Two Sides to Every Coin

by Alexandra Walsh ’18, intern in Byzantine Collections Catalogues

My fellow interns sometimes joke that it’s only a matter of time before I mistake a silver solidus of Theodosius III for a quarter as I pay for a can of soda at the nearest vending machine. My mind, they joke, has been boggled by the hundreds of Byzantine coins I’ve examined and catalogued over the past few months. But even with a caliper in one latex-gloved hand, and a gold nomisma hyperperon in the other, there’s no way that I will confuse my familiar American coinage with these expertly stamped pieces of Byzantine History.

As the intern for the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, I have had the chance to work on a number of projects, including compiling a functional bibliography for the new Byzantine Textiles project and sitting in on exhibition planning meetings for the 75th anniversary of the institution. These experiences have allowed me to witness the complex inner workings of the museum world.

Like most of today’s museums, Dumbarton Oaks is striving to digitize its collections to ensure that they are more accessible to scholars and visitors alike. Computers and databases may seem a bit out of place here—an eruption of modernity between the volumes of Sotheby’s catalogues standing in bookshelf and the hand written notes of Philip Grierson, the brilliant British numismatist who occupied a curatorial post here at Dumbarton Oaks from 1955 until 1997. While there are nine published catalogues of Byzantine coins from the Dumbarton Oaks and Whittemore Collections, many of the 12,000 coins, including more recent acquisitions, are still not included in print. Therefore, the museum’s current mission is to mount the post-catalogue acquisitions online.

Gold Solidus of the Empress Irene (797-802). Notice her bust is struck on both the obverse and reverse sides of the coin. (Accession Number: BZC.1948.17.2543)

Gold Solidus of the Empress Irene (797-802). Notice her bust is struck on both the obverse and reverse sides of the coin. (Accession Number: BZC.1948.17.2543)

That’s where I come in. Among my various projects, I have spent a great deal of time surrounding myself with money! Though I’ve catalogued over 140 coins onto the website, spot-checked, typed, and charted, the real fun comes when my magnifying glass and I head down to the two coins safes in the basement to do a little digging.

Every coin has an obverse and a reverse side. And I see every Byzantine coin in two distinct ways. Examining each precious face is the methodical means of preserving and tracking the past, giving true historical context. Flipping the coin over, each figure of Christ seated on a back-less throne and every Greek inscription stamped on a piece of copper tells its own story about the coin and its place in Byzantine society.

Some coins reveal political intrigue. For example, the practice of placing imperial busts on both the obverse and reverse sides of coins arose predominantly during the Isaurian-Amorian Period. And this relationship between fact and date also comes with a larger context: this pattern was a result of the iconoclastic controversy over icons. Apparently, coins were struck in this way because it was simply the polite way of removing offensive religious symbols from coinage.

Other coins demonstrate familial betrayal. Unlike most emperors during that period, who stamped figures of themselves on the obverse and their sons or heirs on the reverse, the Empress Irene, during her reign, printed her bust on both sides of coins. Was this a sign of importance? Or was this a reminder of the greed and power that led her to overthrow, imprison, and blind her own son with whom she first ruled jointly?

With each coin that I catalogue, I am afforded a fascinating glimpse of history. More than 1,500 years ago, these pieces of metal were passed around like small change from a vending machine. Now, though, they serve as reminders of the civilization through which Christianity found a voice and the daily lives of the people who formed a bridge between the Classical and Medieval worlds.

Exploring Dumbarton Oaks: from (A)rchitecture to (Z)iolkowski

By Katie Borrazzo ’18, 75th Anniversary Social Media intern

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives are adjacent to my workspace, and hold a wealth of information on Dumbarton Oaks’s past from A to Z – most of which comes from an age when “cc-ing” someone meant handing them a physical carbon copy.

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives are adjacent to my workspace, and hold a wealth of information on Dumbarton Oaks’s past from A to Z – most of which comes from an age when “cc-ing” someone meant handing them a physical carbon copy.

When I mention to my friends—even the ones who, like me, grew up in D.C.—that I am interning at Dumbarton Oaks, I am no longer surprised to hear the response, “Oh, so you’re gardening or something?” This is not an unreasonable assumption, given that the gardens are the most visible part of Dumbarton Oaks. Luckily, the work that I am actually doing—writing blog posts to commemorate seventy-five years since the Blisses donated Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University—means that I can explain that Dumbarton Oaks is a research institute and then continue on with more details about the institution than most could have imagined even existed. With any luck, the blogging initiative will help to uncover some of the mystery enveloping the giant research institute in the middle of Georgetown.

