. Highlighting the underground passageway, implemented by Robert, that connected the Tour de Guy with the main estate at La Roche-Guyon, Wick suggested that the motif of underground passageways was a significant one for Robert. Like the passageway at La Roche-Guyon, the series of grotto chambers implemented at Méréville implied a historical narrative of great age in the grounds.

Describing Robert as a “specialist in distressing and displacing,” Wick explained that in constructing simulacra of age for aristocrats, Robert helped them to reinforce their historical lineage, putting the landscape garden to sociopolitical use.  

A theme that quickly emerged from the day’s proceedings was the difficulty of classifying Robert’s work as a landscape designer, a thread taken up by Joseph Disponzio in his presentation, “Neither Painter nor Gardener Be: Hubert Robert and Eighteenth-Century French Picturesque Garden Theory.”

After a brief sketch of perceptions of Robert’s work throughout the years, leading all the way up to the twentieth century, Disponzio, a preservation landscape architect with New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, segued into an analysis of Robert’s anomalous position with regard to French picturesque garden theory. 

Despite the majority of his design work taking place after an explosion of theoretical texts in the 1770s, Robert’s efforts were nevertheless at odds with the dominant theories expounded by these tracts, which posited that landscape design and landscape painting were not, in fact, twinned arts, but were instead deeply at odds with one another.

Analyzing Robert’s design work through the lens of its conflict with theory, Disponzio’s talk presented a picture of a well-admired designer who nevertheless stood apart from many picturesque trends. Though it is often easy to classify his work as falling within the French picturesque, Disponzio contended that he was an artist whose approach to garden design was always, first and foremost, through the canvas.

If, during his lifetime, Robert often seemed misplaced in his theories and vocations, it was a theme that carried through to the appointments he received, as Susan Taylor-Leduc, dean of Parsons Paris, the European campus of the New School, explained in her talk, “Designing in Rock: Hubert Robert and the Politics of the French Picturesque.”

When, in 1778, Robert accepted the title of Dessinateur des Jardins du Roi from the French monarchy, he filled a vacancy left by the famed formalist Le Nôtre in 1700—a designer with views nearly antipodal to his own.

Setting out to elucidate the subtle political messages encoded in Robert’s work for the French monarchy—that is, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette—Taylor-Leduc’s talk primarily traced Robert’s work with stone. Though the Baths of Apollo, situated at Versailles, were considered a failure by contemporary critics, Taylor-Leduc identifies the display as a node of political allegory, in which the transmutability of stone, embodied in the contrast between natural rock and statuary, played an important role.

Elizabeth Hyde, an associate professor and assistant chair in the department of history at Kean University, went on to develop similar themes in her presentation, “‘Such Things as Would Enrich France,’ or Planting the Eighteenth-Century French Garden.” Focusing on Robert’s use of foliage in his designs, Hyde emphasized early on that though Robert demonstrated little knowledge of plant life itself—his depictions in his paintings often lack any botanical precision—plantations were nevertheless key to the political messages his work evinced.

Commissioned to record in painting the replanting of the gardens of Versailles, Robert’s depictions of the felling of barren and frequently lopsided trees corresponded to his use of overgrown vegetation in his famous capricci. For Hyde, these depictions display a political consciousness to Robert’s work; as she suggested, the decaying foliage Robert painted seemed to embody a starkly linear conception of time that contrasted sharply with the cyclical time—or rather timelessness—redolent of the age of the Sun King.

The French picturesque, as Hyde suggested, sought to evince the twinned concepts of renewal and timelessness, and, in order to do this, gardeners had to reach beyond the borders of their own state. Hyde detailed the far-flung botanizing missions undertaken by royal gardeners in this period, an expeditionary effort perhaps epitomized by the botanist André Michaux, who established botanical gardens in what are now New Jersey and South Carolina.

In concluding the colloquium, John Pinto, emeritus professor in the history of architecture at Princeton University, returned to the heart of Robert’s fame in a presentation aptly titled “Robert des Ruines: Landscape and Antiquity.” Echoing Catalla’s presentation, Pinto emphasized Robert’s time in Italy (1754–65) and the sketchbooks he completed there—which Robert referred to as promenades—in the development of Robert’s later aesthetic.

