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For All to See: The Interim Years of the Pre-Columbian Collection

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 15:37 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

Indigenous Art of the Americas exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In the early 1940s, Robert Woods Bliss was a generous lender of objects from his Pre-Columbian art collection. He wanted, whenever possible, to promote these objects as important art and not merely as cultural artifacts. The exhibitions he chose, for example, 20 Centuries of Mexican Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1940, and Ancient American Art at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, and the Portland Museum of Art, in 1942, promised to do just that.

In 1947, however, Bliss made arrangements for a local—and thereby ideal—venue to exhibit almost his entire collection on a long-term loan. The six-year old National Gallery of Art displayed the collection in elegant, wall-mounted cases, juxtaposing objects from a variety of cultures and showcasing the artistic importance of the objects. Although brief labels provided essential cultural information, the works were presented as objets d’art, to be admired for their beauty, creative conception, and exquisite workmanship. Indigenous Art of the Americas would be the first semipermanent exhibition of Pre-Columbian objects at an art museum in the United States.

20 Centuries of Mexican Art, Museum of Modern Art, 1940
20 Centuries of Mexican Art, Museum of Modern Art, 1940

Bliss also wanted the exhibition to have a handbook, and his friend Alfred Tozzer, a fellow member of the Harvard Class of 1900 and then a member of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard, recommended Harvard-educated Andean scholar Samuel Lothrop at Harvard’s Peabody Museum as the author. Lothrop went to work on the collection and was instrumental in preparing Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss, which was published in 1947, the same year that the exhibition opened.

During the fifteen years that the National Gallery exhibited the Bliss Pre-Columbian Collection (1947–1962), it saw a tremendous growth in public interest. Bliss called the response to the exhibition “steadily increasing” as enthusiasm for ancient American art mounted throughout the 1950s. During this period, Bliss continued to acquire artworks with the help of Lothrop, who quickly became his primary adviser on Pre-Columbian acquisitions. Indeed, the National Gallery had to routinely reconfigure the exhibition to accommodate the continual expansion of the collection as the number of objects on display more than doubled from the inaugural 250, in 1947, to 547, in 1962.

Pre-Columbian Art, Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art (Phaidon Press, 1957)
Robert Woods Bliss Collection: Pre-Columbian Art (Phaidon Press, 1957)

Because of the collection’s expansion, Bliss commissioned a more luxurious book on the collection to replace the outdated handbook. Published in 1957, Robert Woods Bliss Collection: Pre-Columbian Art was the first “coffee-table” book on the topic, featuring full-page color photographs of isolated objects by the well-known photographer Nikolas Muray (1892–1965). Lothrop wrote the bulk of the text, which also included the contributions of William Foshag and Joy Mahler. After receiving a copy of the volume, American archaeologist Matthew Stirling wrote to Robert Bliss, expressing his thanks and noting: “You have done a great favor to lovers of aboriginal American art, for this presentation of some of the finest existing examples will do much to consolidate the position of the Pre-Columbian artists among the finest in the world.” This was just the sort of approbation that Bliss had long sought.

The same year as Robert Woods Bliss Collection: Pre-Columbian Art was published, Bliss wrote to Harvard’s president, Nathan M. Pusey, about the need for more space at Dumbarton Oaks in order to facilitate its growth, including, Bliss hoped, space to permanently display his collection. It was time to bring the collection home.