Philosophy and Philanthropy

Wednesday, January 14th

By Rachael, Harvard ’16

rachael smith imgMy third day as a participant in the Dumbarton Oaks Wintersession course on culture and power was full of lovely surprises. Our visit to the Kreeger Museum was a real treat, featuring a room filled with colorful Monet seascapes; dark, brooding early Picassos; and, my favorite, Mondrian’s Dying Sunflower. Before this visit, I had only ever associated Mondrian with the color-block style for which he is famous. Our visit to the Kreeger was an outstanding success. The museum introduced me to one of my new favorite paintings, and at the same time broadened my conception of this well-known artist.

My favorite part of the day, however, was our lively morning discussion with Professor Jan Ziolkowski. Our discussion centered on a comparison between the cultural philanthropists of the Gilded Age and today’s so-called “venture philanthropists,” whose approach to philanthropy is modeled on the economic strategies of venture capitalists. In particular, we considered the idea that by primarily focusing on questions of economics, one collapses other important aspects of philanthropy, such as morality and aesthetics. We noted that today’s donors have a tendency invest in a philanthropic project that will show immediate “practical results.” Such donors are more inclined to invest in projects with readily quantifiable results (such as number of lives saved by administering X vaccine), as this will assure them of the efficacy of their investment. However the “results,” that is, the value, of investing in a project in the arts, such as founding a library, is perhaps not so easily quantified. Does this make an investment in the arts any less worthy? “No!” screamed the hearts of the humanities students filling the room!

This discussion really got me thinking about the problems that the humanities face in the twenty-first century. It seems to me the issue is a double-edged sword. If we live in a world where people take value to be strictly economic value, then we begin to lose the possibility of appreciating a purely aesthetic object. We thought of families taking selfies in front of monuments before they’ve even looked at them, and teenagers recording a concert with their iPhones to post on Facebook rather than enjoying the experience itself. For such a teen, the concertgoing experience is no longer one of aesthetics, but one that is translated into social capital. All of us in the roundtable discussion feared that the non-commodified aesthetic experience is growing scarce.

All of this talk reminded me of the ideas put forth by Martin Heidegger in A Question Concerning Technology. In this essay, Heidegger argues that as the world becomes increasingly mechanized by technology, humans in turn will increasingly conceive of the world as mechanizable. According to Heidegger, eventually the only thing that that matters to the technological society is maximizing efficiency, reliability, and economy. In such a society, man loses the things that most make him man, such as his ability to appreciate aesthetics. From our discussion today, I can’t help but worry that we are facing the situation of which Heidegger warned: in the commodification of the aesthetic experience humans are losing their humanity. It is a thought that truly frightens me, one that I try to put away one sunflower painting at a time.

A Lasting Presence

Tuesday, January 13th

By Anne, Harvard ’16

mathews image

Since Sunday evening, I’ve been at Dumbarton Oaks with eleven other Harvard undergrads. We’ve been talking about cultural institutions like museums and the donors who make them possible. We started with Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, who gave their home and art collections to Harvard University in 1940 and were personally involved with the beginnings of their largest legacy. Their gift reflects their lifelong passions for art collecting and philanthropy. Dumbarton Oaks specializes in topics that were particularly dear to the Blisses, and in that way the Blisses’ personal presence continues to be felt here. But the Blisses also left room in the language of their bequest so that the institution’s activities in the arts and humanities could evolve over time.

After lunch, our group was invited to a talk with the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The library’s exterior blends in with its Capitol Hill location, but behind that façade is a Tudor-inspired interior appropriate for its area of study. Like Dumbarton Oaks, the Folger began as a reflection of one rich couple’s passionate interest, and it has similarly experienced both continuity and change since its founding. Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger established the library in 1932 under the auspices of Henry’s alma mater, Amherst College.

One of the most interesting things that Director Michael Witmore talked about was the way in which academic organizations balance research goals with an educational or community-oriented mission, taking into account both the founders’ intentions and current needs. Although the Folger continues to prioritize research needs when allocating its budget, it also runs training sessions for DC–area teachers and engages the community with Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean plays.

Witmore talked about discerning the founders’ intentions and considering those intentions when making decisions for the library. For example, when board members asked whether performance should be a part of the Folger’s activities, Witmore turned to a letter written by Henry Folger in which he expressed a desire to see plays produced in the Elizabethan-style theater that was then under construction. Before we left, I looked in on rehearsals for Mary Stuart, a nineteenth-century play by Friedrich Schiller with Elizabethan subject matter.