Presenting the painter’s Italian years as an apprenticeship of sorts, when Robert interacted with contemporaries like Gian Paolo Panini and Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Pinto compared Robert’s work to that of his contemporaries. Piranesi’s depictions were darker, of course, though Robert’s interest in “the tenebrous interiors of imaginary ruins” and his belief in the expressive nature of ruins could be traced to the Italian artist’s influence.

Though Robert’s painting is inventive and oftentimes fantastical in its blending of settings and transposing of monuments, Pinto made a point of emphasizing, through a series of anecdotes, Robert’s physical engagement with his subjects. Robert, accompanied by a coterie of fellow painters, was said to have once thrown an apple over a barren arch and, charging through the connecting ruins, to have caught it on the tip of a penknife.

In his spry youth, he was also known to climb the fading monuments he encountered, shimmying up columns and resting at perilous heights—an experience curiously echoed by his painting L’Accident. On the canvas a yearning suitor, having gathered a bouquet from atop a decayed temple, falls through the air, betrayed by a crumbling capital—and the somber ache of ruins is made tragically manifest.

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The Renovation of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

Posted on Aug 03, 2016 09:15 AM by Lain Wilson |
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The Renovation of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

The Dumbarton Oaks Museum is currently closed for renovation through the end of 2016—but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. In this month’s video feature, take a look behind the scenes to see what the museum looks like during the deinstallation process, and learn about why the renovation is happening and what to expect when the museum reopens next year. You can also watch more of our videos online on our YouTube channel.

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How Mosaics Were Made and Made Known

Classical Art Historian Will Wootton Speaks at Dumbarton Oaks

Posted on Aug 03, 2016 09:12 AM by Lain Wilson |
How Mosaics Were Made and Made Known

On July 19, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum invited Dr. Will Wootton, lecturer on Roman art in the classics department of King’s College London, to deliver an informal talk to a group of docents, staff, summer fellows, and interns about mosaics in antiquity. Wootton offered an engaging overview of the medium and its history, approaching from two angles: the aesthetic experience of an ancient observer, as well as the technical procedures employed by the original artisans. He concluded his talk with an in-person examination of the Apolausis Mosaic in the vestibule of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, pointing out that in the bath house where it was excavated, water would have run over the surface into the sunken room that held it: “The point was showing that the water was so clear and pure that you could see the mosaic perfectly beneath it,” he said.

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Good Ink

Posted on Jul 06, 2016 09:33 AM by Lain Wilson |

Though the Dumbarton Oaks Museum is currently closed for renovation through the end of 2016, Fodor’s Travel has glowing remarks for its collections in its “Art Lover’s Guide to Washington, D.C.,” writing, “In-the-know researchers seek out Dumbarton from far and wide—it’s about time that locals, and visitors, do the same.”

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Spectroscopic Analysis of Museum Objects

Dumbarton Oaks Collaborates with the Walters Art Museum

Posted on Jun 02, 2016 03:44 PM by Lain Wilson |
Spectroscopic Analysis of Museum Objects

In preparing the forthcoming catalogue of Pre-Columbian objects from Central America and Colombia, Dumbarton Oaks has collaborated with the Walters Art Museum in the analysis of greenstone artifacts—primarily pendants and beads—from the Nicoya Peninsula and the Central Caribbean region of Costa Rica. Typically these objects are labeled as jadeite, but the team, including Bryan Cockrell, Colin McEwan, and Juan Antonio Murro from Dumbarton Oaks and Glenn Gates and Julie Lauffenburger from the Walters, sought to nuance our understanding of the objects’ compositions.

A number of minerals may be present in a greenstone object, and jadeite may be entirely absent. Atoms of one element may substitute for those of a different element in the crystal structure of the mineral, giving the material a range of colors. The team used two noninvasive techniques with equipment brought to the Dumbarton Oaks Museum study room—Raman spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectrometry—in order to learn about the mineral and elemental compositions of forty greenstone objects in the collection. Raman spectroscopy involves the application of a laser beam to induce molecular vibrations in the material being studied; as a result, the frequency of the photons of the laser beam changes and is measured by a detector, revealing information about mineral composition. X-ray fluorescence spectrometry uses an X-ray beam to ionize atoms in the material, leading to the release of energy (fluorescence) that is characteristic of the material’s elemental composition.

