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Inge Gaberman

Oral History Interview with Inge Gaberman, undertaken by Anna Bonnell-Freiden and Clem Wood at the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House (Fellows Building) on August 26, 2008. Inge Gaberman was a docent at Dumbarton Oaks from the inception of the program in 1982 until 2000. She also volunteered in the Byzantine Fieldwork and Photograph Archives (1988–2000).

ABF: We are Anna Bonnel-Freiden and Clem Wood, and today is August 26th, 2008, and we have the pleasure of interviewing Inge Gaberman in the Fellows Building at Dumbarton Oaks about her relationship with the institution over the years. So, can you describe how you first came to Dumbarton Oaks?

IG: Well, an ad in the Washington Post said that Dumbarton Oaks is starting a docent program, and if anybody is interested, you call up – and it gave you a telephone number. And the contact was Cynthia Pinkston, because she was our mother hen. She asked me to come here, and she interviewed me as to my background and how I behaved and things like that. And then they had a group of people that they called in to start in the program, and I was one of them. The only one that I know that is around anymore is [Laurie Tauten]??, as I told you. Milton Shurr, unfortunately, has Alzheimer’s, but he would be an excellent storyteller. Anyhow, that was the first group to start out, and Gail [Eviton]??. I don’t know how they put this training program through, but we had to be trained – was it five days a week or three days a week? – for almost a year in the purpose and the history of Dumbarton Oaks as a research center and Dumbarton Oaks as a historic building. We had an architect to tell us about the history, the architectural history of Dumbarton Oaks. So for every area of interest there was a specialist, and most of the time it was one of the scholars here at Dumbarton Oaks. And, as I said, we had to keep up with it; and we got reading material and so forth. And the aim was that we gathered the material, and when the training period was over, we had to pass the test. And the test was to put together a tour of the areas of the house that would be open – that was the collections and the Music Room and the garden library and the gardens, because Don Smith showed us the botanical aspects of the garden. And – who was it? Whoever was in charge of the garden history, the program for garden history, she taught us – she instructed us in the history of garden design and how Dumbarton Oaks fit into the history of it and about the design of the garden and so forth. So, that was all, we were gathering material, and from the material, we had to pluck what we could put or tell a guest what they would be seeing. And it all should fit into an hour and a half, which I think is a good time to have a tour with, otherwise it gets too strenuous. And then we had to do a lot and a lot of reading, and, because we were also – should be able to answer questions of the guests that were coming, yeah – and you never knew what they were going to ask you. So anyone should try to pile up as much as you could, and then you put together a tour and usually – I had been a docent before, but not in a large and important place like that. So, I kind of knew what was involved, and I had also done some teaching in my young days. So, this whole area was not totally unfamiliar; but this was very, very demanding. And then we had this – then we were assigned a day for the examination. There were usually three people there: two scholars that were, had been instructing us and one other docent. So, they were the “public,” and we should guide them through the house and the garden, and then, in the end, they would be writing down comments. And after this was over, just like in an exam we had to wait for a while. You were passed or you did not pass. Well, miraculously I passed, so then we started out, and we were assigned, as I said, into groups of three for the days that we opened for tours – and that was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. For some reason or another, there wasn’t one on Friday, but there was one on Saturday, but that was only in the morning. They opened the collections just for the tours; and in the afternoon, we were supposed to be doing our reading and studying, and there were no tours in the afternoon. So that’s how we did it; and we were very, very busy, so they decided to open, to have another group of docent – what should you call them – trainees come in, and this – but we did not teach the docents. Whatever they would think was either from the literature that we had to read or one of the – actually, we could ask questions and things like that. So, this is how it was passed along. And, well, how does it – Cynthia Pinkston was the docent coordinator, and she was in charge of setting up the tours. They would call her, and she would put them on the calendar. And we would get the calendar, and then we would find out who was coming and how many were coming, and so forth and so on. So we knew, we had to be here. Let’s see, when did we start? I think at ten o’clock we started. No, it couldn’t be – perhaps it was ten-thirty because there was a limit. We had to be out of the garden when the Fellows and the scholars would be coming in and have their lunch hour. Maybe they wanted to swim and things, and we had to be out. That is very reasonable because they didn’t want to have people to come around to gawk, and so forth. So that was – we were kind of limited in time that way, and that was very important. So, this is why I had a watch like that you could turn to. “Oh my god, it’s almost twelve o’clock. I got to be gone.” This was important, you know, you could not – well, as I said, you were a clock watch. But it was lots of fun. It was strenuous and demanding, but it was – I found it very, very much fun, and I learned a lot being a docent because I was a medievalist. I was an art history major, a long, long time ago, but I had never had any classes or anything in pre-Columbian art, so that was – well, you knew a couple of things but never any formal classes. I had background, but not very varied in Byzantine art, which was taught in my days by an exchange professor from the University of Chicago who had – because I went to the University of Frankfurt, they had an exchange program – and they had – one of the exchange professors was Georg Von Simson, and he had been a scholar here, a Fellow here at Dumbarton Oaks, so long, long before I came here. I had heard about him, and he brought us some instruction in Byzantine art. So, that’s what I came here with, and then I got much, much farther. So there, what else?

