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Robert Sharer

Oral History Interview with Robert Sharer, undertaken by Alyce de Carteret at the Guest House (Fellows Building) at Dumbarton Oaks, on January 12, 2011. Robert Sharer was a Senior Fellow of Pre-Columbian Studies (1992–1998) and chaired the Senior Fellows of Pre-Columbian Studies (1996–1998). He died in 2012.

AdC: I have the pleasure of interviewing Robert Sharer here at the Guest House of Dumbarton Oaks. Dr. Sharer is a Professor Emeritus in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and formerly Chair of the Senior Fellows Committee of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. Thanks for joining us today.

RS: Thank you.

AdC: So, just to begin, how did you first come to know about Dumbarton Oaks and what were your initial impressions of the institution?

RS: Well, that’s a memory test. I’m not sure I remember how. I think as long as I’ve been involved in Mesoamerican studies I’ve known about Dumbarton Oaks. So, it started when I was a graduate student, which is many more years ago than I care to remember. Actively, when I took my position at Penn in ’72 I believe it was soon thereafter that I started coming here for the Pre-Columbian symposia every year – certainly through the seventies. And of course, at that time I also had some students who applied for and were granted fellowships. So, actively I certainly knew about it from that time forward.

AdC: And before you started going to any of the symposia what kind of connection did you have to Dumbarton Oaks? Were there any publications you were aware of?

RS: Well, it was both the fact that my mentor – as a graduate student people talked about Dumbarton Oaks for the library and for the publications, and so there were publications that I was aware of, I think, beginning with the very first one published in Pre-Columbian Studies. So, I guess it’s been since the beginning – I don’t remember the year but I remember that’s it been pretty much from the start.

AdC: And you mentioned that once you took your position up you began attending the symposia every year. How would you characterize that experience of attending a Dumbarton Oaks symposium and were there any, in particular, that you found successful or unsuccessful?

RS: I certainly don’t remember any that were unsuccessful. Well, there’s two parts to that. Most of the symposia that I came to I made sure that my students also were here. It was an easy drive from Philadelphia, so it was very convenient. It became an annual event every fall. In other words, every fall I would bring a carload of students down and attend the symposia. Though I think the first symposia that I actually took an active part in was in 1980, the symposia organized by Arthur Miller on Highland-Lowland Interaction in Mesoamerica. I gave the summary paper for that one. I do remember – the notable thing about that symposia is that Arthur had a panel, which I think may have been the style of the early symposia, to have in addition to the papers a panel for discussants after each morning and afternoon session. And the panel for that was very distinguished – George Kubler, Tania Proskouriakoff, William Coe, my mentor at Penn, William Sanders and a couple of others that I forget. But I believe – I know that was the last Dumbarton Oaks symposia that Bill Coe ever attended, and I believe it may have been the last one that Tania Proskouriakoff ever attended because she passed away a couple of years after that. And I remember those panel discussions, the mix between art historians and archaeologists and early epigraphers like Tania. It was quite an interesting experience so I remember that one in particular. I gave papers at a couple more in the ’80s, one organized by Sabloff and Henderson on Maya society in the eighth century A.D. And another that I forget – oh, Boone and Willey on the Southeast Maya area. So, those were different experiences because they had much more opportunity for interaction with the group in the symposia and that was a very beneficial experience, the dinner, the reception for just the speakers and all that. But I would say all of those experiences were very positive just because of the interaction that takes place above and beyond the papers. With a group of papers, you have good ones and maybe ones that aren’t so good. But the interaction, the opportunity for myself, my students to interact with people in the profession, I think is extraordinary.

AdC: You mentioned that some of these panels had both art historians and archaeologists. Were those interactions generally positive or was there fighting back and forth or was it generally very –

RS: I recall, you know there are a couple of archaeologists, a couple of my colleagues who shall remain nameless that had a combative style always – but it wasn’t particular to Dumbarton Oaks. But that’s such a minor component, the most important thing I think is that the interaction between people of different disciplines all united by an interest in Mesoamerica was a very positive thing, and one of the unique things about Dumbarton Oaks, because I remember in particular the 1980 symposium. George Kubler, who was of course the dean of Mesoamerica–New World art history, was a visiting professor at Penn that year and he and I took part in some activities related to that, but I drove him down here for that symposium. And just that experience of having George Kubler in my car and talking to him for two hours on the way down and then on the way back was a tremendous experience. And all of that kind of interaction between your more immediate colleagues and other people who you may have heard of or read some of their material but never met. Here was a chance to meet them and talk to them on a one to one basis. So it was always and still remains a very positive experience.