The team is currently comparing this data to reference materials, but a number of objects have compositions different from those that have been ascribed to them in the past. There are greenstone sources known in Costa Rica, including serpentine, but so far not jadeite, while there are other sources in Guatemala and in the Caribbean. By combining mineral and elemental information and comparing it to published data, the team can work toward a longer-term goal of identifying the greenstone sources present among the objects.

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Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going? (Part 2)

Posted on May 12, 2016 11:00 AM by Dumbarton Oaks Archives |
Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going? (Part 2)


Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going? (Part 2)

Byzantine Collection Courtyard Gallery (left) and View of Courtyard Gallery from the Music Room (right).

Not only the study programs have evolved over Dumbarton Oaks’ seventy-five year history. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum similarly has changed from its beginnings as a collection primarily for scholars and serving the public almost as an afterthought. Before the renovation of the Main House and museum in 2007–8, each collection (Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and House) was under the purview of its respective department, and special exhibitions, usually of objects from the Byzantine Collection, were sporadic. In 2008, the museum reopened with a name change, a renewed sense of purpose, and the mission “to connect scholars with art and art scholarship to the public.” Under Gudrun Bühl, curator and museum director since 2008, the museum has also pursued a robust agenda of temporary exhibitions, many of which include objects from across the three collections. Engagement with the public has also increased. Museum attendance has more than doubled since 2013, when museum hours were extended, from 2:00–5:00 p.m. to 11:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Bühl has also increased the online accessibility of the collections and has begun collaborations with Harvard University classes, area universities, and high schools.

Antioch special exhibition, 2010 Antioch special exhibition, 2010

In a similar vein, the objectives of the publications department have expanded since 1941, when it began publishing Dumbarton Oaks Papers, an annual journal for Byzantine studies. Today, the publications department produces between three and six books a year, including papers from the annual Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies symposia and colloquia. Moreover, Dumbarton Oaks has embraced the world of the digital humanities, making use of opportunities for wider dissemination of scholarly information and texts via the Dumbarton Oaks website or through online databases such as JSTOR.

In addition, in conjunction with Harvard University Press, Dumbarton Oaks has initiated a new series: the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML), which includes Byzantine Greek, Medieval Latin, and Old English texts with modern English translations on facing pages. The first titles in the series appeared in 2010, and today more than forty volumes are in print. DOML is modeled on Harvard’s Loeb Classical Library, which serves a parallel function for classical Greek and Latin texts, and will continue to expand its offerings, aiming to increase the accessibility of medieval and Byzantine literature to both the general public and scholars.

The Dumbarton Oaks Gardens are also cautiously changing, creating new garden experiences for an ever-wider audience. Beginning in 1922, Beatrix Farrand worked closely with Mildred Barnes Bliss over decades to design the gardens, making them one of the oldest parts of Dumbarton Oaks. The gardens provide a backdrop against which visitors and scholars alike may reflect and temporarily escape from typical city scenery. Gail Griffin, the director of gardens and grounds, strives to stay true to the original design while allowing for some flexibility in adapting to changing garden conditions, contemporary art installations, and planting variations.

The Ellipse with Patrick Dougherty's site installation Easy Rider, 2010-2012 The Ellipse with Patrick Dougherty's site installation Easy Rider, 2010–2012

Dumbarton Oaks has shown its willingness to adapt in order to meet changing demands. The institute continues its traditional mandate to serve the needs of scholars while striving to increase its interaction with the outside world in order to help keep alive an appreciation of the humanities. Projects such as the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library draw from both Byzantine and non-Byzantine cultures to further the scholarship for which Dumbarton Oaks is renowned. The internship program, high school field trips, digitization projects, and temporary exhibitions draw in new audiences. These efforts are institution-wide, involving the studies programs, the museum, publications, the gardens, and the Friends of Music, and aim both to expand accessibility and to meet the new demands of the twenty-first century, while remaining, as it has for seventy-five years, the “home of the Humanities.”

