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Susan Toby Evans

Susan Toby Evans declined an oral history interview but agreed to prepare answers to a scripted questionnaire. The following are her reminiscences which she began on February 26, 2012, based on the questionnaire. At Dumbarton Oaks, Susan Toby Evans was a Fellow (1995–1996) and a Summer Fellow (1997–1998) of Pre-Columbian Studies. She was the editor and an author of the Dumbarton Oaks publication, Ancient Mexican Art at Dumbarton Oaks (2010) and the co-editor (with Joanne Pillsbury) of the Pre-Columbian Studies symposium volume, Palaces of the Ancient New World (2004).

I tried to follow the questionnaire, but then as I reviewed my history with Dumbarton Oaks, I realized that Dumbarton Oaks has been almost as important in my development as a scholar as has Penn State (my PhD alma mater and long-term primary institutional affiliation) and that the relationship has been complicated. Over the years I’ve taken several different roles at Dumbarton Oaks, and these experiences opened up new opportunities – Dumbarton Oaks keeps sharing, with me and other scholars, a rich supply of ideas and information, and the bountiful harvest of advances in the field of pre-Columbian studies, for example, can immediately be seen in the D.O. publication list. Beyond that is a much wider effect of Dumbarton Oaks, the innumerable other books and papers and conferences inspired or improved by our days or months at Dumbarton Oaks. Scholars who build a relationship with Dumbarton Oaks are able to have careers rich in the pleasures of the life of the mind.

Today (February 26, 2012), I am getting ready to visit Dumbarton Oaks yet again, for a Study Day co-organized by the Pre-Columbian Studies program at D.O. and the Library of Congress, and focusing on Tenochtitlan/Mexico City, particularly as depicted in early Colonial period maps. Such maps were among my discoveries during my D.O. fellowship year (1995-1996), searching for Aztec palaces. In the old PC Rare Book room in the basement of the Main Building were wonderful high-quality facsimile editions of codices and early maps, there for the browsing.

I found the Mapa de Mexico de 1550, a view of Tenochtitlan/Mexico City full of genre figures and little buildings in native style, some houses marked with a pierced disk to signify that they were native palaces. I was well aware of this meaning of the pierced “preciousness” disk as the most valued objects in the entire Central Mexican world, but as I perused the map on that May evening, I had no idea that the real thing was locked in a safe in the next room. The two matched carved jadeite disks (PC.B.133a and b) were heavy with elegant beauty and ancient meaning. They are probably over 1,500 years old and represent related concepts of preciousness and rulership and even the count of a single day, or the perfect circle of a ripple in still water.

For me, these jade disks would hold a key to the puzzle of Teotihuacan’s history, and the importance of water worship (as shown in the Bliss Collection’s net-jaguar mural). All of these ideas would develop over the course of my editorship of the new catalogue of the Bliss Collection’s objects from Central Mexico, their first comprehensive treatment in over fifty years. I was able to show how the preciousness disk motif linked Bliss Collection objects pertaining to Teotihuacan, and I appreciate the present display of all these objects, with the disks adjacent to the great net-jaguar mural and painted ceramic vessels that repeat the motif.

All of this was far ahead of me as I began to count the Aztec palaces in the Mapa de Mexico – seeking patterns in the surviving locations of known city-state rulers. Meanwhile, I continue to explore the meaning of the preciousness disk, particularly as it expressed the sanctity of water imagery in the Teotihuacan and Aztec worlds. These matters range over my major research topics, such as “Aztecs” and also “hydrology” which merges into “monumental parks” which overlap with “palaces” (and so on). For all these ventures, Dumbarton Oaks has been a valued resource and generous patron, sowing opportunity and hoping that its scholars bring in a harvest of good work.

When I started using the Dumbarton Oaks library in 1981, my research interests were far removed from palaces and polished jades. My 1980 dissertation pertained to crop yields in the Teotihuacan Valley before European contact. In 1981, I moved to Washington to teach at Catholic University in D.C., and weekly visits to the D.O. library were an important part of life as a scholar. Over thirty years later, Dumbarton Oaks continues to be essential to me as a scholar and as a veteran member of its wide-ranging extended family.

