The Secret History of Dumbarton Oaks

The first time a Dumbarton Oaks intern walks into the building they can be forgiven for imagining their new environment to be somewhat sterile. The immaculate displays, white walls and cooling air-conditioning all convey the impression that everything at Dumbarton Oaks is carefully controlled and ordered. But for those fortunate few working on the Oral History project, we are able to see a second side to Dumbarton Oaks, a human side. Every sort of character has called this institution home from statesmen to children to academics from around the globe, and we are privileged to hear their stories.

Whether it was the nigh messianic figure that was Alexander Kazhdan a man who many would have a heated argument with in the morning and then after lunch they would reconcile and continue as great friends. Or the Blisses themselves who are (perhaps unsurprisingly) revealed as more than just Washington Socialites who collected artifacts. They were intensely generous benefactors with an eye for the exquisite and a very relatable humanity. These are the pieces of information that make an institution into a community. The famous Halloween parties which saw some of the most extravagant costumes ever put together by academics (many with a Byzantine flavor), outdoor gatherings in the 70s which played the Beatles and the Stones so loudly that the neighbors complained and frequent use of the swimming pool with some users noticeably more clothed than others.

Ultimately, the oral history project opens a win to the past, present and future of Dumbarton Oaks. It tells one story from a hundred different perspectives across 75 years of history. And while it might be a very different history than that of the Roman Empire or of pre-Columbian America it is also a history that will only grow in depth and detail as Dumbarton Oaks continues on.

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