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Acquiring the Miniature Mosaic Icon of the Forty Martyrs

Posted on Sep 17, 2015 11:00 AM by Dumbarton Oaks Archives |
Acquiring the Miniature Mosaic Icon of the Forty Martyrs

On display in the Byzantine Collection at Dumbarton Oaks is an exceptional Byzantine micro-mosaic icon of the forty martyrs of Sebasteia that dates to around 1300 CE. The icon depicts forty Roman soldiers, who, having converted to Christianity, refused to worship Emperor Licinius (308–324) or any of the pagan gods. As punishment, they were placed on a frozen lake at Sebasteia in Asia Minor and given the option to face certain death or recant and have the refuge of a warm bath building, which they could see from the lake. This building may have been depicted on the mosaic, as it is in many other representations, but damage in the upper right corner makes its presence uncertain. Measuring just 22 centimeters by 16 centimeters (approximately 8½ inches by 6½ inches), this icon displays an amazing level of miniature detail work and demonstrates a remarkable skill on the part of its creator. The icon is made from literally thousands of minuscule cubes of stone and glass that have been embedded in wax to create the composition.

Perhaps just as noteworthy as this artwork’s construction is the story of how it became part of the Byzantine collection at Dumbarton Oaks. In 1931, the Blisses’ friend and adviser, Royall Tyler, wrote to Mildred Bliss about the work, noting that it was “very beautiful,” “marvelous technically,” and “infinitely varied and rich.” He reported that there were several “interested parties” looking at it, including representatives from the Louvre Museum, the Greek collector Antonis Benakis, as well as Hayford Peirce, a fellow Byzantine enthusiast and rival collector who was on friendly terms with Royall Tyler and the Blisses. Tyler noted that Peirce was willing to pay £1200 at most to secure the mosaic icon—an offer that Tyler considered unreasonably low, as he speculated the icon could be worth over £3000 ($250,000 in 2014 dollars). He wrote to Mildred Bliss on May 7, 1931:

In view of the quality of the thing, I think £2500 would not be an excessive price—though perhaps it might be got cheaper, I don’t think poor Hayford stands much of a chance of getting it for £1200 which is the most he is prepared to give. Please let me know how much you would give—if you want to try. . . .

These miniature mosaics are of exceeding rarity—much rarer than enamels, and the technique is of enormous difficulty. If you really wanted to make sure of it you’d have to be prepared to go higher than £2500—for it really seems that [the dealer] Indjoudjian got £3000 for his which was much more damaged than this one.

The Blisses hesitated, and Peirce was able to secure the icon at a substantially reduced price, as Tyler reported to Mildred Bliss in a letter of August 12, 1931: “Yes, there is news of the 40 martyrs. Hayford has it. Just before I left Paris the jobber who had it in hand betrayed anxiety to sell it at once—he was returning to Greece—and after a few days of furious comedy Hayford got it for £880. I think it’s a good buy.” £880 in 1931 was approximately the equivalent of $73,000 in 2014 dollars.

Peirce would retain ownership of the artwork for the duration of his life. In October 1947, sixteen years after the Blisses had first considered acquiring the micro-mosaic, Peirce’s widow Polly donated the mosaic to the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in her husband’s memory.

The mosaic icon was on display in the September round of the special exhibition, 75 Years/75 Objects.

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50 Years of Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks

50 Years of Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks

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 previously unstudied. His predilection for fine workmanship, high quality materials, and interesting or unusual designs shaped the collection – and in no small part, the emerging field of Pre-Columbian studies.

Committed to the dissemination of knowledge about Pre-Columbian art, Bliss collaborated widely to publish and exhibit his pieces. The National Gallery of Art hosted an exhibition of Bliss objects from 1947 to 1962. In 1963, wishing to display his collection in perpetuity, Bliss donated it to Dumbarton Oaks for installation in the museum’s new Pre-Columbian wing, designed by Philip Johnson.

In 2013, Dumbarton Oaks celebrates 50 years of Pre-Columbian art in the Philip Johnson Pavilion. Select artworks on loan from international and American museums join the permanent collection: a gilded Mixtec atlatl, a painted Maya figurine, ancient glyphs, and delicate Andean mosaics all highlight recent research and create new connections and contrasts between objects and cultures. After five decades, the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art continues to incite scholarly inquiry, reveal ancient craftsmanship, and delight the eye of the viewer.

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2013 Dumbarton Oaks Anniversaries

A note from Director Jan Ziolkowski

2013 Dumbarton Oaks Anniversaries

In 2013 Dumbarton Oaks will celebrate the fifty-year anniversaries of two important constructions: the Rare Book Reading Room, which houses our rare and unique books and manuscripts; and the Philip Johnson Pavilion, which displays our collection of Pre-Columbian works of art. The two wings, though both completed in 1963, could not be more distinct in style.

