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Herbert L. Kessler (ICFA Interview Notes)

This interview with Herbert Kessler, Professor Emeritus in the Department of the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University, was conducted on Tuesday, July 22, 2014, over the phone, and continued for clarification and follow-up questions via email on August 8, 2015. The following are the questions asked by Caitlin Ballotta, 2014 summer intern in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA), and the notes that Ballotta and Fani Gargova (ICFA’s Byzantine Research Associate), who was also present for the interview, took during the conversation. This text also includes follow-up questions asked to Kessler via email, and his responses.

This interview was undertaken as part of the ICFA Oral History Initiative.

Herbert Kessler was previously interviewed by the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (DOA) on June 25, 2012. The full transcript of this interview is available on the DOA Oral History Project page.

CB: For the record, please state your full name.

HK: Herbert Leon Kessler

CB: Where and when were you born?

HK: Kessler was born in Chicago in 1941.

CB: What were your parents’ occupations?

HK: One of Kessler’s parents was an artist, and the other sold hardware and auto parts.

CB: Where did you grow up?

HK: Kessler grew up in Chicago.

CB: Where did you go to school?  What was your area of study and your focus within that field?

HK: Kessler studied art history as an undergraduate, and received an MFA in 1963. From 1961 to 1965, he was a student of Kurt Weitzmann at Princeton University, and he received his Ph.D. in Byzantine Art History.

CB: According to our research, you first came to Dumbarton Oaks in 1963, working as an assistant to Paul Underwood, who was working at the time on the publication of the Kariye Camii project, for which fieldwork was conducted from 1947-1959. Was this your first encounter with Byzantine studies? If not, how did you become interested in the field?

HK: This was not Kessler’s first encounter with Byzantine studies. He had already been involved in Byzantine studies while studying with Weitzmann in 1961-1965. He was a Medievalist when he began his studies at Princeton, and there he had to choose a specialization. Given the choices of studying Byzantine Art History with Weitzmann or continuing with his other great interest, Northern Renaissance, he decided to specialize in Byzantine Art History with Weitzmann.

CB: How were you selected for the position of Underwood’s research assistant, and what did you do for Underwood?

HK: Underwood and Weitzmann knew each other from Underwood’s time as a student at Princeton. When Underwood needed help during the publication process for the Kariye Camii project, he got in touch with Weitzmann, who recommended Kessler as a research assistant for him. Kessler did not remember if he even applied for the position. He expressed that things were done more informally and internally in those days, and that it was more about knowing people than about formal applications.

CB: Did this research experience lead you to apply for a Junior Fellowship for the following year (1964-1965)?

HK: Having studied with Weitzmann, Kessler was already familiar with Dumbarton Oaks. It was an unspoken understanding that any Weitzmann graduate student would spend some time at Dumbarton Oaks. He thought that Weitzmann and another professor, possibly Krautheimer, could each place one student per year in a Junior Fellowship. He expressed that similar to the research assistant position with Underwood, he never formally applied for the fellowship.

CB: What are your recollections of Paul Underwood?

HK: Kessler’s recollections of Underwood were all positive. He called him “gentle,” “interesting,” intelligent, and knowledgeable. He thought very highly of Underwood.

In the summer of 1963, Kessler helped Underwood to finish the publication on Kariye Camii. Underwood assigned Kessler to handle the photography and development of images for the publication because he discovered that Kessler had experience with photography. Kessler did hands-on work in the darkroom to make prints for the publication from the black-and-white negatives. When Underwood realized that there were gaps in the photographic record at Kariye Camii—about 12 or fewer views and details were missing—he sent Kessler to Istanbul in 1964 to have those gaps filled. Kessler supervised the photographic documentation of fresco details in the Parekklesion.

CB: Were you responsible for photographing also other details?

HK: Kessler was not responsible for photographing the fresco details. Instead, he informed the photographer what details were missing.

CB: What do you remember of other people involved in the Kariye Camii project, such as Ernest Hawkins?

HK: When Kessler arrived for the first time in Turkey in 1964, he was warmly welcomed by Ernest Hawkins, who showed him around the city. Hawkins gave him a tour of all of the monuments being restored by Dumbarton Oaks in Istanbul, such as the Pantokrator [Zeyrek Camii] and Hagia Sophia. Kessler managed what needed to be photographed in Kariye Camii and stayed only for a few weeks.

Kessler described Hawkins as an eccentric man but thought very highly of him. He particularly appreciated Hawkins’ hospitality. He expressed that Hawkins had interesting gossip and that he would open rooms that were normally closed in Hagia Sophia for certain visitors.

