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Barbara W. Fash

Oral History Interview with Barbara W. Fash, undertaken by Elizabeth Gettinger and Anne Steptoe at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University on July 22, 2009. At Dumbarton Oaks, Barbara Fash worked on various projects for the Pre-Columbian Studies program and the Museum.

EG: Once again, we are Elizabeth Gettinger and Anne Steptoe on the 22nd of July, 2009, and we are here in the Peabody Museum speaking with Barbara Fash about her experiences and memories of Dumbarton Oaks. So, to get started, could you tell us a little about how you first came to hear about Dumbarton Oaks and work there, and what some of your general first impressions were of the place?

BF: Well, I can’t remember the very first time I went there, but it was to attend one of the conferences in probably something like 2000 or something like that. And I went periodically to some of the conferences to hear speakers, and this year I’m actually invited to be a participant and a speaker in the conference. So, I’m really excited because I know what a large audience they reach and how important they are and well-attended and also the information that comes out of them is also really important and used years and years and years afterwards. People are always going back to those volumes that come out of those conferences. So that’s how I really got to know about Dumbarton Oaks. And then I went and visited the museum a couple of times as well, and in more recent years I’ve gone there to do some research and help with various projects. And the largest project that I worked on was one that was in conjunction with the Peabody Museum about reproducing some of the plaster casts for inclusion in the new library. Bill Fash had suggested that they might consider putting Mesoamerican monuments in the library as well as Byzantine ones and that was well received. And so then we got to work figuring out how that could come about. So, those were my sort of past forays into Dumbarton Oaks.

EG: Could you tell us a little bit about the process of installing the casts in the library there?

BF: Sure. Well it was a long process because while the architects were drawing up the layout for the library it changed quite a bit where the casts were going to be displayed and where they were going to have artwork in the library. And at one point there was going to be an outdoor patio and a large stela – several large stelae were actually envisioned for that space, so we were going to make copies of Stela A of Copán and one of the Quirigua monuments. And if you know the Quirigua monuments, they’re very, very tall so they would have had to have been— that one at least would have had to have been outside. But I think because of regulations about what sort of objects could be outside in that setting and in the garden it was decided that those weren’t going to work out – and partly because of cost reasons as well because these were being made from plaster copies that we have here in the museum. Then they were taken to a studio in Woburn and they were molded there, and then they were cast in fiberglass and resin and then painted. So that’s a pretty lengthy process. We have to pack them up here in crates and they’re hard to move. They have to go in trucks out there and art handlers have to take them so there’s insurance and all kinds of costs involved in that. The flat casts were a little easier so those stayed in the agenda for longer and I think we even whittled those down to three from five so it was a process. And I think the end result was a good decision. So, now Stela A is inside in the reading room, and the other three casts are mounted on the walls. It was also considered at one point to have Altar T from Copán inside the reading room, but it has this sort of odd footprint and it was going to be too wide for the space. But it was a really lovely monument because it had a crocodile and a watery surface and watery plants and things on the top of it so it was kind of in keeping with the garden theme of Dumbarton Oaks. But unfortunately it didn’t fit in the space.

EG: So how did you decide on which monuments ended up going in there? Was it all yours or was it a collaborative effort?

BF: Yeah, it was a collaborative effort. We had several meetings and gave them options. We did a sort of initial selection of maybe fifteen monuments that we thought would be attractive or appropriate, and they selected from those. And I think we wanted to have a pretty good cross section of monuments in it and not just Mesoamerica. We don’t unfortunately have too many casts from South America so there was only like two options in there, but the Raimondi Stela from South America was the one that was chosen. And that has sort of a fun story for me also because I went to Peru that year, and I sort of made it a part-research trip because the cast that was here is painted this strange brown color. It had nothing to do with the original monument, so we had to go investigate what the true color was and we had to see the actual object. So when we went to the museum in Peru that had the Raimondi Stela in it we took lots of photographs so that we could give them to the art studio that was making the replicas. And I think there were a lot of different opinions about the Bilbao ones and the Ceibal ones, but mostly they were looking for something that with a little bit of raking light would come off well and be a reasonable size and nothing too heavy to mount. It all came out I think very well in the end, and we retained a second copy in resin here as well because it was easy enough to just make a second copy at the same time. And it’s nice because a project like that benefits the museum up here at the same time. Now we can put the plaster ones away and still have the fiberglass ones as much lighter and durable examples of it, and of course much better paint colors.