CW: Are there any particular memorable groups that you gave tours to or people?

IG: Let’s see, what did I have that I remember? There were so many. Sometimes, one of the most interesting groups were school children, to me at least, because there was such a variety of them. You never knew what you were getting. Some of them came here very well prepared – and some were terribly well prepared – and they almost knew more than you did. I don’t know it was quite, quite amazing. And I’m not talking about high school students. They were usually from some very well-respected private school, but they were amazing. I don’t know – people – I don’t know. I cannot really remember anything that stands out. One of the great problems that we always had in the gardens was to keep the people together because you know how spread out it is, and we were always afraid that somebody was going to get completely lost. It has happened a number of times. So, then you have the problem of accessibility in the gardens because we always had to warn people about the steps and we always, you know – it’s just a physical way of getting around and sometimes people just didn’t listen. And they wanted to be off. And we were going looking for a lost tour person[laughs]. In my days, I never had a major disaster [laughs]. Well, it’s possible. One of the main things we always had to remind them of – of the terrain, of the many steps, and that there were no handrails. Because if you have some difficulty managing steps and there is no handrail, this becomes very, very dangerous – well, not dangerous, but notable. Let’s see, what else do you want to know?

ABF: Were there similar docent programs at other Harvard museums, or was there a model for this docent program?

IG: I wouldn’t really know. I cannot tell you because I don’t know how the program was put together. I only know that Cynthia had been trained in docenting at the National Museum of American Art. And there was somebody there who believed in having docents and so forth, and she was one of his pupils. So, I don’t know how Gary Vikan and Cynthia got together. But I’m only telling you that, from what I know, is that she came up with proposals because of her background. I don’t know where else she was doing this kind of thing. Gary Vikan and she got together, and they put out this teaching program for us and so forth. And then what was very, very important was that the Director in those days was Giles Constable, and he was very, very much interested in it – in having a docent program. That was the time in the beginning of the ‘80s, and we should open up and bring some people – to a wider public, and he was very, very much interested in that. When Cynthia had gathered her little flock together, we were invited to tea with Giles Constable and his wife. We felt terribly honored because we were an intrusion to the resident scholars. They were not terribly delighted to have these ladies for lunch and school children trotting around and disturbing their quiet [laughs]. And if I think back, that’s the impression I took with me, that Giles Constable was one of the people who really approved of it, was really interested in it. So, that’s what I remember.

ABF: What you’re saying actually brings up an interesting point, which is that because Dumbarton Oaks is primarily a research institution, it seems that there has been a resistance to having certain types of outreach programs, because it is sort of an inwardly focused –

IG: Yeah. It was always open. As I said, I learned about it in Frankfurt, long before I came to the States. And it was one of the first, one of the only places I knew something about. There were always people who knew here, and they knew about the precious things that were here to see. But it is very, very specialized, if you look at it that way. Naturally, if you are Greek Orthodox, you would know about it. Garden people would know about it. If you are a pre-Columbian connoisseur or interested in it, they would know about it, but I think the general public didn’t know what it was. Most of the time they thought it was one of those mansions that are up there in Georgetown. One other thing, they knew about the gardens. And one question we got always was, “Do you book weddings?” We always got this question, especially in the spring when everything was blooming [laughs]. They wanted to know can I get married here. And I said, “I don’t know. Perhaps if you made a suitable donation, perhaps there might be –” No. OK. What else do you want to know?

