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Julie Jones

Oral History Interview with Julie Jones, undertaken by Anna Bonnell-Freiden and Clem Wood at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on August 20, 2008.

ABF: We are Anna Bonnell-Freiden and Clem Wood, and we have the pleasure of interviewing Julie Jones, the Andrall E. Pearson Curator in charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at her office in the Museum on August 20, 2008.

CW: So, we’ll begin by asking about your first contact with Dumbarton Oaks, your first experience with it, and what you remember of that.

JJ: My first experience with the Pre-Columbian section of Dumbarton Oaks was at the opening in 1963, when they had a very nice, restricted opening because of the various political episodes that fall, and it was a regular opening party. I met Mrs. Bliss there for the first and only time. I also met Sam Lothrop, although I think I had met him before here in New York in various episodes involving pre-Columbian objects.

CW: Did Mrs. Bliss make any particular impression on you at that opening?

JJ: Only that she was a very elegant woman.

ABF: What were your impressions of the gallery?

JJ: Well, I have to say now that I’ve known it for a good many years, it would be really very difficult to remember what my first impressions were. It is a very unusual installation for any art museum. And you do get to know how it was done and how the works looked. I have spent a good many years worrying about how pre-Columbian objects look in museums so that that’s simply part of my awareness of it. It’s different than most because there is so much transparency. It worked very well with all of the plastic cases and such so that your eye just blows right through it. It’s fine.

CW: And it seems that you were offered a position at the collection from John Thacher –

JJ: I was.

CW:  –  – in 1963. But then Betty, who had originally planned to go, decided to stay? Could you talk about that a little bit?

JJ: It’s true that Betty had taken on the job of setting the collection in motion, if you will, only for a limited time, and she decided she liked it very well. So, the offer from Dumbarton Oaks that had been made to me, they came back and said, “We’re not accepting you.” And I have to say for my own self, at that time my own job, which was at the Museum of Primitive Art, which was funded by Nelson Rockefeller – it was on 54th Street – had improved a lot, so I thought that I had a good job and I didn’t need Dumbarton Oaks.

ABF: When did you first meet Betty Benson?

JJ: I first met her when I was working at the National Gallery of Art in what was called the information rooms, and she was working in the registrar’s office, because she was one of the few people in the museum at the time who knew anything about pre-Columbian Art.

CW: And that was the period in the 1950s when she worked with the Bliss collection when it was at the gallery?

JJ: Yes.

CW: So, do you remember, through her, any acquisitions in that period?

JJ: No, none. I don’t know that she was involved with acquisitions during that period until he died. I don’t think she had anything to do with acquisitions. He was really pretty much the one who was looking and buying. She never engaged in that kind of role with him. He admired her work a lot, and there are letters in the Bliss archive at Harvard that say that, but she was not in any way in a curatorial capacity. The acquisitions that she and Mike Coe made when he was an adviser to the collection took place during the ’60s, after the death of Robert Bliss and, I believe, to a great extent after the gallery opened. I could be wrong about that because I don’t have the times of those particular acquisitions but I believe so.

CW: And you mentioned earlier that you were familiar in particular with Junius Bird and Gordon Ekholm. And they were both at the Museum of Natural History.

JJ: Yes, they both were on the staff of the American Museum of Natural History. Junius was a South American Archaeologist and Gordon Ekholm was a Middle American archaeologist as it was called at the time. And they were also advisers to the museum in which I worked, the Museum of Primitive Art. I got to know them very well.

CW: Was your relationship with them not based around Dumbarton Oaks?

JJ: No, not at all. It was based in New York.

CW: So, you didn’t talk to them professionally about Dumbarton Oaks and their role in their project.

JJ: No.

CW: Did you go to any of the first Pre-Columbian conferences in the ’60s?

JJ: Yes, I did. I was there at the first two, at any rate, and several others. I don’t remember exactly how many, but many, particularly the early ones. I’ve been less, of course, in recent years, but I have been to them, yes.

CW: I guess the first were the Olmec, and was the Chavín the second one?

JJ: Yes, it was.

CW: And have you noticed any changes in the conferences over the years?