More specifically, I am completing the last twelve blog posts, which, as part of a series of seventy-five posts, cover a wide variety of topics, from the early days of the Byzantine studies department and Dumbarton Oaks’s activities during World War II to the voices of scholars who had an important impact upon the institution and their fields of study. The blog posts will be published beginning in September, and they comprise an eclectic cross-section of Dumbarton Oaks past and present: subjects include great scholars, the history of the gardens, and image comparisons of various spaces within the institute in a “then and now” format. I have become remarkably more well-versed (and have even come to appreciate) using the physical archives—a revelation, given that at school, I usually eschew actually going to the library in favor of easier-to-access online JSTOR articles. An undeniably authoritative feeling accompanies the short trip to the archives to check out a file folder, as I write down my name, the folder’s title, and the date on one of the oversized checkout cards.

The blog post on which I am currently working will, in a way, represent the culmination of my efforts and time at Dumbarton Oaks, as I attempt to encapsulate “the importance of Dumbarton Oaks during the past seventy-five years and its ongoing importance in the future” in a concise, engaging, and original format. Maggie, the intern on the Oral History Project, and I have been interviewing the Directors of departments, including Jan Ziolkowski, Yota Batsaki, John Beardsley, Gudrun Bühl, Gail Griffin, and Kathy Sparkes. When I talked with Jan about trends in Dumbarton Oaks history, he was curious to understand how interns like me might take the skills which we have cultivated here back to school. Dumbarton Oaks fosters scholarship within us, inspiring a regard for the humanities which can only come from being immersed within a world that is not obsessed with coding and start-ups.

Through the reading of the Director’s Notes in each successive annual report on the activities of the Institution, I seem to have inherited some of the so-called—as John Beardsley termed it in a recent conversation— “mission anxiety” that pervades Dumbarton Oaks. I am reassured by the fact that, as a whole, the intern program serves several of its constituencies, as it provides opportunities for undergraduate students while fostering an appreciation of the humanities in ever-younger waves of interested students.

This summer, I have come to a fuller understanding of the role that the humanities can play in society. I have learned ways to think about re-envisioning lessons of the past as guidance for approaching the future. The big questions that have plagued society for millennia have often been qualitative—not quantitative—and the humanities work toward imparting the answers on those who will listen. I hope that my efforts will, in a small way, add to the wealth of knowledge that Dumbarton Oaks contributes to the world.

Seventy-Five Years of Style

By Nathan Cummings ’17, intern in Publications

The “Late Antique” period is capitalized, but “late antiquity” is not. And the ever-controversial Oxford comma, which appears at the end of any list with more than two terms, is sacrosanct. Does all of this make sense?

Over the past two months, I’ve been familiarizing myself with these various idiosyncrasies. Taken together, they comprise the Dumbarton Oaks house style, a set of standards for writing that have accumulated over the research institute’s seventy-five-year history. As an intern in the publications department, my main job over the summer is to copyedit and design the 2014–15 annual report, the latest in a series stretching back to the institute’s founding in 1940. Each report is essentially an institutional “yearbook,” detailing the various happenings and changes of a given academic year at Dumbarton Oaks. Flip through their pages, and you live out each year in brief, as symposia, lectures, conversations, names, and faces flicker before your eyes.

The appearance of the Dumbarton Oaks Annual Report  has changed quite a bit over the years.

The appearance of the Dumbarton Oaks Annual Report has changed quite a bit over the years.

My second job is complementary to my first. I excavate the house style’s various quirks in grammar and punctuation from prior reports and Dumbarton Oaks publications, and then copy them onto a Word document for future reference. The goal in making this new, official Dumbarton Oaks house style guide is to codify a set of guidelines that had previously existed only in the minds of the department’s editors. Ideally, anyone should able to quickly reference this new style guide when editing texts for publications, saving time and ensuring that all writing produced here is set to the same precise specifications.

At certain points during the summer, I’ve found myself questioning this venture. Copyediting, after all, can be a brutal process, especially for an outside observer such as myself. The texts I edit aren’t just dry summaries: they’re the distilled essences of peoples’ experiences at Dumbarton Oaks, filled with all the individual memories, personalities, and emotions that give the institution its unique character. Frequently, I’ve found myself pruning an author’s text for clarity and conformity, only to find that his or her individual voice has been drowned out by the house style’s fine-tuned formalism. Is this an acceptable price for consistency?

