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Jerry Goldberg

Oral History Interview with Jerry Goldberg, undertaken by Alasdair Nicholson and Bailey Trela on July 15, 2014 in the Dumbarton Oaks Oval Room. At Dumbarton Oaks, Jerry Goldberg has served as a docent since 1990.

AN: Hello, my name is Alasdair Nicholson, I’m here with Bailey Trela from the Dumbarton Oaks Oral History project on July 15, 2014, and today we’re joined by Mr. Jerry Goldberg, a senior docent at Dumbarton Oaks. Thank you very much for joining us for this interview.

JG: You’re welcome.

BT: Just to start off, could you tell us a little bit about how you first came to hear about Dumbarton Oaks and first came to Dumbarton Oaks?

JG: I had been a volunteer with the Washington Opera, and for various reasons that wasn’t working out, and I was looking for another volunteer job since I’m retired. And I saw a tiny notice in the Washington Post saying they were looking for docents here, and since I don’t live that far away, I thought, “Wouldn’t that be nice? I could volunteer at my neighborhood museum.” At that time the volunteer coordinator was a woman named Cynthia Pinkston, and I contacted her, and we arranged an appointment here for a certain time and I came down. And I didn’t realize then that Cynthia Pinkston was notoriously late in any kind of appointment. So, I came in expecting her to be here, and I waited, and I waited, and I waited, and finally she showed up, and we toured the museum and we chatted and she said she would let me know. And obviously I got in. And it turned out that several people had done that, so in the fall of 1990 we started our training. What I didn’t know until later was that the reason she was looking for docents is that immediately prior to that the museum had been shut down for renovation. They had covered over the courtyard, which used to be open air, and done a lot of other subterranean construction. And so, the docents from the previous program had sort of wandered away, and actually very few of them came back, so she was looking for a group of docents.

BT: Well, that was something that definitely interested me, is what happened to that middle class of docents, because it doesn’t seem like anybody recalls a lot of names from that time period or –

JG: Well, one – I can’t even tell you what her name was, but she came back for a time, but she didn’t go through any retraining, and she soon disappeared. And the only holdover docents, and I think they were from the very first class, were Milton Stern and Inge Gaberman and Lois Houghton. And Milton has subsequently died, Inge’s around but doesn’t participate, and Lois is in from time to time.

BT: I think we actually have an interview with Inge on record, so she did this a couple of years ago.

AN: Obviously there was quite a period of transitioning between – with the second class coming in, and maybe the administration trying to see what worked and what hadn’t worked. So, do you think that they adapted the docent program – that they improved or tried to reevaluate it?

JG: Yeah, I don’t know. There was some friction between Cynthia and the staff, and so there was always the question about where the program stood. I don’t know if it changed very much, but it was an imposition I suppose onto the staff to train a class of docents, because it was very, very time consuming, including the director. Angeliki Laiou, spent several sessions with us in addition to the curators or directors of study. I don’t know if the structure changed, because I don’t know what it was before I came here, so I really don’t know.

AN: Although that is a good lead into what the docent training actually involved. I know that certainly for the first class of training was quite rigorous, and a lot was expected of the docents. Did you find it was similar to that?

JG: Yeah. We started in November, and we were required to be there two days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from ten in the morning until about two or so in the afternoon, or maybe later. We were supposed to bring our lunch, which I guess we did. And I hate bringing my own lunch. I didn’t want to make my own lunch. And so two days a week from November until, I would say April, at least six months as students – lectures, we were taking notes, various people came in. James Carder at that time was not on the staff, but he did come over and talk to us about architecture. As I say, Angeliki Laiou, the director, spoke to us – and lots of other members of the staff, and some non-members in addition to James.

BT: We had heard that as part of the training, or that docents in the past had written papers on certain topic for publishing or – was that part of your training?

JG: That – no. When Cynthia was here, during the initial phases, we never, that I remember, wrote anything. That’s something that Chris Blazina dreamed up, and only recently. She felt that while we were, sort of on summer break, we should be more gainfully employed. She would say, “Pick a subject, and write on it.” That isn’t more than three or four years – it’s something that she came up with.

BT: And have you written any papers for that?