JJ: Well the format of the meetings evolved somewhat during Betty Benson’s time there, in terms of simple things like having talks on Sunday as well as on Saturday and the amount of discussion, which is sometimes difficult to generate. But over time that’s rather solidified into a program that they follow pretty much. There are things, like those early ones were organized a lot by the collection, by Betty and her staff. And now they have a specialist who organizes them. There are those kinds of distinctions, but they’re not big ones. What has made the difference is the growth of the field, which has grown enormously since the ’60s. All of the archaeological fields that feed into the pre-Columbian art world have grown enormously during that time, so that you have much greater specialization in almost any topic they choose.

ABF: How has Dumbarton Oaks coped with the expansion of the field?

JJ: Oh, I think they do pretty well. One might say, at a certain point they occasionally will have topics that seem to have been done a lot, but that happens in any field when you have meetings on any professional topic, sometimes you think, “Haven’t we done this already?” So, it’s not unusual, but they’ve done very well with including, I guess you would say, different topics, different authorities. And the whole sort of problem which is universal to the academic fields when you have meetings, you inevitably have people with divergent points of view. And they just publish the divergent point of view. They don’t try to get them together. But all professional organizers of meetings have to do that, and they do it very well.

CW: And obviously you gave that paper on the Blisses’ legacy as collectors and it appears quite strongly that they had an interest in art objects as collectors, and that they weren’t trying to create a comprehensive record.

JJ: Not at all.

CW: And how do you think there’s been any tension, or has Dumbarton Oaks responded to incorporate archaeology, which has become such a large part of the Pre-Columbian?

JJ: There was great tension during the ’70s, as you must know by now. You’ve heard it from everybody that the archaeological forces, if you will, at the Peabody and Harvard were very against the direction that the collection was taking. That’s part of the reason why Betty Benson left. The art endeavors did not suit them at all. It was also during a time when the attitudes toward collecting generally were changing. What had been acceptable ten years before no longer was, so that the archaeological point of view – which is still in many areas very much in force – found it really sinful to be interested in art. So, there was a great deal of tension. Yes indeed. And then of course archaeology went out by the ’80s. And I don’t know, strictly speaking, that art has had a great base since that time. It’s creeping back in. It’s not such a sinful interest anymore, but it’s not quite pure.

ABF: So, in that shifting climate, how did the role of the collection change? And how did people respond to the collection?

JJ: I think in a kind of odd way, the collection itself didn’t change. The presentation of the collection didn’t change. The installation was pretty much set when it first opened and I think it will remain pretty much the way it was until this recent renovation. So, the collection itself remained as it was. What changed was the attitude around it and how they focused on their interests. They began with having more Fellows. They began increasing the library. The library in 1963 started as Robert Wood Bliss’s personal library. They had a lot of ground to cover to get it to be a real scholarly library, which it is now. So, they put their efforts into those kinds of issues, and it certainly aptly paid off. It is still very much the direction that Dumbarton Oaks goes in now: Fellows, a scholarly establishment. Their recent director would have seriously disbanded the collection because he didn’t find that in the interest in a real scholarly world. However, he couldn’t do that! So, it was put back in place. Put back in place slightly differently, but it’s still there. The collection maintains a sort of integrity all by itself, almost disrespective [sic] of everything that goes on around it. Although, as I say, now there is less pressure to ignore it and not to study it, for the scholars to study it. They’re beginning, or have begun to very elaborately and carefully publish their collection. So, in that sense, the collection is being paid attention to, it’s true. In that sense, the art objects themselves get again to have a bit more visibility than they have had during the ’80s and ’90s when the attitudes were so negative.

CW: And which director were you referring to?

JJ: Oh, the last one. What was his name? Ned Keenan? He was not a museum man. But he was certainly a library man. He built a big library, renovated the Main House. He did pull all that off.

CW: And was it your suggestion to do this paper in April?

JJ: No.

CW: You were invited to do it?

JJ: I was. A couple of years ago there was an organization called the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington D.C. I don’t know whether you’re familiar with it. It’s a totally amateur group. It’s interested in Pre-Columbian studies. Two years ago they had a meeting in honor of Betty Benson. And I was asked, as I had known her for so long, if I would give a talk about her professional career, which I did. And actually I think that even though I have reason to believe there were many candidates for the discussion of the pre-Columbian collection at Dumbarton Oaks at this recent celebration, the presentation I had done on Betty Benson earlier, in 2006, was instrumental in them thinking me appropriate for this next talk.