AdC: Were you able to attend any of the off-site symposia in Mexico City or Antigua or Lima?

RS: I was at the Antigua symposium. I wasn’t able to get to the one in Peru or Mexico. The advantage of Dumbarton Oaks here, of course, is for me – I didn’t really have to miss any of my classes because it was just a two-hour drive away, which may not be true for other people. But getting away at that time of year to Mexico or Peru was difficult, but I did slip away long enough to get to Antigua for that one. And that was a fantastic experience, and I think off-site symposia, based on my conversations with colleagues who were in the Mexico symposia and the one in Peru, have a whole different layer of advantages. So, in the case of the Antigua symposium Joanne had arranged for a post-symposium tour for the speakers. So, my wife Loa Traxler and I took a group, the group, most of the people through Maya land. We went to Tikal and Copán and all that, and that seemed to have added an extra spark to the proceedings as well. Personally speaking, I would love to be on the other end of that and go on a tour of Peru or something with a group from Dumbarton Oaks. The quality of the scholarship that’s attracted to Dumbarton Oaks is top level, so it’s always a positive experience.

AdC: What was that experience like actually bringing Andeanists? Did you receive feedback from them on the Copán archaeology or – ?

RS: Very much so, yeah. Judging from their reaction I would say – I think anybody is astounded at seeing some of the things that those sites have to offer because seeing them in person is a whole different thing than just seeing slides or pictures or whatever. So, I got some very favorable comments from Joanne and from Clark Erickson, who’s a colleague of mine at Penn but who had never been to Guatemala before. And as far as I can judge they were all thrilled to be able to see first hand some of the sites in the Maya area. That’s why I think a reciprocal kind of tour would be very, very enjoyable for myself and others.

AdC: You’re currently here at Dumbarton Oaks for the Copán workshop.

RS: Right.

AdC: I was wondering if you could comment a little about what the purpose of that workshop is and comment on Dumbarton Oaks’ role in that workshop.

RS: Well, the purpose – for the last twenty years I have been involved along with an excellent group of colleagues, beginning with Bill Fash who has been the overall director, Ricardo Agurcia from Honduras, and David Stuart, and Rudy Larios, Barbara Fash, my wife Loa Traxler. The list goes on of dozens of people who have been involved in that research. Of that group, all the people who are directly involved in publishing the final report, including all the people I just named, are here for this workshop to discuss the plans and the execution of that publication series. It’s motivated by several factors. The size of the data corpus is certainly one factor. I mean, if you think of twenty years of research data. But the other factor is that when we began working at Copán we were still in the non-digital age and so most, for example, most of the photography that recorded our research is just conventional either black and white or color slide photography. Now we’re fully in the digital age, so at the tail end of our project all of our images, all of our records were digitized. So, there’s both an advantage and a disadvantage to that which means we have a lot of data. Basically, it boils down to having to digitize an awful lot of old imagery, for example. So, this causes another, or creates another interesting fallout, which is the publication of all of this, which we envisioned ten or fifteen years ago as being something on the order of – well, there are three institutions involved in the publication. Part of the work will be published by Tulane, they sponsored some of the work. Part of the work will be published by Harvard Peabody Museum for their work, and part of it will be published by Penn for their project work. So, the full publication will be divided amongst those three institutions. And we figured anywhere from five to seven or eight volumes per institution to publish those results, if it were all to be done in conventional print form. But now of course we foresee that it need not be, and an awful lot of the data can be made available through electronic means, through CD-Roms, whatever, put on the web, all of that. So, one of the problems we’re wrestling with is that decision of what gets printed and goes on the shelf in a conventional sense and what is disseminated electronically. So, there’s, in addition to the amount of data, there’s the whole question of how best to distribute that data and to make the results known. So, the workshop is involved in those issues as well as the substantial problem of who does what and when. When is always the biggest question.