Describing the people at Dumbarton Oaks as a “family” may seem trite to outsiders but it bears a lot of truth. From the first time I entered the Main Building I had a sense of being welcome to become a part of the life of an academic great house (including Levi-Strauss’s sense of the term). The people were convivial and relaxed and the building seemed a grand old mansion semi-converted to the needs of scholarship but strongly retaining its own identity as an elegant, lived-in home with a fascinating history. And the gardens were an education and inspiration.

In 1981, Elizabeth Boone had just begun her term as Director of Pre-Columbian Studies and I had just begun an assistant professorship in the Anthropology Department of Catholic University. The friendship Elizabeth and I developed then, when we were both new in our careers as pre-Columbianists, has been a great pleasure ever since.

In the early 1980s I was a long-distance weekly commuter between Washington and Pine Grove Mills, Pennsylvania (and my husband), and the Dumbarton Oaks community was essential to me. I learned the impressive range of the D.O. stacks and enjoyed the intellectual interchange at informal meetings, research presentations, and dinners at Elizabeth’s home. At several of these I got to know Gordon Willey, Bowditch Professor at Harvard and my own mentor’s mentor – a kind of revered academic lineage grandfather figure. My archaeological work was in the settlement pattern analysis tradition that he had pioneered and my mentor Bill Sanders had elaborated. Elizabeth used to serve Chartreuse after dinner because Gordon liked it, and I discovered that I liked it, too. Whenever I drink it, I recall Gordon and his great kindness to other scholars, particularly junior scholars. And I’m so glad he wasn’t partial to Fernet Branca or I wouldn’t have that occasion to salute his memory.

I began to attend the annual symposia, joined enthusiastically by my husband David Webster, Mayanist archaeologist and a professor of anthropology at Penn State. In those years I also got to know Betty Benson and Bridget Gazzo, who became my good friends and, at crucial times, key resources. Opportunities arose to participate in ongoing Dumbarton Oaks projects such as writing, with Janet Catherine Berlo, the introductory essay for her edited volume on Teotihuacan.

In the early 1980s my research focus was a rural Aztec period village (occupied ca. CE 1200 to 1603) in the Teotihuacan Valley, Mexico. With a National Science Foundation grant I had excavated a fair sample of Cihuatecpan (“Woman-Palace”) village, including a house three times the size of the next largest. This discovery moved my life in a new direction for unexpected reasons. I had met my goal of revealing the lives of the commoners, but also uncovered the only Aztec palace ever completely excavated in the Basin of Mexico. That big house was a small but clear example of the Aztec tecpan, “lord-place”.

It took me a while to figure out that the structure was a tecpan-palace, because no one had comprehensively studied the archaeology of Aztec palaces. These properties were coveted by the Spanish conquistadores and rebuilt in Spanish style, so very few archaeological remains have survived. But the sixteenth-century chroniclers gave good descriptions of palaces and courtly life, and I learned just how rich these ethnohistorical resources were when I began to research the topic at the Dumbarton Oaks library, with its impressive holdings of facsimile editions of codices, and the most recent Spanish and English editions of all important studies from Mexico and the U.S. My research monograph on Cihuatecpan (1988) owed much to what I was learning at Dumbarton Oaks, and I needed to focus on the palace.

Where better to delve the identity of the Aztec palace than in the buried treasure of the Pre-Columbian Library at Dumbarton Oaks? My fellowship year (1995–1996), devoted to learning about the Aztec palace, was an intellectual watershed, first because I learned so much from my uninterrupted time in the library and second because of the new directions my months at D.O. provided. It was also tremendously enriching to be living in Georgetown with access to Washington’s cultural resources, and meet wonderful people who would remain close colleagues and friends.

At a research presentation that fall I met Joanne Pillsbury and we immediately bonded as palace people. She was investigating what would be a radical innovation in Andean studies – identifying huge residential complexes as palaces. Palace-related issues absorbed our attention and we realized that no one had ever brought together basic descriptions of elite residential architecture in the key culture areas of the New World. It was a natural topic for a Dumbarton Oaks summer workshop and a symposium and edited volume, and those projects were developed and had satisfying success. Joanne and I remain trusted colleagues and good friends.