Kessler told an anecdote that Hawkins joked about how he hit the revetment with a board, and if he told Robert Van Nice, Van Nice would have to measure and draw this section of the wall to include the resulting crack, delaying him even longer in finishing his study of the building. Even then there was an understanding of the Hagia Sophia project being a lifetime project for Van Nice.

CB: What do you remember about Robert Van Nice?

HK: Kessler’s recollections about Robert Van Nice were all very positive. Kessler thought well of him and described him as a nice, meticulous individual. Kessler regularly ate lunch with Van Nice while at Dumbarton Oaks. Kessler expressed that Van Nice recorded “every detail” of the Hagia Sophia, “even the new ones”, and stringing out the project. He recalled that Van Nice’s office was in the basement where he and his assistants drew all of the beautiful drawings of the building, which were later published.

CB: Who took the photographs of the Kariye Camii in 1964?

HK: Kessler did not know his name, but that it was a local (probably Turkish) professional photographer. For this campaign, they used black-and-white Ektachrome film.

CB: Over the course of our research, we learned that you were consulted regarding Cyril Mango’s fieldwork projects. Which projects were you consulted for, and when were you involved? What was your role?

HK: Kessler was never involved in any projects with Mango and did not have any knowledge of Mango or the Cyprus projects.

CB: Did you participate in any other fieldwork projects? Were they Dumbarton Oaks-affiliated? If so, what was your role?

HK: Kessler only participated in other fieldwork projects indirectly when he went to Kariye Camii after working as Underwood’s research assistant. He was also involved in Kitzinger’s Norman Mosaics project.

CB: When asked in your 2013 DOA oral history interview to name “the greatest accomplishments of the Byzantine Studies Program [...] over your time at Dumbarton Oaks,” you indicated “first of all, excavation and restoration.” What do you see as the impact of Dumbarton Oaks’ turn away from fieldwork projects? Why do you think this change occurred?

HK: Kessler stated that Dumbarton Oaks turned away from fieldwork projects for obvious reasons, citing Dumbarton Oaks’ fraught relations with Turkey, especially over the Silver Treasure. He thought that the Silver Treasure acquisition was the “critical moment” for Dumbarton Oaks. Even prior to the Silver Treasure, it was clear that Turkey was no longer hospitable, and things were different than they had been in the 1940s. This only escalated with the Silver Treasure acquisition, and from then on Turkey did not approve any more Harvard projects. He said that the first impact of this deterioration of relations was on the Sardis excavations led by Harvard. The general claim, he said, is that Dumbarton Oaks’ acquisition of the Silver Treasure is illegal since it was discovered during an illegal excavation. Giles Constable actually tried to organize a return of the Silver Treasure to Turkey, and Kessler thought that there must be a record of this somewhere. According to Kessler, Constable proposed to have the entirety of the treasure professionally examined, studied, photographed, restored, and then returned, but that this never went through, although it was a very progressive move.

Kessler also mentioned that financial issues at Dumbarton Oaks and a lack of publication following expensive fieldwork efforts were also contributing factors to Dumbarton Oaks’ transition away from fieldwork. In 1986, when Kessler was on the Board of Scholars, the Kalenderhane Camii project was still in progress in Istanbul. There was a budget squeeze during this period and pressure to publish the outcomes of many projects that had not yet been published. In general during Constable’s directorship, the idea was to finish and to publish all of the long-term projects for which so much money had been given. Ernst Kitzinger was such a case, but also Otto Demus, whom Kessler helped to publish the San Marco material.

CB: Oversight of the Photographic Collection changed hands many times throughout the years. Who was in charge during your earliest days at Dumbarton Oaks (1963-1965)?

HK: Kessler remembered the Photographic Collection as a “small operation” run by Georgine Reed, located in the basement near the coins storage. He said that Reed was aided by Geula Pariser. Pariser’s sister-in-law, Ursula Pariser was head of photography. Kessler said that Ursula was predecessor to Joe Mills and that he may know more about her. Kessler also recalled Fanny Bonajuto, who was a full-time assistant to Ernst Kitzinger and was paid by Dumbarton Oaks to go to Italy and take photographs to bring back to the archive. The coins, on the other hand, were photographed by Alfred Bellinger. So there were two separate branches: (1) The Photograph Archive and (2) the collection of photos produced for Dumbarton Oaks’ purposes (of the coins, seals, etc.). The archive branch and the production branch were connected, but were separate entities.

CB: How did the Board of Advisors to the Photograph Collection come about? Was there a perceived need for greater oversight of the collection by scholars? By the administrators of the Byzantine Studies Program?