AdC: And how did that gathering come to be at Dumbarton Oaks?

RS: Well, that gathering came here because as far as I know Bill, William Fash, had a conversation with Joanne and Bill decided, or both of them saw that to bring these people together – we’ve attempted to do this before. We actually attempted to have a similar conference at Copán in March. The problem is that not all the people involved could get away at a given time, especially to get away to Copán. It’s a different logistical question than coming to Washington. So, part of it was certainly due to the fact that it was just a convenient location for people to gather. And of course it’s an amiable, hospitable place to gather. So, the opportunity was there and I think it was easy, or at least easier for people including our colleagues in Honduras, to come here. But certainly the facilities here, the library availability, all of that are unmatched. So, I think it was a pretty obvious choice.

AdC: In the ’90s you served as a Senior Fellow of Pre-Columbian Studies. And I was wondering how you actually came to hold that position here?

RS: How I became a Senior Fellow?

AdC: Yes.

RS: I was asked. The Senior Fellows decide, as far as I know, the procedure at least back then was, when there is a need for the appointment of a new Fellow because of resignations or whatever, retirements. So, for whatever reason, in that time, about 1992, they asked me to become a Senior Fellow. That’s as much as I know or could remember.

AdC: What were your responsibilities as a Senior Fellow? How would you describe the atmosphere of this place?

RS: Well, responsibilities. The biggest responsibility was to decide upon the Junior Fellowships or the resident fellowships, both the Junior and the Senior. That is, people with a Ph.D. already in their career path or those who are just beginning. So, that decision, which I believe was made every – about this time every year was probably the most important. It was certainly the most time consuming because you had to read all the proposals and then discuss and all of that. But then there were also the programs that Dumbarton Oaks offers, the symposia were also discussed and voted on by the Senior Fellows so all these things were part of the responsibility and advising the director of Pre-Columbian Studies.

AdC: Did you have any extra responsibilities as Chair of the Board?

RS: Chair of the Board is responsible for making sure all that happens. And the biggest job I guess is to make sure that other Senior Fellows read the proposals on time and are ready to consider them and discuss them and make the decision. And I suppose act more on more occasions as an advisor to the Director of Pre-Columbian Studies. When I came on to the board Elizabeth Boone was the Director of Pre-Columbian Studies and then during my tenure Jeffrey Quilter became the Director so I worked with both of those people, excellent people representing different disciplines, art history and archaeology, and it was a rewarding experience just from that point of view.

AdC: Was this a position that was elected or were you just chosen to be the Chair?

RS: Oh, to be the Chair. Again that’s a decision made by the Director of Pre-Columbian, I suppose in consultation with the overall Director of Dumbarton Oaks. After three years as a Senior Fellow the position of Chair became vacant and they asked me to take it. That’s all I can recall about that, and I saw it as an excellent chance to work more closely with the people here so I was gad to accept.

AdC: You mentioned working with Elizabeth Boone and Jeffrey Quilter. I was wondering if you could comment on their impact on Pre-Columbian Studies and how you would characterize their directorships while you were here?

RS: They were both excellent. I see really no difference. They both were very active in developing symposia that were excellent and I don’t recall any different in those administrations. I do recall that there was a move – I believe Jeff began in my very last year, so I really only worked with him for a relatively short period in that capacity. But he was very interested in trying to increase the number of Pre-Columbian Fellows. And I believe at the very last meeting that I chaired the then Director of Dumbarton Oaks, Angeliki Laiou, announced or told the Senior Fellows that indeed the number of Pre-Columbian Fellows was going to be increased in the future. And I assumed that was because of Jeff’s effort coming to fruition.

AdC: While you were on the Board, were there any other memorable sessions or memorable decisions that you as a group made?