In trying to answer this question, I began to consider the nature of Dumbarton Oaks itself. After seventy-five years, it’s grown in ways that would have been inconceivable in 1940. One academic department (Byzantine Studies) has become three. Collections are now housed both physically and online. New outreach programs have led to amazing opportunities for rising scholars such as myself. Yet, after reading Dumbarton Oaks’ very first annual report—published in 1950, after ten years as a research institute—I was struck not only by the differences I found, but also by the similarities. There are still concerts in the Music Room, and symposia in the gardens. Most importantly, the culture of intellectual curiosity and devotion to the humanities has remained strong, seventy-five years on.

In the end, Dumbarton Oaks’ written “voice” is neither a fixed point nor a transient state. It is a heterogeneous collage, influenced by scholars and staff from all over the world, yet also carrying traces of the institution’s long academic history. When people from different nationalities, backgrounds, and academic traditions engage in dialogue under a common institutional identity, the compromise can yield astounding results. Taking my cues from this, I’ve tried to strike a similar balance in my own copyediting work: doing my best to preserve individual writing styles, while also unifying them under the house style’s broader standard. As with any editing work, the key is discretion: learning to correct when necessary, and accommodate elsewhere.

And even with the house style applied, there is still ample room for personalities to live and breathe on the page. One of my favorite lecture titles from this year comes from the Pre-Columbian Studies department: Thomas Killion’s “Elvis Sighted in Classic Period Veracruz: Convergence of Maize God Imagery and a Late Twentieth-Century Pop Icon’s Coiffure.” If Elvis can make an appearance in the annals of Dumbarton Oaks, the institution’s future must be truly unlimited.

Medieval Morality and Reality

By Hope Patterson ’17, intern in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

Before I arrived at Dumbarton Oaks for my summer internship with the Medieval Library, I had absolutely no experience reading medieval Latin texts. I had read plenty of classical Latin and a bit of late medieval English, but not medieval Latin. In fact, many of my assumptions about the era derived from watching HBO’s medieval fantasy show Game of Thrones. The characters’ utter disregard for morality shocked me: the men and women on the show often had no respect for the laws of their king or of their religion, and their choices resulted in some of the most heinous acts of violence on television. I expected the translations of medieval Latin literature that I was tasked with reviewing this summer to depict a similarly brutal, immoral world. I quickly learned, however, that the brand of medieval morality depicted on Game of Thrones differs vastly from the reality of the medieval era.

Even religious devotees do not offer much hope of moral leadership in Game of Thrones. Here, members of an all-female monastic order, the Silent Sisters, function more as custodians of the dead than as givers of moral or spiritual guidance.

Even religious devotees do not offer much hope of moral leadership in Game of Thrones. Here, members of an all-female monastic order, the Silent Sisters, function more as custodians of the dead than as givers of moral or spiritual guidance.

In reality, medieval writers did not disregard morality at all: they idolized it. They consistently used narratives and stories to dictate moral lessons to their readers. Each of the three upcoming DOML volumes I’ve revised this summer exhibits a propensity toward moralization. The first, an account of the lives of early church fathers and the miracles associated with their relics, promises physical healing as a surefire reward for spiritual faith. The next, Carmina Burana, is the largest collection of medieval Latin poems in history. Though a number of these poems have to do with love and springtime, a much larger number are concerned with the worldly decline of morals and the negative effects of such a fall. My most recent project, The Moralized Ovid, managed to transform the stories of a classical poet banished by Emperor Augustus for immorality into shining examples of moral behavior.

At first, I found the moralizing tendencies of these authors to be a bit misguided. But then it occurred to me: don’t we do the same thing today? If I drop a plate of food during my lunch hour in the Refectory, I would likely blame it on bad karma, not to my inherent lack of coordination. If a homeless man is forced to sleep on the streets, some would make the case that it is because he possesses no work ethic, not because he is the victim of mental illness or a crippled economy. Just like the medieval authors whose works comprise the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, contemporary readers tend to  see outcomes as evidence of moral victory or failure in order to protect themselves from  from uncertainty. In doing so, we allow ourselves to take comfort in the fact that we deserve everything we get: successful people must harbor good morals, and unsuccessful people must harbor ill morals, or so we convince ourselves. Perhaps our way of thinking is not as different from the medieval way as we would like to think.

Reconstructing Medieval Canons

By Yun Ni, doctoral student in Comparative Literature

The Dumbarton Oaks medieval Library Series (DOML), though firmly anchored in the medieval literary tradition, moves actively towards a re-imagination and reconstitution of the deep past. More than one thousand years ago, the Old English authors likely never imagined their vernacular writings would enjoy the luxury of sitting on the same shelf with Greco-Latin texts, all of them delicately bound in exactly the same style. But language follows power. Though English was a less cultured vernacular in the early middle ages, it came to address the widest audience across the sweeping geographical scope, where even Latin, the high-brow international language then, failed to reach. Unsurprisingly, modern English in turn has empowered its older version. At the same time, it is the language in which Greek and Latin texts reach many readers.