CW: So, was it through your relationship with her that you became primarily interested in –

JJ: No, no. Perhaps along parallel lines, as she was interested in the collection, which is why she went back to work on it because she had actually left the National Gallery in something like 1960 and had come to New York. She was off on a whole different career. And Bliss asked if she would come back for the transition from the National Gallery to Dumbarton Oaks. So, in a way – that was a period of time when I was in graduate school – our interests were parallel, but they didn’t intertwine at that time.

CW: And so your contact with Dumbarton Oaks – as you said earlier – since the early ’60s has been as a visitor to the –

JJ: That’s correct.

CW:  – conferences, mainly? And do you use the library at all when you’re down there?

JJ: I don’t know if you can get past your tiger of a librarian. I’m sorry. [laughing] In truth I have not had to. The library resources in New York really pretty much cover the same. We have our own departmental library that is certainly an every-day, very useful library. And then, of course, you have the New York Public Library. You have the American Museum of Natural History, which are older libraries. So, New York can pretty much do it.

ABF: What is your understanding of the relationship between a collection at Dumbarton Oaks and the Pre-Columbian Studies program as a whole?

JJ: Well, it would seem to me at present, it seems to be a bit tenuous. The studies program, as I understand it, does not involve itself in the museum. The museum is sort of a separate entity. God knows that the presence of the Fellows and the activity that their work and their points of view generate are wonderful for the collection because you get all of that involvement and energy and people doing things and studying and learning, which does impact the museum staff. Absolutely does. And that’s great. In terms of any sort of structural relationship, I’m not sure that there is one at the moment. Perhaps I’m wrong about that.

ABF: How has that relationship changed over time as you see it?

JJ: Well, I probably don’t really have enough insight into it over the years. I’ve became aware of it during these past months because I’ve been involved with these issues, from Betty Benson’s professional career to Robert Woods Bliss and why he got into pre-Columbian art. All of those issues I’ve been dealing with more than I’d ever dealt with before because I was asked to look at them. So, there are parts that I can’t speak to.

CW: We probably touched on this a little already, talking about the change in the overall field of pre-Columbian studies in these years, but have you seen the role of Dumbarton Oaks in the field change at all or evolve at all?

JJ: Well I think the role of Dumbarton Oaks is enormous in the field. As I say I’ve been a New Yorker and worked in New York in the same field for years now and I do know that the general standing within an educated, art-aware community in New York compared to what it is in Washington D.C. is tiny. And I believe that the pre-Columbian field’s stature is very much pegged to Dumbarton Oaks, and the fact that it is an elegant, esoteric place has a great deal to do with that. Certainly the scholarship, it does publish its meetings every year. Now it’s putting out its collection. It has an aura of respect that you will find – I believe – nowhere else in the United States. And I think that’s all Dumbarton Oaks.

CW: So, you see its most important role in the scholarly meetings and the publications?

JJ: Yes, but its sheer presence, its sheer being – that it’s attached to a historic house, that they give concerts, that it’s part of a cultural community, that people don’t question it being part of a cultural community. Here, for instance, in this great institution where the museum itself is very Eurocentric, so that things like Pre-Columbian art are sort of like, “Meh.” And that doesn’t happen at Dumbarton Oaks, even though I do know that the Byzantine Collection has been there longer and has a higher profile. Although I think in years to come that won’t be the case, but that's another story. Nonetheless, Pre-Columbian is part of that and is respected for that. You don’t find that anywhere else.

ABF: So, what you were saying about Dumbarton Oaks’ role in the intellectual and the art community, would you say that that is the Bliss legacy?

JJ: You bet. I would. It’s pretty much what they would have wanted.

ABF: And how do you think it’s going to change in the years to come?

JJ: I think the pre-Columbian world will overtake Byzantium a bit. There’s so much of it, you know, the Americas are big places. There’s a lot down there. I don’t want to underestimate Byzantium, but still. And there are all those archaeologists out there working who get more information, more awareness, more understanding. It all helps. For instance the whole business with reading the Maya glyphs so that now you have all this history and you can begin saying, “Well, you’ve got all these kings doing their thing. Why don’t school children in the United States know anything about those guys?” And they had a life. They did things. Like Egypt. And Egypt here, people love it. It’s one of those old time favorites. And no reason why Maya can’t be old time favorites, and I do think they will be in years to come. That’s why I think they will have a higher profile in Dumbarton Oaks.

