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Sharon Gerstel

Oral History Interview with Sharon Gerstel undertaken via Zoom by Anna Stavrakopoulou and Audrey Pettner on June 26, 2020. At Dumbarton Oaks, Sharon Gerstel was a Prize Fellowship Awardee (1987–1988), a Junior Fellow (1992–1993) and a Fellow (2001–2002) in Byzantine Studies. She also served as the joint appointment in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and the University of Maryland at College Park as the Research Associate and Assistant Professor of Art History and Archaeology (1994–1998).

Audrey Pettner: So, we’re here today, interviewing Sharon Gerstel for the Dumbarton Oaks Oral History Project. My name is Audrey Pettner and I’m the Oral History Project intern for 2020, and we are here today also with Anna Stavrakopoulou, with assistance from Judy Lee.

We’re going to go ahead and jump in with the first question, Professor Gerstel, we wanted to ask you what were your first impressions of Dumbarton Oaks, and when was the first time you heard about the institution as a whole?

Sharon Gerstel: I knew about it when I was an undergraduate because I’d studied history at Bryn Mawr with Charles Brand, who had close affiliations with Dumbarton Oaks, so I’d already studied quite a bit of Byzantine history. I knew about the Dumbarton Oaks Papers. When I went to graduate school at NYU at the Institute of Fine Arts my advisor obviously talked about Dumbarton Oaks, so all graduate students were aware of what was happening at the institution.

Anna Stavrakopoulou: Well, who was your advisor, if I may ask, Sharon?

SG: So my advisor was Thomas Mathews, and then my second advisor was Doula Mouriki. And I also had my second field with Nina Garsoïan at Columbia. So, I studied both Byzantine art history and Byzantine history between the two universities. But my first experience, let’s say, at Dumbarton Oaks was in an interview for a new prize fellowship they had when I was, I think, in my second year of graduate school finishing my MA. There was a prize fellowship advertised that was intended to support American students who wanted to study something that wasn’t offered at their university. And there were two prize fellowships offered and I went down to Dumbarton Oaks. I was one of the finalists for the interview and that I had very strong impressions of Dumbarton Oaks at that time. It was a very scary experience.

That’s 1987 to 1988 so the interview would have been in 1986. The director was Robert Thomson at that time.

I was a young student. I mean, I was 23 and I went down to Dumbarton Oaks on the train from New York with another finalist, who was also from the Institute, and was ushered into the Director's Office and there was seated all the luminaries of the field: Father [John] Meyendorff, John Barker, [Angeliki] Laiou . . . [Alexander] Kazhdan wasn’t there but I was introduced to him that weekend. It was a really formidable group of people, the kind of giants in the field. You can imagine as a young MA, a student just finishing my MA, it was quite something to be in that room and have to answer questions. And the funny thing about the interview was that I actually got into quite an argument with Laiou during the interview and apparently that so impressed her that I got the fellowship. So, years later, she actually said to me, “You were like an Amazon. I’d just never seen anything like it.” And I had very long flowing hair at that time and so it’s very funny to have that memory of that interview, which for me was so scary. But obviously, the impression they had was very different from my impression. And then, happily, I got the fellowship and I was the only one given the fellowship and that allowed me to study Medieval Greek in Thessaloniki for a year. A very strange year, because it was the year where there were a lot of strikes at the university. And I would write letters by hand, this is the pre-email time, of course, to Robert Thomson to tell him what was going on, and he would send me the most beautiful letters—so thoughtful—about how I should spend my time and kind of giving me leave to travel. “Don’t worry, you should go see the country, you should visit the monuments,” and he actually gave me a lot of hope on how to manage that situation. So, it was nice to have that ongoing connection with Dumbarton Oaks through my time in Greece as well.

AS: You are an archaeologist and an art historian. In what ways did you make use of Dumbarton Oaks’ resources. How did you find the collection here at DO in relation to your research and the projects you were working on?