RS: Well, I think following up on that, after the – in ’98 I guess, after my tenure as Chair, and with the availability of at least one more fellowship for Pre-Columbian Studies, I continued to work with Jeff and I had an even better opportunity because within a year of that time my wife became the assistant curator of Pre-Columbian Studies here. And when Loa came to Dumbarton Oaks and we got an apartment here in Washington just a few blocks away, I was much more on the scene even though I had no formal role. But I could attend many of the events including the special one-day seminars in Pre-Columbian Studies that Jeff arranged, which was a continuing practice. I remember doing one of these one-day seminars back when Liz Boone was – so in addition to the big fall seminar, the big fall symposia, there were these other kinds of gatherings of just local scholars, whatever. So, I was able to participate much more on that level and, knowing Jeff Quilter, I was able to work with him. And I remember then sometime after the new millennium that the foundation, the US Foundation for the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala – which is a private institution of higher learning in Guatemala, I’m a member of that foundation board – they met here in Washington. And there was a large reception at the residence of the Guatemalan ambassador that was hosted by the foundation and people interested in Guatemala, etc. were invited to that reception. And so, we put Jeff and all the Pre-Columbian Fellows at that time on the invitation list. So, there was this reception at the house of the ambassador, it was at that reception that Jeff and I – Jeff asked me, “Well, what are we going to do to further encourage – with this extra fellowship – to further encourage interaction between Dumbarton Oaks and institutions and scholars in Latin America?” That was a theme that was running through my tenure on the Senior Fellows, is trying to get more interaction, contacts with institutions and scholars in Latin America instead of just looking at the North American world for, say, future Senior Fellows or for fellowships or whatever. So, this was a follow-up on things we had been talking and I believe it was Jeff that then, because he was learning about Universidad del Valle through this reception, he said how would it be if he had a kind of an exchange fellowship with this university from Dumbarton Oaks. So, that’s how it started and I said, “Okay, let’s talk to”  – the director from the university was there – “talk to him.” And he was enthusiastic. So, out of that social setting in which the director of the university, the Director of the Pre-Columbia Studies here at Dumbarton Oaks met for the first time, Jeff put together this proposal to have a Pre-Columbian Fellow become a visiting scholar at a Latin American university. This then came up to the Board of Fellows at the time. It was voted on, it was decided that this was a good thing to do, it was proposed to the Director of Dumbarton Oaks and to make a long story short within a couple of years, this – now we’re in the administration of Ned Keenan as director – it was approved. The director actually came up here from del Valle a second time, met Dr. Keenan here at Dumbarton Oaks, we gave him a tour of Dumbarton Oaks. And Jeff Quilter, I took Jeff Quilter to Guatemala for a tour of del Valle to look at their facilities. So, out of this interest and Jeff’s commitment to try to make these contacts much more enduring, expanded, because he envisioned that the del Valle contact was just the first of several. In other words, the next one might be a university in Peru or a university in Mexico. So, it was envisioned as a yearly fellowship in which Dumbarton Oaks would send a Fellow as a visiting professor or as a visiting scholar to a Latin American institution. And that scholar would be obliged to teach but would also have an opportunity to do research in their area of interest. So, in 2004 that position was advertised, the Senior Fellows looked at that pool of applicants along with the regular, they chose a recipient and for the 2005–06 academic year, Dumbarton Oaks supported a Visiting Fellow at del Valle in Gautemala who taught a couple of courses in Maya archaeology and ethnography because the recipient was actually a cultural anthropologist.

AdC: Do you remember who it was?

RS: The name escapes me. So, it started out as a beautiful thing and Jeff was very enthused about it. I thought it was a wonderful way in which Dumbarton Oaks could then become much better known in Latin America and attract more scholars from Latin America and also encourage research and everything else. The sad thing is that Jeff left the directorship the year after that, I believe, and this whole was ended. It never continued. The Director decided for reasons unknown to me that this was no longer in the interest of Dumbarton Oaks. So, it was a very promising program that sadly ended before it had a chance to get better developed.

AdC: Were there other ways that Jeff Quilter and the Board of Senior Fellows tried to reach out to other Latin American countries or is – ?

RS: Well, certainly there was a conscious effort to encourage more applications from scholars in Latin America. That was something that could be done immediately and on a yearly basis and so through networking, through colleagues who knew – of course the Senior Fellows who knew colleagues in Latin America, but even other colleagues up here who worked with people in Latin America or former Fellows. There was a whole network that operated trying to make contacts with people in Latin America to encourage them to apply and I think that trend has continued and we have far more numbers of applicants and of recipients of fellowships from Latin America today.

AdC: In addition to this, were there any particular goals that the Senior Fellows Committee had when it came to selecting the Fellows or selecting a symposium leader?