JG: Oh yes. But I want to correct you on one thing. I don’t know about publishing, I hadn’t heard anything [laughing] –

BT: I imagine that’s something I just tacked on. Obviously as a docent you’re supposed to be a jack-of-all-trades with the three subjects we have here, but most docents have a special interest or they on their own time will kind of study one thing – and if you’ve written papers, have you chosen a specific – ?

JG: Well, the reason I came, one of the reasons that Dumbarton Oaks interested me was the pre-Columbian collection. I had for years been interested in pre-Columbian civilizations, and I visited many, if not all of the major sights. I knew nothing, nothing about Byzantine when I came. For me it was far too Christian, but I was very interested in pre-Columbian. And everything I’ve done has been relative to the pre-Columbian, I mean, as far as compositions.

AN: Was there a specific point where you became interested in the pre-Columbian field, or is this just a kind of general interest that’s maybe sharpened –

JG: Oh, I like history, and I like ancient civilizations, and I always thought that the sites, starting with the very common ones – Chichen Itza and so on – which are readily available, readily accessible, and I visited them, I don’t know how many years ago, and from there went to on to more complicated, more sophisticated. So, I was in both Mesoamerica and South America.

AN: I know from some of the work that I’ve been doing here that some scholars and Fellows at Dumbarton Oaks have spoken how there’s sort of a perceived divide in the pre-Columbian world between people who specialize more in Mayan and Central American and people who focus more on the Andes civilizations, and they would describe almost sitting in different camps when they went for lunch or dinner. Have you experienced this?

JG: No. [laughing] Well, first of all, I’m not a scholar, so my depth of knowledge isn’t so profound that it’s directed in one or the other, but I’ll make a comment about this sitting together business. Previously, lunch used to be in what was called the Fellows Building, and I think now they’re calling it the Guest Building, it’s halfway down – and the lunchroom I guess was somewhat smaller, and they had only very large tables, and so you sat wherever there was a space, which I liked much better, because we would be sitting next to Byzantinists and Pre-Columbians and Garden people, and there was a lot of exchange of ideas, and that was the intention of the thing. And then there was this small lounge where afterwards everybody would go in and have a demitasse and talk some more, and it was much more sociable. Well, then they shut that down. The building where we eat now was, I don’t know if you know this, was the Director’s house, and then when Ned Keenan came here that wasn’t grand enough for him, so they bought Elizabeth Taylor’s house and converted it, and that building where we now have lunch, was converted into the refectory with the conference room downstairs. And it has never been the congenial situation that the old refectory was. And you’re right. Now, it’s very isolated, and we, the docents, are always sitting by ourselves. And a couple of years ago there was a Pre-Columbian Fellow here, we were chatting, and he said to me, “You know, it’s too bad that we don’t all sit together, would you all be interested?” And I said, “I’d love it!” And so he said, “Well, I’m going to arrange it.” Well, that never happened. I didn’t feel it was my place to initiate it, since he had brought it up. He was sort of a senior Fellow – I mean, a senior in his field. So, nothing came of it. And it’s a rare thing now when the dining room is very crowded and somebody may, by accident, come over and say, “Can we join you?” [laughing] And we’re always delighted. I think it’s too bad, but there’s not that interchange, and I don’t think the Byzantinists sit with the Pre-Columbians at all, and even, I’ve noticed there’s this table in the corner where some of the staff from here sit by themselves. Doesn’t happen anymore.

AN: Some of that interplay is lost.

JG: Well, I think that was one of the basic purposes of the dining hall, was to get them to exchange ideas.

AN: I think there was even – in our information packets they said they offer a subsidized lunch to encourage discussion and communication. So, it’s a shame that seems to not be working.

JG: No, not to my knowledge it’s not.

BT: Well, what’s always interesting is the extent the docents are involved, or can be involved, with all that’s going on at D.O. For example, the symposia – do you ever attend?

JG: Oh yes.

BT: Frequently?

JG: Obviously nodding my head doesn’t come through. [laughing] But yes, initially we were told we could attend by paying a student membership, and then more recently they became more generous and, at least for Pre-Columbian symposia, we’re guests, we don’t have to pay, even for lunch. Landscape is slightly different, they seem to want us to volunteer to help in order to come – and I don’t know what Byzantium is doing right now. [laughing] So, there is change from time to time. But the answer to your question is yes, we attend the symposia, and the evening lectures.