SG: Depending on the project, the collection is uneven, let’s say. Because often I work in Greece particularly, Dumbarton Oaks often didn’t have recent Greek publications. So that was an issue. For work on the Crusades, often Dumbarton didn’t have the Western medieval publications, but for other projects it did, for example, for the book on sanctuary screens, Dumbarton Oaks obviously has an excellent collection on liturgy and these kinds of books. So, the collection was hit or miss. I think the librarians were always very good about ordering books they didn’t have at the time I was there, but because I was affiliated with the university that had a good library I could often supplement; or I had my own library of Greek books to supplement what DO didn’t have.

AP: Absolutely. So during the two fellowships that you had, who were some of the other Byzantinists there at Dumbarton Oaks that you might have interacted with—you later, for example, coedited a volume, Approaching the Holy Mountain, with Robert Nelson. Did you have any interaction with him at Dumbarton Oaks or how did the kind of the interactions that you had [at DO], how did that play into the intellectual discussion that you later had?

SG: I didn’t have any interaction with Robert Nelson and I have to confess that I don’t really know Robert Nelson well at all. That book emerged from an exhibition he had done the Getty Museum, and it was in the framework of that exhibition that we held a symposium. We cosponsored the symposium out in California between UCLA and the Getty, and that was the first time we had worked together.

But the scholar, I would say that I had the most interaction with, I mean, who was a cofellow—I mean, there are many scholars I had interactions with—but let’s start with my cofellow Nicholas Constas, who was a fellow with me. We were five junior fellows when I had a junior fellowship. I was there for a semester in 1993 and we became very close and we continue to be extremely close, even today, I mean we read each other’s materials. He’s just a fabulous collaborator, fabulous person. So, I have Dumbarton Oaks to thank for that friendship. When I was a junior fellow at Dumbarton Oaks, I think the structure was quite different, because the junior fellows were all five of us at a time, put in a room together and on the same floor where there were very senior scholars like Alexander Kazhdan and Alice-Mary Talbot and other people involved in the Hagiography Database, which was going on at that time or in the Oxford Dictionary Byzantium. There were always very senior scholars coming through Dumbarton Oaks in addition to the director, Angeliki Laiou.

The director of studies, at some point was Henry Maguire, and at another point Alice-Mary Talbot. So, for junior scholars, especially, this was really formative for them because even though there were barriers, let’s say, that were set by the architecture of the building or just by the general ethos of the whole structure, just being in that environment and having those human resources available was really critical for people’s work. And I remember I consulted with Kazhdan several times about an article I was writing. It was just helpful to have that kind of feedback from, really, giants in the field. I think that’s changed a lot in the institution now without having those project-based people in the building. I think that it may create a different sort of experience for modern scholars.

AS: Now there are visiting scholars who act as mentors to the junior fellows and who interact systematically with the regular fellows.

SG: I think my view of Dumbarton Oaks is kind of a time capsule because I haven’t been so involved in Dumbarton Oaks for 15 and a half years since I moved to the West Coast and also had a child, so my views are of a particular space.

AS: Let me ask you if you have any symposium or conference or scholarly project that stands out in your memory for any particular reason?

SG: I mean, there are several. The first, I think what’s important for your history of the institution was the Crusader symposium that was organized by Angeliki Laiou and Roy Mottahedeh. This was the first symposium at Dumbarton Oaks where the symposiarchs dared to invite four younger scholars. You know until that time, it was the gray-haired, the great gray-haired men and a few women who gave papers and this kind of broke this barrier, where four younger scholars, and I think that was the end of that, the age stratification, and the feedback on that conference was, “why haven’t we done this before?” and how amazing it had been because there was this other energy in the room. Following that I also was symposiarch of two conferences. So, the same thing happened because there was a very different group of people invited for my two symposia. The one on sacred screens, which was held in 2003, that was a very small topic that was originally perceived as something that would be too narrow. But it was considered to be one of the best symposia from what I heard, because it was a deep dive into something that everyone shared from many, many different viewpoints. And I think the same holds true for the Morea conference that I organized. There was a lot of feedback that this was the region, particularly in Greece, that people didn’t usually look at. And I have to say even though there was a Greek director for a long time at Dumbarton Oaks, the research on Greece, especially Greek art history, Greek archaeology, really, in a way, I would say lagged behind for reasons I’m happy to talk about, but that was a problem. So, I think this was the first time a lot of people were exposed to an area in Byzantium that they hadn’t really fully encountered before.

