A Summer at Dumbarton Oaks: The Written Presence of Oral History

Dumbarton Oaks has been supremely accommodating these five weeks past: the staff is knowledgeable and welcoming, the work engaging, and the amenities are minor astonishments.

Buoyed by up all day by strolls through the museum and our proximity to the delicious D.O. garden, I work on the Oral History Project. My task is to contact former affiliates of Dumbarton Oaks, from librarians to archivists to gardeners to researchers to administrators, and request interviews; those affiliates who acquiesce I proceed to research, alongside my partner James Curtin, so that we can draft questions to ask over the course of the interview (which we later conduct, transcribe, and post on the web).

Our general strategy in drafting questions is this: we want to know how a given interviewee discovered Dumbarton Oaks, how he or she perceived the atmosphere here, what he or she did professionally and deemed to be of especial significance, the complications and consequences thereof, who the interviewee consorted with while here, and also any anecdotes (amusing, we hope) that shed light on the culture of the institution (the pool is a magnet for such stories). We think that such a strategy elicits responses from which can be reconstructed the most crucial shards of D.O. history, shards important to administrators as they determine how best to steer Dumbarton Oaks based on the vector and quality of its wake; and important to scholars who can refer to the archives in exploring whether D.O. is a good fit for them and their research, in exploring how to take full advantage of D.O.’s prodigious but optimally organized collections, and finally in exploring the research and methods of their great precursors. We also flatter ourselves into thinking that the interviews are of general interest.

Joan Southcote-Aston in the former Dumbarton Oaks Princeton Index Reading Room, 1965.

Joan Southcote-Aston in the former Dumbarton Oaks Princeton Index Reading Room, 1965.

For those of our readers who want to overleap the transcripts and land right in the fun stuff, my partner has booted a blog for the Oral History Project’s greatest hits (which he has gone on to blog about—super-hip, no?), centering on the many modes of recreation here at D.O., great scholars whom we unfortunately couldn’t interview for whatever reason, and D.O. miscellany, from the goofy (Fletcher’s Castoria, anyone?) to the primly sublime (meet Ms. Joan Southcote-Aston!). We hope the blog both sparks new interests in its readers and renews respect for D.O.’s richness and strangeness. And the blog is just the tip of the iceberg—after poking around there, we do recommend that you check out the full interview transcriptions!

When I’m not History-Projecting, you can find me playing junior archivist in the basement of the Main House. Stop by, say hi, make a suggestion for Oral History Project blog posts.

 

Joshua Wilson is from Grand Junction, Colorado; he recently graduated from Harvard College.

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