The Rare Book Reading Room, which stands at the southwest end of the main building, was designed by the architect Frederic Rhinelander King (1887–1972). King, cousin of the novelist Edith Wharton, belonged to the same social orbit as Robert Woods Bliss (1875–1962) and Mildred Barnes Bliss (1879–1969), who donated Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University in 1940. King’s design, aimed to recall the grandeur of the French eighteenth century, is well suited to the historical nature of the rare books, drawings, and manuscripts it houses. The look speaks to a strong strain within American culture that seeks out inspiration in the Old World and Enlightenment.

Figure 1. Philip Johnson, Museum Pavilion for the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., 1959–1963. (AR.DP.MW.PC.001)

Projecting to the north of the main building, in the opposite direction from the Reading Room, are the eight domes, with a central fountain, that constitute the Philip Johnson Pavilion. Commissioned in 1959 to showcase the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, it is remarkable for its interaction with the trees surrounding it. Thanks to their curves and glassiness, the octet of curving cells blends in with the nature around it, and the objects displayed within seem to float against the world outside. At the same time the architecture gestures to the Islamic world, particularly to Turkish structures of the Ottoman period. In sum, the Pavilion is anything but traditional European in either its design or its artworks (if the term artworks is not itself a Western imposition!).

Robert Bliss did not survive to witness the completion of the two edifices, since he died the year before, but his widow Mildred lived on through most of the decade. It is a tribute to the scope and flexibility they retained even as octogenarians that they should have envisioned a complex of buildings that could harmonize two additions as distinct in style and function as the Rare Book Reading Room and Philip Johnson Pavilion have been for the past half century.

To mark the anniversaries, we will celebrate not just the spaces themselves but also the uses for which they were established. The Blisses intended their buildings, grounds, and collections to serve both advanced scholars and the general public. Without interrupting experts who need library materials and without jeopardizing the proper protection of those materials, we are planning a series of small guided tours to the Rare Book Reading Room and the Philip Johnson Pavilion. Visits will be complemented by an ambitious calendar of talks, lectures, workshops, colloquia, and symposia. Through such activities we do our part to uphold the causes of the humanities and advanced research, while familiarizing the public with our complex missions—in historic preservation, innovative scholarship, and broad dissemination—and demonstrating their ultimate oneness.

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The Making of an Exhibition

An interview with Dumbarton Oaks museum staff on the making of the All Sides Considered interactive exhibit

The Making of an Exhibition

Gudrun Bühl, Museum Director

Can you describe the concept behind the exhibit?

Exhibition-making starts with an idea around selected objects rather than with a fixed display plan. In the case of All Sides Considered, which was developed with the intention to highlight and exemplify the research of objects in our Maya collection, we were interested in exploring the many layers of each selected object or case study – the material specifics and cultural signifiers studied by archaeologists, art historians, scientists, and anthropologists. To bring the scholarly and scientific analyses into the display, expansive label text was of the essence; yet, so as not to distract from the aesthetic value of the objects, a display setting had to be created that would be able to bring these two sides into play and keep them in balance.

The solution we came up with was this: approaching the gallery from the museum entrance, the visitor perceives mainly the colorful accentuated pedestals carrying the highlighted objects. Text and further interpretative material comes into sight only after the interested viewer has entered the area. In general, our interest in experimenting with settings is a crucial aspect of the museum’s exhibition program to activate the relationship between art, art scholarship, and visitors.

It was important to place the objects in prime locations within the narrow gallery. Set in cases that are positioned perpendicular to the walls, the artifacts are accessible from all sides. At the same time, the placement prescribes a passageway through the display; the visitor walks right up to the artifacts and then is gently forced to ‘slalom’ around them.

Each case study is equipped with a stool that resembles not unintentionally a lab stool. It invites the visitor to linger and engage with each object and the rather text-heavy information, which includes ‘hands-on’ items, slide shows, and a movie clip.

Hillary Olcott, Museum Exhibitions and Programs Coordinator

What are some new elements that you incorporated into the display?