And I can’t even begin to explain how transgressive this Crusader conference was, how it was perceived to have four people—can you imagine, under 40—present, and I think they were four female scholars as well. So that was very unusual. Just kind of, it’s funny because she [Angeliki Laiou] was so supportive of younger scholars and especially the younger female scholars. An enormous champion, I have to say, for me. We were so close. And I really owe my career to her, I mean, her support. She was never my professor or my advisor, but she was my mentor and I really, I have still just tremendous, tremendous love and affection. And say, I mean I can go on and on about her. One thing about her that I—well, I have many, many memories. One, of course, I used to walk in the garden when as a fellow very early. I would get up at six in the morning. I would be there, maybe seven, going through the back entrance, and she would always be there with her dog running around early in the morning and we would have amazing conversations, short ones, but very impactful ones out there. It was amazing to have those off-the-record encounters with her. And the second thing was when you walked into the Main Building, and I don’t know if this is the case today, you would encounter walking up those steps where I think there are now showcases, there would be two huge pots of freesias. And freesias were her favorite flower. Even aromatically for me, I always connect freesias with her and with the building. It was very strong, you know, memory, smell memory of coming into the building and having her imprint.

AP: Building off of that idea of your longer history at Dumbarton Oaks, especially as a female scholar, and a younger female scholar, how would you say things changed from your very initial interactions with Dumbarton Oaks in the late 1980s versus, I believe you are here as a fellow from 2001 to 2002, what was the evolution and those periods that you saw?

SG: Well, so when I first was, I mean I wouldn’t say, well . . . I think the building, the community was very hierarchical when I first started. I was used to that from my own graduate institution, how it worked the same way where professors were on the third floor and students never rose to the third floor. And I felt also at the beginning, Dumbarton Oaks was a place of closed spaces and open spaces. You knew offices that one didn’t enter, and offices that were more accessible. And it was the same situation at the symposia, or even the colloquia where there was a hierarchy in who would ask questions. You know, the first question would be Ihor Ševčenko. The second questioner would be another male, older scholar and the younger people never dared even to raise their hands or ask questions and now that’s a very different situation. And I remember the first conference I went to where some cheeky young scholar got up and asked a question; I felt completely scandalized that the pattern that I had grown up with had been broken. I thought, “how dare that person get up and ask a question.” And I think that that’s not the case anymore at Dumbarton Oaks, there aren’t these closed and open spaces. I think maybe moving the program out of the old house has kind of broken down those barriers that in some ways were good, in some ways, not so good, right? In some ways it could make people feel excluded. In some ways it could make people feel special, but that could also lead to jealousies in the field, long term. So, I think that breaking down those barriers was a positive thing. I think that the opening of the symposia, the broadening of the audience is imperative for the field. I mean, it couldn’t stay the male-centered discipline it was. Obviously, right now we have other issues of diversity that we need to critically think about and I think Dumbarton Oaks has to think about that because it’s been a very white-centered field for a long time. So, I hope Dumbarton Oaks can take a leadership role and also diversify that way.

It was also a kind of theater of intimidation, in a way. It maintained a certain male-centric, let’s say gravity, to the field which I think we haven’t really gotten past. In many ways, we’re still working against that in the field. If you think about who are the senior scholars, in which positions, that hasn’t completely changed. Then, Audrey and Anna, to answer your question also, just thinking about it, I don’t know if this has changed but when I started at Dumbarton Oaks, obviously the field was very philology-centric. And so, at the symposia the philologists would be front and center and the art historians used to be placed on Sunday, Sunday morning, the kind of the “light entertainment” group at the end of the conference. I don’t think it was ever perceived to be as valuable as the philology or as the history. So, I think that also may have changed. In the programs I ran this was all mixed together, but that feeling that art history was somehow secondary even to archaeology was very, to me, pervasive in some ways.

AS: Right now, as you know, we have two art historians among the senior fellows who are really defending the presence of art history in all of the events, and they’re vigilant about it!

What are the things you’re most grateful about in terms of what Dumbarton Oaks has provided for you. You told us a little bit. But if you have any more things to share . . .

