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Eurydice Georganteli

Oral History Interview with Eurydice Georganteli, undertaken by James W. Curtin and Joshua Wilson in the Dumbarton Oaks Study on July 19, 2013. At Dumbarton Oaks, Vicky Georganteli was a Summer Fellow (1998) and a Fellow (1999–2000) of Byzantine Studies.

JWC: My name is James Curtin and I am here with Josh Wilson, and we have the great pleasure of interviewing Eurydice Georganteli on July 19, 2013 about her relationships with Dumbarton Oaks over the years. Thank you very much for being here.

EG: Thank you for having me.

JWC: You came to Dumbarton Oaks for the first time in 1998 as a Summer Fellow. Is that correct?

EG: Indeed.

JWC: And how did you find out about Dumbarton Oaks?

EG: It was through announcements at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and announcement also in the Modern History department at Oxford. So, I was vaguely aware of a delightful place with great resources, but I had no idea what was there. I asked two of my supervisors from Oxford, then from Thessaloniki, to send reference letters in support of my application, and I was very happily surprised when I’d made it to the fellowship.

JWC: How well known is Dumbarton Oaks in Thessaloniki or in the UK among the people in your field?

EG: I’m sure, in the UK it was very well known, but sometimes in Byzantine studies or indeed numismatics, we tend to work in small “silos,” so as a student, we tended to understand better, get a grasp of a place through the account of our supervisor or a committee of professors. In my case, this was not the case—lets put like this. So, it was a bit of improvisation. I also was aware of all the great reference catalogues written by a guy, who I first met in Belgium at the International Congress, Philip Grierson. So, his articles and his books have made a lasting impression on me, and I was very eager to see the place where all this took shape.

JWC: Other than these catalogues, what other resources drew you to Dumbarton Oaks? It doesn’t seem like there are too many numismatists here.

EG: No, there are not. But the place is simply booming with excitement and wonderful resources. By training, I am an archeologist who pursued, eventually, graduate studies at Oxford in numismatics. So, this is a wonderful place with many, many wonderful books. Many of them are never going to be acquired by other libraries, because other libraries or other institutions don’t have the resources. So, I came here for the collection, but mostly for the wonderful library. Little did I know that I was going to meet the most extraordinary person here that summer.

JWC: Was that your husband?

EG: This was Philip.

JWC: Your husband was here at the same time, though, right?

EG: He was here in 1999–2000 when I came back as a regular Fellow.

JWC: To what degree would you say that the museum is integrated with the collections you were just talking about, or integrated with the Byzantine Studies department here?

EG: This was the first time in my entire life as a student and as a graduate student that I had the chance to work in a coin room on the opposite side of a great guy. He was in his 80s, Philip. He was just opening drawers for me, making these precious coins available, answering every question I had, and simply helping me to acquire a base of work and an ethos which still follows me. So, this is a collection in the basement of this building, which has possibly the best relation with the rest of the Byzantine collection because coins are notes, some kind of, I don’t know, some product of a society—a reflection. So, there I was with the best possible reflection of Byzantine society next to a guy who was very eager to be my mentor and my tutor. The reason I’m here today and I teach at the summer school is because of him. I think it was the best summer of my life.

JWC: Oh, wonderful! Can you tell as anything about the research that you did here and what made that particularly informative to you?

EG: The research I did here focused on coins from Thessaloniki and coin finds from Thessaloniki, especially from Palaiologan sites. So, Philip was writing at that time, he was finishing or he was proofreading his final volume at Dumbarton Oaks, volume five on Palaiologan coins. He was so happy to – not only to share information, but to be surprised by new things which come up in the course of an excavation. So, the result of that summer was my first thorough article on a coin from Thessaloniki, a new type, and also an attempt to understand Thessaloniki in its wider economic context in the later period. That’s why I dedicated it to him, and this was the beginning of my relationship with the UK. Living here and on the strength of what I had achieved here, I was invited by him and Mark Blackburn in Cambridge for my Fellowship at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

JWC: You came back again, you had just mentioned in 1999-2000. You were working on another coin find. This was a different coin find?

EG: I was working on the Via Egnatia, which was the topic of my dissertation. During that semester, because this was a kind of rushed semester after I had to take up my new position as Keeper of Coins at the University of Birmingham, I was able to work on my dissertation. Also, it was a key moment in my encounter with Dumbarton Oaks, because here I am and I am just starting my Marie Curie fellowship on a continuation of that project.

JWC: We were looking through your folder and there is correspondence you had where you were talking about the new position as keeper of coins, and my understanding is they had asked you if you wanted to take the position right then, or if you wanted to keep your Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks. And you said, “Well, I’d prefer to keep the Fellowship.” You ended up getting both. What made you feel so strongly about D.O.?

