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Claudia Rapp

Oral History Interview with Claudia Rapp undertaken via Zoom by Anna Stavrakopoulou and Audrey Pettner on July 22, 2020. At Dumbarton Oaks, Claudia Rapp was a Fellow (2004–2005), a Visiting Scholar (2015–2016), and has been a Senior Fellow of Byzantine Studies (2019–present).

Audrey Pettner: I’ll go ahead and jump in with the first question. When was the first time that you heard of Dumbarton Oaks and what were your initial impressions?

Claudia Rapp: I think that must have been while I was a student of Byzantine studies in Berlin at the Free University, after I had added Byzantine studies as my third subject to Classical Greek and History, which were my main subjects. This was in the early 1980s. Dumbarton Oaks, as well as the United States, were very far away. This was a distant land. I had heard about it as a place of excellent scholarship, as a place where the Dumbarton Oaks Papers originated, which to me seemed the Olympus of scholarship, the pinnacle of publication possibilities, and the place where the annual symposia took place, which we then saw reflected in publications.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: You have had several appointments. You were a fellow in 2004–5, you were a visiting scholar in 2015–16, and you are currently a senior fellow. Who were some Byzantinists you interacted with the most during your appointments at DO?

CR: That’s a very good question. In 2005, I was there for the spring as a fellow. It was a very fortunate moment in that it was an exciting time. It was the time when we were still in the old building, this was the last year in the old building, and my office was right above the entrance in that lunette window and I could see from my desk how the crates with the labeled objects with the barcodes from the museum left the building. I was full of admiration for the military precision with which this move was being prepared, especially of the museum items.

AS: Where were the items going? Where were they shipped to?

CR: This was a professional museum moving company that organized everything. Gudrun Bühl, I think, was masterminding the whole move. They were put into temporary storage until the renovation had been complete and then brought back to the museum for its installation the way we see it now.

My interactions in 2005 were determined by two things. There was one cluster of people that was very fortunate that gathered around the topics of expressions of piety, monasticism, charity, and archaeology. That was a very fruitful moment of interaction with Betsy Bolman and Dan Caner. The other cluster of interactions basically formed around people who had the same biorhythms in working. The people who worked the night shift were people who gravitated together, and we often walked back together from the library to La Quercia, where we were staying. Those ties still remain.

Rustam Shukurov who was a colleague then—we had many, many walks back and many conversations—is in fact now right here down the hall, joining me on a project that is in its final phase on movement and mobility in Byzantium. Dumbarton Oaks as a place of shared scholarship and Dumbarton Oaks as a place of shared experiences is very much present in my memories.

AS: Then in 2015–16, do you recall forming new connections with Byzantinists?

CR: I was there for a month as a visiting scholar. The invitation had been issued, I think, still by Margaret Mullet, and then when I arrived, she was no longer there. What I remember both from 2005 and from 2015 was also very close and very instructive interactions with Cécile Morrisson, who was always happy to share her knowledge and enthusiasm for the seals and coins collections. It was always very nice to see her in Dumbarton Oaks and whenever I’m in Paris, it’s nice to reconnect with her there.

It was a month that I used for very intense work, but it was September so there wasn’t very much going on in terms of the regular year of Dumbarton Oaks. What I remember was in September being given the chance at a very early moment to present the early phase of the project on prayer books that I was just beginning to implement here in Vienna. That was very interesting to get the feedback from the scholars in 2015, as I was just starting to think about that, or putting the program onto the map. Other than that, I was just very, very happy to have uninterrupted research time and the library at my fingertips.

AP: Dumbarton Oaks is obviously a really interesting institution in that it has the three very different disciplines all under one roof. How would you characterize the interaction among the fellows of the three different fields? Did you guys get a chance to initiate maybe a dialogue or connect over lunches or events?

CR: That would relate mostly to my experience in 2005. I don’t remember much of that, I’m sorry to say. I think it sometimes happens, it sometimes doesn’t. There’s not much that you can do apart from giving people opportunities. I think for me, the most visible manifestation of the presence of the three areas is the way it encourages scholars to present their work to an intelligent audience of people who are not specialists in your own field.