A page from a manuscript of Orosius’s Histories held at Biblioteca Laurenciana in Florence.

A page from a manuscript of Orosius’s Histories held at Biblioteca Laurenciana in Florence.

The interaction between the vernacular and Latin has been the thematic thread stringing together my projects this summer. As a copy editor of DOML, I am proofreading and commenting on submitted Medieval Latin and Old English texts and their modern English translations, which will be published on facing pages. Editing Old English texts informed by the classical Latin literary tradition has offered me an unexpected lens through which to reexamine the formation of the English language and the British national identity.

My first project is to proofread and make index for an Old English translation of Orosius’s Historiae Adversus Paganos, which the author originally composed in Latin. Orosius’s teleological narrative pattern—implicit in it is the argument that universal history is moving towards a better end since the advent of Christianity—is well preserved in the Old English translation, but some subtle twists inevitably happened. Rendering these nuances into modern English poses serious challenges to the translator. For instance, on the subject of the collective memory: “Leode, þeode, folc” (coming from Latin “gentes”) are heavily used in Old English to designate certain national and ethic groups as political entities. But they deny translations into modern counterparts like “country,” “nation” or “tribe,” which have acquired geographical, cultural or political undertones over time. The translator tactfully avoided the awkwardness and added a note to address the nuances. Combing through the text and the translation word by word has directed me to these details, which point to larger shifts in political theories about national identity.

The tension between individual and community has been a lingering question with regard to the formation of nation. In the process of index-making, how to pinpoint the characters indicated by the mangled Roman names in the Old English version has been the most challenging and the most intriguing task. While sorting out who these “Aemilius,” “Claudius” or “Gaius” are, I often think about how easily individuals were glossed over in the teleological narrative pattern, especially in a reworked version. The gist of the tale can reach the audience of another language conveniently—perhaps too conveniently to call attention to each individual involved in the narrative. Simplified names could have been the first step towards abstraction. Their offices, like Roman consul, remained intact in the Old English version. Their names, however, were not fleshed out. These figures were more of means than ends. This is arguably inevitable in any transmission and translation of canons, but I wonder how much light it can shed on the Anglo-Saxon perceptions on individuals, institutions, and collective memory.

While plowing through Old English and Latin this summer, I have been reflecting upon my small repertoire of teaching. Harvard English department’s core medieval literature curriculum is entitled “Arrivals.” The rationale behind the name is how European languages, cultures and literary traditions “arrived” at the British Isles in the Middle Ages. The clashes, assimilations and inter-cultural dialogues brought up in that course have been lingering in my thoughts. Sometimes I am also thinking beyond it for another course I have taught, namely, world literature. How will these volumes, filtered through our institutions, “arrive” across the world? What thoughts will these reconstructed canons evoke among the readers whom the medieval authors never thought they should or could target?

I am thinking of China, where I am originally from and where people now are eager to enter into a dialogue with the western world not only on science, technology or democracy but also on philosophy, ethics and spirituality.

Preserving the Ephemeral

By Samuel Shapiro ’16, intern in Ephemera Acquisitions

This postcard, sent from a traveler to his brother in 1911, is an example of what I have collected as the Ephemera Acquisitions intern this summer.

This postcard, sent from a traveler to his brother in 1911, is an example of what I have collected as the Ephemera Acquisitions intern this summer.

“Turkey has its barber shops just as we do in this country,” Clarence P. Hedden must have learned, reading the back of a postcard he received in the fall of 1911. “The chairs, which are nothing more than ordinary arm chairs, are arranged in the open air, under a few shade trees. The customer sits quietly while the barber, with his red turban, runs a queer looking instrument over his face.” So ends the publisher’s description on the postcard entitled, “A Turkish Barber Shop, Constantinople, Turkey,” sent to Mr. Hedden by his brother Isaac on September 16th, 1911. Beneath this printed text, Isaac wrote his own message. He felt that he should “drop a card” since he hadn’t heard from home for quite a while. In his missive, he boasted of having earned $4.25 picking hops despite a great deal of rain, and he noted to his brother that “baby is getting such a big girl.”