SG: I mean for me. And because I was at such a young age, so early in my career pulled into Dumbarton Oaks, it really kind of launched my career very quickly. So, in some ways I think people think I might be more senior than I am, because I was associated with Dumbarton Oaks for so many years. The important thing to me were the connections that I made to scholars who worked in allied fields and with whom I collaborated. For example, I’ve written several articles together with Alice-Mary Talbot. I mean, that was a wonderful collaboration to have. We have very different views of things but very fertile in collaboration. It was fantastic. Or a conference that I ran with John Haldon. So those connections to other scholars are really critical. For me, living far from Dumbarton Oaks now, that’s what I retain. I don’t have much connection anymore to the institution.

I think also maybe, and, I want to say this specifically pertains to the era of Laiou as director, there was an expectation of a certain level of research that you worked to a certain level in the field. Her questioning of fellows after talks, her persona, her own standards for herself I think really filtered throughout the building. And I think that her expectations, I want to say permeated the bodies, the minds of the scholars, at least for me as a younger person and I think that, to me, has also influenced my work and my own expectations that they measure up to the standards that she set. And I think that my own students, they hear about that and they understand that those expectations came down from this or from Dumbarton Oaks and so at that time my expectations for my own research and for my students’ research were impacted or formed by my experience at Dumbarton Oaks.

AP: So, you talked a little bit earlier about your interaction with the Byzantine scholars and the Byzantine fellows. And, of course, how Laiou impacted your career. How about your interaction with some of the other fellows? Of course, Dumbarton Oaks has the three disciplines all kind of intermingled. Was there a sense that there’s a lot of discussion among fields? I mean, they’re all very different. But what was that kind of intellectual climate like, especially during lunches and other gatherings.

SG: At that time there was not much interaction. The three libraries were separate, the fellows were in separate parts of the building. There was not a lot of interaction for the research talks. I honestly can’t remember. I guess all the junior fellows were together from the three areas, but we didn’t all live in the same building. At lunch, everybody sat at different tables with their fields, so all the Pre-Columbian fellows sat with the Pre-Columbian director, all the Byzantinists sat together. Remember there was no kind of social interaction, there was no way for us to get to know each other really because some of us lived in the Fellows’ Building, some lived elsewhere. And for me, I guess, because I was only ever a fellow for, except for my junior fellowship, for a semester at a time, I was always placed in the Fellows’ Building. So, I didn’t live with the other fellows, but I didn’t see in the dining hall those interactions and the setup, it wasn’t the Refectory. It was the first floor of the old Fellows’ Building, right, so the tables were smaller. There wasn’t, there wasn’t a lot of interaction. If you happen to have intellectual connections that was a different matter. So, for example, I had a very close connection to Jeff Quilter, who was the head of Pre-Columbian Studies. At some point because of interest in archaeology and also because of my archaeological work, I was often going down in the basement to use Pre-Columbian Library. So, I think, again, the building itself, the physical plan of the building, reinforced separation. That was especially the case of the landscape architecture people because they were off in a completely separate part of the building that no one went into. And there were no, I mean, I suppose, maybe, because I think I came the second semester—but I don’t remember even in the introductions for fellows being taken on a tour of the Pre-Columbian Collection. Or I don’t remember even a tour of the other libraries. I think the three areas were quite separated. And it’s funny, I think people even dressed differently, you know. The Pre-Columbianists were dressed down. The Byzantinists, when I was there at least, wouldn’t walk into the building not dressed appropriately. I mean, that’s how different things are today. And I’ve been really shocked when I go into building now to see those differences. I mean we dressed professionally. It was, you’re going to a professional place, not in jeans and a t-shirt. That would have never happened.

AS: Do you have any memorable story that stands out in your mind of all these years, that you think should be part of our institutional memory?

SG: I mean I have so many stories. I mean, I remember . . . no, I can’t think of one specifically. I’m thinking about the stories of the ghosts; looking for the ghost of Mrs. Bliss with a bunch of the fellows. You know where the ghost was supposed to inhabit the part of the building that was the third floor of the library, which you only got up to the creaky winding staircase and being told that the ghost lived in a certain row of books. Many of us went to search for the ghost but never found it.

AS: This is the Main House now. The Main House where Publications are housed now.