HK: When Kessler became part of the Board of Advisors to the Photograph Collection, he was the only member of the Board of Advisors to the Photograph Collection. Constable appointed him because he felt it needed oversight.

This was in 1980, when Kessler returned to Dumbarton Oaks as a member of the Board of Scholars. Financial concerns were a major issue at Dumbarton Oaks, so Giles Constable was occupied with the budget and possibly the Porter Commission and was interested in saving money.

CB: How did you become affiliated with the Photograph Collection? What was your role and what was the role of the Board of Advisors?

HK: Kessler first got involved with the Photograph Collection while he was working with Otto Demus on publishing the San Marco material starting in 1980. Kessler worked with the photographs of San Marco in the archive, which were the result of Demus’ and Irina Andreescu’s project, a photographic campaign with the goal of documenting the mosaics in the northern Adriatic area. Kessler also made it possible through his connections with Chicago University Press to publish the 4 volume monograph on the mosaics of San Marco, while Giles Constable had refused to do this, since the publishing house they were using back then, J. J. Augustin, had given an estimate of approximately $250,000.

Charlotte Kroll Burk was in charge of the Photograph Collection and was aided by Claudia Vess. Since Kessler was working with the San Marco photographs and had an insight, Giles Constable asked him to take an intermediary volunteer role between Constable and the Photograph Collection. Constable thought that the collection was not run efficiently. Kessler’s role was intermediary but also as an advisor to establish processes that would help the structure of the collection and its accessibility.

Burk was interested in historical preservation, specifically architectural. However, she resigned to accept a position elsewhere. Her assistant, Claudia Vess, was not seen as a suitable replacement. Vess was an artist and left Dumbarton Oaks as well. Kessler was asked by Thomson to act as the chair of a search for a new curator of the Photograph Collection. Natalia Teteriatnikov was chosen and the understanding was that Kessler and Teteriatnikov would work together to establish the new workflow for the archive. However in 1985, Teteriatnikov convinced the new director, Robert Thomson, that she did not need Kessler as a scholarly advisor. According to Kessler, he was removed from his position as the intermediary between the Director’s Office and the Photograph Collection, but that this was fine with him as he had held this position on a volunteer basis anyway.

CB: I believe that, originally, the Library was in charge of the archival materials and that the Photograph Collection was a separate entity. In your interview with DOA, you indicated that you also worked with archival materials. Did you advise both collections, even though they were physically separate? Did the two really function separately, or was there significant overlap?

HK: Kessler stated that this was rather murky and complicated. They did seem to function separately—especially under Georgine Reed—but, under Teteriatnikov, the two had merged (the documents and the photographs). Again, he spoke to the inefficiency of the system. In the 1980s, the two collections were physically located in the same place. Kessler recalled that, during Teteriatnikov’s term, the Index of Christian Art was placed together with the document and photograph collections.

CB: Do you remember any notable collections that were acquired during your time on the Board?

HK: Kessler did not remember any notable collections acquired during his time on the Board, other than the Kurt Weitzmann Collection. Kurt Weitzmann had started to transfer copies of his photographs in the early 60s.

CB: The Byzantine Institute dissolved in 1962—the year before you came to Dumbarton Oaks. Having been involved in the Kariye Camii project when the Institute was still in existence, what were your impressions of this transition period? Of the transfer of Byzantine Institute-run project administration to Dumbarton Oaks?

HK: The transition had already occurred when Kessler came to Dumbarton Oaks, so he did not feel he was really in a position to answer this, but mentioned that he heard stories from Underwood, and also mentioned Thomas Whittemore.

CB: You indicated that you “instituted a policy of openness” when it came to the Photograph Collection. Can you speak to this? (That is to say, can you describe the existing restrictions on access and how you changed them?)

HK: Kessler noted that Dumbarton Oaks has become more restrictive in some ways, citing the use of ID cards as an example. But the restrictions to which he referred were about access to photograph materials. It was left to the scholar who acted as the project head or director to determine who could access the materials and make copies. It was very arbitrary, and Kessler felt this was unacceptable. During his time as a Senior Fellow, the issue of Monreale came up. In the late 1970s and early 80s, the scholars themselves controlled the access to the photographic material that they wanted to publish. The person that had taken the photograph had exclusive rights. So, for example, Ernst Kitzinger had denied access to the Monreale photographs for Eve Borsook. According to Kessler, he was informed that Kitzinger considered her an average scholar; on the other hand, Borsook expressed gratitude towards him in her book.

CB: You mentioned in your DOA oral history that one of the reasons you felt Dumbarton Oaks would be “conducive” to completing your dissertation during your time as a Junior Fellow (1964-65) was “[t]he library, primarily, which was as rich as any resource which I had access to.” Was the Photograph Collection widely used by scholars at Dumbarton Oaks at that time?

