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Robert Ousterhout

Oral History Interview with Robert Ousterhout undertaken via Zoom by Anna Stavrakopoulou and Audrey Pettner on July 21, 2020. At Dumbarton Oaks, Robert Ousterhout was a Junior Fellow (1980–1981), a Summer Fellow (1983–1984), a Fellow (2012-2013), and a Senior Fellow of Byzantine Studies (2012–2018).

Audrey Pettner: When was the first time that you heard of Dumbarton Oaks and what were your initial impressions?

Bob Ousterhout: I guess I heard about it when I was a graduate student, and I kept getting assigned readings from something called Dumbarton Oaks Papers. There were colleagues of my professor who referred to it as DO, which I found a little bit pretentious because for those of us not in the know, DO meant nothing. I went to Dumbarton Oaks for the first time in, I guess it was the spring of 1979, when I had just decided to write my dissertation on the architecture of the Kariye Camii. I went to see what the various unpublished materials, in the archives at Dumbarton Oaks, were that might help me in this project.

I found all sorts of things in the photo archives, as well as a rather nice, although unfinished and unchecked, set of architectural drawings. That really formed the basis for my research on the Kariye Camii, which was then written while I was a junior fellow in 1980–81, and then published by Dumbarton Oaks in 1987. It’s a project that began at Dumbarton Oaks, actually filling in the gaps in a project that was never finished. Paul Underwood, who was the head of the project on the study of the Kariye Camii, produced three elegant volumes on the building, a fourth collection of studies, and died before the project could be brought to completion.

Ironically, he was an architect by training, and yet the volume on the architecture was never written. This allowed me the opportunity to step in and pick up the pieces more than a decade—two decades after the project had been abandoned. When I went to Dumbarton Oaks in 1979, I went for an extended period, stayed with friends who lived in Georgetown. It happened to be at the time of the spring symposium so my first trial by fire at Dumbarton Oaks was attending the 1979 symposium, which was on Byzantine liturgy. It was fascinating as a cultural experience, maybe as an anthropological experience.

I came away both energized and horrified from the experience. My first impression was that I was way too normal to function in this field. Everybody seemed to be from a foreign country, they had exotic foreign accents, they talked about things, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I mean, what did I know about the Armenian liturgy in 1979? I didn’t even know there was such a thing. To my great relief one of the speakers at the symposium was Bob Van Nice, who had been working on the great corpus of the drawings of Hagia Sophia. I thought, when he got up to speak, “Here’s somebody who’s normal.”

I was impressed to no end that he had great intuition about architecture, and he could talk about it in a very matter-of-fact way that even somebody like me could understand at that time. I made a point of sitting next to him at one of the luncheons at that symposium. It was very rather pushy of me. I had Irina Andreescu on the other side running interference. What we realized as we began talking to each other is that we had both grown up in Oregon of Dutch ancestry. We had both had an interest in architecture and I thought, “Thank God. Here is someone who has a background similar to my own, and here he is, successful in this field.”

That gave me a little bit of encouragement that I could go on with the study of Byzantine architecture.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: Thank you very much. That’s a great start, by the way. You’ve covered lots of bases, but we’ll return to some of these issues with more questions. Who were some Byzantinists you interacted with the most during your many appointments at DO?

BO: My initial contact, actually, was with Giles Constable, who was then the director of Dumbarton Oaks. At that time, there was no Byzantine director. The Byzantine direction had been relegated to a group of postdoctoral fellows who had half-time appointments at Dumbarton Oaks and some half-time at regional institutions. I went in to talk to Giles in that very intimidating Director’s Office. I have to say, at that time in my rather innocent life, Giles Constable was the most intimidating person I had ever met. He was very kind to me, I have to say. Much of my success within Dumbarton Oaks I owe to his initial support.

The following year after my initial trial by fire at the 1979 symposium, I applied for a junior fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks to write my dissertation. I’d spent the previous year in Istanbul doing the fieldwork for it. It looked like Dumbarton Oaks would be the perfect place to bring everything to conclusion. I applied for a fellowship, for a junior fellowship, and I didn’t get it. I was really heartbroken, in part because I wasn’t sure how I was going to get access to the research materials at Dumbarton Oaks if I wasn’t at the institution itself. The other problem was that I simply had no money. I was a very poor student, poor financially, that is. I didn’t have any resources to fall back on.

I was really disconsolate with all of this, and I used my credit card to buy a round-trip ticket to Washington for my spring break, to meet with Professor Constable again and figure out how these materials could be made available to me, or if I was going to have to somehow shift my dissertation topic accordingly, so that I could somehow do a dissertation without all the access to all that archival material. I arrived in Washington in a rather traumatized state, shall we say, and proceeded to my meeting with Professor Constable. Before I could even open my mouth, he said, “We’ve had another opening made available. We’re offering you a junior fellowship.”

It seems like at the last minute, suddenly there was a reprieve. I had the junior fellowship, and that allowed me a year at Dumbarton Oaks in which I realized, when I arrived, that in addition to being a very intimidating institution, I no longer had any excuse not to write my dissertation. I didn’t have to work as a teaching assistant. I didn’t have to take odd jobs to keep myself in graduate school. I was supported. I had an income. I had an apartment in Georgetown. I had lunch provided every day and a desk to work at in one of the best libraries in the world, and all the archival material that I needed at my disposal. I sat down and said, “I guess I have to do this now.” I basically put my head to my notes and went to work, and in the course of the year wrote a dissertation. It was maybe record time. I think I finished it long before I was ready to have finished it, but I really felt at the time that I had no alternative.