That, for many people who come to Dumbarton Oaks—especially if they come from Europe where people are more used to working in small clusters of highly specialized colleagues—is a very healthy experience. It forces them to think about how they present their topic, and it forces them to think about their topic in terms of themes, issues, questions, and methodologies, rather than specialized detailed knowledge. It’s a good experience for Europeans. It’s also a very good experience for young scholars as they’re preparing for the job market, especially in the United States.

AS: At any given stage in your relationship with Dumbarton Oaks, how did your experience differ from that of other stages? Particularly as a female scholar, did you notice any changes either in the field as a whole or at Dumbarton Oaks over time?

CR: Well, the first time I came to Dumbarton Oaks must have been in 1987 when I was interviewed for a junior fellowship, which I didn’t get. I was interviewed again for a junior fellowship, I think in 1990, which I didn’t get then. During the second of these interviews, I was asked—or somebody pointed out—that I was married and how would I manage being at Dumbarton Oaks with my husband being in California?

Which was a completely inappropriate question. It was asked to me by a senior woman and, being intimidated and a slightly jet-lagged graduate student, I didn’t know how to refuse to answer that question. That’s something which I hope wouldn’t happen today. Certainly, in the interviews that I’ve been part of recently, it hasn’t happened.

AS: Back then people would ask questions like that. It was not so uncommon.

CR: It was illegal then but somehow people forgot or however you want to put it. It may have been more socially acceptable to do it. Certainly, none of the other fellows interrupted when that question was asked.

AS: Over time, do you feel that things have changed overall? Not just from the point of view of the female scholar, but overall?

CR: What I did notice—it’s looking back also—at the symposia that I’ve attended, is that there were grand old men who asked questions. Grand old men have a way of asking questions that are very elaborate and learned statements in their own right. Almost papers themselves. Especially Ihor Ševčenko, of course, who was a towering figure also physically. There’s been, I think, in recent years more ease for women, including young women, including women who are not in academic positions, to ask questions and contribute to the discussion compared to 20 years ago.

Things have become less hierarchical within the sort of ceremonial that is often part of the song and dance of the colloquia. There seems to have been a greater openness also to younger people and people of color in simply allowing them to be—and not just integrating them consciously, but just allowing them to be present with all that they have to contribute and represent even if it does not in its presentation correspond to the traditional roles of East Coast etiquette.

There was a long time when I think Dumbarton Oaks had the appearance of a sort of East Coast, “Let’s try to be more Oxbridge than Oxbridge,” in terms of the way it presents itself. In terms of the way it expects people to conduct themselves. In terms of clothing, in terms of how they talk, in terms of how they interact with each other. That, I think, in recent years has become much livelier. Informal is not the right word, but lively and joyous and vivacious and less intimidating.

AP: In what ways did you make use of Dumbarton Oaks resources? How did you find that the collection at the Dumbarton Oaks uniquely contributed to your research? You've already touched on the library, but how about object collections?

CR: I regret I didn’t make more use of the coins and seals that Cécile Morrisson taught me and showed me because that would have been absolutely fantastic. I never used the photographic collection. I always love looking at the museum when I’m there, but I’ve never as such used the museum collection. I’ve always loved the fact that there’s plenty of archaeology on the shelves of the library, and it’s within easy reach. It’s mostly the printed books that have been the most relevant for my research. I think that’s just the nature of the work I do.

AS: How happy were you with the collection, the library collection—for what you were working on, at any given time?

CR: There are some rare books. There are some books that weren’t there. I’ve noticed that I couldn’t exactly put a date on it, but the presence of foreign language publications seems to diminish as we get closer to the present day. Or decrease, let’s say. Diminish is probably a bit too strong. It decreases noticeably. The most important things from the CNRS in Paris and the journals and the Italian series are all there, but important monographs in foreign languages, especially in German, which is my native language, are frequently and surprisingly missing.

AS: Have you attended many symposia or conferences? Do you remember any particular symposium or colloquium that stands out in your memory for any reason?