ABF: But do you see it as maintaining its status as solely a research institution in that sense or taking out some sort of educational –

JJ: That would help, actually. Some outreach – as it’s called – it wouldn’t hurt. And I guess to some extent I think inevitably it will have to happen. You can get too isolated if you’re just in an academic world. It would probably be good for their heads to do that.

ABF: That’s sort of an interesting question in terms of how the Blisses intended the institution.

JJ: Did they intend it to be an outward-reaching educational institution? I don’t know. Did they?

CW: No, in the preamble to her will, Mildred Bliss emphasized not to confuse instruction with education. That was the term she used.

JJ: Maybe they’ll have to break a little bit with the Blisses. [laughing] Because I think it would be an important part of the institution. You can get too isolated with it in your ivory tower.

ABF: They called it the Mediterranean – what is that?

CW: Style of the humanities.

JJ: Yeah?

ABF: Yeah, in her will.

JJ: Well, they did believe in it, I have to say.

CW: Yes. The fact that it’s lasted this long.

JJ: Also one has to congratulate whoever wrote the legal documents for what they are, for maintaining it. There were, during those seventy years, all those stories about Harvard wanting to get a hold of the endowment and wanting to close it up and move the collections up to Cambridge. One professional friend of mine said, “They couldn’t move the garden.”

ABF: Yeah. [All laugh]

JJ: They had a problem! Now, whether or not any of that is real, whether Harvard really wanted the endowment, which I guess must be still – they live well there – I don’t know. But that was certainly a lot of the gossip at the time.

ABF: What did you think of that idea actually?

JJ: Of moving it to Cambridge?

ABF: Yeah.

JJ: I thought it was a dreadful idea. Cambridge doesn’t do much by the Pre-Columbian World. Have you been to the Peabody at Harvard?

CW: Yes.

ABF: Yes.

JJ: [laughing] They should be ashamed of themselves for what they don’t do for the Pre-Columbian World. But they’re not geared to that. That is an academic band – they want to deal with their students. But on the other hand, they’re an open museum. They let people come in and pay their entry. But nothing is geared toward the visitors. Nothing. Shameful. I could probably forgive them if their stuff looked better. [laughing] It’s terrible. You would hardly know it was great art. But they have some great things.

ABF: It seems like the movement was also about placing the collection in a perhaps more vibrant intellectual community: Cambridge versus D.C.

JJ: Bad idea.

CW: Well students versus – not Cambridge versus D.C., I’d say it’s students versus ivory tower.

JJ: Yeah, yeah. But that’s also an ivory tower, too. A bigger one, maybe, but it’s still an ivory tower. I’m glad it never happened. More is better. They can do their thing, Dumbarton Oaks does its.

CW: Particularly in a field that’s not incredibly large, have more centers of –

JJ: Yeah, of interest. And public engagement I do think helps a lot, to try and have some public presence and vow to do great public – helps. Wouldn’t even hurt the Peabody to do that. There is this story, of course, among university museums. Now, never having worked in one, I can only listen to those who have about the fact that students don’t go to museums in universities. They don’t. So, I even have an old colleague who’s now just gone to Yale to do exactly that, to see what they can do about – amongst other things – getting students into the museums. There are all kinds of aspects to it.

ABF: Is there anything else that you’d like to tell us about your experience?

JJ: No. I think I did want to tell you about the role I thought they occupied certainly in Washington and by extension elsewhere. Of course, the elsewhere diminishes that great impact, but, of course, it exists. Every collection of pre-Columbian art in the United States – be it looted or un-looted – they are all aware of Dumbarton Oaks and the work it does. There is no other place that does that. The Getty occasionally has some kind of something related to the New World. They’re having a big conference this fall. It’s a very interesting one. And undoubtedly they’ll publish it. But that’s an every-once-in-a-while sort of thing. And very active universities like the University of Texas in Austin also have meetings. They have students, they have well-known professors, all of that activity which does, if you look at it in that sense, make you wonder, “Okay, Harvard, are you working?” But it also, as a university, there are all kinds of claims on its time and energy and money. But Dumbarton can just keep working away at it. They’re lucky to have their endowment.

CW: They are lucky.

JJ: Okay.

CW: Thank you.

ABF: Thank you.

JJ: Thank you.