EG: So is this cast project the first such project at Dumbarton Oaks, do you know?

BF: Yes, I think so. I don’t think they have any other casts in their collection, but I could be wrong. One of the things that is really interesting about our cast collection is that it was made in the nineteenth century for the most part and a lot of the monuments retain details that the originals have now lost. So, in a sense they are as important – or more important from a research standpoint – than the original monuments because you can see details, so that they are helping to preserve that kind of research tool as well. It is really great. I think now we’re doing three-dimensional scanning instead of making casts, so we’re going to have virtual models of monuments in the future. That’ll be a whole other kind of issue to deal with as far as preservation into the future, but they’ll take up a lot less space. And I know that Dumbarton Oaks now is interested in collaborating with us on several projects to do that because, well, it’s not only a way of preserving information but it’s a research tool. I think that is what casts were meant to be in the first place, so that people could see them in other parts of the world and have the object in front of them as much as possible. Of course you can’t move those big heavy monuments around very easily so this was a good alternative.

EG: Is the scanning project currently related to Dumbarton Oaks or is there some collaboration there?

BF: Yeah, the three-dimensional scanning project started here at the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions program, which I direct now and we wanted to move recording documentation into the twenty-first century. And I had had some previous experience testing scanning in the 1990s. It wasn’t quite up to the level we wanted then so we sort of tabled it for about ten years. And then we revisited it again in 2005 and started making some research into new technologies that had come available in those ten years. And in 2007 then, we rented a scanner and took it to the field to test it to see how it did in the field conditions because that’s where we really have to go and make these copies. It worked great and so we then proceeded with purchasing one, and so the Corpus program now owns the scanner and we’ve taken it to the site of Copán, Honduras to work on the Hieroglyphic Stairway there and make a three-dimensional scan of that monument. That’s going to take several years because it’s a huge monument. But when we’re not in the field, it’s not being used. And now many people are becoming so enamored with these scans — because you can see more in them than you can with the naked eye — that people are wanting to request the use of the scanner in the down period, when were not using it in the field. So, we’re now embarking on several projects with other institutions, and within Harvard, Dumbarton Oaks is really the first place that we’ll be doing something outside of the Corpus program. But it is with the intent to do Maya monuments and help the Maya Catalog Project. That is going to present much better, clearer images for the catalog because you can do things with the scanner and the resulting models, such as controlling the light source, in a way that you can’t with a just regular photograph and an external light source. So it really has many advantages, and it will be a test to see how it works on objects like jade. Probably it won’t work very well because there’s a reflective issue there that it’s going to feedback noise into the scanning system. So you have to look for, sort of— most stone is a great object to scan because it absorbs the light that is shone at it rather than reflecting it. So, anyway, that’ll be a new project that we’re embarking on with Dumbarton Oaks. And my associate, who’s running the field program and running the scanning operation, Alexandre Tokovinine, will be doing the scanning. He’s really the operator of the equipment and so he’s going to be at Dumbarton Oaks during the fall, and he’ll be able to do the scanning of these objects. Actually I think he’s going to do it in August before the fall starts. But it’s relatively fast. It should be pretty easy for him to complete it in a couple of weeks.

EG: Could you speak a little bit about the development of and the mission of the Maya Catalog Project itself?

BF: Well, my involvement in it was to be asked to contribute a piece on the Copán head that is in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. And it was a sculpture that came from Copán where we worked for over thirty years, so I was a person that could write about that from many different angles. But it was also a piece that was originally here at the Peabody Museum and the Peabody had exchanges with other institutions, and Dumbarton Oaks was one. So, I went back into the history of what was exchanged for that piece as well and Dumbarton Oaks exchanged mostly Costa Rican and Middle American, Central American pieces for the Copán head to the Peabody Museum. And there were two other maize god heads from the same structure, so I guess the museum at the time felt that exchanging one for some of the objects they needed and didn’t have as many of would be a fair trade. But anyway, it’s been there for a number of years, since the ’50s or ’60s I believe it was. So, that was my contribution – was to work on that. I know that for many, many years they’ve tried to produce a Maya catalog, a new one, and for various reasons it faltered and never was completed. And so this is a new attempt to really wrap it up this time, and I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm and determination behind this one so it looks like it might go forward and through. I’ll be really happy that I contributed to it, and also that it looks like potentially we’ll have these three-dimensional scans as part of it — I think that will be a great resource for people then to have those.