CR: I’ve attended a few but not with any regularity. It depended on my ability to visit. I have to add that until 2011, I was based in California and we were still in session until the end of June. Getting away in May was not easy, because it was the second half of the quarter. Students were getting nervous about exams and so on. Flying coast to coast is not something that you can do for a day and a half. It takes a bit more of travel time and planning.

With that as a preface, I think the one that to me was the most memorable was the one on Palestinian monasticism because it was really revolutionary at the time to bring together the archaeology and the textual scholars. It’s something that we now take for granted, but there was a time when this really was a new approach. Dumbarton Oaks with its wide range of interests and its wide range of scholarly community is the perfect place to launch such initiatives.

AS: I’m sorry you missed the symposium this year because everybody was looking forward to that, but we’re going to do it, hopefully, in 2022.

AP: Do you have any stories that stand out in your mind that you think should be part of our institutional memory as well?

CR: Most of the stories I hear I didn’t take part in, but somehow, I get the impression that in the 1970s, in the summer, the swimming pool must have been a happening place. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly and tell you which people gave me that impression. I have to admit, I never actually swam in the swimming pool. But it is that sort of place around which many stories seem to weave themselves.

AS: It’s a focal point.

CR: A focal point, yes.

AS: How did the relationship between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks, as well as between Dumbarton Oaks and the other Washington cultural institutions, like the National Gallery, for instance, affect your studies and those of your fellow scholars at DO, according to you? So, Harvard and DO, and then DO and the other institutions in the area, if you have any?

CR: There was one colloquium at least where there was a collaboration between Dumbarton Oaks and, I think, Georgetown and maybe the Freer Sackler [Gallery], which I appreciated very much. I couldn’t tell you which one that was. Oh, yes—I think it was one of the two colloquia where I’ve spoken, the one on education and childhood. Connection with Harvard, there is a close nexus in terms of the body of the senior fellows, which has half Harvard people, half not Harvard people working with and contributing to Dumbarton Oaks. The increasing number of Harvard interns who are present at Dumbarton Oaks. It makes people like me who are talking and working with a lot of promising graduate students here in Europe a little bit wistful because we wish that we would have similar opportunities for our students. From that point of view, the summer schools are wonderful because that is open to the Europeans and a very welcome opportunity.

AS: Also, I’m just telling you so that you know, about the short-term predocs. When we reopen, this is an excellent opportunity for graduate students.

CR: I've had graduate students at UCLA who made use of that opportunity. Here from Vienna, we’ve been thinking about it many times with various students, but they’ve gravitated more towards the summer schools.

AS: The other thing, we opened up, Claudia, again, now, I’m telling you, to non-Harvard is the Bliss Awards, which are meant for graduate students who wish to attend the symposium. Initially, this was open only to Harvard students. Now, we have added three more non-Harvard students.

CR: I’ve seen that. I’ve had people express interest. I hope that will continue.

The Harvard connection. The general perception, I think, gives those of us who would like to see Dumbarton Oaks prosper and flourish for a long time a bit more security in the thought that there is a strong and wealthy institution under whose wings Dumbarton Oaks operates.

AS: What about the other—you told me about the other institutions, you mentioned this collaboration between Georgetown and Dumbarton Oaks.

CR: I haven’t been aware of much else.

AP: As an international scholar, how would you describe Dumbarton Oaks’ role in the international context of Byzantine studies? Have you seen this change over the years?

CR: Interesting.

There are several things here. One is that Dumbarton Oaks has this automatic badge of excellence. If you get published in Dumbarton Oaks Papers, that’s a very big deal. If you have a fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks, it opens many doors on your CV, even if it’s just summer fellowships or the summer school. Because it is such an international center, you know that anybody who gets in would have gotten in through an international competition of a self-selective body of people who apply in the first place because Dumbarton Oaks has such a high status that not everybody will feel that it is their place to apply. People only apply if they think they have a chance to get in. If you think the distance is too large, you won’t apply in the first place. So, it is a badge of distinction for those who get the benefits of being at Dumbarton Oaks for one reason or another. It’s also a place with regards to the symposia that can push themes onto the scholarly agenda, although the symposia often take a long time to prepare. People usually get published very quickly if they get published through Dumbarton Oaks. That’s another way of contributing to shaping the field.

