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Wilhelm Koehler: First Senior Fellow in Charge of Research

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 11:08 am | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

In 2002, the medieval art historian David Wright published an article on one of Dumbarton Oaks’ first senior research fellows, Wilhelm Koehler, who worked at the institute between 1941 and 1944. In that study, “Wilhelm Koehler and the Original Plan for Research at Dumbarton Oaks” (in Pioneers of Byzantine Studies in America, edited by John W. Barker [Amsterdam, 2002], 134–75), Wright characterizes Koehler’s impact on research at Dumbarton Oaks as tremendous and states that Koehler charted the institute’s academic program during its formative years.

Wilhelm Koehler was born on December 17, 1884, in Reval, Russia (modern Tallin, Estonia). He studied art history, completing his dissertation in 1906. In 1932, he became the Kuno Franke Visiting Professor of German Art and Culture at Harvard University. After Harvard’s medieval art historian, A. Kingsley Porter, died in a drowning accident in 1933, Koehler was chosen to replace him. At the inauguration of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection on November 1–2, 1940, Koehler gave one of the inaugural lectures, “Byzantine Art in the West,” which was subsequently published in the first volume of Dumbarton Oaks Papers.

Charles Rufus Morey (1877-1955)
Charles Rufus Morey (1877-1955)
Henri Focillon (1881-1943)
Henri Focillon (1881–1943)

As a medievalist and a Harvard University professor, Koehler was seen as a natural choice to help shape Dumbarton Oaks’s academic program. He was invited, therefore, in 1941 to be one of three senior research fellows (also called senior fellows) and to help direct the research of the first class of junior fellows. The other two senior research fellows were Charles Rufus Morey and Henri Focillon. At the time, the nascent academic program at Dumbarton Oaks had no definite direction. Charles Rufus Morey arranged for the junior fellows to deliver a series of five colloquia under his direction. According to Paul Sachs, chairman of the Dumbarton Oaks Administrative Committee, Morey was “anxious to start a series of seminars of a more scholarly nature than Professor Focillon’s symposium in which he hopes the students will play an important part.” In the May 13, 1941, edition of the Underworld Courier, the newsletter that the Dumbarton Oaks staff sent each week in 1941 to Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in California, one of these colloquia is referenced:

As to the second of the Colloquium meetings organized by Prof. Morey for the discussions, among a small group of scholars, of problems taken from their work, or from that of the D.O. junior fellows, Miss Florence Day spoke about the glazed pottery of Mesopotamia in the Parthian Period. Her talk was illustrated by photographs and drawings from her own notes, thrown on the screen by means of our new lantern which can project opaque objects as well as normal slides. Miss Day speaks clearly and with assurance, and made her points well. A lively discussion developed afterward, in which Myron Smith, Dr. Holland and Professor Morey took part. Miss Day answered their questions ably and made an excellent showing throughout. One of the main points in her description of Roman-Syrian wares related to the so-called Parthian pottery was illustrated by the lamp from the attendant’s desk at the main entrance to the new wing! We removed shade and globe and had it in a place of honor as Exhibit A. There is a resulting uneasiness in the thought of so really good an object being subject to the hazards of its exposed position.

Before long, however, confusions in the direction and nature of the academic program at Dumbarton Oaks began to become evident. For the academic year 1941–42, director John Thacher decided to make Koehler senior fellow in charge of research, in which capacity he would direct the junior fellows in collaborative research on Byzantine monuments. This research was to be assembled in what came to be called the Archives of Byzantine Art for future scholars. Paul Sachs described the new endeavor:

A part of each Fellow’s time is devoted to his own individual investigation; the rest of his time is spent on a clearly defined central plan of research, and this central plan constitutes the backbone of our scholarly activities. It has been decided to undertake simultaneously two collateral and interdependent projects, the one devoted to the written sources, the other to the monuments of the period. The first of the two projects, the collection of the sources with a view to future publication as “Fontes” of Byzantine art, requires no detailed explanation. A brief comment on the second project may be of value in illustrating the organization of that part of our research work devoted to the monumental remains of the period. A portion of the Roman Empire is assigned to each Fellow. In the course of his work, he becomes thoroughly familiar with the peculiar artistic dialect of the region and its development during the period in question. In regular meetings presided over by the “Senior Fellow in charge of Research,” reports on the progress of the work in each region are given. These meetings offer the opportunity for a continuous exchange of views and discoveries between the Fellows who are obliged to relate their material to the background of contemporary developments in the regions. The accumulated evidence resulting from these studies and discussions—a critical and detailed summary of all available information concerning each monument and photographic reproductions of all pertinent illustrative material—is filed at Dumbarton Oaks under the name of “Archives of Byzantine Art.” In the progress of the work, the assembled archaeological data will be integrated with the collateral project, the “Fontes,” devoted to the collection of the written sources.