SG: Well, it was a very strange place because the windows there on the third floor were covered with a kind of plastic sheeting that would even move slightly. So, you could imagine why people would say there was a ghost there.

AP: You have talked about Director Laiou’s incredible directorship at Dumbarton Oaks. But if—I believe you were also here a little bit under Ned Keenan in his early years as director—how did the initiatives that they individually undertook impact Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks? I know, you mentioned the space, and the physical structure of the building. Do you get a sense after Director Keenan’s massive construction efforts that things have shifted a bit?

SG: I think, and I’m not alone in thinking that the importance of my field, which was the primary field when I was a fellow, and even when I was a joint appointment, changed under Keenan. That there was a reallocation of fellowships, for example. That the emphasis on building really took away from the program. I personally felt he was very unsympathetic to the Byzantine program. I felt like he was there to pull Dumbarton Oaks more into Harvard and make it less of an independent institution. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. I had very little interaction with him. I had the impression he was just put there as a placeholder and to do the construction on behalf of Harvard, but I didn’t feel like he ever had the love for the institution.

AS: How did the relationship between Harvard and Dumbarton Oaks, as well as between Dumbarton Oaks and other Washington cultural institutions, like the National Gallery, affect your studies and your fellowship at DO?

SG: As you know, I was the joint appointment between Dumbarton Oaks and the University of Maryland for four years. So, I think this program was really important in providing seed money for universities to start new positions in Byzantine studies, and there were quite a few of them when I was appointed at Maryland. The program wasn’t seen as so successful in the end, because most of those universities did not pick up the lines.

So even though for a while, it seemed like a promising program, I don’t know if it continues. I don’t think it was, in the end, a smart use of money. The universities never really bought into the importance of the field of Byzantine studies and I think honestly that’s our fault. I think maybe the goodwill was there at that time, but the field in a way continues to be so insular that they were unable to see the connections to other faculty or programs.

So, Dumbarton Oaks, when I was there, the only other cultural institution it was involved with was the Center for Hellenic Studies across the valley, so we did go visit there. I did use the library there occasionally, but at least when I was a fellow, there were no other, as far as I know, formal associations with local Washington institutions. Of course, the fellows, certain fellows, were selected to go to Harvard to lecture, and I did this a few times when I was a fellow. When I was there, there wasn’t the program of the Bliss Fellows, or this or that of having Harvard students come down. So, the two were really quite separate. Dumbarton Oaks was really independent and that changed. That’s started to shift substantially, I think by Keenan and now under [Jan] Ziolkowski.

AS: So were there any connections or any interaction with the National Gallery, or the other big Washington institutions that you can remember?

SG: I want to say with Laiou there might have been some connection with the Greek embassy in terms of their cultural programming, but there was nothing, there were no connections. And at that time, of course CASVA [Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art] when I was a fellow didn’t really give fellowships to Byzantinists because they thought that was Dumbarton Oaks’ job. That changed slightly later. But we would occasionally go to CASVA to hear lectures. There wasn’t a formal, as far as I know, there was no formal interaction or urge to interact with them. We did occasionally go if there were Byzantine lectures at Georgetown. But again, there was nothing formalized—that was simply word of mouth that somebody was giving a lecture, and we might actually go to it.

AP: Thank you. Well, I wanted to ask you about Dumbarton Oaks’ role in the international context of Byzantine studies as a whole. You had the lovely experience in Thessaloniki in the late ’80s, but besides that, how do you think the institution played a role both in attracting international fellows for conferences and symposia, but then also in providing fellows and providing scholars with international connections?

SG: I think Dumbarton Oaks has been instrumental in bringing fellows from other countries to the US. And there was, when I worked there when I was a fellow, a kind of difference between the way Europeans approached Byzantine studies and the way Americans approached Byzantine studies. There’s always the saying in Greece, that, “you have an American style of scholarship.” You know that’s not seen as a very positive thing, by the way. Or Greek scholars would be very text-based or very monuments-based, but not theoretical. So at least at Dumbarton Oaks there could be an interaction where approaches taken by American scholars, a broader approach perhaps, might somehow get mixed together with this unbelievable knowledge that people from Europe or Russia had of the monuments or of primary texts or even of objects. So, this was really useful and trying to move the field in a direction. I’m not sure how, conversely, Dumbarton Oaks might have helped Americans in Europe, other than the project grant program, which provided seed funding particularly for archaeologists or certain projects in other countries. I held one of those as well and that was obviously very helpful. More of a follow-up for me to think about that more carefully, but again, I have this time capsule of 15 years ago to think about.