At that time, Dumbarton Oaks was still a very different institution from what it is now. Everything was in the Main House: the library, everyone’s office, the fellows for the most part, were all in one big room divided by bookcases. All the junior fellows were at tables which we shared with other junior fellows, and the fellows had desks in a large central area.

There were not the private offices or cubicles that there are now. We were, I think, much more exposed and felt it, particularly as junior fellows. I shared a table with Leslie Brubaker. She and I have been joined at the hip through our entire careers because of this. We wrote our dissertations together. We actually house-sat together one summer as we were finishing our dissertations, and then went off on our respective careers, but we have maintained very close friendship ever since. We turned to each other for support in times of terror at Dumbarton Oaks.

There were a lot of, from our perspective, scary people. When we were immersed in our dissertations and it was lunchtime, all we wanted to do was relax a little bit. I remember sitting across from Peter Topping at lunch one day, and he began asking me if I had read a certain book review in the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, and I’m thinking, “Lunchtime. Lunchtime. I want a lunchtime now.” What followed basically, was that we became like lemmings. We would cluster as junior fellows, and all go to lunch together so that we could sit together and not be interrogated by all of these scary senior scholars who were at the institution.

Because we were all in the same space, it meant that there was little escape. There were a number of junior fellows who were smokers. Not me, but there were a number, and the only place they could smoke was in the breakout room for the guards in the basement. There were a number of junior fellows who escaped regularly to the basement to smoke with the guards. The other problem was this was a pre-computer era, and so I was writing my dissertation longhand, cutting and pasting. I’m literally cutting and pasting, and then typing things up. The problem was there was no quiet place one could go to type because we were all in the same space.

I would work longhand during the day, and then go back to my studio apartment and type up what I had done in the evening. It was not the most effective thing, but typewriters were simply too noisy for the facilities at Dumbarton Oaks. The other problem was there was no privacy. When you were there everyone knew you were there. There wasn’t the security system that tracks you in and out that there is now, but people saw you coming in and saw you going out. I remember that Leslie and I had a table that was just behind a bookcase on the other side of which was Herb Kessler, a professor from Johns Hopkins.

Herb was really into institutional gossip and if I did not arrive in the morning before he did, which I desperately tried to do, he would be standing, leaning on the bookcase, blocking my way to my table. He would say, “Well, tell me,” and would not allow me to go to my table until I could come up with one good piece of gossip for him. I guess I got indoctrinated into Dumbarton Oaks gossip through Herb Kessler’s fascination with it. When things got a little bit too much for me, my solace was to go to the St. Sophia room, where Bob Van Nice and his assistants were working on the final set of drawings of Hagia Sophia.

I’d go and sit with Bob and talk about normal things or talk about architecture. Bob was not a great writer, but he knew a lot, and it was always very instructive and encouraging to talk to him. His assistant at the time was a guy named Howard Trevelyan, who was the head architect at the National Cathedral. Somebody who really knew Gothic architecture well. We got, at one point during that year, a behind-the-scenes tour of the work at the National Cathedral, which was really quite remarkable. When I started hanging out at the St. Sofia room some of the other junior fellows came down to see what was going on.

In the end, we learned that Howard had finished his stint at Dumbarton Oaks and was retiring. To honor Howard’s retirement, Leslie and I and the other junior fellows went down and serenaded them with silly songs that we had made up, which are now available on the ICFA blogsite. One of the songs was “Santa Sophia” to the tune of “Santa Lucia.” The other was “There is Nothing like a Dome,” to the tune of “There’s Nothing like a Dame.” One for Bob, and one for Howard. It was really a special moment for me, because Bob was always a little bit dour, and I never saw him laugh quite as much as he did when we sang our songs.

In the end, we recorded them for posterity and presented Bob with a copy of the songs. Another I kept, and when Leslie was begging me about this, years and years later, it was an eight-track tape. I found the tape, and we found, somewhere in the archives of Dumbarton Oaks, a machine that could record it so that it’s now available to show that, although some people find us intimidating as senior scholars these days, we were fun when we were young and junior fellows.

AP: Dumbarton Oaks is, of course, unique in that it has three very different fields, and academics related to all of them, intermingling. How would you characterize the interaction among the fellows of the three fields at Dumbarton Oaks? Did you guys get a chance to initiate any scholarly exchange, or even just casual conversations over lunch? What was that atmosphere like?

BO: We did, I think there was a general collegiality among the fellows and junior fellows that went across the disciplines. We all, of course, attended each other’s research reports. Not that we understood much, if anything. At that time when I was a junior fellow there was still very much an area studies focus within Dumbarton Oaks, as, I think, it was established to have. That Byzantine Studies, [Garden and] Landscape studies, and Pre-Columbian Studies were seen as three fairly autonomous units that worked side by side, but more or less independently of each other. There was some interdisciplinary discussion, but not that much.

I think that’s something that perhaps there has been more of in recent years. I think it’s in part because of, not so much the change in the institution but the change in the fields themselves. When I was a junior fellow, Byzantine studies was very much a text-oriented field. That is, you wrote history based on texts. Texts were our primary resources, and those of us who were not text-based were held accountable for not being text-based. If your primary resource is buildings, let’s say, how can you understand buildings if you don’t have a text that explains them? This idea of using material culture as a basis for writing history simply wasn’t there.