When I began my fellowship year, Jeff Quilter was beginning his term as Director of Pre-Columbian Studies. We had been trained in the same anthropologically-oriented tradition of modern U.S. archaeology, and understood each other as scholars, sharing many interests and the same kind of sense of humor. David and I enjoyed getting to know Jeff and his wife Sarah. Other Pre-Columbian fellows that year were Sue Bergh and Oswaldo Chinchilla, and we have kept in touch.

It was one of the first years that La Quercia was in use, and George Brock, one of the house staff at Dumbarton Oaks, was our resident concierge and local hero. La Quercia was newly refurbished and besides had George as a steward of the building, and so most things were in good working order. George also saw to it that our larger experience as resident fellows in Washington, D.C. was as memorable as the high quality of Dumbarton Oaks’s libraries.

Jeff Quilter has joked that I looked at every book in the D.O. Pre-Columbian library, and that is a flattering exaggeration. I didn’t look at works pertaining to South America unless I had a particular lead on a topic of interest. Otherwise, I trolled the indexes where possible, and came to use the presence of a useful comprehensive index as a strong measure of the author or editor’s scholarly competence. There was a set of about a dozen topics that I sought, reflecting palace-related subjects but also other ongoing interests. I worked my way through that library very systematically, and photocopied important works so that I could continue research after the fellowship year was over. (Recall that this was 1995–96, which might as well be the Upper Paleolithic in terms of research resources available “on line” -- the card catalogues occupied a lot of space in the Rare Book Room.) I skimmed thousands of books to find the information I needed and I was richly rewarded, even finding a previously unknown ethnohistorical reference to Cihuatecpan, the village I had excavated. A D.O. round table meeting in spring 1996 led to further Aztec palace research.

All through the winter of 1995–1996, those of us working in the basement of the Main House enjoyed the spectacle of sub-sub-basement exploration by teams of technicians installing a new telephone system. Renovation and exploration crews were constantly going through Pre-Columbian Studies in the basement, on their way down to the second or even third basement. Ken Johnson, as new guy, got the most challenging assignments at spelunking and his great attitude suggested that he had a strong future at D.O. We scholars, working long hours in the Main House, got to know the staff and their standard of excellence in maintaining and protecting the buildings and gardens. As Dumbarton Oaks became more technically sophisticated, Pete Haggerty and Jo Ann Murray joined the staff and became tech gurus for all of us who worked there.

When, later, I lived in the Fellows Building on and off for years, I had morning kitchen conversations in the Fellows Building with Lila Guillen and I remember Nora Escobar when she first worked there; I enjoy talking with her these days when she’s working the desk in the Library or Main Building. We who continue to stay in the Guest House appreciate Mario García’s work at maintaining it. Carlos Méndez and I have known each other for years, and I admire his recently unleashed party planning skills with regard to a recent Speakers Dinner. And Hector Paz’s range as a chef is admirable; he readily achieves food that has great flavor and is calorically affordable.

In the winter of 1995–1996, all of us at D.O. became aware that the Main Building was a very old and complicated building, and it was most challenged by the elements during the great snowstorm of January 1996, with attendant power outage in D.O. -- the city was paralyzed. When Dumbarton Oaks reopened, the city was still blanketed with snow, gradually restoring its grid of streets to working order, but upper east Georgetown was among the last to get dug out. The walk to and from La Quercia along R Street, very pleasant in nice weather, became magical in a sheath of white that lasted and lasted. Moreover, one felt perfectly safe walking home to La Quercia at night on R Street, unlikely to meet a mugger on the bright, beautiful, nearly impassable street.

Research into Aztec palaces led inevitably to research into Aztec monumental gardens (e.g. Chapultepec Park, first developed as a monumental garden in the 1420s, and Texcotzingo, possibly the world’s first botanical garden) and this led to informal conversations about garden design matters with John Dixon Hunt, Joaquim Wolschke-Bulmahn and Michel Conan. These conversations led to publications about monumental gardens, and participation in a Landscape Studies symposium and volume. These days I enjoy conversations with John Beardsley as we compare and contrast ancient and modern solutions to the challenge of the twenty-first century’s “new oil”: water.