One of the novel things about All Sides Considered is the interactive nature of the displays. Incorporating the interactive elements into the labels presented several challenges to the museum team. The most difficult elements to incorporate were the iPads. The challenge arose during the design phase of exhibition planning. We needed to come up with a way to incorporate seamlessly the iPads into the labels so that visitors would feel as though they were interacting with the exhibition itself, not with iPads. It was also imperative that the design allowed visitors to use the touchscreens without access to any of the buttons. While we did not want visitors turning the iPads on and off, we needed a display that allowed the museum staff to do so. Similarly, we needed a design that securely held the iPads but made it easy to remove them when maintenance was needed. After many hours of brainstorming and several prototypes, we came up with a successful design. However, it was not until the displays were installed, the labels applied, and the iPads running that we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and stepped back to admire our work. Although the iPads require some maintenance, they are an absolute success. They allow visitors to touch, hear, and explore the Dumbarton Oaks Collection like never before. I look forward to dreaming up new ways to use this exciting technology!

Miriam Doutriaux, Pre-Columbian Collection Exhibition Associate

How does the exhibit reflect the current state of/trends in Maya scholarship?

The exhibit showcases several exceptional Maya objects from the Dumbarton Oaks collection that were carefully reexamined by experts over the past three years. It focuses on the objects and the science behind the recent Dumbarton Oaks publication Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Six case-studies outline recent findings about the Maya, and illustrate some of the epistemological underpinnings of current Maya research.

Much knowledge about the Maya is derived from iconographic analyses, as evidenced in the comparative dating of 2,000-year-old etchings on a greenstone pendant. Careful observation and informed comparison with other objects often leads to new findings, including the discovery that four carved spheres in the Dumbarton Oaks collection are the earliest known Maya bone bells.

For example, experts in the fields of geology, mineralogy, conchology, biology, and physical anthropology contributed scientific opinions and analyses – from radiocarbon dating to X-ray diffraction analysis – to the study of a Maya mosaic mask. New technologies are also helping scholars to better visualize and experience the objects they study. A 3-D digital model revealed subtly carved features on a Maya stela, and X-rays exposed the production process of a rattle bowl with a hollow base.

Mayanists also rely on experimental archaeology to refine their understanding of ancient practices and production techniques. A carving station in the exhibit allows visitors to experiment with tool types used by ancient Maya carvers.

The exhibit is about the scholarly research process – the slow, painstaking work that underlies groundbreaking discoveries about the Maya. As museum visitors listen to a rattle bowl, flip through x-ray images, examine a 3-D digital model, and compare images or specimens, they are taking a scholar’s approach – and perhaps gaining a new appreciation of the thrills of Maya scholarship.

Chris Harrison, Senior Exhibitions Technician

Watch this video, in which Chris describes the workstation designed to allow visitors to experiment with tool types used by ancient Maya carvers.

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Now on View: Animal Bronzes

Posted on Aug 06, 2012 03:17 PM by lisaw |
Now on View: Animal Bronzes

James Carder

A new Museum exhibition, Animal Bronzes, recently opened in the Bliss Gallery at Dumbarton Oaks. The artworks on display highlight Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss’s collection of bronze animal sculptures that come from a wide variety of ancient cultures, including the Chinese, Egyptian, Scythian, Roman, and Incan. The Blisses' fondness for animals and birds was well known, and they seemed to delight in discovering how various cultures artistically interpreted these creatures. The artworks in the Bliss Gallery are of relatively small scale; however, the nearby Byzantine Courtyard Gallery features a large-scale ancient bronze horse, acquired by the Blisses in 1938 in anticipation of their gift of the Collection to Harvard University in 1940.

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Stephen Zwirn Retires

Posted on Jul 06, 2012 09:53 AM by lisaw |
Stephen Zwirn Retires

Stephen Zwirn, Assistant Curator in the Byzantine Collection, retired from Dumbarton Oaks this June. In twenty-six years of curatorial work, Stephen has played an integral role in the development of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

On the occasion of his retirement, Stephen recently gave an interview for the Dumbarton Oaks Oral History Project. First introduced to Dumbarton Oaks in the late 1970s as a student from New York University, Stephen’s long and fruitful curatorial tenure has spanned a third of the institution’s history, over a quarter of a century, through four directorships and through two major renovation projects.