When you move to something like Pre-Columbian studies, they were far ahead of us in this respect because of the lack of texts in many of Pre-Columbian civilizations, so that they were having to take a much more anthropological approach to their studies, which was very different from what we saw in Byzantine studies at the time. When I returned years later as a fellow in 2012, I found a much more integrated atmosphere in part because of the changes within the field, that we were able to look at what were our primary texts in very different ways.

I remember I gave the first research report in 2012. Afterwards, I was invited by the fellows of landscape studies to have lunch with them because they were really taken by how I was talking about landscape. It was a really a reversal from what I had experienced as a junior fellow, where they were talking about landscape, material culture, and so on. And suddenly, I was talking about landscape, material culture, and so on as a valid approach to the study of Byzantine history.

AS: Thank you very much. At any given stage in your relationship with Dumbarton Oaks, how did your experience differ from that of the other stages? You have spoken to us a little bit about that already, especially about your junior experience. If you want to tell us some more about that?

BO: When I entered my academic career, I was at the University of Oregon. This was a lovely, absolutely lovely place to be. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I realized I’d spent the last 10 years training myself to be a research scholar. It was something that there simply weren’t the resources at the University of Oregon to support the research that I wanted to do. So I depended on Dumbarton Oaks. Then I was offered a position at University of Illinois, which I took. Once I moved to Illinois, I found myself at an institution with good research resources and a fantastic library.

Once I moved there, also, I had as my colleagues Henry and Eunice Maguire for many, many years. I was in the School of Architecture, they were in the History of Art, but we had lunch together three times a week. We were always scheming and conniving and plotting various mini-conferences or seminars or activities we could do together. It was a really, really wonderful experience for me. I didn’t really need Dumbarton Oaks as much through the middle part of my career. When Henry became director of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks at the end of 1990s, I found I had a very nice place to stay when I went back to Dumbarton Oaks.

As I missed him and Eunice terribly in their absence, I began coming back to Dumbarton Oaks and using the facilities again. At that point Dumbarton Oaks was really in the transition of expanding from one building into being the Dumbarton Oaks campus. It’s strange at the campus now, to think in terms of how different things were way back then. The building now known as the Guest House used to be the Fellows’ Building. This is where we all had our lunch. The building that is now the Refectory was the Director’s House; it was a residence. Senior scholars at Dumbarton Oaks were living in the house that’s now where the security guards are holed up on the corner.

There was this gradual expansion of the institution. Then, with the new library and the move of the fellows into the library, it really changed the dynamics of the institution. The new library really feels like a library. The old library in the main building was quirky and weird and full of odd spaces. As one wandered around looking for books, there were any number of opportunities for running into other people. There were lots of opportunities for these casual scholarly conversations. There were any number of retreat spaces in the old buildings where one could just sit down spontaneously and have a conversation with someone.

With the move to the library, it became much more institutional, with everyone in their private office. That opportunity for that spontaneous or casual exchange was no longer there quite as much as it had been in the past. With that change, what happened was lunch became much more of an opportunity for the exchange—that we would have had much more informally in the old library. The new library discouraged us from just sitting and chitchatting with each other. There was that institutional feeling, where we had to be quiet or speak in whispers. Everybody had their own office, and many people work with their doors closed and so on.

I really missed that in my second go around at Dumbarton Oaks as a fellow. But it meant that our lunchtimes could be really exciting. I remember, this is when Margaret Mullett was director of Byzantine Studies, just how well we got along as scholars. Ioli Kalavrezou was there for one semester. We had just such a wonderful time over lunch, discussing things. I remember conversations about things like how you calculate value when we look at Byzantine objects? What was the merit of worth and material or immaterial culture? What would be the economic difference between, let’s say, donating an icon to a church or actually building a church?

There were any number of opportunities for that exchange at lunch. Sadly, with the move now, scholars from the outside aren’t allowed at lunch anymore. I think this is a real shame because, if you’re coming from the outside as I would be now, coming to use the library, I would never have that opportunity for interacting with these scholars who were in residence. One of the wonderful things Margaret did as director of studies is, she would figure out who was there on a temporary basis and make sure that they were invited to lunch and make sure that they were introduced to the various scholars in residence so that there was that opportunity not just for our closed community to interact, but for that discussion to extend beyond that community as well.

I mean, I was very happy to have my own office, of course, and not to have to provide gossip to Herb Kessler on my way in each day. It was a great opportunity for me to sit down and write a book, which was then published by Dumbarton Oaks, I’m happy to say. My two periods as a scholar in residence at Dumbarton Oaks have both resulted in books which the institution published, and I’m so grateful for the kind of support that I received over the years from them. I have to say that with both projects, I couldn’t have done it without that extended period in residence and that extended contact with the library at Dumbarton Oaks.

AS: Thank you. We still do that, Bob. Not now during the pandemic, but when guests come around, we do invite them for an informal lunch. You’re right that not everybody can come to lunch, but all of the people, the scholars, they do get introduced. Anyway, when we go back one day.

AP: Sure. You’ve touched on this already, especially talking about your dissertation, but in what ways did you make use of the Dumbarton Oaks resources, and how did you find that the object collection here at Dumbarton Oaks uniquely contributed to your research?