RS: The two that stand out in my memory were to increase the number of Fellows, because, let’s face it, the Pre-Columbian program always felt like it was sort of the stepchild of the Byzantine program, because of course it was a later addition. Everybody understood that. But the sheer numbers of Fellows in Pre-Columbian Studies was very small in comparison to the big brothers in Byzantine Studies. So, there was always this feeling amongst the Senior Fellows that we should have more Pre-Columbian fellowships available. So, that was a constant motif in meetings and we would constantly ask the Director when she – Angeliki for example in my case – every year when she met with us to give a report of the status of Dumbarton Oaks, the Board of Senior Fellows would pointedly ask about – in the budget matter – about increasing the number of Pre-Columbian Fellows. So, at that very end in ’98 when she offered, at the end of my tenure, to – or said that she was planning to increase it with an additional fellowship, that was received very well by the Senior Fellows. So, that was also a very important emphasis. The other was the one that Jeff in particular was interested in, and I think the Board had a long history of trying to encourage more Latin American Fellows, but Jeff really put a lot of thought and effort into this and I think it paid off at least for a short time with this exchange Fellow in Latin America. So, those were the two things that I remember the most, at least.

AdC: Was there any effort in particular to ensure balance between Andeanists, and Mesoamericanists, art historians, archaeologists or did that kind of flux from year to year?

RS: I think that was probably always in mind, but it was certainly never explicit. In other words, the overall selection process was based on the excellence of the applicant and the proposal. So, if we had three fellowships, for example, to give or to offer in a given year and three of them were from Andeanists and the best three were Andeanists, then those would be selected. I don’t recall any discussion of saying, “Well, we already picked two Andeanists so we can’t pick this third one,” just because of the area of interest. Or we picked three art historians so there’s not room for an archaeologist. So, it was always based in my experience on the excellence. I will add just one other thing. There was a feeling that we should try to get more, at least try to find more opportunities to get Fellows from North America. This was always a controversial point but people were especially interested between Mesoamerica and, say, the American Southwest, which is a very important theme in Pre-Columbian Studies in both areas. There were several times I recall people proposing specific means to be able to find a Fellow, to recruit or encourage someone to apply who would specifically be interested in that North American, Mesoamerican connection. There were several cases of that in other areas, for example, the interaction between so-called high civilization areas like the Andes and the so-called peripheral areas like Amazonia or something like that. So, various Fellows would have special interest and try to encourage that kind of – you can call it an expansion, somewhat, of the traditional Fellows.

AdC: I actually heard about this debate from others. What exactly does Pre-Columbian mean –

RS: Yes.

AdC:  – and the Blisses were responsible for collecting items from Mesoamerica, the high civilizations from Peru, but because the collections don’t extend into North America some people think maybe they shouldn’t be topics for fellowships.

RS: And because it’s always been just the centers of civilizations. Jeff Quilter, for example, whose own research is in the Intermediate Area, Costa Rica for example, was very interested in getting people in that area here and did succeed in doing that. And that was in a sense a kind of expansion because that hadn’t happened much prior to his administration. But yes, you’re right. It was a whole question, what really defines Pre-Columbian Studies and, more by practice than fiat, it’s always been the high civilizations. Therefore, to some people going to the American Southwest or to Amazonia or even to the Intermediate area it’s not just an expansion, it’s changing the ground rules. Well, as far as I know there really are no ground rules in this but it’s always been a good question.

AdC: And just to bring that question to, I guess, a temporal side of things. Do you think Dumbarton Oaks should also expand into the colonial period, so into Columbian studies?

RS: Well, that’s a very good question too, and that issue did come up from time to time. I know that during my tenure on the Board the answer to that question was no. It was pretty clear. That was a much more secure bet at least with the Fellows that I worked with. Everybody felt very strongly that this was Pre-Columbian. Now, if you did go into the colonial period the only exception to that would be for a scholarly enterprise, either an individual scholar or maybe a publication or whatever it might be, if the theme here was the continuity of Pre-Columbian traditions. But there seemed to always have been a very firm opposition to, for example, studies of Spanish colonial policy or that kind of thing, because that would get us into a Eurocentric bias or whatever. But I can’t speak for how that is defined now, but in my day it was pretty clear that Pre-Columbian Studies meant Pre-Columbian.