EG: So, then is it going to be when it’s finished an actual publication and maybe a digital component as well?

BF: Well, that’s an option we haven’t yet discussed, but it could be. There are many different viewers that you can use to see three-dimensional objects. It may just be that they end up using it as a two-dimensional photo, but even in the two-dimensional photo you’re going to see details that you wouldn’t have been able to see in a regular photograph because the resolution is to the micron, the fraction of the micron. And you can also, like I said, light it from different directions and so you can enhance the image in a way that you wouldn’t be able to with a two-dimensional photograph. And you can do that when you’re working with it in three-dimensional form and then you can take a snapshot of it like that and produce it that way. So you’re still getting a really sharp image of something even if it’s going to be produced two-dimensionally. But I think we might explore having some kind of CD or something like that in the back with—you can now make models viewable in PDFs in three-dimensions actually and turn them around, so that’s pretty cool now to get that. I was pretty amazed when Alex figured that one out. It hasn’t been totally perfected, like it’s a fairly low resolution image and it gets this sort of shiny quality to it, but I’m sure they will be perfecting that with time and pretty soon we’ll have color images and everything that we’ll be able to see, so it’s a technology that is advancing rapidly. That’s always the problem, too – is to keep up with that technology, and so in ten years we’ll be able to view those that we did now. So that is, I suppose, probably the biggest drawback. With casts you’re always going to be able to go to the cast as long as it’s in good shape, but the danger is somebody damaging it and losing it that way. But with the digital formats we’re going to have problems being able to retrieve them and they’ll be there captured in these CDs that nobody will have the equipment to view anymore and things like that. So Harvard actually has many different servers and options for people to load their digital images so that they can be migrated into the future and you enter into some kind of contractual agreement with the university then for how that’s done. That’s really not my area. I know about that because the director of collections has to worry about that here so the people in registration and collections management will have to stay on top of that, and Dumbarton Oaks as well, so they probably have a similar server type of arrangement. I hope.

EG: Through your interactions with Dumbarton Oaks both in terms of symposia and working on the casts and the scanning, have you had much interaction with the Dumbarton Oaks collections themselves and the stuff in the museum there?

BF: I really haven’t. You know, I visited the museum, and then the first time I had any behind the scenes experience was just this past month when I went in June to work on the object I was writing about. I had asked them to remove it from display so we could look at it more closely to see if there were any bits of color that might still be left on it — so I could examine the surfaces that were broken because there are at least five surfaces that have broken fragments and I may be able to match those in Honduras because we have a lot of boxes and boxes of little tiny fragments that came out of the excavations and so we might be able to make it more complete. The one at D.O. is missing the maize cob from the top of the head, so that would be pretty exciting to add an additional piece like that to it. How we would do that I don’t know because Hondurans wouldn’t consider sending the piece to Dumbarton Oaks; they’d want the head instead to go to Honduras. But maybe we could make a copy that we could secure on top somehow, at least to give the impression of what it would look like. And we may even scan the head then as well to do the same thing. It may make sense to scan the head so that I have a virtual copy to see if I can match the pieces to that — because you’re not looking only at the lines, the incision, but looking at the break and trying to match the break. So that’s something you’ll have to do with the image or the piece right there. But I saw some of the other objects that people were working on, and it was a really nice experience because we all sat around a table looking at things together and discussing them. We did a similar thing here about five years ago with the Moses Mesoamerica Archive and David Carrasco’s group of scholars that he’s been working with. We had a Peabody Museum day, and we just brought ten objects out of the collections and used them as talking points, and we were all just amazed how much we could all say about it and learn from other people in the group and how much conversation and discussion that it inspired. So, objects really get people talking, and I think that’s a great method for Dumbarton Oaks to use too with their workshops. And that’s never going to be the same. The different group of people you get, you can get all different kinds of feedback. So it can go on and on.

EG: So do you have any general impressions of the collection or, maybe even more specifically, the objects that are going into the Maya Catalog Project?