ABF: Well, just going back to this point about creating an outreach program. Did you feel, at the time, that there was an ethos that Dumbarton Oaks was opening up by creating a docent program?

IG: Yes, yes, yes. As I told you, when I saw this, I had been a docent at the historic house in Fairfax County called Sully, which was kind of around 1800, former farm or plantation (we were not supposed to say plantation). So, anyhow, people were used to that, to having these mansions, or even – Sully was not quite a mansion, but it was a good two hundred year-old farmhouse. It had the farm all around it, and so forth and so on. So I think this is what people expected, and I don’t even know. It all depends on what your public is. If you talk to Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones, she might not – they would be terribly surprised and sometimes they were kind of awed, especially when they came into the Music Room, of what they saw. Now if they were Greeks, they felt at home, or if they were – Oh, and yes, I completely forgot, one thing we got very, very often – especially if they were people from abroad – they all knew the connection to the founding of the United Nations. They always used to say, “Oh can we see the place where the United Nations was founded,” because they seemed to know it. Yes, that’s what I remember. There was a gentleman from the Ukraine – you know, the Soviet Union was still in existence in those days – and I think, I hope, he wanted to see where the Ukraine was first recognized as a state by itself, an independent state. So, you see, this is what you – things you were not expecting; but more people who came from abroad knew about that than Americans. So anyhow, that was one thing. Let’s see, what else, what else did you want?

CW: You were talking about, back in your daily routine – before the interview you were talking about lunch. Did you have lunch in this building with the other staff or with docents?

IG: We could, we could if we wanted to. We had to make reservations and get the little tickets. And we could have lunch on the day we were assigned to be here. We could also go swimming on the day we were assigned here. But the problem was we had our tours in the morning and, as I said, we had to get out of the garden before the scholars would be coming because they might want to go swimming and we wouldn’t want – So this was the thing. Yes.

ABF: But you were allowed to stay on after you had finished the tour?

IG: In the beginning, we were encouraged to stay in the afternoon, and very strongly encouraged because we had to do a lot of reading and get the material together, but we only gave tours in the first – in the beginning – let’s put it that way. And then, I think it was some time in the ‘90s, we were asked to stay in the afternoon not for an organized tour but to give information if somebody asked a question, and so forth; but we would just have to be – That’s what they do now; I saw David Keil the other day. But in the beginning, we were in the library, you know. We were in – what was it called in those days? Well anyhow, we did study in the afternoon. And it was necessary, and it was very enjoyable. I was in seventh heaven; it was this marvelous library – hoo! [laughs]. So anyhow, that’s how it worked. And yes, there was always the possibility that there was some very special group that wanted to come here, and they were then accommodated, for this or that – somebody from an embassy or things like that. I had one tour I remember that came here with the Secret Service; they had these things in their ears. I don’t know who it was, who came. But, anyhow, that was always a possibility, or someone would get in touch with the office, and they wanted to know if they would have somebody available to explain it. That would happen often times, there was a private, special tour; but private, special tours were often given by the scholars. For instance, I remember one tour I gave for the wife of the chief of staff of the Austrian Army. What else do you got here? I don’t know anything about what was going on in Harvard. I only know – what I know is that they had docent programs at the National Gallery always. At the National Museum of American Art, there was – Taylor was his name. He had developed this special way of explaining art or telling people about how to look at art. I think Cynthia was one of his pupils, so that I can tell you. I don’t know if that was the only model – that’s what I know. It’s possible that Gary Vikan came here, but Gary Vikan had all these marvelous ideas. We were just totally in awe with him because of the way he taught, I would say, “Gee, I wish I had him as a teacher when I started out.” Then he left for The Walters, and we felt as if we had lost – the experience, so terrible it was. That was at the time when they got the Saint Peter icon, and very shortly after that he, unfortunately for us, went to Baltimore. So, anyhow, I cannot help you. Now, we did not do any – we might tell them what to work on, but we did not do any teaching – that had to come from the authorities. Let’s see –

ABF: How well did you get to know Gary Vikan?