BT: And you don’t have to lottery in, there’s no kind of –

JG: The only lottery, if you want to call it that, is when we get into those concerts. She has limited tickets, and she always says, first come first served, but as far as the symposia, as long as we make a reservation before it fills up, we’re welcome to come.

AN: A lot of people talk about symposia and concerts as some of the highlights of their time at Dumbarton Oaks. Do any of them stand out in particular to you, to this day?

JG: No, not really. [laughing] For any given symposium some of the talks are very beneficial and very interesting, and some of them are totally a waste of time. [laughing] So, it really just depends. And what’s discouraging, sometimes you’ll go and think the topic is going to be interesting, and then the speaker just simply reads it, which is pretty grueling.  So, it’s odds and ends, and sometimes a Byzantine symposium will be, as I like to say, discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – so very specialized. It’d be hard to pick an overall favorite.

BT: Going back to the training – so you would have arrived under Cynthia Pinkston. Could you tell us a little bit about her, your impressions of her, anecdotes you might have?

JG: Well, I just said that she was always late. [laughing] What I didn’t know until after she left was that she was not paid, she got an honorarium and I have no idea how much that was, and so I guess that we maybe expected more of her than we should have, since she had turned out to be a volunteer. But she was erratic. She had – one of my colleagues used to say that Cynthia had excuses, she would always say the dog ate the homework, because whatever it was she was supposed to show up with wasn’t there. And I know that there were some problems between her and the staff because she wouldn’t come through with certain things – I like Cynthia, I learned a lot from Cynthia, she did something that nobody else has done after her, because she gave tours that we could follow, she was very knowledgeable on the collections, so that’s really how I learned the procedure – I mean I’ve developed my own techniques and I use whatever information I think is interesting, but by following Cynthia through the collections and seeing where she presented and what she said about various objects, and I know some of my colleagues feel the same way, that that was very, very beneficial. And that doesn’t happen anymore.

AN: What do you think was the impetus to that change – was that merely Cynthia leaving and a different personality coming in?

JG: Well, Chris says that her contract says that she may not give tours. Now, I’ve not read her contract, so I don’t know, but that’s what she said, that she’s prohibited from giving tours, for whatever reason. You may not ask me this, but I’ll just tell you anyway. Cynthia left abruptly, and I don’t know, and I’m not sure that anybody knows exactly the reasons, but one day, there was no Cynthia, and so there was no docent coordinator, and Jeff Quilter who was then the Director of Pre-Columbian Studies called me and said, “Would you take the job?” And I said, “No, I’m not interested.” [laughing] I don’t want to commit to that. I had a big trip planned and I wasn’t – so he was discouraged, tried to talk me into it. And then shortly after that the assistant director Gay Mackintosh called me and said, “Well would you do it on a temporary basis until we find somebody, will you please do it,” and I said, “Okay.” You know, I liked her, and she was very supportive of the program. So, I agreed to do it, and you know, it was a pain. But, I’ll pat myself on the back, I kept the program running until they finally got somebody – well, initially they thought they could get another volunteer like Cynthia, and they advertised that, and of course nobody was interested. So, they realized they were going to have to pay somebody, and they re-advertised it with a salary, and I was asked to sit on the interviewing panel together with Gay Mackintosh and Jeff Quilter. The three of us were supposed to make the selection, and we interviewed two or three candidates, one of whom was Chris. And she had been recommended to come here by somebody who had spoken to the docents, I can’t remember, somebody from the GW program, and so Chris was chosen, and came in as docent coordinator. And at that time we had this awful office, she had this office underneath the old Fellows Building, in the basement there, with spiders and all kinds of stuff, and it was not convenient at all, so when they had this major renovation they established this really lovely, next to where we were always sitting downstairs, very nice docent lounge and docent office. And Chris is, you know, an entirely different type of coordinator than Cynthia was, very different style.

AN: Obviously that’s a big change, to go from somebody who’s essentially a volunteer to a fully paid employed professional, providing a new docent office, a new docent coordinator. Do you think that Dumbarton Oaks realized it had to approach the program more professionally?