BF: Well, D.O. has some really beautiful, beautiful objects and real famous ones as well. And sometimes you see these objects in catalogs or books and you don’t realize where they are and you go to Dumbarton Oaks and you realize, “Oh! This is where it came from.” So it’s sometimes an eye-opening experience to see it there in real life instead of in a book, which is often how we see things. I mean you can have that experience at many museums, but they have so many wonderful objects in that collection that even though it’s a relatively small collection, it has very high-standard pieces there. And you can see a real cross range of pieces. They have a mural from Teotihuacan – a fragment anyway, Maya monuments, three-dimensional sculptures, jades. So in a very small space and in a very nice— I should say it’s hard to see a museum that is days and days of viewing – I and something that you can see in a relatively short amount of time like you can at Dumbarton Oaks, it leaves a more lasting impression I think with the way things are displayed there. It’s just very handsomely done with the Philip Johnson building and the lighting. It’s a real pleasure to see. And I’d love to spend more time behind the scenes looking at objects that are not on display, but I think they’re very fortunate to have the kind of collection they have. It will be a research collection for a very long time because of the high quality of the objects that they have. The Blisses really collected very important things. I think it’s like any collection that we don’t know the context of the objects, that’s the one drawback is that with the exception of the Copán head that I wrote about they didn’t have any real provenience for anything and that’s the sad part of it. I think there is a message in that too.

EG: Sort of on the same subject, you’ve been involved, like you said, in some symposia over the years and are going to be involved in the one this fall. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about that and your experiences.

BF: At the symposia?

EG: Mm-hmm.

BF: Well, usually I was sort of in awe of most of the people that I was listening to and in awe of the room itself. The first time you go there you’re like, “This is Dumbarton Oaks!” And there are all these amazing things on the wall and just the atmosphere is very professional and a little daunting at first. But I think right away you realize that it’s a very communal group that goes there, and everybody’s interested in the same thing. And so unlike one of these giant conferences like the SAA where you’re running around to different rooms, it’s all a very focused symposium on a subject that many experts have come to speak about. And it’s a great learning experience, and it’s just such a beautiful setting. It’s in the fall and I never had the opportunity to go out to see the gardens during those, and it wasn’t until the summer that I actually took some tours around the gardens, so that was a real treat to finally do that. And I think I met a lot of wonderful colleagues there and got to know them better. There are the dinners and the opportunities to have coffee out on the terrace. Those breaks are actually as important as what’s going on in the conference because people hear something and then they go outside and talk about it. So it’s a great experience. And I really always recommend to students that they try to participate and go because it’s a wonderful way to learn a lot in a very short amount of time and update your knowledge about things.

EG: Were any of the symposia that you attended particularly memorable or important in your eyes?

BF: Well, because I kind of got a late start as far as attending them it also corresponded with— I mean I attended a few a while ago right on the campus there at Dumbarton Oaks but then shortly thereafter it was closed for the renovation work. So the ones that I remember most actually were in Peru and Teotihuacan. And that’s not to say they should all be offsite or anything like that, but those were very different and they even were more communal and embracing of the people who were all there together. And in Peru, of course, since it was a place I had never visited before, we planned a tour afterwards – so about twelve of us went with Jeff Quilter and toured around the North Coast. That was a real treat. Wow, if every conference or symposium could have all of that attached, it couldn’t help but be memorable, I guess. Also the contents of the one at Teotihuacan— well, it was in Mexico City, and it was sort of home ground and so it was nice to see it happen there. And our colleagues in those places got so much more involved. And I think that’s another wonderful thing about Dumbarton Oaks –  is its outreach to the countries that are involved in the collections, the outreach to Mexico and Central America and South America, and the scholars that come from there and are involved. That’s a real richness that they have the advantage of having. That’s what I can remember most about them. I’m trying to think of anything that stands out. Of course there were ones that were memorable for not being as interesting as I wanted. I think in a couple recent ones things started to be less about the overlap of art history and archaeology and more about archaeology and things about science and drought and things like that that I think we were starting to lose some of our art history colleagues in that kind of discussion. And that’s one of the things that I liked about Dumbarton Oaks is that it was this cross between art history and archaeology. The same way that the RED publication of archaeology and aesthetics combines an area that I work in, so I feel very comfortable in that zone, and I don’t want to see it change to be something that is just about archaeology.

EG: Do you think that it’s gotten back to more of the art history side of recent?

