Besides owning Penny Loafers and adoring 1950s-inspired clothing, I have developed additional characteristics similar to those of Nancy Drew. Specifically, during the last few weeks, I have acquired my own set of detective skills, especially through my recent work with Marta Zlotnick, the Registrar at Dumbarton Oaks.
MYSTERY 1: MISSING COINS
There were written records of coins and even photographs of them, but the coins themselves were missing an accession number! How could one go about finding these coins? Head to the Coin Room in the basement of Dumbarton Oaks, grab a magnifying glass, and start sleuthing.
In Philip Grierson’s handwritten notes in the Post-Catalogue Accession binders, these “missing” Byzantine coins to which I refer lacked an accession number, which is a unique number assigned to a newly acquired work of art or object. Without a unique accession number, objects, such as Byzantine coins, cannot be differentiated and their exact locations can be unknown. With Marta, I ventured to the Coin Room to track down the coins. Since Grierson had noted a question mark after the emperor to whom he had assigned the coin (in the handwritten registry), thus leaving other identifications open, we had to look through the trays of several Byzantine rulers and closely analyze the shape and die of many coins. Eventually, with both patience and persistence, Marta and I found the “missing” coins and their accession numbers: BZC.1956.23.2448 and BZC.1956.23.2449. Case solved.
MYSTERY 2: FIND THOSE HOBOS
HOBOs—they are all around you in the museum galleries, but they go virtually unnoticed. Of course, if you accompany Marta to the galleries, you can develop a keen eye and easily spot them.
One afternoon, Marta and I checked all the HOBOs, which are data loggers that record temperature and humidity conditions in the galleries. When Marta challenged me to find the data loggers on my own, I truly did harness my inner detective. After considering which objects need the most stable environmental conditions and should thus be monitored closely, I made my way to the Byzantine works of ivory on display in the gallery. Not only was there a HOBO on the top of the case, but there was also one located within the case itself. Marta and I downloaded and then analyzed the data from these and other data loggers placed throughout the galleries. We discussed that fluctuations in temperature and humidity can be caused by various influences: season, time, and human presence. Status report: HOBOs found and cross-examined to gather vital information.
MYSTERY 3: THE SECRETS OF HAGIA SOPHIA
Metal tins filled with dust, plaster, bits of stone, and handwritten notes. How do all these pieces fit together?
As an additional project to the Byzantine coin database, I have assisted Marta with rehousing materials from the Byzantine Institute. Founded and directed by Thomas Whittemore, the Byzantine Institute worked on conserving and restoring the mosaics of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from 1931 to 1949. Built between 532 and 537 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in 1453 after which the figural and iconographic mosaics were covered with whitewash and plaster. The mosaics remained hidden and lost from human memory until the architects Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati accidentally uncovered them while completing structural repairs in 1848 and 1849. Once the building opened as a museum in 1931, the Byzantine Institute uncovered and cleaned the mosaics, restoring them to their former state.
Dumbarton Oaks’ collection includes many materials and films from the Byzantine Institute’s work on the Hagia Sophia, including 278 envelopes and metal tins filled with samples of wall plaster, tesserae stones, pieces of gold foil, and other objects. Since cigarette tins are not the best container for these artifacts, Marta and I have been photographing the tins and their contents, recording relevant information, and then rehousing the samples in archival storage boxes and bags, which are more environmentally stable than the boxes and envelopes and will help to better preserve the objects themselves. I have greatly enjoyed learning about the Byzantine Institute’s work as well as experiencing bits and pieces of Hagia Sophia, which I hope to one day visit (in its entirety).
These various experiences and different projects of my internship at The Dumbarton Oaks Museum are perfectly fitting together, like the individual tesserae of a mosaic.
About Me: I am a rising sophomore at Harvard University where I intend to study both the Classics and art history. Like Caitlin, I enjoyed reading Nancy Drew as a child. What young girl wouldn’t want to solve mysteries while cruising in a blue convertible?