EG: This is—Dumbarton Oaks is such a special place. It looks like—I can’t translate it in English. This is the island Odysseus ended up before Ithaca and he didn’t want to go anywhere else. It’s a place where scholarship can be achieved, but also personally I come out as a better individual. So, it’s a hugely formative period, whether it’s a month, two months, or a semester or a year. Looking dreamily at that committee which was about to appoint me in a rather dreary basement [laughs] this time at the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham campus, I couldn’t think of a better place to spend my semester rather than here. In a very joke-y way, I suggested that they would be better off and wouldn’t spend money on training because this could have been achieved here. I left thinking I’ve had it. They’re never going to appoint me; they’ll want someone else. And I frankly didn’t care. This is a wonderful place. It turned out well and they were waiting for me.

JWC: Can you tell us some of the major differences you saw between when you were a Summer Fellow versus a regular Fellow? Was there a difference between those experiences?

EG: I think the major difference was the lack of—lets, say the continuous presence of someone who was very close to my field. As a Summer Fellow, I was able to work intensively in the coin room with Grierson. As a regular Fellow, I had my lovely little office and I enjoyed very much the company of the fellow Fellows, but I lacked this kind of continuous tutoring. Most probably you might say, this was not appropriate at this stage of my studies, but we all need this little sort of kick in the ass to continue [laughs.] So, as a regular Fellow, I could make use of the wonderful library resources, and mind you this was in this house, so the atmosphere was quite different. I missed this kind of rapport with the objects and with an advisor.

JWC: Can you tell us about any of the other staff members you had contact with here? Either Alice-Mary Talbot of Byzantine Studies or Ned Keenan? What types of impact did they have on the life of a Fellow?

EG: A great deal. Especially the directors of Byzantine studies—Alice-Mary in 1998, Alice-Mary again in 1999-2000, and now Margret Mullett. They have been amazing in the way they interact with Fellows and allow them to blossom. Even if you don’t have someone who can be very close to you, the mere fact that these people are available for lunches and for consultation and for—some Fellows may have a bit of a bad time and they, you know, they’re great in so many levels. They were nurturing, and they have a very complex roll to fulfill. I’m also grateful – I can single out two directors here, directors of Dumbarton Oaks. The first one in the summer of 1998 was Angeliki Laiou. She was then the departing director of Dumbarton Oaks. Despite the move and there was a lorry outside – it was quite taxing all of this moving. I remember I dropped a little card to say, “Hello, I’m a Summer Fellow and I would like to thank you for having me here.” The next thing you know, I got an invitation to have tea with her and she talked about scholarship and the importance of remaining resilient. She said, “you get on with your work, do wonderful things, and one day you might have the chance to teach what I teach now,” that is the Crusades, and give the Byzantine angle. I thought this would never happen. This spring semester I was teaching the Crusades. It’s interesting how it’s a cycle and all of these wonderful vibes and aura you get from people, they follow you. I would say these are landmarks in Greek—I deal with the Via Egnatia, we call them “ododeiktis” [οδοδείκτης] or milestones, and they allow you to find a nice path in life, and a path which makes you proud as an individual, a human being, and not as a scholar. The second director is the current one, Jan Ziolkowski. And once again, the place functions well because in thanks to the people who are there. I can see how my tutees now this summer – students – are happy because the structures are here and they feel appreciated, valued, and nurtured – so, very, very good people. Of course, the museum people are equally key. If Philip wasn’t able to open the cabinets, now what? So, we have Dr. Morrisson from Paris. It’s a great joy working with her. And people like the current director Gudrun Bühl, Marta Zlotnick, the registrar, and John Hanson, they all enhance the experience of students. All these objects – the ones behind the class cases and the ones behind the cabinet door – can only be available thanks to them. The person I miss terribly is Stephen Zwirn, the assistant curator, an extraordinary man. And of course, the director then of the collection Susan Boyd. Also, may I add, all these old friends of Philip Grierson. Copyeditors, ladies working in the publications. I was like a spoiled grandchild. I was being taken out to operas and concerts and private clubs in Washington by all these ladies, you know driving little cars in their 80s and feeling very happy.

JWC: Can you tell us more about the museum? I know you take classes here now to have hands on experiences with the collection. Why do you think that’s important, and what does Dumbarton Oaks offer that other places can’t?