The Dumbarton Oaks publication series has a similar function, giving the badge of excellence, pushing public themes. I really do want to highlight two major game-changing publications. One is the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium and the other is the Dumbarton Oaks [Byzantine] Monastic Foundation Documents. Huge, huge, huge game-changers.

Also, the Economic History of Byzantium. The fact that these are available online for free, has, I think, opened up Byzantine topics to researchers in other fields in very, very significant ways. The same is true for the translation series that Alice-Mary Talbot started, Saints’ Lives in Translation. And of course, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library Series now continues along those lines. It was interesting to me when I was involved in the Byzantine Studies Conference—this is the predecessor of the Byzantine Studies Association of North America—to learn that the BSC was actually founded by young scholars as a counterpoint to Dumbarton Oaks because they felt that Dumbarton Oaks in the ’70s was a closed circle of people who were feeling smug and comfortable and not letting anybody else in. These were young scholars who had an agenda and who wanted to hear what the others had to say and wanted to make their voices heard. That was a very interesting perspective to get, especially talking to the initial founders—Alice-Mary Talbot, Rob Nelson, Walter Kaegi—and getting their perspective on things.

AS: You have been at DO under two different directors, Ned Keenan and Jan Ziolkowski. How did the initiatives undertaken by each director impact the larger field of Byzantine studies according to you?

CR: Keenan was instrumental in the building of the new library, of the new building. At the time, anybody who loved the old DO was complaining or worried about what this would do. The way I like to think about it is that Keenan, with creating this building initiative, made sure that Dumbarton Oaks was no longer the tea party of Mrs. Bliss and her friends, but a serious scholarly institution.

That was a very major step in making Dumbarton Oaks take the next step from being a private foundation to being an academic foundation. That was super significant, and of course, as I said, I witnessed the move of objects out of the museum, so that was very much present during my term as a spring fellow.

Regarding Jan’s contribution, there's two things that stand out. One is the foundation of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, where I’ve been serving on the editorial board for the Greek series since 2009. Which again has helped put Byzantine texts on the map and made them accessible and easy for people who may enjoy reading, not just as scholars, but simply for the pleasure of reading, because that’s what the format does. That was a very judicious decision on Jan’s part to stick with that format and basically create the middle ground, the link between the Loeb series for ancient texts and the Villa I Tatti series for Renaissance texts.

The other thing that I’ve seen Jan do that I’ve admired and appreciated is to ensure that Dumbarton Oaks is not merely, although that’s already a tall order, a place of international scholarship, but that it is also a cultural center for Washington. He’s done that with many initiatives, events, connections, bringing the school kids in, bringing modern artists into the museum, creating exhibitions, opening the gardens, updating the website.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the readiness with which Dumbarton Oaks is now able to deal with the imposed restrictions and with which it is capable of moving a lot of its activities online, is built on that particular fertile ground that Jan created, also by making sure that Dumbarton Oaks has an attractive website that fulfills many functions, not just for scholars.

AS: That’s a very nice observation. We haven’t heard it from anyone so far.

AP: You’ve answered this already, just a little bit in your last response, but do you think that Dumbarton Oaks has an academic duty to launch public outreach initiatives, particularly in regards to its role in Byzantine history?

CR: There’s an educational aspect to everything we do. There has to be accountability for what we do as academics, regardless of the context in which we work and who pays our salaries. The way you phrase the question, Audrey, whether Dumbarton Oaks has an academic responsibility to do outreach, I would not phrase it that way. It’s an ethical responsibility. It’s not an academic responsibility.

AS: Of course, and within the big frame, the ethical duty that you just mentioned, would you have any public outreach initiatives in mind that would benefit, for instance, the study of Byzantine history?

CR: If you’d asked me a year ago, I would have said, collaborate with the Smithsonian and others to encourage or accompany or prepare for travel to major Byzantine sites but obviously, we live in changing times.

I can’t think of anything specific that I could suggest. I always welcomed the initiatives where Dumbarton Oaks cosponsored entry-level positions. These were assistant professorships in other universities where the hope was to lead to permanent positions. It’s not always worked out, of course. It’s difficult to maintain a program when the results are so meager but the initiative of that kind, I thought, was extremely wonderful.