IG: Well, he was here when we came here. I think we started out in ’82, but I think we started giving tours in ’83, so we had that training period. He left, what was it? Very shortly after – not very long – must be ’84 or something like that. Yeah, that is – You have a question here about public admission policies.

CW: Right.

IG: As you know, there was no entry payment, but for the scheduled tours that you had in the morning hours there was a fee. And I don’t know exactly how much it was, but there was a fee. And I remember that Giles emphasized this to me – that I go in there, and they were going to charge for – they called them special tours, because everyone in Washington in those days was used to going to most of the museums without paying anything. But then we emphasized that this was very special, without the general public and so forth. So that was, I think, a very reasonable idea. But in the afternoon, as you know, just as it is today, you could put your $1 or $5 or I don’t know what in the little box when you came in. I don’t know what I would say to this question, “What role does the museum have in the institution after all?” I cannot really judge this, because especially in the Byzantine – well, I don’t know how much the Byzantinists were interested in pre-Columbian art and vice-versa. But for a while, and that was I would say in the ‘90s, they were trying to build bridges among the various programs. For instance, they had – what was his name? – the director of the garden history program. He was from Germany. They were looking into the gardens – the Byzantine gardens. They were looking into the gardens of the Aztecs – that the Aztecs had. Somehow or another, in this time, they got the idea that we want to look around and see what these other people are doing. And then, I don’t know, are you Byzantinists? Are you a Byzantinist?

CW: We’re Classicists. Latin and Greek.

IG: Hmm? Well, I was always told – and that’s true – they have two kinds of Byzantinists: picture people and book people. Picture people, they look at icons and carvings and book illustrations. And the others, they do text studies. So anyhow – yes, there must have been, but I cannot judge that. Later or from the beginning actually, we had the great privilege to attend the various symposia, and that was very, very interesting. You got the impression you were at the cutting edge of inquiry at these various fields. So, that was nice. That was very good.

CW: Did you always go to the symposia, or was that only in the first, only in beginning?

IG: No, no. At first, we were on the list. At first we were on the list. And if they had room – that was because they were always limited in the number of people that could get it – if there was room, we could apply. In a number of years, they had our names in the computers, so you got the impression – that was one of the great privileges you got for being a docent here. So let’s see, what else do they want to know? Yeah, when they say, “When you first started here, was there a feeling that –” Absolutely, that the program signified a break with the tradition.

CW: Did the directors after Constable that you worked under keep it basically the same?

IG: Yeah, they kept it on, and some – there were some slight alterations, as I told you with the afternoon going into – informally going into the collection. I cannot put my finger on when it started, but in the last, at least in the ‘90s it was certainly the case. Let’s see, what else do they want to know? And it was, as I said, it was – They were kind of hesitant. I don’t know what the scholarly community thought about us. Yeah. What else? Oh, you want to know, how I got to work in the – with Natalia?

ABF: Yes, how did you begin to work in the Byzantine photo archives?

IG: Oh, yes. Remember there are two building programs as long as I have been here. One was when they went underground and built the lower area for the library and so forth and so on, and roofed over the open court and started the – what do they call it? It was – when I came here – the court was open to the air. There was a fountain there that was open to the air with a Roman mosaic in the middle, and they had nothing but trouble with it. So it was lifted out, and then the court was roofed over. There was some more exhibition space added to it. And, at that time – that was around 1988 – the museum was closed, obviously because they were building there, and they also tunneled under the Music Room. So this place was, you know, everything upside down. When you came here it was sometimes very noisy. So no inside tours, but the garden tours were kept on. And, in those days, they came in the morning and we got them through by the glass houses into the garden – which was not really a good way to look at the gardens because you came in, so to say, through the back door. So that was one thing. And Cynthia asked whether I would be willing to go and help out at the photo collection with Natalia Teteriatnikov. So that’s what I’ve done then, since 1988. I worked mostly with the slide collection. They had a large backlog in unidentified slides, so I had to do it. This is what I mostly did. I worked with the slides, and after awhile, I don’t know, I liked it. It was interesting because you really had to look and find out what they were having. So this is how I got to work in the slide collection. And then my husband’s health deteriorated, so I thought that I would take some of the excitement and the pressure off myself, and that’s why I got out of giving tours. If you sit quietly in your corner with a stack of books and a stack of slides, it’s a lot different than trying to keep a bunch of people from running in all directions or asking you awful questions, which you don’t – But keep them, though, and give them a good time. So this is how I – Yeah, you had a question about the various Directors “manage or change the docent program.”