The late 1990s brought continued contact with Dumbarton Oaks as Joanne Pillsbury and I prepared for our summer seminar and symposium on palaces of the New World. The summer seminar brought together Mesoamericanists (George Andrews, Enrique Gonzalez Licon, David Webster, and me) and Andeanists (Joanne, Bill Isbell). We were trying to hammer out the normative values of New World palaces and elite residences (types of plan, sizes, relation to community, etc.) because this basic comparison had never been done before and would create a solid baseline of types, a prerequisite for further interpretation. Moreover, it would help those of us who were participating in the upcoming symposium and preparing our summary statements. I began to think about how the Aztec palace related to those of Tula and West Mexico, how it related to those of Teotihuacan. We got along well and worked hard, and of course the sheer gorgeous luxury of Dumbarton Oaks in summer creates a strong sense of well-being.

We lunched in what can here correctly be called The Fellows Building. The dining room was in the same place then as now, and we used to have interesting conversations among seminar group and also with others we knew – Glenn Ruby, head of publications, or some of the Byzantinists or Landscape people. Ned Keenan was new as Director and would sometimes lunch with us. He was a great proponent of computerization of print media and education, and one lunch time he argued passionately against paper-borne information, promising to prove to us that no one ever used the old paper volumes in the basement compact stacks. We followed him back to the Main Building, through the foyer and down the winding stairs, while he continued to inveigh against paper books. The farthest compact stack pair was open, and when he got there, Keenan was non-plussed to find a serious-looking young woman sitting on the floor of the gap, clearly doing research. When he said “What are you *doing* here?!?” she looked completely dumbfounded, not without reason.

The summer seminaristas got along well, though Bill Isbell and I had a running disagreement about the importance of post-modernism to scholarship. One day the pre-Columbianist table gave rise to (drumroll) raised voices. It was basically Bill and I who raised our voices, and we determinedly parted on good terms after lunch – and just then Bill’s wife arrived for a weekend visit. Bill had in fact wooed his wife years before when he was a D.O. Fellow and she was Associate Director of Studies – Judy Siggins, noted scholar and one of my favorite people, was in the mood for a cup of coffee and some catch-up conversation with me, which was immensely fun and relaxing. It was a good example of how the D.O. people-network is so interwoven. I had first met Judy in the early 1980s – Elizabeth Boone introduced us, and the three of us enjoyed the occasional Fellows Building lunch, or dinner and a movie – and we had kept in contact at D.O. symposia and Society for American Archaeology meetings.

We of the seminar were living in La Quercia that summer (except, of course, for Joanne), and David and I had apartment 206 (or as the dangling number read, 209). In the rear, this apartment overlooks the alley and driveways and interesting backs of wonderful-looking Georgetown houses, and if I worked at the table by the window it was like the set of a benign “Rear Window.” Walking to the D.O. campus from La Quercia in that and other summers, I always slowed down along Montrose Park because they had a large planting of lavender around the fountain and the fragrance was so refreshing – I have since begun a long bed of lavender around the edge of the big farm pond on our property.

To float on our Pennsylvania pond in summer, watching the hawks and smelling the lavender, is a transcendently pleasant experience, and it shares space on life’s short list with being in or around the pool at Dumbarton Oaks. Whenever I was living at D.O., I was in the pool every day that conditions allowed. A lousy swimmer, I got myself a water-exercise flotation belt and did my half hours of laps without getting my face wet. My favorite time at the pool was seven AM and I always felt lucky if I had the space to myself because, while there were other places in the world that were as beautiful, the simple quiet experience of this place, in this garden, could not be surpassed.

And this attitude led to one of my least poised moments at Dumbarton Oaks. No, not that morning in late October when the gardeners walking through the pool area paused and asked if I needed help as I hauled my shivering self out after one lap (water temp, 59°). No, this was when Don Pumphrey, the famously laconic Head of Grounds, asked me a direct question for the first time in the years of our acquaintance: What did I like best about Dumbarton Oaks? “The pool!” I blurted out. Within nanoseconds I realized that to maintain a reputation as a serious scholar and caring human being I should have said “the library!” or “the collection!” or “the people!” But such is my gratitude to the shimmering space centered upon the D.O. pool that when considered from the perspective of a consistently rewarding experience, time in the pool was always a serenely mindful meditation.

