Oral History Project

Oral History Project

by Erik Fredericksen, June 22, 2012

This summer, I’m working on Dumbarton Oaks’ Oral History Project along with another intern, Gabriela Santiago. While you can find a basic history of D.O. on its website, the Oral History Project aims to record a more colorful, nuanced history of the institution through the different narratives told by the very people who have lived and worked here. The project interviews former directors, fellows, directors of studies, scholars, staff members, and other people who have played a role in the development of Dumbarton Oaks.

The project has already conducted numerous interviews. Much of our time has been spent watching or listening to these interviews and transcribing them for publication on the D.O. website. (You can find our published interviews here.) But the transformation from an oral interview to a transcript is not always as simple as it sounds. For one thing, Gabriela and I have quickly learned the ins and outs of conducting phonetic Google searches: did he say Singopolos? Sigopoulos? Tsingopolous? (Answer: Xyngopoulos, a Greek art historian.) As we transcribe these interviews, the history of Dumbarton Oaks seems to be gradually coming into focus, whether through broader characterizations of change over the past few decades or through more personal anecdotes—two favorites so far: Elizabeth Ettinghausen meeting her husband at D.O. and Helen Evans watching Prince Charles’ wedding with the Greek fellows during her summer here. By drawing on individuals’ memories such as these, we’re creating not only an intellectual (see Robin Cormack’s interview for methodological disputes in Byzantine art history), but also a social history of Dumbarton Oaks. The more interviews that we publish, the more they overlap and connect to each other. Out of the disparate recollections of individuals, a collective institutional memory starts to take shape—an exciting process to see first-hand.

In addition to transcribing and publishing interviews, Gabriela and I are conducting new interviews during our summer here. Just this Tuesday, we sat down with Stephen Zwirn, the Assistant Curator of the museum’s Byzantine Collection, who has seen D.O. undergo two massive overhauls of its physical space, as well as other, subtler evolutions.

Moving forward, Gabriela and I are continuing to transcribe interviews and hunt down new interviewees. I myself am currently transcribing an interview with Musja Kazhdan, wife of Alexander Kazhdan, an interesting account well worth the issues presented by its only being preserved on a cassette tape, a piece of technology I’m told was very popular during the Late Byzantine Period.

Robin Cormack, a Byzantine Studies Visiting Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in 1972–1973 and a Byzantine Studies Visiting Scholar in 2011, describes how he was first sidetracked from studying modern art into the field of Byzantine art.

A little manual repair ensures that the tape-recorded interview with Musja Kazhdan survives. Soon to be published online, her interview narrates, among other things, her journey along with her husband (the Byzantinist Alexander Kazhdan) from Russia to Dumbarton Oaks.

About Me:

I graduated from Harvard College this past spring, with a concentration in Classics. Interested primarily in Greek and Latin lyric poetry and 20th century Classical reception, I plan to move on to a graduate program in Classics.


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