HK: Kessler confirmed that they were widely used, since Dumbarton Oaks had the best library and best photo archive in the States.

CB: You also spoke of rescuing the then-deteriorating archival materials by rehousing and storing them in an “archivally-sound” fashion. Can you give examples of the changes that were made?  Which collections needed to be re-housed?

HK: First, he named Martin Harrison, who had all of the Cyprus material in London and refused to give it to researchers at Dumbarton Oaks. Harrison did not respond to Robert Ousterhout’s repeated requests for the material, and so Ousterhout had to travel to London, sit on his doorstep, and confront Harrison in order to procure the materials.

The materials were in pretty bad shape for two reasons. The buildings in Istanbul themselves were in bad shape, and storage conditions were inadequate. The fragility of the film medium itself was probably responsible for poor state of the materials. Kessler remarked that he “rescued” the Pantokrator [Zeyrek Camii] negatives and then printed from them.

A lot of the Byzantine Institute material was also in bad shape, so Kessler worked together with Charlotte Kroll Burk to find a solution to preserve those photographs. Cold storage would extend the photographs’ lives, but every time they would be taken out, the deterioration would have been accelerated. Furthermore, Ektachrome was the favored emulsion of the time and it proved to be especially fragile. Other material that was also affected was the North Adriatic material. This is one reason why they decided to reproduce the color photographs of San Marco as microfiche and make them available to researchers; this was the method and technology of the time for preservation.

CB: When scholars left, they would sometimes leave behind their papers and fieldwork documentation. You and Jeff Schlosberg went from office to office in search of these materials. Do you remember any notable finds?

HK: Kessler explained that because people would either just take the materials with them or neglect them, they used the summer, when some desks were empty, to go and look underneath them and they found lots of things that shouldn’t have been there. Kessler refers to a short-term employee called Sherman, the son of Claire and Stan Sherman, who was hired by Giles Constable to go into each office. Sherman “excavated boxes,” uncovering stained glass, notes, shards, and photos. These finds—“treasures”—were all Dumbarton Oaks material but were in various states of repair and were, as to be expected, not well organized. Charlotte Kroll Burk was the one who first instituted archival policies.

CB: What was the workflow or process like? How did you first decide to look for archival materials in departed scholars’ offices?

HK: Kessler did not know how the workflow was determined. Giles Constable instructed Sherman to enter the Fellows’ offices during the summer and conduct a search. Kessler mentioned that Ernst Kitzinger was publishing on Palermo, and could not find a professional architectural rendering of the mosaics that Dumbarton Oaks had paid for, and that this may have been a factor relating to the impetus for the office search. It led to discoveries of boxes under desks and on shelves full of research material.

CB: Did you notify the scholars to offer them their materials, or did these finds go straight into the Photograph and archival collections?

HK: Kessler could not speak to this, not having done any of the searching himself.

CB: According to Jeff Schlosberg, Giles Constable was instrumental in having the fieldwork archives inventoried. How involved was he in the restructuring of the archival materials and the Photograph Collection? 

HK: The Photograph Collection was already established and it was separate from the archive.

CB: What can you tell us about the Kurt Weitzmann Archive? Natalia Teteriatnikov had mentioned that it was acquired during her time with the Photograph Collection and that you were a proponent of this project. 

HK: Kurt Weitzmann feared that Princeton was turning away from Byzantine Studies. This was puzzling to Kessler, but Weitzmann wanted Dumbarton Oaks to house some of the Byzantine photographs because he feared that Princeton would lose interest in Byzantine studies and then his archive would be discarded or not used. Giles Constable and Kessler went to Princeton, asking if Dumbarton Oaks could buy the Weitzmann Archive. Constable negotiated with a Princeton representative, John Shearman, but he refused, saying that Princeton did not sell property to Harvard and did not want Princeton material to end up in a Harvard institution. This was ironic because Shearman eventually became a chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at Harvard, and Constable eventually became a professor at Princeton. So together with Weitzmann, Kessler and Constable found some negatives of images that Weitzmann had taken during his own trips to Athos and Sinai before joining Princeton, thus making this material not Princeton property. The negatives were of manuscripts. So Dumbarton Oaks, instead of taking the negatives, only made prints from them and gave the originals back to Princeton.

CB: How did you approach Princeton about acquiring copies of the materials? 

HK: Kessler explained that these were Kurt Weitzmann’s personal materials, as they were negatives he himself had made, and thus Dumbarton Oaks could make prints from these negatives. The negatives were eventually returned to Weitzmann.