Collecting postcards is the bulk of my project here at Dumbarton Oaks. As the first Ephemera Acquisitions intern, I am working to create a collection of historic postcards and other ephemera—those items not intended to last over time—to serve the intellectual interests and needs of the scholars at Dumbarton Oaks as well as the larger scholarly community and the public. For a postcard to be eligible for accession it must relate to one of Dumbarton Oaks’s three areas of study (Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden & Landscape Studies) and should date from the years 1890-1922. In addition to relating to the areas of study, these items are just as valuable for reflecting the material culture, travel culture, and cross-cultural interactions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As such, in addition to making the fields of study accessible to scholars whose interests do not typically line up with those traditionally found at Dumbarton Oaks, the collection will stand as a gateway into D.O.’s fields of study for the public and those interested in popular forms of consumer culture.

Greater ease and affordability of cross-continental travel in the nineteenth century spurred middle class travel, increasing exposure to Byzantine and pre-Columbian sites and creating greater awareness of important garden and landscape sites. Born of this heightened travel, postcard culture stands today as a record of the experiences of those newly able to travel widely. Clarence’s brother Isaac may only have been checking in on his family, but the postcard he chose and the words he wrote tell us a lot about daily life and travel in early twentieth century not-yet-Istanbul, providing a unique view of life in the city nearly five centuries after its time as the center of Byzantine civilization.

Isaac’s postcard illustrates the uniform Turkish barbers wore in 1911, their approach to privacy, sanitation, and grooming, what kinds of work a foreigner could hope to find in Turkey, and how much one could expect to make doing it. Through a single postcard, historians can see this information both through the lens of intimately personal inscriptions and that of the impersonal, tourism-promoting advertisements that many postcard pictures are. Indeed, collecting postcards often instills a sense of nostalgia, for all this information and the gorgeous picture would today be a mere Snapchat captioned “what’s up?”

Toward a Broader Conversation

Mildred Bliss shows the Byzantine Collection to L. Gard Wiggins, Administrative Vice President of Harvard University, and Francis H. Burr, Fellow of Harvard College, 1963.

Mildred Bliss shows the Byzantine Collection to L. Gard Wiggins, Administrative Vice President of Harvard University, and Francis H. Burr, Fellow of Harvard College, 1963.

By Elizabeth Keto ’18, intern in Outreach and Public Programming

My internship at Dumbarton Oaks this summer involves researching the variety of public programs offered by cultural institutions in Washington D.C. and identifying the types of program that could be most successful here. This work is only a small part of a long-term effort in the Director’s Office to develop a set of educational programs that will both enrich the intellectual life of Dumbarton Oaks and further enable the institution to share its resources with the community.

One of the projects I’ve been most involved in so far is the planning for Dumbarton Oaks’s second annual Wintersession course for Harvard undergraduates. The program examines the intersections between art, money, and power, with a focus on the history and practice of philanthropy. My own work on the project has ranged from combing back issues of The New Yorker for articles on the great American collectors of the Gilded Age to helping design the course’s social media component. I’ve enjoyed putting the past in conversation with the present—reading a 1951 profile of the millionaire art dealer Joseph Duveen and then a 2015 article on the record-setting Picasso painting that sold for $179 million this May, for instance.

This research into the history of collecting, selling, and giving art in the United States has prompted me to ask questions that I’ve found difficult to answer and—for that reason—endlessly fascinating. Who or what determines the value of a work of art? Does a work of art have some intrinsic value beyond the price set by the market? If I know that a painting cost $179 million, does it change what I see when I look at it? As I’ve learned the stories of philanthropists like Dumbarton Oaks’ founders Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss, I’ve also wondered about the relationship between museums or academic institutions and the art market: to make a work of art an object of scholarship is, after all, to give it legitimacy and value. Is disinterested scholarship possible? Are public museums democratic institutions or conspicuous expressions of the donor’s wealth and prestige? How can museums become truly accessible resources for the communities around them?

Joseph Duveen profile

A New Yorker profile from 1951 about Joseph Duveen, who became a millionaire as an art dealer who purchased art from European aristocrats and sold them to wealthy Americans.

The question of how to render museums like Dumbarton Oaks more accessible resources is deeply meaningful to me. I am a prospective History of Art and Architecture concentrator, and as I think about the rich collections here, I am reminded of a discussion of Rembrandt’s portraits by the art historian Didier Maleuvre. Maleuvre writes, “Their humanity is the humanity we give them…The portrait lives not by internal combustion, but in the same way the human face comes alive, in the precise degree to which it is encountered.” The objects and landscapes of Dumbarton Oaks become vivid, meaningful records of human culture and memory only when they are encountered, when they are topics of conversation. I hope that my work this summer helps open the conversations that occur here to a wider community of students, teachers, and thinkers.