AS: Would you say that Dumbarton Oaks has been a sort of crossroads, an international crossroads for Byzantine studies in particular? Would you say that? I mean already Byzantinists are pretty cosmopolitan and international, because of their field. Isn’t it so?

SG: I think it could be more international. I think it’s given some scholars opportunities. I think the symposia have limited potential to bring international scholars because of the expenses involved. For me, it was really critical to have those connections to scholars and other countries. I mean, aside from what I said about Nicholas Constas, I still have very, very close friends who were fellows: Maria Parani, Ioanna Rapti. But that was me, in particular, because my DNA had been replaced by Greek DNA by that point. So, having friends who are Greek was natural because we spoke Greek together. I can’t say how many American fellows created those international connections. I would say even now, the majority of the papers I give are in Europe rather than the United States because my own research, I think accords more, aligns more closely with more a European approach to scholarship.

AS: Do you think that Dumbarton Oaks has an academic duty to launch public outreach initiatives, particularly in regard to its role in Byzantine art history?

SG: I think it would be a positive thing for Dumbarton Oaks to take a leadership role. So, for example, even at this moment where we’re stuck in our houses, there are huge discussions about the fate of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and Dumbarton Oaks could easily organize an international event focusing on that monument without creating a symposium but creating more of a public outreach. There is a huge thirst of people who want to discuss this topic right now and there of course are monuments in Greece and elsewhere that are in danger—or conversely ones that have been recently renovated—that it would be good for people to know about, for example, Moni Dafniou in Athens has been recently renovated. Well, it’s not a published monument really so to have the archaeologists together with an art historian discuss recent work and have a series on Byzantine monuments would be a really useful thing for Dumbarton Oaks to do and we’re just finding in my own institution, my own center (the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture), that Greek scholars are eager to have these kinds of collaborations and it’s not just Greek scholars. For example, in Istanbul, the chapel of St. Euphemia has just been beautifully restored. The frescoes, nobody’s ever seen them in color. They were published by Belting in black and white. So, to have the restorer actually have a presentation and Q and A enables people who aren’t able to travel to these places, and especially students, to hear from the restorer and the person who will publish the building, about their work, prepublication. And maybe for that person, conversely, to be enriched by some of the discussion that would also help with their publication. I think it would be a really positive thing, and it could be open beyond scholars to the public. So, my own center at UCLA, our programming is both for scholars and the educated public. Dumbarton Oaks’ symposia have always brought members of the educated public from Washington and elsewhere into the building. It’s the only way the field is going to survive.

AP: What other programs or initiatives, would you like to see Dumbarton Oaks take on in the Byzantine Studies program in particular? Maybe symposia topics, conferences, but also some of the opportunities afforded by Zoom?

SG: I think all institutions right now are thinking about public humanities in the face of the humanities—I don’t want to say dying—but being in dire straits right now, so I think whatever public programming Dumbarton Oaks could do would be very helpful. People are hungry to get their information out there, but they don’t have public fora right now to do it. Now there are many, many Byzantine scholars who are amazing but who, for whatever reason, don’t have the opportunity to go to Dumbarton Oaks, who would probably love to talk about their work or their new finds and so much of the scholarship is rehashing the same works over and over again. And I think putting some of this new material out there for people in an interesting way. Every time some substantial new discovery—I’m going back to Saint Euphemia in Constantinople, because that is a critical monument for the 13th century that nobody really thinks about—and to invite Engin Akyürek who is the person working on it, who’s assisting with the Koç ANAMED center, is very open to speaking about the material. You know and have him in dialogue with someone in the US or someone from Dumbarton Oaks in a discussion about the building and what did Belting say about it. What has changed since the cleaning? That opens a whole new world. And every time one of these monuments comes to light or a new painting or new book, it changes how the field has to pivot, to think about it. But that’s, nothing that can happen at Dumbarton Oak will change the field, right. Because that’s only seen by a few people, and that’s the thing about Zoom is that you actually can really start to change the field now.