Kessler went on to say that this turn of events exposed the inefficiency of the Photograph Collection and the “nexus of problems” associated with it.

CB: You mentioned in your DOA interview that Otto Demus’ work on the San Marco mosaics was “essential to [your own] work.” Were you involved in the San Marco project in any way?

HK: Kessler was aware of the San Marco issue because of his friendship with Demus. He again reiterated how he helped Demus’ book on San Marco to get it published by setting up the negotiations. Overall, Dumbarton Oaks couldn’t afford it—Giles Constable told Demus that it would cost nearly $250,000—so Kessler got the University of Chicago Press to publish it at a lower cost. Kessler had talked about this in detail in his Dumbarton Oaks Archives interview.

CB: Did you have an agreement with Otto Demus regarding your use of the materials—since he had not yet published them?

HK: Kessler had an agreement both with Otto Demus and with Dumbarton Oaks.

CB: Do you know how the San Marco collection ended up with ICFA?  Do you remember the terms of the agreement (copyright, etc.)?

HK: Kessler did not have any specific recollections. He was even surprised at one point when he tried to request the material that they told him that it was in the National Gallery of Art (NGA). Kessler asked Ballotta and Gargova whether they knew why it was there, saying that this was a mystery to him. They answered that there was an understanding from the beginning that the black-and-white material would go to NGA.

CB: Did Ekkehard Ritter take all the photographs for the North Adriatic project?

HK: Kessler knew the name but had never met him and could not speak to this.

CB: Were you involved in the 1978 Symposium (“Venetian Mosaics and Byzantine Sources”)? Do you know if Irina Andreescu played a role in this symposium?

HK: Kessler could not remember that there was a symposium on Venetian mosaics in the late 1970s. He remembered another symposium, on Art in Norman Sicily, around the same time [1981], but does not have any recollection of being involved in a San Marco symposium. He repeated that he must have been at that symposium, but he did not remember it.

CB: Thinking back to the issue of “openness” for a moment, what do you see as the future of archives and image collections—both at Dumbarton Oaks and in general—in the Internet Age? 

HK: Kessler thought that this was a very interesting question. He said that the future of archives and image collections are institutions that restrict the access to materials and that this situation will not be sustainable, since the Internet has given the possibility of increased access. Even in the past, he said, restrictions did not work. He took as an example Ernst Kitzinger’s restrictions to his Monreale material. Kessler had been in Rome in 1984 during his time on the Board of Senior Fellows. He told the story that a scholar in Rome who had once shown him around 300 images that were stamped at the back with “Property of Dumbarton Oaks.” When Kessler asked him how he got those, the scholar said that they were selling them for 100 lira each in Palermo at the market. How they ended up there in the first place is still unclear. His point was that excessive restriction pushed scholars to take materials without returning them to Dumbarton Oaks. 

Kessler also expressed that Dumbarton Oaks is the exception, or almost the exception, in an age when institutions ask for reproduction and publication fees, in that the Archives (at least) provide researchers with non-copyrighted materials free of charge or at a minimal cost. Prices have become astronomical at other repositories. This is unacceptable for modern scholarship, in Kessler’s view. He added that access cannot be restricted in the Internet Age. It just isn’t practical.

CB: Do you think it is permissible for institutions to share unpublished materials with researchers?

HK: He thought that scholars should be given a head start that is “reasonable” (as the field defines “reasonable” in any given moment)—5 years was a “reasonable” window, in his mind. But, thereafter, you can’t restrict access. Things are public, thanks to the Internet.

When he was part of the Board in the 1980s, he fought for people having to make the images available after a certain point.

CB: Do you think that the capability to share digital content with users does more to increase accessibility, or do you think it prevents them from handling the material objects themselves?

HK: Kessler was excited by this question. He was actually going to give a talk in November in Stanford on this topic. He said that still images were almost created to be used in stylistic and iconographic analysis, which was done using this medium from the mid-19th century on. And this way of inquiry works, but more contemporary questions surrounding social aspects, questions of use, etc. cannot be translated through a still image and thus the handling of the original, e.g. manuscript, is necessary. Archives and digital platforms need to upgrade in the future—to change with the times in order to represent better materiality. He mentioned specifically creating page-turning functions in manuscripts, more realistic viewing functions for sculptures and even still photographs.

CB: Do you have anything that you would like to add?

HK: Kessler expressed that Dumbarton Oaks has an exceptional and important collection. When he was in Rome, he looked for images of Grottaferrata in the local archives and found that there were none, where before he was sure that they existed. Dumbarton Oaks had bought copies of those photographs, which show the church during restoration. So now Dumbarton Oaks has the only copies of these photographs.