The first of these major renovation projects occurred between 1987 and 1989 when the Director, Robert Thompson, launched a construction project that would literally change the shape of the museum. Working with then Curator of the Byzantine Collection, Susan Boyd, Stephen redesigned the galleries and reinstalled the collection, taking advantage of this opportunity to reinterpret the collection and to reimagine its narrative implications. Twenty years later, under the directorship of Edward Keenan, another major construction project gave Stephen a second opportunity to completely reinstall the collection under the guidance of the current Director of the Museum, Gudrun Bühl. Few curators have the opportunity to affect such profound and long-lasting change on the presentation of a museum’s permanent collection, but Stephen has done it no less than twice at Dumbarton Oaks.

Stephen’s plans for his retirement include a wealth of scholarly projects, and Dumbarton Oaks looks forward to his continued contributions to Byzantine Studies.

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Conservation of "Three Erotes Fishing" Floor Mosaic

Posted on Jul 06, 2012 09:53 AM by lisaw |
Conservation of "Three Erotes Fishing" Floor Mosaic

Francisco López

Baltimore-based conservator Diane Fullick recently cleaned the "Three Erotes Fishing" floor mosaic in the Byzantine Courtyard of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

“Three Erotes Fishing” is one of a group of Roman mosaics excavated by the Antioch Expedition at Daphne-Harbie. As members of the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch and its Vicinity, Robert and Mildred Bliss acquired several finds from the fieldwork in the late 1930s. As a floor mosaic, "Three Erotes Fishing" requires conservation work more often than its wall-born brethren. Diane Fullick’s conservation process involved the use of a steam cleaner and sponges to remove the old protective coating, the mechanical removal of tenacious residue from between tesserae using dental picks and scalpel and, finally, the application by brush of a new protective coating.

The “Three Erotes Fishing” floor mosaic and other highlights from the Dumbarton Oaks Collections can be explored on our website through the online catalog.

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Now on View: Still Life and Landscape

Special exhibition in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

Posted on May 04, 2012 05:10 PM by lisaw |
Now on View: Still Life and Landscape

This exhibition of paintings and furniture juxtaposes two distinct yet related artistic genres. In a still life the artist depicts the world up-close and often in detail. In a landscape the world is viewed from afar. Despite these differences, the two art forms share common ground—they both represent the world around us.

The artworks in Still Life & Landscape, all from the Dumbarton Oaks historic House Collection, range in date from the early sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Artists in the exhibition include Claude Lorrain, Jan van Huysum, David Roentgen, Odilon Redon, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Still Life and Landscape can be viewed in the Special Exhibition Gallery during the Museum’s opening hours, 2pm-5pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

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Now on View: From Clearing to Cataloging: The Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics

ICFA exhibition in the Bliss Gallery

Now on View: From Clearing to Cataloging: The Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics

The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) presents From Clearing to Cataloging: The Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics, an exhibit that highlights the Margaret Alexander Collection at Dumbarton Oaks. The Collection contains documents and photographs that relate to the fieldwork and publication of the Corpus des Mosaïques de Tunisie (CMT), or Corpus of Tunisian Mosaics. The CMT was launched in 1967 to create a catalog of Roman and Late Antique mosaics in Tunisia and was co-directed by Margaret Alexander until 1994. The project was administered through the Foreign Currency Program of the Smithsonian Institution, and was sponsored by various institutions such as Dumbarton Oaks and the University of Iowa. The CMT team focused on clearing, preserving, and cataloging pavement mosaics found in private residences and Christian basilicas. To obtain reliable dates for the mosaics, they used evidence buried in or near the mosaics, including coins and pottery fragments. The CMT team members carried out the archaeological work at four major sites in Tunisia—Utica, Thuburbo Majus, El Jem, and Carthage—before publishing a four-volume catalog of over 1,000 mosaics dating from the first to the fifth centuries CE.

The exhibit includes selections from the Margaret Alexander Collection in ICFA, and can be viewed in the Bliss Gallery during the Museum’s open hours. These archival items date from the 1960s to 1990s and demonstrate the process of the fieldwork and publication of the CMT project. The exhibit was developed to coincide with the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Studies symposium in April 2012, "Rome Re-Imagined: Byzantine and Early Islamic Africa, c. 500–800."

Exhibit Team

Robin Pokorski, ICFA Intern
Rona Razon, Archives Specialist
Hillary Olcott, Museum Exhibitions and Programs Coordinator
Christopher Harrison, Senior Exhibits Technician and Cabinetmaker

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