JG: Yea, you know, I guess there’s – I don’t know for sure, but I get the feeling that members of the staff have different attitudes toward the docent program. Some see it as more central than others. We get those mixed signals all the time. I’m sure that people who are interested in having visitors come in and be satisfied are supportive of the program, and there are others who don’t care. We’ve had two subsequent classes since we started, one – I don’t know if there was a major event that precipitated a second class, I guess some of the people in our class dropped out. And then when they shut down here a few years ago, during that hiatus, Chris decided that we needed some more docents, and so the training started before the museum reopened. So, there have been two groups since I came in in 1990.

BT: Were you involved in the training there?

JG: No, no. But I participated. I went through each of those retraining.

BT: Really?

JG: We were more or less expected to. I mean, I had no objection to that. I don’t think it was as rigorous as our initial training was, two days a week, but it was worthwhile, because there were new curators, new Directors of Study, new information.

BT: Going back to the end of your initial training, I know Inge had spoken in her interview about this large test they had to take, which was basically a guided tour of the grounds, at the end of the program, and you either became a docent or not afterward. Was it the same for you?

JG: I was the guinea pig for our class. When Cynthia decided that we had maybe had enough training to be competent enough to give the tour – and she wanted a real group, she didn’t want it to be fake. So, we had a tour, and she asked me if would be willing to be the first one, and I said, “Why not?” So I gave the tour, and I had the then Director of Landscape Studies, John Dixon Hunt, and Stephen Zwirn from Byzantine, and I guess they couldn’t find anybody else, so they asked the man who was superintendent of the gardens, to follow through, and he was flattered, he said nobody ever asked him to do that. Nice man, I can’t remember his name. And so I gave the tour and we went through and then afterward we came back and sat in the study, and they told me what I did wrong, it was actually a checklist, and I got grades. I passed. And then Cynthia thought we should have champagne, to celebrate a successful docent. So, that was, I would say, maybe April or May of 1991.

AN: Have you found there’s a typical person who goes on the docent tours at Dumbarton Oaks, or just a wide variety of visitors to the museum?

JG: You mean who reserves tours?

AN: Mhm, yes.

JG: You understand how the tour program works? How the docent program works?

AN: Yes.

JG: The tours are only in the morning by reservation, is that what you’re talking about?

AN: Yes, do you find there’s mainly visiting scholars or are in those or just interested amateurs or –

JG: I would say they’re never scholars. If a scholar comes here he’ll contact a curator and ask for a private tour. Or they’ll contact Gudrun or somebody; they’re not going to put up with docents. When Ned Keenan was here he was very concerned about who might be permitted in, he had a very exclusive idea about Dumbarton Oaks and its programs. And so he felt – my understanding of it anyway – that if people who were interested in, say, a garden club to tour the gardens, they didn’t need to come inside. Or if a group of people who were interested in pre-Columbian culture, then why should they see the garden? He was very academically focused. Since he left it’s much more open and a lot of people come, and he also said he didn’t want visiting firemen’s wives, the casual tourist. People who came had to have a real interest, a real reason for wanting to come. But we do get what I like to call visiting firemen’s wives. There’ll be a group here and they don’t know what to do with the wives or the spouses I should say. And so they figure, “Well, Dumbarton Oaks might be a nice place to come.” Just recently a couple of weeks ago there were three women here from the Department of Defense, from General Dempsey’s staff because the wife of the President of Kenya was going to be here, I guess her husband was coming for some reason and they were looking for things that she might do and they came over to case the joint and I showed them around. And they said they thought this might be a nice place but they were looking at other options and they would get back to the Mrs. General Dempsey who was organizing this visitor’s itinerary. And I don’t know who we were competing with, but they called back and said they would not come. It was to have been this morning, actually!

AN: That’s a very interesting group to show around and be evaluated on. Were there any other really memorable groups that you’ve taken or that your fellow docents have taken around?

JG: Well, Mrs. Bush came here, did you know that?

AN: I did, as part of a garden club as well?