Paul Sachs wrote enthusiastically to the Blisses about the group research dynamic, calling it “a beautiful and inspiring thing” and praising the “camaraderie” that Koehler fostered, steering the Junior Fellows away from “tension” while avoiding “pedantry.” However, Mildred Bliss, a devotee of Henri Focillon’s more contemplative approach to scholarship, did not fully appreciate Koehler’s interest in detail-based collaborative research, and their relationship, already somewhat tenuous, grew increasingly strained. Indeed, when Koehler’s appointment at Dumbarton Oaks had first been announced, Mildred Bliss wrote John Thacher from California:

You can imagine with how much interest we await the gen­eral result of Prof. Koehler’s visit. He will give great in­tellectual stimulus to the staff and one likes to think that he is going to be closely interested in Dumbarton Oaks. You won’t forget, will you, that Focillon does not agree with Koehler’s approach to his subject and that it is Focillon who seems to us to have the Golden Key.

Thacher wrote her back:

You know how I feel about Koehler and I hope that as you get to know him better that you will think that perhaps he, too, may have a golden key, if perhaps of a slightly smaller size!

George La Piana (1879-1971)
George La Piana (1879–1971)

Edward Kennard Rand (1871-1945)
Edward Kennard Rand (1871–1945)

However, Wilhelm Koehler’s collaborative research plan for the junior fellows at Dumbarton Oaks was not destined to endure. In February 1944, Koehler developed a bad case of pneumonia and was hospitalized for a few weeks. In his absence, Senior Fellows George La Piana and Edward Kennard Rand asked each junior fellow to provide an outline of his work, describe his plans for the following year, and provide any additional comments that he had on the functioning of the institution. They also requested that several of the junior fellows write papers for a symposium that was scheduled to be held six weeks later. La Piana and Rand circumvented Koehler’s authority by making these changes in order to diminish Koehler’s Archives project, as they felt strongly that “the time has come to broaden the scope of creative scholarly work at Dumbarton Oaks.” Although they felt that the Archives project was “a very significant part of the work at Dumbarton Oaks,” they also asserted that it could not “be allowed to develop at a rate which would handicap the whole conception of scholarly activities at Dumbarton Oaks.”

In the end, Koehler wrote a detailed description of the Archives project and its aims, which he submitted for a Board of Scholars meeting. Rand and La Piana attended this meeting, but Koehler did not. Using the conclusions the Board of Scholars reached at this meeting, the Administrative Committee subsequently decided that the Archives project should be adjusted so that Junior Fellows would no longer be expected to split their time; instead, they could either work solely on the Archives project, if they chose, or on their own project. When apprised of the decision to lessen the amount of time spent on researching monuments for the Archives, Koehler responded: “You can count me out completely. I shall not play ball.” He immediately resigned his responsibilities at Dumbarton Oaks. Paul Sachs reported:

The Committee has learned with regret of Dr. Koehler’s decision to withdraw from the Board of Scholars and as Senior Fellow in charge of the Archives, especially as the Committee fully appreciates the important contribution he has made to the work at Dumbarton Oaks in his inauguration and direction of the Archives. In view of his emphatic statement to the Chairman, the Committee can only accept Dr. Koehler’s decision and will proceed to make arrangements for the coming year accordingly.

The Byzantine art historian Kurt Weitzmann, a friend of Koehler and eventually a member of the Board of Scholars, later called the whole situation “deplorable.”

On May 6, 1944, Koehler wrote to Dean Buck on the Administrative Committee explaining that his decision to end his involvement with Dumbarton Oaks and the Archives project was in no way shaped by “petty arguments,” but rather because he believed that the Archives project (which he said was “well advanced and bearing its first scholarly fruits”) would now be “doomed to failure” under the influence of the Administrative Committee. Witnessing the end of his program for collaborative study just as it was beginning to show clear signs of success devastated Koehler. However, he would remain affiliated with Harvard: he was named William Dorr Boardman Professor in 1950 and retired emeritus in 1953. Koehler continued his scholarly work until his death on November 3, 1959.