Our palaces symposium in mid-October was a success – the papers were mostly strong and on topic, and Joanne and I appreciated the lively interchanges among our colleagues. In late October I turned my attention to plans for my Mesoamerican overview book – the 20 page outline was due at the publisher by the end of the month. The book would become Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History; the first edition won the Society for American Archaeology’s Book Award. The book was an outgrowth of my editorship of the encyclopedia Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America, and for both these projects the D.O. library was a great help, and so were the people encountered at Dumbarton Oaks – including D.O.’s greater community of scholars, others like me who had been made to feel welcome and made visiting Dumbarton Oaks a regular part of their schedule.

In late 1998, Joanne and I got to work pulling the symposium volume into shape. We looked ahead to an uncomplicated publication process, and had emphasized to our authors the need to move expeditiously. As sometimes happens, misunderstandings occurred between editors and one or two authors. Some papers unrelated to the larger topic were withdrawn, leaving a couple of major culture areas unmentioned. In consequence, essential features of elite residential architecture in these culture areas were reassigned to existing papers. And so my paper on Aztec palaces also presented the basics of palaces in Teotihuacan and Tula. The symposium volume is now in a paperback edition.

As Director of Pre-Columbian Studies, Jeff Quilter had inherited the ongoing project of publishing the first new edition of the catalogue of the Bliss Collection in nearly fifty years. The Andean volumes had been published under Elizabeth Boone’s directorship and the Olmec volume was nearly ready for the Publications Office.

As planned in the series, the “Central Mexico” volume would cover the Bliss Collection’s objects from the Central Highlands and adjacent regions. Several art historians had considered taking on editorship but then realized that their schedules didn’t permit them to come to Dumbarton Oaks for a fellowship term to lay the project’s groundwork, select co-authors, and address research issues pertaining to their own share of the write-ups and articles. Jeff knew that I had managed the production of the Mesoamerican encyclopedia manuscript, with hundreds of authors and my own organizational plan, so I could probably deal with the catalogue project and its half-dozen authors and topics. Plus, by then I knew every stage of the book production process and had a fairly comprehensive knowledge of my field and my colleagues. Jeff felt that these were all positive signs of an ability to bring the project to completion, and thus the catalogue series would continue on course.

Frankly, I was daunted (this turned out to be fully justified, as the years passed) and told Jeff that I wasn’t really an “objects person” but Jeff pointed out that my experience as a field archaeologist meant that I was of course an “objects” person. Technically, in the art historical sense, I was correct about not being an “objects person” at that time, but again, Dumbarton Oaks gave me a fabulous opportunity to grow as a scholar and I became a hybrid archaeologist-art historian objects person, using the resources of the library and the collection, the objects themselves, training myself to see in the objects the attributes essential to a proper art-historical description and analysis. Interactions with Betty and Elizabeth and Joanne were an immense help in this regard, and Jeff was also building a reputation as an archaeologist with a strong art-historical perspective.

It was during this time that I got to know Sue Boyd, then Curator of the Byzantine Collection, and I can thank Dumbarton Oaks for arranging yet another memorable friendship. We have since enjoyed socializing, and she and David and I went together on a tour of Egypt. When I met her, it was to borrow a book that the D.O. library didn’t have, but she did. The book was Fake and I needed to read it as part of a quick study about this chronic problem in the world of art history and art galleries. You would think that a field archaeologist would know about such things, but my specialty was Aztec rural sites, and no one would bother to fake those pot sherds. I read all I could about fakes and how they were detected, because it was possible that some objects in the Bliss Collection were more recently manufactured than previously supposed. There were many questions about the carved greenstone Figure in the Act of Childbirth (Tlazolteotl), now believed to be in the style of Aztec sculpture rather than from the Aztec period. The sibling piece, Rabbit, is also unlikely to have been made and finished five hundred years ago.

The carved jade disks were not at risk in this assessment. The material, type of sculpting and finishing all seem completely authentic. Down in the Rare Book Room of the Pre-Columbian Studies Library, I would don purple latex gloves to handle the jade disks, and I would wonder at their origin. I worked a lot in the Rare Book Room as the catalogue came together, and I remember the day in June 2002 that several things clicked, with the Bliss Collection’s jade disks and Teotihuacan mural (and Teo vessels) as material springboards for approaching multiple features of Teotihuacan and its culture: the iconography of the disk motif (in the Bliss Collection’s disks, the Teotihuacan mural and vessels – and all over Mesoamerica in the Classic period, always signifying Teotihuacan), the meaning of the mural’s water temple, springs and canals, the relationship of water to political power, the timing of the layout of the city’s grid of apartment compounds with the city’s drainage system, which then fed the nearby system of canal-gridded drained fields (“chinampas”) – highly productive agriculture in a challenging setting.