BO: I’m a firm believer in material culture, and so having the objects there to see close at hand is really wonderful. The coins, the seals, the objects in the collection were really very exciting. What I discovered over the years is there are also objects one wouldn’t think of in the collection there. There’s a lot of material, for example, that came out of the fieldwork of the Dumbarton Oaks Field Committee and the Byzantine Institute of America that is archived at Dumbarton Oaks. There are, for example, samples of mosaic tesserae. There are samples of mortar from Hagia Sophia.

When the Dumbarton Oaks Field Committee was finishing the restoration of the mosaics and frescoes at the Kariye Camii in Istanbul, they had full-scale copies made which are really quite wonderful. These, for decades, were simply rolled up in the boiler room at Dumbarton Oaks. I think it was Henry Maguire who rediscovered them. Then, Holger Klein and I organized an exhibit about 10 years ago, in which part of our budget paid for having those pieces cleaned and remounted. These were full-scale easel paintings of the frescoes and the funeral chapel at the Kariye Camii and very, very impressive. These are now hanging all over Dumbarton Oaks in the Main House and also in the library.

There’s also a number of other pieces. One that I found just really fascinating was they did a mold of one of the mosaics, or partial mold of one of the mosaics, to show the depth of the mosaics, how the tesserae were laid. Then this was painted so that it really does look like a Byzantine mosaic. It’s absolutely phenomenal. Anyone who sees it, their first reaction is they want to go pick at it to make sure those are really tesserae. In fact, it’s a plastic cast of tesserae. So, there were a number of materials. In my first experience at Dumbarton Oaks, these weren’t well organized. Gradually over the years, the visual resources and fieldwork archives has become much more systematic in their organization.

They’re things that I only found decades later, that would have been very useful at the time I was writing my dissertation. There was simply not the cataloging necessary for me to even have a hint that these materials were there. This kind of material, the fieldwork archives, visual resources, is much more of a going concern now. The other aspect that I find incredibly valuable is that with so much damage, destruction, loss of access to Byzantine monuments across the eastern Mediterranean, having the documentation and particularly good visual documentation of the monuments is absolutely essential. If we can’t get to the monuments, our alternative is to get to them virtually.

The archives are now helping a great deal with that. This has been particularly true in recent years with the monuments of Syria, which are either destroyed or really off-limits to scholars at least for the next generation.

I see this as an invaluable service that Dumbarton Oaks is providing. I think there’s a lot more that can be done. I encourage students, now, in our archaeology program, to think in terms of excavating in the archives rather than actually going into the field. Most of them refuse this because they want to get that field experience. I think, of course, field experience is valuable but there is so much that remains undigested in the archives that could really benefit scholars, particularly if you’re thinking in terms of material culture, issues of historiography, and so on.

Dumbarton Oaks had such an important role through the mid-20th century in terms of fieldwork. The archival resources from that period of research in Turkey, in the Balkans, in Cyprus, and so on, is absolutely essential now for understanding many of the sites.

AS: Of course. You have attended a lot of symposia and conferences at DO, you already spoke to us about them. Which stand out in your memory and why? For what reason do you remember some of them?

BO: Let’s see, for good and bad. I remember the symposium on Byzantine pilgrimage. It was really dominated by text-based scholars who talked about pilgrimage based on saints’ lives and other texts. I posed a question at the end of this, end of the symposium, as to how do we know a Byzantine pilgrimage site is a pilgrimage site? Is there something there that gives us an indication? Is there something in the art and the architecture that clues us in to its role in pilgrimage? In Western Europe we have, I think, much better indicators in terms of the art and architecture as to what fits into that category of pilgrimage art and architecture.

I don’t think we have those indicators in Byzantium. I posed the question as an open question that I, as a specialist in architecture, was really struggling with, and I didn’t have an answer. The distinguished panel of speakers hemmed and hawed over this question. The question was finally put to rest by one of the scholars who said, “We know it's a pilgrimage site because we have a text that tells us it’s a pilgrimage site.” I remember this as amusing because it was not quite the answer I wanted. That was the old school answer—“we have a text that tells us.” It wasn’t, “we have material culture evidence, we have archeological evidence,” or something like that. So, that was one memory.

There were a couple of workshops that I attended in the late 2000s, maybe 2008 or so, on archaeology and Byzantine material culture that I found particularly instructive. We didn’t come away with any fixed conclusion, but it was something that here was an institution that had foregrounded the text saying, “How do we deal with other kinds of evidence when we’re looking at cultural history?” It brought together a variety of people who had worked in various fieldwork projects, archaeological surveys, excavations, and so on, to talk about what is the role of archaeology and material culture in the future of Byzantine studies? This has, I think, informed later approaches that we see in the study of Byzantine history.

The first time I participated in a symposium was, I think it was 1998. It was a symposium on Constantinople that Henry Maguire and I organized. I have to say it was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. It was really like herding cats. There was a point at which I was asked for the speakers, and we proposed the list of speakers to the senior fellows. They rewrote our list of speakers and said, “No, these are the speakers you should be inviting, not the ones that you want to invite.”

We compromised, invited them. Then to prevent overlap in the papers, I asked the speakers to send a title and a summary of what they were going to talk about. Seems rather simple, except that I was this dirty little kid in the greater scheme of things, and to ask Ihor Ševčenko or Gilbert Dagron for a title in advance plus an abstract of their paper was more than they were willing to put up with. Half the speakers refused to send in, or simply didn’t send in their titles and abstracts. Then, the then-director of Dumbarton Oaks refused to send official invitations to the speakers until she received titles and abstracts from them.

