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Wilhelm Koehler, “The Dumbarton Oaks Program and the Principle of Collaborative Research”

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 13:51 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

Wilhelm Koehler (1884-1959).

Wilhelm Koehler, a professor of medieval art history at Harvard University, came to Dumbarton Oaks in 1941 as senior research fellow in charge of research (see post). He stayed until 1944. Arriving at the height of the Second World War, Koehler devised a program of collaborative research whereby fellows spent roughly half of each work day researching early Byzantine architecture, mosaics, and wall paintings. In their research, they employed both primary and secondary materials from the Dumbarton Oaks Library. Their findings were stored in vertical files organized by geographical location, site, and building. This collective material constituted the Research Archives and was meant to enable future scholars to better pursue their research (see post). It also was intended to complement the Princeton Index of Christian Art, of which Dumbarton Oaks owned a copy, and the Census of Objects of Early Christian and Byzantine Art in North American Collections, a survey which Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss had initiated in 1938 before the transfer of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University. Koehler read his paper on “The Dumbarton Oaks Program and the Principle of Collaborative Research” before the College Art Association on January 23, 1942, a year before he published the paper in Speculum. The following are extracts from that paper.

At the end of November, 1940, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection was formally conveyed to the President and Fellows of Harvard College by the founders, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss. The magnificent gift, consisting of the former residence of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss with the beautiful gardens, of the famous collection, and the excellent Fine Arts Library, envisaged also the continued acquisition of objects for the Collection, the further development of the Library, and the pursuit of research in the Byzantine and Mediaeval humanities.

Though connected with Harvard, Dumbarton Oaks could be developed in a direction which would make it possible for other than Harvard students to partake in its activities. By admitting only students with a record of some years of graduate work, a patent weakness in the present academic training of young scholars could be corrected. Normally, a graduate student who has passed his generals for the doctor's degree must rush into a job which absorbs him completely. He can hardly spare the time to work on his thesis, and his scholarly training has come to an end at a point where it just begins to dawn on him what scholarship and original research mean. At least for a number of particularly able students, Dumbarton Oaks, as its founders had foreseen, could offer an opportunity for research and intellectual development unhampered by a heavy burden of duties, since it was not difficult to provide at Dumbarton Oaks attractive living quarters and study rooms. . . . We expect that eventually a certain regularity in the yearly turn-over of older Fellows into suitable positions elsewhere and their replacement by younger scholars will develop, which would provide at the same time for a continuous circulation of new blood, and for the establishment of the necessary tradition and continuity in research and scholarship.

There are two serious lacunae in the scholarly equipment at the disposal of the scholar who investigates the problem: first, the written sources have never been systematically collected; secondly, while the smaller objects like ivories, manuscripts, etc., have been studied and published, the monumental material, consisting of structures and of their sculptural and pictorial decoration, has never been comprehensively investigated and coordinated. It is not difficult to account for this neglect. Both tasks are of such a scope that no single scholar could hope to tackle them successfully. But we were in a more fortunate position. Dumbarton Oaks offered an opportunity to fill the gap and thus to make an important contribution to the solution of the crucial problem which had defied the efforts of earlier scholars.

The research program of Dumbarton Oaks . . . implies that individual efforts of a group of scholars are directed towards a common goal of broad historical scope. That means that to a certain degree the individual scholar yields his independence in favor of collaboration with other scholars. I hope my report on the program has shown that the limitation of independence is in fact negligible and involves no sacrifice on the part of the individual that would endanger his scholarly integrity or would entail any suppression of original thought and independent judgment.

—W. Koehler, “The Dumbarton Oaks Program and the Principle of Collaborative Research,” Speculum 18, No. 1 (January, 1943), 118–123.