JG: Right, she brought some, I think they were from Texas, some of her lady friends from Texas and my colleague, Bibi Kidder, gave the tour – I don’t remember whether they came inside or not, but she’s probably the most notable visitor that’s come. One time when Keenan was here he had a group of his Harvard classmates for a reunion come down and he was having a cocktail party at his house and he wanted them to see the museum. So, he asked me, and it was going to be after hours, if I would show them through, and how could I say no? So I did. And I guess they were more or less interested then they went off to have cocktails – I’ll just add something, we sometimes get senior citizens groups and a lot of garden clubs in the spring who may want in addition to the garden to come in and see the music room, but they generally don’t go through the collections. We used to have a general tour that did the whole thing and we would allocate an hour and a half and do Pre-Columbian and Byzantine, music room and gardens, but I haven’t had one of those in a long time. People seem to maybe have less time or be interested in certain aspects for whatever reason.

AN: You were mentioning how Ned Keenan enjoyed dividing stuff up according to specialties and so on and letting people access what he believed was appropriate. I know being able to access has been easier or harder at times for the docent program and other staff. I remember in an interview with David Keil he mentioned the rare book room and how it used to be very simple to get access to, but now it’s a lot more difficult. Have you noticed the access to resources changing over the years – Dumbarton Oaks making it easier or harder to access its collection?

JG: Rarely does anybody, maybe they don’t even know about it, express an interest in going in the rare books room. But the basic collection has always been available, I haven’t noticed any difference. Sometimes we get people with very specific interests. Not so long ago a man came in and Chris and I were on our way out to the garden to meet with Hugh Livingston, the “Music in the Water” person. And the guard stopped us and said, “There’s a man here who wants some additional information on – ” and I thought he said “Paderewski,” and I think he misunderstood so I said we’d be back in a minute. We came back and the man was standing there at the entrance by the Bliss gallery. It turns out it was Stravinsky he was interested in, not Paderewski, and the reason was – it was very complicated to find out exactly. He was a tour guide who was Turkish, at least his office was in Turkey. He was taking a group of people who were interested in music on a tour. And they were to hear a performance of the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in Bonn I believe. And for some reason he wanted all kinds of background information on the composition of the concerto and what the Blisses’ relationship was to Stravinsky. So, he pumped me for as much as I had and I gave him quite a bit of information as I had done some looking into that situation. And then I thought Linda Lott would have some information so I said, “Wait a minute,” and I went in and talked to Linda and she said the only correspondence she had was between the Blisses and Stravinsky specifically relating to the composition of the concerto, but she also had the original score. She said James Carder might have more information. So, I came out and I told him what she had said, and he asked if he could talk to James Carder and James wasn’t in the museum. So, he started writing a note and just at that time James walked in. [laughing] Poor James got caught. But he very kindly agreed to talk to him and they made an appointment for him the next morning. And the following week I saw James and we talked about it. I don’t think James was able to tell him much more than I had told him, but I guess he went away satisfied. James seemed to think that either he was going to be delivering a lecture to this group on Stravinsky or he was going to be writing a paper about him, but he certainly wanted a lot of detailed information just to hear the concerto. But every once in a while someone will come in with a specialized request.

AN: I remember you mentioning Gay, who has come up a lot in our interviews as a very positive force in Dumbarton Oaks. I haven’t met somebody who didn’t enjoy interacting with her. Do you remember any anecdotes with her, or did you see her contribution to Dumbarton Oaks in a certain way?

JG: Well, she was certainly supportive of the docent program. She was using this room as a matter of a fact for her office at the time. I liked her, she was very accessible, anytime when I was trying to run the program she was always available to me. Anytime I had a request or needed to talk to her she would stop what she was doing and talk to me. So, I liked her very much and I was very sorry to see her go, and I think Christine felt the same way as it was to Gay that Chris was directly reporting and that link was gone. But I know that some of the house staff had unkind things to say about her. But her relationship with them was obviously different to her relationship with me and the docents. Was that what you were trying to talk about?

AN: Yes, thank you very much. So, obviously Christine has been in the docent program for some time now.

JG: Yeah, I would be hard put to put a year on it but ten years plus I’m sure.