My experience at the Folger Library speaks to a theme of this week’s course: How can modern trustees know what a benefactor would have wanted, and what options does an organization have a century later in a world that its founders probably never envisioned? Dumbarton Oaks and the many other cultural institutions that owe their existence to philanthropists must consider the immense personal investment that founders have made alongside the long-term interests of the institutions beyond their founders.

Reflections on the Humanities

Tuesday, January 13th

By Ritchey, Harvard ’17

This afternoon, we discussed the future of the humanities with Michael Witmore, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Dr. Witmore’s specific question focused on how the library could attract younger visitors and supporters.. He explained how students’ preliminary relationship with Shakespeare, be it in secondary or high school, determines their likelihood to support the institution. Beyond the Folger Shakespeare Library, it seems as though the conversation regarding the sustainability or the love of arts occurs at all liberal arts schools and institutions. Perhaps I am biased as I am an art history concentrator and enthusiast, but I feel as though it is impossible for our society to ever fully evade the humanities.

The humanities provide us with a point of reference, a topic that many of us can discuss. For example, asking other people about their opinion of a novel, a piece of art, a song, a movie—anything related to the arts—can facilitate a conversation. While not everyone can discuss string theory or the laws of gravity, everyone can feel a reaction to a work of art. Therefore, I believe that the humanities give the public something powerful: a way to connect diverse people. Institutions such as Dumbarton Oaks and the Folger Shakespeare Library can further the research done on these various forms of art so that our public discourse about these objects will never be complete. There will always be more questions to ask, different opinions to address; it is rare to find a conversation that ends with, “Well we have exhausted the works of William Shakespeare.”

I am not fearful that support or love of the humanities will subside because it is one of the few aspects of culture that connects us all. Whether we are cognizant of the fact or not, we are all patrons of the humanities in some way. When we read a book, visit a museum, listen to music, or watch a movie, we are all supporters. Therefore, I feel somewhat reassured that the humanities will continue to have a large presence in our society.

A Canadian Perspective

Monday, January 12th

Jesse, Harvard ’16

We spent our first day in the Dumbarton Oaks Study, a dimly lit, wood-paneled library where the men among the Blisses’ circle gathered after dinner for drinks and cigars. (In a similarly purposed room connected by a hidden passageway, the ladies would convene for tea and gossip, explained James Carder during our initial tour.) However, the room has more history than that. “Much of the heavy lifting” in the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations during the Second World War, a process that led to the creation of the United Nations, “happened in this very room,” Director of Dumbarton Oaks Jan Ziolkowski pointed out.

Throughout the course of the day, I found myself imagining what haConversations opening sessionppened in this room, where the deciders did their talking, as opposed to the large Music Room, pictured below, which hosted the larger delegations. Under the weight of a new international order forming, did they have time to look up at any point and notice the ceiling pattern and its flowers, an echo of the gardens outside?

The setting prompted me to reflect on Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Canada’s long history of international leadership and its role in the United Nations. Adam Chapnick’s The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United Nations describes the perhaps disappointing role the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations played in Canada’s emergence as a nominal “middle power.” While not a superpower like the United States or Soviet Union, or great power like Great Britian, Canada was one of the primary Allies in the Second World War and rose to be among the strongest of the West’s, if not the world’s, middle-sized players.

The tone of that strength was represented by William Lyon Mackenzie King, one of the most important of Canada’s prime ministers, who served four terms and twenty-two years, from the 1920s through the 1940s, longer than any prime minister before or since. Revelant to the legacy of this room, as we explore the interstitial space between in arts and power,  philanthropy and diplomacy,  was his decision not to demand a voice in the conversations hosted at Dumbarton Oaks, but instead to let British ambassadors express and dictate Canadian interests.

Art to the People

Monday, January 12th

By Julia, Harvard ’17

Featured imageOur first twenty-four hours at Dumbarton Oaks have been filled with lots of new, wonderful people, great conversations, and chances to transport ourselves into the minds of interesting, albeit quirky, collectors. Not to mention a sense of how much DO can spoil us in just one short week: we’ve been equipped with bags, badges, and a beautiful book. After Director Jan Ziolkowski gave a short introduction to the course, Archivist James Carder helped us become better acquainted with the couple to whom Dumbarton Oaks owes its existence—Mildred and Robert Bliss. Dr. Carder explained the particularities of their collecting interests and the roots of their desire to create “a home for the humanities,” and even let us pop into the closed museum (shh!). I absolutely loved seeing a photograph of the Music Room, which hosted the diplomatic conversations that led to the creation of the United Nations, and walking into that same room moments later. One of my favorite objects in the house tour was a wrought-iron stair railing that included parrots, oak leaves, squirrels, and other creatures.