EG: Not having the hands on experience is the greatest disadvantage. I learned, I was taught numismatics as an undergraduate through books. Some of them now are considered the archeology of numismatics because possibly the university didn’t have enough money to buy new ones. So, I learned numismatics by reading Sabatier. This is a very old book. Before the 20th century. And then I became engrossed in the study of coins and economy and all kind of aspects of daily life by coming into contact with coins at excavations. I was excavating in Philippi as part of the Aristotle University archeological team. There, this kind of close encounter makes you someone who really wants to take things forward. So, if the students don’t have these types of opportunity because they don’t go to archeological digs, the closest they can get to this experience is through handling sessions. Unless they have this experience, it would defeat the purpose of the exercise to have them here – lovely resources, but if the coins are locked away and inaccessible, I think we have a failure.

JWC: Are there many numismatists who come here to study the collection that you know of? Because you’ve spoken very highly of the people who keep it here, is this a place that a lot of others in your field flock to?

EG: Not really. Not really, for two reasons. The first one is that most of the collection, but not the entire collection, was published by Grierson and the 11th and 12th century coins by Michael Hendy, Philips’s former student. You might say that numismatists don’t tend to come here because they think they know everything about the Dumbarton Oaks collection through the collection. This is not entirely true because there are sections that have been completely unexplored, and then these publications—not old publications, but publications from the second half of the 20th century, now there are so many new discoveries so we can revisit things. The second aspect is that people very, very rarely associate scholarship now these days with a visit. They want to have things on a digital image. For me, I think this is not very good because unless you understand things work in a collection and in the case of the library, unless you go and have access to the actual objects, you are missing a lot of things. I pity the people who don’t make the effort, especially as Dumbarton Oaks hosts some wonderful symposia. They don’t make the effort to make an appointment to come and see the objects, either coins, or other artifacts.

JWC: Can you give an example of some of the best artifacts that are in the collection that people may come to see?

EG: There are several which tell you the story of the life and afterlife of objects. One of my favorite ones is a unique solidus, a gold coin, of Emperor Anastasius, an administrator and careful economist for his time – so late fifth century. I’m sure he would have put to shame many of these modern economic planners and financial gurus. He introduces this – he legitimizes power by minting a coin, a gold solidus, with him and the widow empress who made him emperor. So, Empress Ariadne marries Anastasius and he becomes the emperor. It’s interesting how people, emperors, manipulate images to pass a message. We have some coins which have been mounted here as objects which were given to high officials, or a kind of diplomatic gift. You have some wonderful other things. You have silver plates, I like very much the sculpture Dumbarton Oaks has, and some of the most amazing Byzantine icons with saints with these kinds of haunting eyes, which follow you everywhere. I love pre-Columbian art. I love the gardens; I’m a sucker for the gardens. I’d say my favorite bit is the Byzantine galleries, beautifully redone by Dr. Bühl. The way also these objects can talk to you thanks to new technology. So, I like the introduction of tablets. I think you are pioneers here to do so. I feel ashamed in Birmingham we haven’t yet ventured into this.

JWC: What can you tell me, if anything, about the relationship between the collection here and the collections at other Harvard institutions, like the Sackler? Is there much scholarship that goes on between the two, or things of that nature?

EG: It’s very difficult to say. First of all, the collection of Dumbarton Oaks consists of two parts. One part is the Whittemore collection. The Whittemore collection belongs to Harvard. The other bit belongs here to Dumbarton Oaks. It has been on loan, the Whittemore collection, to Dumbarton Oaks for a number of years so that it can be incorporated and studied as a whole. This year as a visiting faculty at Harvard, I was able to use part of the Whittemore collection, which is now housed in the Fogg Museum, but it is very different. Harvard is all about using the collection for undergraduate and graduate teaching. You might say we make more use of the coins there at the moment there than here. But here, I think the collection is mostly linked to scholarship, which has already been achieved and new directions of research. Harvard and the Fogg are very big into classical coins. The Whittemore collection has just enhanced the amazing collection of classical coins, so the Byzantine bit of Dumbarton Oaks. Here, the strength is Byzantium and remains Byzantium. Thanks to the consultant or the advisor of numismatics here, Dr. Morrisson, Dumbarton Oaks is still able to buy new things. I doubt Harvard does the same for the Byzantine coins.

JWC: You said that there is some new scholarly research going in different directions, maybe. Can you tell us about that and the changes maybe that are being made?