It might be good to work a bit more with Greek cultural institutions in the DC area but again, maybe there are things that I don’t know. It may also be encouraging to speak to high schools where ancient Greek is being taught or bring in the high school teachers who teach ancient Greek to a fringe event during the Byzantine Greek Summer School, for example. That would not be difficult to do.

AS: Yes, that’s true.

CR: To have an evening where you have the instructors present how the summer school works, give a little sample of the texts, and encourage the high school teachers to use one or two of the texts in their teaching.

AS: This is a great suggestion. DO just hired an educational programs manager, I believe, right before we closed down. I’d like to give her this suggestion and combine this with Stratis Papaioannou and Alexandros Alexakis who just taught summer school this year, so they can do a Zoom event, now that everything is possible via Zoom, using your suggestion. Thank you so much.

CR: Good. It won’t take much, and it’s all already packaged.

AS: Exactly. All the material is there.

What projects or fields of study would you like to see the Byzantine Studies program support or emphasize in the coming years? This is a general question. It’s for a wish list, according to you.

CR: A lot of the things that I would say would be, do more of Greek paleography—essential. In addition to Greek paleography, there should be an emphasis in conjunction with that on editorial work and editorial techniques, how to edit texts, not just how to read them, but how to edit them, and what different methods there are and how different texts require different editorial methods and what the tools are online.

I mean, there could be something of an event at the summer schools, a tutorial on digital methods for editing. There could be a tutorial on digital methods in archaeology. This could actually be a good online-period initiative to have the pioneers in the field, the people who do the drone images in the archaeology and the people who do classical text editing and whatever other methods there are for digital editing and have a series on digital advances and their contribution to scholarship with displays on the computer people showing how they do it, how they get from raw material to presentation. In Vienna, we have people who do historical network analysis, that could also be an interesting contribution. If one had a series of webinars or something of that nature that could be good.

AP: In a post-COVID-19 world, how do you envision Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks changing for both scholars and the public?

CR: The first part of that question is asking how I envisage a post-COVID-19 world and that’s very hard to do. Thinking about how that might look is going to involve, I think, more of a mixture of people communicating like we do now online and people communicating live. It may take a while to understand what kind of topics and what format of meeting and what structure of conversation works best in one or the other format. You do not want one to be a replication of the other.

You want to work to the strength of each of these formats. That may take some trial and error. I’ve seen very efficiently run fellows’ research reports. There are also occasions where you just need to have people in one room and having small conversations at the water cooler or slightly larger conversations with a glass of wine in their hand. I think it will be a period of experimentation regarding formats. There may be new formats added to the repertoire of what Dumbarton Oaks does.

I wouldn’t want to abandon any of the old formats, but I could easily imagine additions. I think this is a good opportunity and as I’m thinking about it, there are more thoughts coming. This is a very good opportunity for Dumbarton Oaks to reach out to scholars in faraway countries for whom travel is difficult or expensive. This is really the moment to capitalize for example, in people who are interested in Byzantine heritage in Georgia, in Armenia, in Russia.

AS: In China also.

CR: China? Yes, exactly. Now that we know how these conversations can happen online, this could really be a target of an opportunity to make the most of what we’ve learned and the digital opportunities that we’ve seen in action. That would be, I think, the next dimension of what Dumbarton Oaks with its excellence in scholarship and its badge of excellence that it can give to scholarship. This could really promote Byzantine studies beyond the United States, beyond the core regions of Europe, into places where it has not yet been as strongly developed.

AS: Sure. This is excellent. I want to thank you so much, Claudia. We are extremely grateful for everything you shared, your insights, your suggestions.

CR: That’s kind but as you know from ahead of time, I didn’t grow up intellectually at Dumbarton Oaks. Dumbarton Oaks to me was the additional intellectual tickle and stimulus, but it wasn’t my bread and butter. It’s a very, very different context, but it’s nice to know that Dumbarton Oaks means many different things to many different people.

AS: Exactly, exactly. This is why your testimony is very valuable because we do not need only one narrative. There are many narratives there that form the fabric of Dumbarton Oaks. Thank you very much.