AN: Do you see that the program has an aim to evolve or change in the future? Is there a long term goal within the docent program? You mentioned how just recently in the last few years docents have been assigned papers to write. Do you think there’s a goal to change or in some way improve the program? Or do you feel that the standard of quality has been reached which is satisfactory for everybody at the moment?

JG: I wouldn’t say it’s been reached, I would say it’s being maintained. We every month have some sort of a get together or a speaker, various people from the outside or the staff come in and talk to us on a particular subject or if there’s a new exhibit. When the “Seldom Seen” exhibit opened James came and talked to the docents and explained the background for that. And that’s been true for other exhibits. That area never existed before the renovation, it used to be an off limits corridor. Every time there’s a new exhibit we get exposed to whoever the creator of that exhibit is, it gives us a background. The training is ongoing but we are losing docents. The question is, “Is there energy to do a new training program, to recruit new docents,” because that’s not just Chris, it’s the staff, whether they’d be willing to commit a block of time and a lot of effort.

BT: I hadn’t even thought about how many docents we have right now and when in the future we’d need to do another class, but – we could obviously ask Chris about this – but do you have any estimates?

JG: Of the group that I started with, there are only three. David Keil moved to Florida. There are only three of us, there’s me and Bibi and Vera Glocklin out of ten or twelve. They moved away or have given up. One woman, I just thought she was despicable to do it, went through the whole training and then when Cynthia started to arrange for us to give tours she said, “I don’t intend to give tours, I just came for the training because I wanted the information,” and she quit.

AN: A very cynical approach.

JG: Nasty! She got a free education. I see her – I haven’t seen her recently but I have seen her around, and I absolutely won’t speak to her. I think she’s disgusting. I think that’s probably the only time that ever happened.

AN: So, would that be, I suppose, a normal level of attrition for the docent program? Where with many of the docents, it being a voluntary activity requires you to obviously be in the area, that over time people just naturally either move away or lose their energy. So, the class will always start out strong and then there’ll always be this natural attrition. Or do you think that maybe your group has stuck around better than most?

JG: Well, I think it’s natural attrition. People do die. I mean, my colleague, Vera, is quite ill now. She’s having some muscular problems and has recently been using a walker. David moved away. And people have had accidents, fall down or break something. I’ve been very lucky. The reason people leave is varied for various reasons. I guess it’s just normal attrition.

AN: Have you had any docents come back after several years of hiatus? I know that you mentioned a few from the first class did come back and then some left again. Will you often have somebody who might be away for five years, they might have left D.C. or lost interest and they come back to the program?

JG: I’m not aware of any. I guess for a time Lois Houghton agreed to sit out front as an information person at the desk but she found that, and rightly so, so boring that she just didn’t want to be bothered with it. But she wasn’t an active docent. But she keeps her finger in, she’s available. She comes to gatherings and I’ll see her from time to time. We all went down to an exhibit at the National Geographic and Lois came to that. But no, I don’t remember anybody having a long hiatus and then returning to the program. And I think the feeling here would be that you haven’t been trained in such a long time, unless you’re willing to go through some retraining we don’t want you. That’s my feeling.

AN: You have to keep current.

JG: Exactly.

BT: Well, I guess as a bit of a summary, you’ve been here through Angeliki, Keenan and Jan now – three separate directors, and then of course two different directors of the docent program. Could you explain how some directors have viewed the program differently, how the program has changed director to director?

JG: Well, I think I mentioned how it was under Keenan. I think Angeliki was supportive of the program. We didn’t see her very much, other than her original lectures to us. She was somewhat aloof, but as far as I know she was supportive of the program in a sort of hands-off way. And of course Gay Macintosh was here at the time and Angeliki delegated a lot to Gay, and Gay was very supportive of the program. So, that was our interface with the staff – it was mostly through Gay. And Keenan I felt really was not supportive of the program. He felt that the museum should only be for certain people. Or more specifically, he told Chris that as far as tours were concerned if they really didn’t have a specialized or academic interest they could come in during public hours. And then I think Jan seems to be supportive of the program.

AN: Is there anything else that you would like to mention about Dumbarton Oaks, anything we should follow up or anybody we should talk to? Any interesting anecdotes that come to mind?

JG: No, not particularly.

BT: Well thank you so much for your time.

JG: You’re welcome.