EG: I think because so much has been published, there are two things Cécile can talk for herself, but there are two things which are very interesting and promising. The first one is our new types, and she has bought quite a few. She has outbid us at Birmingham on a lot of them, but forgiven now [laughs.] Because of the resources, because we know so much because of the previous scholarship, I think Dumbarton Oaks can build and research more with new types. This is the appropriate place to do so. It is not an auction house, it is not a university which is not very strong in Byzantine studies. This is the place where Byzantine studies are nurtured and there is such a big community. The second piece is that this collection, because it has been so wonderfully published, can now be digitally photographed and digital records can be improved upon. Eventually, this collection will be searchable on the web. I was recently at the American Numismatics Society teaching at the summer program, and they admitted that they’re not strong in Byzantine coins so they’re looking up to Dumbarton Oaks to lead the way and create a more accessible scholarly medium for a global community.

JWC: What would you say after all of this about your actual roll with Dumbarton Oaks? Do you see yourself more as a scholar to use their collections, or how would you characterize this?

EG: Until this year, yes. You described exactly what I was doing. Dumbarton Oaks, I think this year onward—it was different. So, I came here to do or to contribute to what Grierson and Morrisson were doing, have been doing – what he was doing for so many years. There is a new generation of students who come here. Sometimes you feel surprised because you want to be in their position. You say, “Oh, am I the tutor, am I one of them?” You come here, I come here, as someone who wants to know more about what I’m doing, to interact with a wide range of scholars. This is a very big bonus because most of our links – we have to have lateral thinking to be very esoteric people. So, here are the people who can help us make these transitions from what we do to exploring wider issues, so that’s great. You come as a scholar doing your research. You come as a person who can converse. I came here this year as a tutor. And also you make great friends. Byzantine studies or humanities can be a very intimidating place. Intimidating places, and also places where there is either a lot of competition or a lot of loneliness. Here, barriers come down. You can’t possibly be nasty to someone when you have lunch, or when you see them in their swimsuit, right? [laughs] This kind of friendship and relationships follow for life. I think my husband is the best example.

JWC: Can you tell us more about these social relationships that are developed here and how that makes Dumbarton Oaks unique? What are some of the major things that you’ve encountered here?
EG: I think some of the previous people you interviewed, they mentioned these kinds of gentle atmosphere, which you know, looks back to patterns in private clubs or learned societies, et cetera. I couldn’t agree more with them. This is a place where you make friends, and these friendships follow you. The people I met in 1998, I still keep in contact. We are doing a project on Silicia, Armenia with one of my colleagues at that time, who is now at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, Mikaël Nichanian, the Armenian specialist. The group of 1999-2000 was simply superb – all these people – brilliant, very hard working – Konstantinos Smyrlis, who is now in New York, NYU I think – Efstratios Papaioannou at Brown. So, a historian, a literature person. Shirine Hamadeh, she was dealing with Landscape Architecture – a great Ottoman landscape specialist. We keep in contact. Dimiter Angelov, my husband. He was always the kindest Fellow who was driving me everywhere because I am useless and I don’t drive. And he was patiently waiting for me because at that time the library was closing at 11 and security guards were fearful that I was going to be mugged, killed, or something like this on my way to La Quercia. So, when you feel happy about life, after the end of a very long day, you go out, you have a drink. You cook for people, or you accept their kind hospitality. This makes the experience all the more special.

JWC: You mentioned a few individuals who were in other areas of study. What can you tell me about the conversations you had with them and how that has affected the way you see your own field, if at all?

EG: Very much. I am very interested in architecture and urban history, and my conversations with these people have been just enlightening. You have here at Dumbarton Oaks the director of Garden and Landscape studies before the current one, he’s a Frenchman I think Michael Conan, yes? He’d take us out in his car to see great examples of modern architecture. This was great. This makes you feel rejuvenated and ready to explore this kind of areas. Pre-Columbian studies ditto. The former director of pre-Columbian studies who is now the director of Peabody Museum at Harvard – we are regulars. We take their and our son every Saturday because I have the fondest memories of this lovely man here and his time here. And Landscape Architecture Fellows, the same. Unless we tried to understand the point of view of other disciplines, we are completely lost in our microcosm, which is very, very bad. I think I asked Grierson once, “Philip, what is your secret of why you write so beautifully and I don’t fall asleep when I read your books? Is it because you like people?” He was a very youthful 96-year old when he died. He told me, “Well, observe me. I go to movies,” and he had a collection of 2,000 movies in his library. He said, “I am a member of several book clubs, I love theatre, and I love music.” So this kind of man of Renaissance, this is the profile which can be achieved only here.

JWC: Something I was curious about, but I may be totally off base – is there much connection between the numismatics that you study with Byzantine coins and the parallel systems that maybe you’d see in pre-Columbian societies? Have you ever had conversations with individuals who study the monetary systems there at all?