It was a catch-22 standoff, where some of the scholars said, “Well, I’m not going to send you anything until I get an official invitation.” Dumbarton Oaks was saying, “Well, we’re not going to invite you until we get something from you.” Henry and I were regularly getting phone calls from Dumbarton Oaks telling us we were woefully behind in our planning. I finally had to point out that none of the speakers we had invited were new to their particular topics. Cyril Mango knows what he’s talking about. Ihor Ševčenko knows what he’s talking about, et cetera, et cetera.

We ended up going ahead, but it was really like pulling teeth or herding cats, depending on what day it was, to steer the symposium through. I had a much better time when Margaret Mullett and I organized a symposium in 2015 on the Church of the Holy Apostles. This was really a fun experience because the Church of the Holy Apostles had been a project that Dumbarton Oaks had investigated in its early days in the late 1940s in a very old-fashioned way. It was a project that had been abandoned. With the reorganization of fieldwork archives, all sorts of evidence from that abandoned project began coming to the fore.

Margaret and I put our heads together and began talking about how we can go back to this topic and do something with it, both from a historiographic perspective, but then to update it and say, “Our field is different now, our resources are different. We have a different set of questions we ask as scholars now.” We are not positivist as we were in the mid-1950s or the mid-20th century where we’re asking questions about, “Well, what did it look like? When were the mosaics put in?” where we wanted definite answers. Rather, “What does the scholarship tell us? What do the Byzantine writers tell us, not so much about the monuments as their attitudes and perceptions of the monuments?”

What do they tell us about Byzantine culture by writing, let’s say, an extended ekphrasis of a major monument? The ekphrasis, in the end, tells us more about who’s writing the ekphrasis than it tells us about the subject of the ekphrasis. Then turning the question around and saying, “What is it that we’re looking at in scholarship?” Then reinvestigating what the project of the late 1940s was intending versus what we, 60 years later, were thinking about this project? What could we learn about our field of studies and the growth of our field of studies in that period? Seeing that growth through the lens of a very important but lost monument.

Also seeing it through the lens of Dumbarton Oaks as a research institution, how collaboration in the late 1940s was envisioned versus how we think of collaboration within our scholarship today. It was a real joy working with this group of scholars, and particularly working with Margaret in pulling this study together, just now published. I’m very happy to see this because it really tracks a lot of changes that I’ve seen in my lifetime as a scholar. In the late 1970s, questions about Byzantine culture were very much less interdisciplinary than they are now. Part of this has to do with the growth of the field and part of this has to do with the resources that are available, and the resources that are available through greater interdisciplinary collaboration within Byzantine studies.

AS: Congratulations for the amazing volume!

AP: You’ve shared some really wonderful stories already, but do you have any particular story or memory that stands out in your mind that you think should be part of our institutional memory as well?

BO: A couple, I guess. One from my first days at Dumbarton Oaks and our first lunch in the Fellows’ Building, where sitting at the head of the table was a woman named Joan Southcote-Aston who presented herself as very British. She had somehow become responsible for the historic furniture and things in the building. She was constantly taking me aside and saying, “Bob, could you have a word with young William about his trousers? He shouldn’t be wearing trousers with holes in the knees,” and so on. There were standards to meet in the institution. If somebody came in with shorts, she would advise them that this was not really appropriate because they might sweat on the historic furniture, and so on.

We had no idea at the beginning who this woman was or what her role was in the institution, except that she had this really fancy accent. We found ourselves, as junior fellows, sitting with her at the head of the table at our first lunch, just intimidated like there was no tomorrow, having no idea who this person is. She’s just going on and on, presiding over the table. As fruit arrived for our desert, she picked up one of the peaches, smelled the peach, and said, “Oh, what a divine aroma. Oh, do smell this peach.” She handed it to me. I smelled the peach, handed it to the next person who smelled the peach. The peach made the complete round of the table as we all dutifully smelled the peach. That’s one of my first memories.

There was also that first year, we had a junior fellow who would get very nervous and just make up stories. At our first reception at the director’s house, he was in the reception line ahead of me and he began introducing himself as me, so that when I went to the reception people would say, “No, you’re not Robert Ousterhout. We just met Robert Ousterhout.” There was a bit of confusion.

He then went on to explain that he and I had grown up together in Norman, Oklahoma, where we were best friends in grade school and had then moved away. Suddenly, here we were as junior fellows at Dumbarton Oaks at the same time. It was a completely incredible story, but many people believed it. We had some rather interesting adventures in our first days as junior fellows.

AS: Was this as a Byzantine fellow?

BO: He was a junior fellow. His specialty was Mongol history.

AS: How does the relationship between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks, as well as between Dumbarton Oaks and other Washington cultural institutions, like the National Gallery, affect the studies of you and your fellow scholars while at DO?

BO: Actually, I find Dumbarton Oaks most effective as a stand-alone institution that privileges area studies. That is, by bringing it closer into the orbit of Harvard and having Harvard students and fellows in residence, I’m not sure it enhances the long-term goals of the institution. It’s very useful for Harvard, of course, but I’m a very big supporter of area studies and the privileging of area studies, in the larger scene. It’s very nice to have connections with the National Gallery and other institutions across Washington, but Dumbarton Oaks is different from these other institutions.