ABF: Yeah, have the characters of the different directors and their agenda for the institution significantly altered the docent program?

IG: No. Not significantly. There are certainly certain small things. As I said this afternoon informal station, as we used to call it – they’d put you on stations. I cannot quite recall when we started that, but I’m sure it was done in the late ‘80s, ‘90s. And then we had the fiftieth anniversary of Dumbarton Oaks Conference. That was the biggest event, and I was a little part of it because we said that we would be around if somebody had any question to ask. That was a marvelous thing. They put a tent at the North Vista – the whole North Vista one day. You probably have the – And we could attend, well, would you call it a symposia? Program? I considered it a privilege. Let’s see –

ABF: So how did the museums change while you’ve been involved with Dumbarton Oaks?

IG: Well, as I said, I’ve only been through the first expansion, when they tunneled under the Music Room and they roofed over – they called it what? – I think they called it the courtyard. It brought about a rearrangement of the things that could be moved from one – It was, compared to what they have done now, it was minor, I think. There was a few – the whole stairs stayed in the middle. Oh yes, and instead of the pool that was in the center of the courtyard, one of the mosaics was put in the center of the courtyard, but the changes were really, really minor. And there were none in the pre-Columbian collection, and none in the Music Room. So, that’s why I was so startled, to say the least, about how the new collections are arranged. I think it’s stunning, but before that, it was, you had a little bit more room. They put – there used to be a hall that led from the front door to the collection, and there were various of these mosaics – were on the floor. But, then, there was a little room. One of the hunting mosaics could not be moved because it was too fragile. So they had a little room where they hung a lot of these textiles, the Egyptian textiles – yeah mostly Egyptian. But everything else, as I said – So what else is there? I cannot tell you how much the docent program has changed, I’m afraid, because I left docenting around 2000. That was when Chris came in, and I don’t know how much and what they do differently now, so you’ll have to talk to somebody who came with the latest group. Anything else?

CW: When were the new groups of docents trained? Because your first group was in ’82 or so, and then when were the next – weren’t there other groups that came?

IG: Yes, as long as Cynthia was the docent coordinator, there were three. There was us, then there was one that was very shortly after, about ’85 or something like that. Then we had another group, around ’90 – ’88, ’90 or so – because there’s always some attrition: people move, people have other problems. So, we were shorthanded, and you could not expand, you know, if we had our assigned days. You can only accommodate so many people because, specially then, it is a rather small place. It is hard to maneuver in it, so you have to be careful to make it work. So that’s why we had three more groups, but the training that they got was more or less like the way we were trained in the beginning. And the same way as us, we had to study, we had to be at the lectures of history, and we had some – did we have some trips? Did we go somewhere? I think we must have. I don’t remember. We did make some – but this did not have anything to do with the training program. So anything else?

ABF: That’s it. Thank you.

IG: Oh, you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure for me.

CW and ABF: It was a pleasure for us. Thank you.

IG: Let’s see, have we forgotten any –

ABF: No, we went through everything.

IG: Well, see. This is what a question is about public education programs: seminar, student group tours; but I considered some of these, some of these tours that we got from the schools and universities to be part of it. One I will never forget. This was very, very nice. There was a theological seminary from Richmond that came here, and they wanted to see – and it was fascinating. But, you see, this was part and parcel of the docent program. Let me see. Gary Vikan, he invited – when he got to Baltimore – we went there a couple of times, on trips, because I think he thought of us as his kind of his pupils.

CW: We interviewed him a few weeks ago. He was wonderful. He was great, very lively.

IG: He is a fabulous, fabulous teacher. He has a way of driving you towards things. I even went a couple of times to Baltimore when he had some program on. So I hoped I helped a little bit.

CW: Oh you did, thank you again.

IG: I don’t know what the general idea is here at Dumbarton Oaks, but I think it was a good idea to start the docent program.

ABF: Yes. I think it was necessary and good.