EG: Not at all. I’m very keen to – I think this year we did something in the history of money course, but while I was here, no. It’s very strange – you have a point. Why can’t we have a meaningful conversation about this as well? No, I don’t understand why we didn’t have this conversation. Perhaps, there is always time to have it. Especially I was exploring this exhibition that is in the corridor of the Main House on very strange artifacts from these societies. I thought, why don’t you make more of an effort to connect on other levels than conviviality, et cetera. You might have spotted Indiana Jones, et cetera. There are quite a lot of elements to have a more meaningful discussion. I don’t think this has been either nurtured or encouraged – all directors now, Ned, Jan – that we should become more easy bedfellows, but yeah.

JWC: Do you have any stories or things about Dumbarton Oaks that are memorable to you that you could tell us about?

EG: I think in 1998 I was completely enchanted when I set eyes at the swimming pool. I thought this is coming out of a movie like the Great Gatsby, or something. I couldn’t believe I was here as a visiting Fellow in this grand landscape. We had lots of picnics and lots of wonderful conversations in the gardens. This I remember very fondly. Then in 1999–2000, you know we were very serious people, but nevertheless we had a great party on Halloween. I remember dressing up and everyone was dressing up. I have still the photographs. Perhaps if one day we have enough scholarship and we have these little books called variorum, where they reprint all of your articles, rather than having a very serious picture, you could have a picture as Harlequin or Columbine, as is the case. Even people like Clive Foss, a very famous archeologist, came in disguise [laughs]. I wanted to mention another famous Byzantinist who came as Cleopatra. It was a very convivial atmosphere and no one took themselves too seriously. This I appreciate, not always to keep up a façade, but to be themselves.

JWC: You mentioned the garden and the pool. A lot of the things you see around the house are vestiges of the time the Blisses were living here and their lifestyle. Is there much of an imprint that the life of the Blisses left on Fellows and staff here? It’s all around you, but is it something that occurs to you in day-to-day life?

EG: There are several things –first of all the actual furniture of the house. It’s so evocative. I have to say, although I really, really like and appreciate the size of the library, I very much miss the rapport we had with the old one. You could practically find books in every single room. I did two building projects at Birmingham University. One of them – the grandest one the new coin gallery – I was trying to find a suitable architect. The architects they presented to me were simply not up to the job. I thought they were very, very bad. I found someone and I gave him books to read about the eastern Mediterranean culture—Rome, Byzantium, Greece. He came back with an evocative plan. What I appreciated was not only the plan, but his idea and firm view that whatever we create has to produce this kind of evocative setting which is much better than our actual house setting. He said, if people feel happy, much happier than in their little flats or whatever, they come here, they stay here for longer and they make discoveries. The new library is a very nice place, but looks sometimes like a – I don’t know, a drug store. It’s very sterile. Even the chairs, aren’t comfortable. I have some issues with the chairs [laughs.] But here, I remember going all the way up to the top floor to find periodicals, sitting on the floor on a hot day, and you feel blessed and privileged to be here. The best scholarship is written in this house because of the surroundings. Another point, which is completely irrelevant but is very romantic, is to go to this beautiful Music Room and see the love and care, it still emanates of this couple. These people, they didn’t have children, but they clearly had a very strong bond. He commissioned music; he bought lovely things for his wife. This is something my husband should be, you know, be inspired by [laughs.] They set a great example.

JWC: With the Music Room, did you ever go to any of the Friends of Music performances while you where here?

EG: Yes. My observation was that I felt privileged because this was free for us and I saw also the society of Georgetown, which comes and appreciates music. For me, music – I play music – I think music should be enjoyed by many more people. What I did this year when I brought my Harvard class for a visit, I asked one of the mediaeval Ph.D. students, who’s a musician, to perform a little piece of music created for the crusades, because it was a crusades course, in the Byzantine gallery. I thought, if we can make music more readily available to a wider audience here, this is a success.

JWC: Was that during the public hours he was playing?

EG: No, [laughs] of course not. It was on a Monday when the museum was closed, so it was a little test to see how a young person can transform a museum setting into something else. I think everyone was very happy, including Gudrun Bühl, who thought it was wonderful.

JWC: What did she play?

EG: Well, she played several pieces. She played, I think – why these pieces were important was they ranged from the thirteenth-century troubadour songs, all the way to seventeenth and eighteenth century, kind of images, western Europeans had about the crusades.

JWC: Are there any other things that maybe we’ve neglected to ask that you would like to discuss?

EG: No, you’re such thorough interviewers. Come on. I would like to thank you.

JWC: I appreciate you taking the time to stop in with us. Thank you again.