We don’t have the Byzantine focus at other institutions. What there is in the National Gallery, for example, that can augment Byzantine studies is very, very little, and the same for other Washington institutions. There are, perhaps, good collections at the Textile Museum that can work in a positive way with what’s going on and the Byzantine Collection at DO, but that’s really limited to textiles and not to larger concerns of Byzantine cultural history. It was always a treat to be put in a taxi and taken to the National Gallery for a reception and to meet the people who were residents at CASVA [Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art], and so on.

But other than a little bit of exchange between those institutions and Dumbarton Oaks, there was not much to be gained from it. The gain was more for the people at CASVA than it was for the people at Dumbarton Oaks. For example, the year I was a fellow, my good friend Cynthia Hahn was a fellow at CASVA. She’s somebody who is well known in the field of Byzantine studies, who works between Byzantine and western medieval. She was cosymposiarch a few years back of a major symposium at DO. She really benefited from being able to come to Dumbarton Oaks, use the library, discuss her work with the Byzantinists in residence at Dumbarton Oaks, where she didn’t really have that sort of outlet, either in terms of scholarly backup or library resources at CASVA.

For somebody in Byzantine studies at CASVA or anywhere else in Washington, Dumbarton Oaks is a real resource, and it’s really the place to be.

AP: How would you describe Dumbarton Oaks’ role in the international context of Byzantine studies? Have those changed over the years, over your time at Dumbarton Oaks?

BO: Well, I think it’s always had a slightly awkward position. The great funding that Dumbarton Oaks has is far beyond that of any other Byzantine institute anywhere else in the world. Because of this, international scholars really feel that Dumbarton Oaks should play a more prominent role or that it should be doing more for the field. There is a little bit of resentment on occasion against Dumbarton Oaks because they have the resources, and yet, they’re not doing more. If you look at, for example, what the Austrians at Vienna are doing or even what an impoverished center like that in Birmingham, England, has been able to do with very limited resources, what Dumbarton Oaks is doing by comparison, really, it looks like we should be doing more at Dumbarton Oaks.

I think that the fact that we are in the United States makes a big difference. There is a large body of water between us and all of the European countries that are represented in Byzantine studies. That really becomes a psychological barrier for Byzantine studies. We are over here, and they are over there. For contact between us and them, it’s often a little bit difficult. The other thing is that, within the United States, Dumbarton Oaks plays a really critical role in how the field of Byzantine studies is defined. It’s a unique role in a field that struggles in this country because we don’t have living Byzantines to support us in our work.

We have various countries that are interested in Byzantine studies, as the Greeks are, but we don’t have that direct connection to the past in this country, so the field is a little bit exotic, seen a little bit arcane within the context of American studies or American history today. I think that there is much more that Dumbarton Oaks can be doing to reach out on a more popular level to, let’s say, scholars and students in America, but also to support Byzantine studies in this country. I think there’s a lot that can be done, a lot that should be done. Let’s face it. There is no other institution in the United States comparable to Dumbarton Oaks.

AS: Thank you so much. You have been at Dumbarton Oaks under the directorship of Giles Constable, Robert Thomson, and Jan Ziolkowski. How did the initiatives undertaken by each director impact the larger field of Byzantine studies?

BO: That’s a loaded question. There have always been the ghosts of Harvard behind Dumbarton Oaks: should Dumbarton Oaks be in Washington or should it be packed up and moved to Cambridge, Mass.? That’s something that was very much in the air in the era of Giles Constable. There were many who felt that Giles had been simply sent to Dumbarton Oaks as a Harvard lackey to close down the institution and bring the resources to Harvard. There was a major opposition movement to this. I don’t know how much truth there is in all of this, but it does seem to have been a threat at that time. I was, I think, a little bit too young to have been fully cognizant of the movement then.

With the financial downturn in 2008, I know that that impacted both institutions, Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks. That, again, led to the suggestion of perhaps Dumbarton Oaks being packed up and moved to Cambridge or to be more included within the mission of Harvard University. A lot of what has happened under Jan Ziolkowski as director has been to forge much stronger connections between Dumbarton Oaks and Harvard.

Bringing Dumbarton Oaks within the fold of Harvard, I think, has had a variety of short-term benefits for Harvard, but not long-term benefits for Dumbarton Oaks, at least as it had been initially defined as a separate free-standing research institution. One of the changes that I see at Dumbarton Oaks was that desire to expand. This seems to be in the period of Robert Thomson. I liked Robert Thomson very much. As a person he was pretty warm, collegial. I got along very well with him, but what happened at that time was Dumbarton Oaks began expanding in terms of real estate.

This was when Elizabeth Taylor Warner’s house across the street was purchased by Dumbarton Oaks to become the new director’s house. When I was a junior fellow, Elizabeth Taylor was in residence across the street, and it was one of those great pieces of excitement when there would be an Elizabeth Taylor sighting. I know that the Jesuits in residence would just go out of their minds when Elizabeth Taylor would appear on the street. But when that became the director’s house, that’s a huge building. It’s far beyond what the institutional director needs. One could put a variety of institutions within that building alone.

Robert, at that point, began being interested in the acquisition of other real estate, and that is expanding Dumbarton Oaks from beyond just the one building to becoming a campus. It was under his leadership, as I recall, that the new library was begun. There was a transformation at that point from this quirky little institution to a big sprawling campus. That came with a major expansion in the administration of Dumbarton Oaks. There were far fewer people working in administration when I was a junior fellow than there are now. There are a variety of people in a variety of offices, I don't even know who all of them are.