AdC: You mentioned briefly Angeliki Laiou and Ned Keenan as directors of Dumbarton Oaks, and I was wondering if you could comment a little bit about their respective directorships and how they differed or what their styles were?

RS: Well, the business of being a Senior Fellow is not really that involved in the directorship, the overall directorship, and we see it from a very particular point of view, which is simply from the Pre-Columbian program, which is only a part of the overall program. I can say this, that during Angeliki’s time I think the Pre-Coumbian Fellows influenced – you can even say educated her successfully as to the importance of Pre-Columbian Studies by various means, subtle and maybe not always too subtle, pressuring and everything else. And as I’ve already mentioned she was somewhat responsive to increasing the program number of Fellows. I got to know Ned Keenan better because I was here during his administration, when my wife worked here and I think he also learned much more about Pre-Columbian Studies. Of course, both of those individuals came from traditional Old World history or art history, respectively, and I think came away from the experience here with much more knowledge of Pre-Columbian Studies. Certainly, this was outside their normal orbit before they came here. I would say they were both amenable to being educated.

AdC: And so, I guess we’re getting into our final questions now, but I was hoping you could comment on the role that Dumbarton Oaks has played in the development of Pre-Columbian Studies over the years and that role you’d like to see it take in the future?

RS: Well, I think the role has been extremely important. I couldn’t say the number of my students who came here while they were students for the symposia and found it a positive experience. I certainly couldn’t, I can’t even count the number of my former students that became, that got fellowships that helped them get through either their dissertation process as Junior Fellows or later in their careers, including one who is here now, where this will be a big boost for her professional development as well as helping out the Copán publication effort. So, the impact is unique, I think. I mean there is no other program like this, which encourages young scholars in Pre-Columbian Studies. There are other programs that – I mean on an individual basis any scholar, regardless of their interest, can go to the SAR in Santa Fe or the Library of Congress and their programs or whatever, but to have a concentrated program in Pre-Columbian Studies, where you’ve got the library, you’ve got the Director and Assistant Director of Pre-Columbian Studies, so you have a core of expertise in residence, a program of symposia, of special events – all of those things in one place, there’s nothing like it. So, it is uniquely important and it has been that way, as I said in the beginning, as long as I can remember. And for professionals and old retirees like myself it also continues to be important for your entire career whether you are a Fellow or even whether you’re just a visiting scholar, certainly coming for the symposia. So, all of those things make it a magnet for pre-Columbian studies. Plus the fact that it’s not linked to just one discipline, and that’s the other unique aspect, the chance to learn directly or indirectly from people working in the same area but not necessarily from the same disciplinary position or points of view is also unique. So, I’m one of Dumbarton Oaks’ biggest fans – always have been.

AdC: I remember someone else mentioning that they were taking a look at all of those – the people who have been Fellows over the years, and they have all gone on essentially to become wildly influential in their discipline. So, it seems like Dumbarton Oaks has a very serious role in helping scholars.

RS: Yeah, it just underscores what I’m saying. That yes, it’s an opportunity that is very – there are clearly far more young scholars in the field than there are available fellowships, so it’s an immediate prestigeful honor to become a Fellow. And the selective process, of course, does find the best people. I think it really does work. So, all those factors mean that it’s a predictor of success. And yes, the list is excellent, the list of people who are alumns of Dumbarton Oaks. The other interesting thing is Dumbarton Oaks doesn’t do much to publicize its role. It’s a very quiet, distinguished institution. But it is by word of mouth, it is by networking, it is all by the usual or traditional processes that the reputation and the uniqueness of this place is clear to everybody in the field. And I’m sure the same thing is true in the other fields here. But in Pre-Columbian Studies it is paramount.

AdC: Well, those are about all the questions I have. Is there anything else you’d like to add, any stories or other memories you have of Dumbarton Oaks you’d like to share?

RS: Well, time won’t allow the stories. We’ll have to do that another time. There are quite a few. In fact, I’m due in a couple minutes to get back to the Copán workshop. But thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed it.

AdC: Thank you so much, thank you very much.

RS: Okay.