BF: I think so. I think there were enough people being outspoken about that that it’s got steered back into that direction. And I think many art historians were really indignant probably about that. You know, “Wait, we want it to be what it was originally about.” [William Fach interjects:] Well that’s what it was always meant to be.

BF: Right, so I do think it’s going back in that direction which will make people happy.

EG: How did you get involved with the upcoming symposium this fall at Dumbarton Oaks?

BF: Well, Joanne Pillsbury has been a wonderful colleague, and since she’s been at Dumbarton Oaks she’s invited me to do many things there. She wanted me to do a public lecture as well, but I said I would do one or the other, so I chose to participate in the symposium and maybe that will lead to a public lecture eventually another year. But I think this one was particularly about archaeological illustration, and that’s really how I got my start in the field because I was trained as an artist and did archaeological illustration on the first projects I worked on. It was like a topic that was made for me. I think Joanne at one point wanted me to organize it, but since I’ve taken on the Corpus direction I really have my hands full with that and I couldn’t responsibly accept and organize something like that. But I gave her feedback about different ways she could approach it. So, I’m really happy to participate. Of course, I’m speaking on the future of illustration and where I’m taking it, and there will be many other speakers approaching it from different angles. I’m still very active in archaeological illustration, so I’m probably one of the more active illustrators that will be speaking I think. Not the only one but one of them.

EG: I was wondering if you could speak more generally about the interaction between the Peabody Museum specifically and Dumbarton Oaks and if you’ve seen any changes in that relationship through the years.

BF: Yes, I think there’s always been a very strong relationship, and people from the museum and the department serving on the different boards there and very frequently one of the graduate students being one of the fellows. That has kept a very strong relationship between the department and the museum and Dumbarton Oaks. And I think we’ve tried to make that an even a firmer relationship so that we can make use of each other’s resources and libraries and archives and collections and share things and have students go back and forth between the two places. I think it’s been strengthened in the short period of time that I’ve been associated with it. I’ve seen that. I think in part it might have something to do also with the new library because the way things were set up before — pre-Columbian work being in a certain part of the building and the library in another and the quarters maybe a little cramped — even though there was a camaraderie that developed among people there and a closeness, there wasn’t that much elbow room. And it might’ve seemed more like a closed group to anybody from the outside. And I think libraries help open that up and make more people feel welcome to come. And certainly Joanne and Jan and Ned and Jeff in the past have worked towards that goal too, to make more programs available to people and make the resources in the library— and I just love going to the library. I spent a couple days there while I was working on the Maya catalog and I can’t wait to go back

EG: Sort of a general question, but it seems like you’ve certainly been involved with some of the more recent, more innovative projects at Dumbarton Oaks, the Maya catalog and the cast project. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you see Dumbarton Oaks changing in the future or maybe even how you see its role in the future of pre-Columbian studies.

BF: Well, they’ve been very strong in the fellowships and, like I said, reaching out to the countries that they represent in their collections and scholars coming from there. Maybe forging some kind of relationship in the similar way that they have with the Peabody — of resource and intellectual exchange — with other institutions around the different areas. I mean that’s a very complicated thing to do because you don’t want to privilege one over another. But maybe because of the success of the offsite symposium, maybe they could plan one offsite every five years or something like that. That would be kind of a nice outreach again to be inclusive and be on the home territory of somebody else. Those are complicated to arrange, I know, but I think they go a long way to promoting good collegial relationships between different places. And those colleagues are going to continue to change, and I think that’s one of the exciting things is you realize there’s a constant stream of new people coming into Dumbarton Oaks and other institutions as well and that new blood is always infusing new ideas. So it’s hard to say how that might change things in the future but all these electronic means of putting things online and doing things that way, I mean they’ve just been great about getting all their publications out there, the model for the things we can’t yet do at the Peabody Museum because ours are so vast and sort of out of control compared to their rather focused material there. You know, they have these great funds and resources and so if they can figure out ways to help other institutions do that kind of digital work that would be great I think. So, those are some ideas I guess. Publications hopefully will continue and maybe more, but you can only have so many catalog projects. But maybe different parts of that catalog can be stepping stones to other projects then that are going to go forward in the future.

EG: I think you’ve answered all of my questions very well. Is there anything else you’d like to add or anything that we left out?

BF: I can’t think of anything. I can always write you an email or something like that. I think you guys did a good job of coming up with questions. I didn’t think I had that much to say!

EG: Thank you for joining us today.