In 1980 when I was first on campus, I knew who everyone was in the building. That has made a big change in how the institution functions, as going from this small quirky organization within one building to a much more sprawling institution. The number of Byzantine fellows, I don’t think, has increased significantly in the process. That is, the increase at Dumbarton Oaks has not been in who’s getting supported, it’s been in terms of real estate purchases or increasing administration. For example, in the old days, the director of Byzantine Studies was responsible for a much larger remit than at present.

Initially, the director of Byzantine Studies would have been responsible for the editing of Dumbarton Oaks Papers, for the oversight of the Byzantine Collection in the museum, for a variety of other things, in addition to simply the pastoral oversight of fellows and residents. I don’t mean this to be detrimental, but it’s indicative of an institutional change where now there’s simply more people doing these different jobs. This interest in real estate, I think, reached a peak, and I hope it’s reached a peak with the construction of Fellowship House which, forgive me for saying so, I regard as one of the major mistakes of Dumbarton Oaks in recent years.

Building a residence for the fellows that is absolutely in the wrong location, on the busiest corner in the neighborhood where there is a bus stop, where there’s constant noise pollution. I’m sure happy that, when I was there, I lived in La Quercia, and even in the decrepit state La Quercia was in at that time. If the money that had gone into the Fellowship House had gone into the renovations of La Quercia, I think it would be a much different institution today.

AS: La Quercia is renovated, by the way. It started in 2018.

BO: I know, but why couldn’t they just renovate La Quercia and be over and done with it?

One of the nice things about living at La Quercia as a fellow is that when we left Dumbarton Oaks, we moved from our public lives at the institution to private lives. We were in our residence, and we really developed, I think, some very nice relationships there that crossed a lot of boundaries. My neighbor at La Quercia was Frauke Sachse, who’s now a director of the Pre-Columbian Studies, and we’ve been great friends ever since that time, simply because we were neighbors at La Quercia and that we were off the grid when we were there.

With the Fellowship House, now, we’ve got a major public space on the top floor and we have fellows who need to card in and card out of their residence. There’s somebody at the gate. That casual life off the grid and having a private life at Dumbarton Oaks is no longer possible. When there are events on the top floor of the Fellowship House, we are in the same elevator as the residents there. There’ve been embarrassing incidents where we’re coming down the elevator, as fellows in their pajamas are running their laundry down to the basement in the same elevator.

That loss of the distinction between public and private at Dumbarton Oaks I think is a really major distinction. Let me put it in this way, if I were a young person at Dumbarton Oaks and wanting to have a private life, I certainly couldn’t have it at the Fellowship House. If, for example, I had gone to a bar in Georgetown and met somebody interesting and wanted to bring them home, I couldn’t do it. They’d have to be checked in at the door, they'd have to have their name registered in advance, et cetera, et cetera. That loss of privacy is something that I see as a really significant change in Dumbarton Oaks in recent years.

We badge in and badge out everywhere we go at Dumbarton Oaks these days. They know where we are, they know who we are. There are cameras watching us, I’m not sure, everywhere. When I visited Henry and Eunice Maguire in the Acorn Cottage a few years ago, they were horrified to find security cameras inside the house. Henry went by and put tape over the cameras just to make sure he wasn’t being observed. There’s a difference between, I don’t know, the kind of security you need in a residence, the kind of security you need in a museum, the kind of security you need in the library. It’s not all the same.

At Dumbarton Oaks it’s all the same, and it has the ultimate effect of making everyone part of that institutional machine. You can’t really maintain an individual identity outside of Dumbarton Oaks the way the institution is set up today.

AP: We’ve touched on this a little bit already, but do you think that Dumbarton Oaks has an academic duty or just a duty in general to launch public outreach initiatives, particularly in regards to its role in promoting Byzantine history and Byzantine culture?

BO: I would like to think so. The bottom line is Dumbarton Oaks is a private institution that belongs to the Trustees of Harvard University. This is not my decision to make. It’s Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks’ decision as to what they see as their role within the larger scholarly community, the larger intellectual or cultural community within this country or internationally. I would like to see them having a more public role and a more open profile than they have. I think that’s entirely possible. I think this is something that is a matter of discussion and it's always been a matter of discussion and I'm sure that it will continue to be discussed.

I’m no longer on the board of senior fellows, but I know that these are the sorts of questions that the senior fellows continue to address.

AS: What projects or fields of study would you like to see the Byzantine Studies program support or emphasize in the coming years? This is a very broad question, but if you have some desiderata and you would like to share them?

BO: Well, one of the great accomplishments in recent years, which I’m really very happy about is the Dumbarton Oaks Texts series. I think that has really benefited the field in any number of ways by making texts and bilingual editions accessible to scholars in the field and outside the field in the same way that the Dumbarton Oaks Typikon project had as well. These are making the kinds of documents accessible so that, let’s say, somebody in western medieval history can do a comparative study with the same sorts of institutions in Byzantine history.

The Dumbarton Oaks Texts series, having the Byzantine texts published side by side with Syriac texts, Latin texts and so on, I think really does a service in subtly announcing that we in Byzantine studies are part of that larger picture of medieval studies. I see that as one really positive step forward and something for which Dumbarton Oaks is to be commended. I hope that’s something that will continue. In terms of what can be done in the future, my orientation has always been field work and has always been addressing material culture, particularly the disappearing monuments of the eastern Mediterranean.