AS: The Saint Euphemia?  

SG: It is spectacular. I mean, I was blown away by the images.

I think that if you can extend beyond with strategic partnership, you can partner with museums, you can partner with the Byzantine museums in Athens or in Thessaloniki or with the Koç in Istanbul to extend your reach. Not permanently, but to say we’re going to have this lecture series. We’d like to focus on this subject, could you do lectures with us, that will open to Byzantinists and the public in both your country and our country.

AS: Yeah, no, no, I hear you, I hear you very carefully. This is going to be at a transitional year everywhere.

SG: Back to Audrey’s question. Just being away from Dumbarton Oaks, on my own approach now because I do a lot of ethnography in my work, so for me, I don’t now just want to be a scholar of before 1453. And I’ve said this in a bunch of lectures, if I can’t play a role in saving the monuments that I study, then I have no business studying them. Now my current project actually involves a building of 1075 that’s falling down and raising the money to preserve it and keeping that community together around it.

That’s in Vamvaka in Mani. It’s a very important church. I have actually been part of a film that was made about the building. And a really important issue again that Dumbarton Oaks could take on, is, “how do we as Byzantinists become strategic players in preserving the works that we study?” It’s not just enough to publish the article and then go away. And I just feel more and more like this imperialist attitude, this colonial attitude toward our buildings is not, it’s not working anymore. And it’s part of what's leading to people not wanting to rehire Byzantine positions. So then, how do we as scholars also become activists? That’s the critical thing for me in my work right now.

The discussion to be had is how can we change the field and now is the moment to do it. I mean, if we don’t have these discussions right now . . . I think there’s a widespread perception that the state of the field, of the Byzantine field, is partially the fault of Dumbarton Oaks. So, I think having Dumbarton Oaks step back and say, “we need to push the field out,” would be a very positive thing for the institution.

AP: We’ve touched on this kind of as we’ve gone through, but in the post COVID-19 world—and in a world that’s already more digital, especially for art history, especially for archaeology—how do you envision Byzantine studies growing and expanding, particularly with the public outreach side of things?

SG: I think Dumbarton Oaks needs to maybe expand and make its digital collections accessible, more accessible. People now can’t come into DO, and I think it all needs to be scanned, opened. I think they should be soliciting, actively soliciting, collections of scholars. There are many people retiring who would love to have some place to put their image collections. And those are important archives that DO should have. There will be fewer and fewer people in the building, so providing access to materials will be very helpful. I have a friend who is looking for a microfilm. He can’t come into the building. How can you make it possible for people to gain access to materials, even at this time so that the institution remains, you know, provides what it’s known for providing.

AS: Can I say here that the coins and seals are being uploaded, and also there is a big collection of textiles, which has been digitized, and it’s also online.

SG: The coins have been very helpful to my teaching, as have the seals. When the shutdown happened, one could put their head down and just hide, or one could see it as an opportunity. For my own Center, we took it immediately as an opportunity, and we’ve reached audiences that we would have never reached as a result. So, I think, you need to seize the moment and think about how you can reach students and scholars and people of the general public who would never enter the doors of Dumbarton Oaks. And I think that it’s so easy for you to do that. You have a brand name that everyone knows. You have in-house scholars, but you also have a huge number of ex-scholars, ex-fellows who still have some kind of affection for the institution and would be happy to give their time without compensation, just to have some intellectual stimulation and also feel like they’re reaching new audiences. And luckily right now the English language seems to be the language of Zoom. So, you know, I think there is opportunity to reach out to scholars, for example in Japan and India and China, in ways that Dumbarton Oaks hasn’t made inroads in Asia at all. I think this is a very important direction for the field to go into, maybe pulling together an online symposium about the Silk Road, you know, with scholars from each of the countries together, you have an opportunity to bring an international audience in a way that financially is not easy at any other time. But I think people are eager to share their research right now.

AP: Professor Gerstel, this was so wonderful. Thank you. This was wonderful.

AS: We are very happy. Thank you. That was an excellent beginning of the new set of interviews, Sharon.

SG: Thank you.