I thought back on the day twenty-five years before, in the town of San Juan Teotihuacan, that my mentor William Sanders took us grad students into the walled confines of the cathedral close, where a verdant pool evidenced one of the last of the old springs that once burbled out at the southwest edge of the ancient city. They watered a drained field area so fertile that a local population of tens of thousands could be supported. Bill explained that powerful factions always try to control water sources, and thus the Colonial period church moved quickly to build on this property and secure this valuable water source. They may have built over a native water temple, like the one on the Dumbarton Oaks mural. Water was the principle reason for the existence of Teotihuacan, and my research into the Bliss Collection objects brought together so many pieces – from iconography to crop yields – of the puzzle that is Teotihuacan.

Tracing these relationships at Teotihuacan and exploring this iconography has become an ongoing focus of my research and scholarly output, with the catalogue itself, of course being the first and primary presentation of my findings and interpretations. Working on the catalogue gave me space to review the existing literature on these matters, heightening the catalogue’s timeliness and relevance. The harvest from my association with Dumbarton Oaks continues with upcoming and recent articles, public lectures, book projects. I am currently writing a book about Teotihuacan’s rise and fall, from the perspective of access to water as a dominant feature development.

In a sense, the experience of being put in charge of the presentation of these objects by Dumbarton Oaks to the public prompted a new phase of my palace research, because these objects were surely the accoutrements of the elites and the output of elite workshops. To plan the catalogue and begin research, I was offered a one-term fellowship, but opted instead to take my research days twelve at a time – typically, a Monday morning to the next week’s Friday afternoon – over the course of the next few years. I believe that because of this “intermittent fellowship” (my term, not D.O.’s) I became the particular demon in the life of Marlene Chazan, Dumbarton Oaks’s able long-time financial officer, but it was not my intention to annoy -- my choice was dictated by other obligations and my own nature: I am basically a home-loving person who enjoyed the opportunity to spend significant and well-planned stretches of days at Dumbarton Oaks focusing on the catalogue project and living in the Fellows Building, particularly appreciating Room 7 for its morning light.

If the beauty and comprehensiveness of the completed catalogue volume indicate level of success, then all of us who worked on it deserve hearty congratulations. There were many challenges. The process of coordinating the production of the articles was complicated by communication problems among project participants. Furthermore, these were the years of major campus development and renovation of the Main Building, so the objects were put in storage. In addition, the D.O. Publications Office was hit by the sudden passing of its leader, Glenn Ruby, and it was several years before a steady course was restored.

Changes in the Publications Office leadership had an immediate and costly impact on the catalogue volume. As originally submitted in a format approved by Glenn, the articles varied considerably in length – because the objects varied considerably in interest and importance. Under the new policies of the reorganized Publications Office, however, I was instructed to standardize all articles to 2,000 words. I was dismayed with this directive, and so were my authors. I did my best to ameliorate hard feelings, but in conforming to this policy good will was lost along with extended treatments of some of the Bliss Collection’s greatest pieces (the mural, the dart thrower). In time, new Publication Office administration led by Kathy Sparkes revisited these policies and instituted a format that permitted in depth treatment of the most important objects. She and Sara Taylor saw that the volume made us all very proud.

Coincidentally, as I worked on completion of the catalogue and other projects, my husband, David Webster, was appointed as a Senior Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. David is one of the most knowledgeable and fair-minded people I know, with great common sense and dedication to duty, so he had excellent qualifications for the appointment. It was tremendously enjoyable for both of us to be a part of the festivities of each special meeting, and as David’s spouse I felt completely welcome to the memorable parties.

David will soon come to the end of his term as Senior Fellow, and my current publication projects will depend on continued access to the library, but are not Dumbarton Oaks products. Soon, though. I did so much research on the Net Jaguar and Mural – and jadeite disks – that I have everything ready to develop it into a nice contribution to D.O.’s Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology Studies Series. And in 2013, David and I will be attending Steve Houston’s weekend workshop on Piedras Negras, at Dumbarton Oaks. I look forward to all of these opportunities to remain an active part of the Dumbarton Oaks community.