There is so much that remains poorly documented or understudied. If, for example, a text is preserved in a manuscript in a library, it will be preserved. If a church is standing abandoned in the wilderness of Cappadocia, well, it may or may not be preserved. I've seen far too many monuments disappear. In this, I keep returning to what the Dumbarton Oaks Field Committee was doing in the 1950s and the mission that it took upon itself to work with local authorities to document and to restore, to excavate major monuments in the Byzantine world, broadly speaking.

There were a number of missteps in that program. There were a number of, let’s say, financial irregularities in the early days, but I see that as really a force for good. When we start talking about Byzantine fieldwork, we, 9 times out of 10, go back to what the Byzantine Field Committee had done in the 1950s. That is a model that I think we can learn from. I would like to see Dumbarton Oaks taking more of a leadership role in protecting the very fragile heritage of the Byzantine world. We look at what’s happening in Syria, what’s just happened in Turkey, and what’s happened in North Africa or what’s happened in the Balkans. We see a major loss of cultural monuments.

One of the things I often point out is that when we talk about cultural heritage, we tend to think of it as material cultural heritage. I think we also have to take into consideration immaterial cultural heritage. That is, those other aspects of cultural heritage: if we think in terms of what’s going on with Hagia Sophia right now. If Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque again, what does that mean in terms of the rich, messy, diverse history of that monument? If we accept a dominant narrative, does that silence all the other narratives? I’m very much thinking in terms of how do we preserve a cultural heritage that is rich, complicated, has multiple narratives behind it so that it can be preserved and secure for the next generation of scholars?

This is my goal, for example, in running a field school in Cappadocia, where graduate students who don’t have, necessarily, the opportunity to study the monuments close at hand and to ask the kinds of questions that the monuments demand. That is, not the kinds of questions that scholarship has posed already. If you’re face to face with the building, with cultural heritage in situ, what does that ask you to do as a scholar? That is, dealing with it as part of our cultural heritage. In the days of COVID now, that direct connection is not possible. I’m hoping we can continue this in the future because, for me, that direct contact with the residues of Byzantine cultures across the eastern Mediterranean have made such an impression.

I wouldn’t have learned the same thing from just reading texts or reading scholarship. That connection with the material culture, that the vibrance of that material culture and the messages it communicates, really helps us to balance out what are often very limited and biased views that come out of texts alone. Using material culture as a foil to text-based studies, I think, is very, very important. What I would like to see Dumbarton Oaks consider in the future is, how does the institution play a more important role in aspects of preservation, documentation of our vanishing cultural heritage?

If we don’t have the monuments, what do we have? Years ago, Timothy Gregory wrote a rather amusing article on asking, “What would we write for sixth-century history if we didn’t have the Secret History of Procopius? How would we view the period of Justinian in completely different ways if all we had were the official texts and not this one very provocative unofficial text that rounds out, gives the people character?” We could ask the same thing for other periods. If we didn’t have the texts that round out the life of Manuel I Komnenos in the 12th century, how would we interpret him?

For example, for his father, John II, we don’t have those kinds of text, and we see John II as a two-dimensional character, which he undoubtedly was not, whereas Manuel, we’re much happier to see, is a three-dimensional character because we have the text to support that. How do we maintain this well-rounded narrative of Byzantine history that makes it compelling for us as scholars, but also can make it compelling for a new generation of scholars?

AS: I envy all your students Bob. You must have been such a fascinating teacher. I’m sure they were hanging from your lips.

AP: In a post-COVID-19 world, how do you envision Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks changing for both the scholars and for the public?

BO: I don’t know. That’s a very good question. I’d like to see the institution more open in a variety of ways and more accessible in a variety of ways. Now, for example, as a Dumbarton Oaks alumnus, I basically no longer have access to the Refectory and I no longer have access to the Guest House. It means a big deal. It was very important to me, as I was writing my book on Cappadocia, to have that kind of access. I could come, stay at the Guest House for a nominal fee or, when I was senior fellow, for free, so that I could spend my time in the library devoted to getting things done that I couldn’t get done in Philadelphia.

If I didn’t have those resources—I could probably live without the Refectory—but thinking in terms of a research trip to Dumbarton Oaks these days, it’s not easily accessible. There’s no long-term parking anywhere near Dumbarton Oaks. It’s not near a train station, it’s not near a subway station. The hotels in the neighborhood are relatively pricey, all things considered. If I want to come to Dumbarton Oaks for a research period, I have to think in terms of, “Am I willing to put out, let’s say, $200, $300 a day minimum, to sit in the library? Do I take the train down early in the morning, take a taxi to Dumbarton Oaks, do everything I possibly can in one day and go home in the evening?” I’ve done both.

Considering the isolation of Dumbarton Oaks, it’s good and it’s bad to have that isolation. I love it when I’m there. When I have the access to the resources, and it’s really a very, very pleasant place to be. I’m happy every time I’m there, to be able to wander in the garden. When I had access to the swimming pool, I couldn’t be happier. To think about this now from the outside, if I’m thinking in terms of doing a research junket to Dumbarton Oaks, I really think twice because of the logistics and the expense involved. That’s where I am right now. I’d like to see, somehow somewhere, Dumbarton Oaks, more accessible.

AS: For the time being, the accessibility has to do with virtual things.

Bob: Yes, I know. I know.

AS: There are no words to thank you. It was a wonderful, wonderful interview. Thank you so much. Thank you for your time and for everything you’re doing.