After lunch, we had a seminar with Inge Reist of the Frick Collection entitled “Private Art Collectors and Public Philanthropy: What’s Mine is Yours?” I learned that Americans are most generous in their philanthropic art giving worldwide. They donate entire collections, underwrite scholarships, establish endowment funds for future acquisitions, and sometimes (as did the Blisses) even move out of their homes to turn them into full-time museums. Dr. Reist informed us of a bizarre fact: the Metropolitan Museum in New York was founded without owning a single piece of art! She also tackled tricky questions related to the delicate balance of honoring the wishes of a donor while allowing for growth within the institution. It was great preparation for the case study projects we’ll be working on later in the week, in which we get to research a collector of our choice. During the break between the seminar and dinner, I took a walk through Georgetown, enjoying the large bay windows, bright colors piled atop one another, and flowers in window boxes that survived the snow.

We were lucky to be joined at dinner by several staff members from the three main areas of study (Byzantine, Garden and Landscape Studies, and Pre-Columbian) as well as librarians, fellows, writers, and administrators. We definitely received a warm welcome and are looking forward to another packed day tomorrow!

On pain and peace

In some ways, it’s been a sad couple of weeks for me. As a half-Israeli American Jew, I spend a lot of time in tense worry about the current conflict–about family members and dear friends and innocent people on both sides who are waiting out this summer of war. And two days ago, I found out that a Harvard classmate, a fellow rising sophomore who had lived in my dorm, had passed away unexpectedly. Though I had never met her, the random senselessness of her death stung. Lately I’ve felt that there’s too much pain like that in the world: pain that can’t really be explained or gotten over.

Meanwhile, my summer continues here at Dumbarton Oaks, probably the most beautiful and peaceful place I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know. Sometimes, as I play in the pool or wander the shady walks, I wonder if it’s wrong for me to be so happy here–if it means I’m slipping into pampered apathy about the outside world. Given the opportunity, we insulate ourselves from pain, focusing on the peace and joy in our own lives rather than the suffering in someone else’s. It’s human to do that. But is it right?

This is a question I still struggle with. On one hand, thinking exclusively about our own troubles and pleasures can lead to a loss of empathy and, perhaps worse, to simple ignorance of what’s going on around us. We should stand in solidarity with people who are suffering, and we should never stop trying to make them feel less alone.


On the other hand, though, I think there’s another kind of empathy that can arise from the deep enjoyment of peace. When I walk the bustling streets of DC at night, where people of all ages and ethnicities turn out to take a draught of the heady summer air, I hope that the streets of Tel Aviv and Gaza can someday feel this free. When I meander alone among the flower beds in the gardens, I hope that the loved ones of my lost classmate, and all grieving loved ones, may someday feel so at peace. Places like Dumbarton Oaks may not be solving the world’s problems or even ameliorating its pain. But they do remind us of the peace that can perhaps come after the pain. They show us what we have to keep hoping for.

Call Me Nancy Drew.

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.


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.

The clues in the case of the missing coins: Grierson's handwritten notes for the pentanummia.

The clues in the case of the missing coins: Grierson’s handwritten notes for the pentanummia.

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.


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.

Where's HOBO? Can you find one or both of the data loggers?

Where’s HOBO? Can you find one or both of the data loggers?

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.


Metal tins filled with dust, plaster, bits of stone, and handwritten notes. How do all these pieces fit together?

BEFORE: the cigarette tins that contained the Byzantine Institute's notes and materials from the restoration of Hagia Sophia.

BEFORE: the metal tins that contained the Byzantine Institute’s notes and materials from the restoration of Hagia Sophia.

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.


AFTER: the materials properly rehoused, labeled, and organized in Object Storage.

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).

Dust Masks Required: Marta and I transfer some brick dust from a cigarette tin to a more suitable container.

Dust Masks Required: Marta and I transfer samples of brick dust from a metal cigarette tin to an archival box.

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?