Dumbarton Oaks: History Talking Back

The interns have moved far past the halfway point in our ten-week sojourn at Dumbarton Oaks, and I am reluctantly beginning to think about how I will spend the last few weeks of my summer and the school year, which is beginning to loom on the horizon.  In the meantime, however, I have been reflecting on my work here and the significance of the project to which I have committed a mere few weeks. 

Interviewees for the Oral History Project generally speak for about an hour on their experience and time at Dumbarton Oaks. It is important to note that we do NOT conduct interviews in the traditional sense; instead of a strict question and answer format, the ideal oral history interview has a few guiding questions that lead the interviewee to follow their stream of consciousness.  In this way, they independently identify what they view as most important without the interviewer inserting himself into the conversation.

Thus, oral history interviews are bits of super concentrated history—the most salient memories from a fifty-year period condensed into an hour.  It does not take long to peruse a transcript, and I highly encourage you to do so.  A reader will quickly discover that names, places, and themes reoccur with great frequency. The overlap of content between interviews allows one to create a coherent picture of what it was like to live and work at Dumbarton Oaks in the earlier days of the institution. Countless men and women—the brightest minds in their fields—have devoted great amounts of time and energy to study at Dumbarton Oaks. The magnitude of the knowledge that has accumulated here and its resultant impact on the scholarly community is almost too staggering in magnitude for the curious observer to even begin to comprehend.  Fortunately, though, the Oral History project is a perfect primer for the amateur historian; it covers many of the most important institutional and scholarly developments, all of which are discussed casually and in plain language.

As an individual with no formal training (and very little informal training) in Byzantine, pre-Columbian, or Garden and Landscape Studies, being a part of this project has been extraordinarily informative, and I find I have picked up much more information through osmosis than I would have by casually reading a textbook on one of the subjects.  The concentration of knowledge and the commitment to scholastic excellence makes Dumbarton Oaks one of the most exciting places for someone with a curious mind to spend time, even if he or she does not have background in the areas that are studied here.

For Josh and I, the job is never boring. Though some might think the study of ancient civilizations may be dry, many of the scholars showcase their sense of humor in the interviews. More than that, we have diversified from just interviewing and transcribing; we created a blog, did some entry-level archival processing [with the platform we worked on expected to go live in the fall], and even dabbled in some basic web editing. Bottom line: I have developed a respect for Dumbarton Oaks, its mission, and the people who work here far deeper than I would have expected before arriving here this summer. In the last few weeks I will be spending here, I fully intend to make the most of the garden, the museum, and all the other things that Dumbarton Oaks has to offer, fully aware of how lucky I am to be here.

BY THE NUMBERS:

  • Number of years the project has been ongoing: 6
  • Number of interviews conducted: 108 (and counting)
  • Number of interviews published online: 52
  • Breakdown of interviews by subject:
    • 39 Byzantinists
    • 32 pre-Columbianists
    • 12 Garden and Landscape Scholars
    • 10 Museum Staff
    • Administrators
    • Facilities/Maintenance Staff
    • Garden Staff
    • Librarians
    • 3 Friends and Family of the Blisses
    • Friends of Music Staff

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