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?


The Community Necessary for Scholarship

Throughout the twentieth-century as key Byzantine sites like Hagia Sophia and the city of Antioch were excavated, private and public collectors alike vied to buy mosaics, tapestries, statues, and the like to display in their homes and museums. Unsurprisingly, art dealers often cut pieces of tapestry up, choosing to sell multiple fragments rather than complete works. As a result, today, pieces are often scattered around the globe.

Curtain Fragment 6th century

Curtain Fragment
6th century

The Dumbarton Oaks collection, as I learned on a recent Textile Tour, contains at least one piece with exactly this sort of dilemma. Research Assistant for the Byzantine Textiles Project Elizabeth Williams showed us how the straight-cut edges on the textile fragment (shown to the left) indicate that it was originally part of a larger piece of fabric. Amazingly, on a trip to the Islamic Museum in Turkey, she discovered another fragment on display that exactly matched the design and measurements of the piece in our collection. This second fragment, located halfway around the world from Dumbarton Oaks, is probably one of the other corners of the same long, rectangular cloth as our textile piece. Such a find led Williams to believe that the piece was once an exceptionally large curtain or hanging. When a conservator examined the same piece, she discovered that one of the medallions on the bottom of the fragment was actually sewn into the piece as well. This revealed that yet another fragment exists in the world somewhere.

This story illustrates the critical need for collaboration in today’s scholarly world. With pieces from the same site, or, indeed, fragments from the same cloth, spread throughout the world, scholars must follow each other’s work and visit new museums and research sites in order to develop a more complete picture.

With over half the summer already gone, I have found this constant striving for communication and collaboration to be a central feature of Dumbarton Oaks. This is demonstrated both through Dumbarton Oaks’ work to publish its Byzantine coin and seal, textile (in the works!), and correspondence collections online and through its atmosphere on the physical grounds. By encouraging staff, interns, and fellows to eat together in the refectory and on the bowling green each day and to socialize together around the pool in the evenings and by enabling the fellows and interns to live in the same building—La Quercia—these sorts of conversations and partnerships appear to develop organically.

However, in my time at Dumbarton Oaks, I have gotten a taste of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating such a familial atmosphere. Over the past six weeks, I have done everything from brainstorming ways for Dumbarton Oaks to further engage with both Harvard undergraduate students and students in the surrounding community to creating mailing lists for upcoming events and comparing our fellowship programs to those of other institutions. The common thread that I have found between all of these projects is the conscious effort on the part of Dumbarton Oaks’ staff to convey a sense of inclusion, belonging, and community in order to facilitate casual conversations and friendships. This, I believe, is the distinguishing feature of Dumbarton Oaks—its role as a home, rather than just a museum, for scholarship.

Operation ICFA Oral History Initiative: A Case Not To Be Closed

by Caitlin Ballotta, August 8, 2014

The tools of the oral historian. Not pictured:  magnifying glass and trench coat.

The tools of the oral historian. Not pictured: magnifying glass and trench coat.

When last she wrote nearly one month ago, ICFA’s aspiring detective (that would be me) had just made contact with a few “key suspects”—that is to say, with several desired oral history interviewees—in possession of valuable information concerning ICFA’s image and document collections.  (For more on the pre-interview phase of Operation Oral History Initiative, please see my previous blog post, “A Not-So-Private Investigation: ICFA’s Oral History Project.”)  And now, with less than one week of my internship left to go and two formal interviews under my belt, I can proudly say that I have never felt more detective-like in my life.

Before you think me too crazy, I should state for the record that I am not claiming to be a real detective.  That job title I’ll leave for the professionals.  (And for Nancy Drew, my childhood idol.)  What I am saying, though, is that I have a newfound appreciation for what it is that detectives do—because what they do is very similar to what I (attempt to) do:  to get the whole story.  Think about it in this light:  getting to the bottom of things requires asking the right questions in just the right way, whether the questioner be sizing up suspects or collecting oral histories.  I would argue, in fact, that—although their respective interview tactics and the nature of their interactions with their interviewees may differ—both the detective and the oral historian are, in essence, collecting witnesses’ reports of events that have already transpired.  Both, then, are interviewers by trade who must be able to account for quirks of memory, to sense if (and why) interviewees are holding back, and to draw them out as necessary in order to “close the case.”  No small feat.

Practicing the interview process.

Practicing the interview process.  A very entertaining pastime.

Interviewing—or, better, conversational detective work—is not a job for the faint of heart.  Indeed, from the first moments of my initial “practice interview” (one of my supervisors, Rona, graciously played the part of Particularly Difficult Interviewee in order to test my skills as an oral historian), I quickly saw that the interviewee is not the only one in “the hot seat,” so to speak.[1]  The interviewer, too, must be ever on his or her toes. This requires becoming well-versed in the interviewee’s background so as to be prepared for anything that might arise over the course of an hour-and-a-half-long conversation.

Robert Van Nice, Jr., was interviewed by ICFA in October of 2012 about his father's (architect Robert Van Nice's) work at the Hagia Sophia.

Robert Van Nice, Jr., was interviewed by ICFA in October of 2012 about his father’s (architect Robert Van Nice’s) survey work at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

Yet preparedness is not enough.  Try as the interviewer-to-be might to “script” his or her part of the interview by drafting a lengthy (read:  very, very lengthy) list of questions ahead of time, he or she cannot predict where the conversation will lead once the interviewee gets to talking.  For this reason, the oral historian must be quick on his or her feet—that is to say, an adept multi-tasker who is able to keep track of a whole host of things at once while simultaneously helping the interviewee to feel at ease by providing the appropriate verbal or visual cues.  Consider a brief (and not at all comprehensive) Interviewer’s To-Do List:

  • (1) Listen to the interviewee: Listening to and processing what the interviewee says is absolutely vital.  This may seem obvious, but listening—really listening—is easier said than done when there are so many other things on the interviewer’s mind.  For further explanation, read on…
  • (2) Determine which (if any) questions are being answered simultaneously: As I mentioned above, there is no fixed script, and an interview can go in any direction—or, quite often, in multiple directions—at any given moment.  Keeping track of the topics discussed by the interviewee is essential so as to avoid asking redundant questions.
  • (3) Come up with impromptu follow-up questions: At times, the interviewer will want to know more than what the interviewee has said of his or her own volition, and it is up to the interviewer to get the particulars.  On the other hand, a single response from the interviewee can on occasion render an entire series of prepared questions irrelevant, forcing him or her to devise new ones on the spot.  (Yes, I speak from experience.)
  • (4) Steer clear of interrogation tactics: By this, I mean that the interviewer sets the tone for the interview—both in terms of what he or she asks and how he or she asks it.  Because the oral historian wants an interview to have the easy flow of a conversation, rather than the more staccato rhythm of an interrogation, he or she should aim to insert logical transitions between the various thematic segments of the interview.
  • (5) Aim for variety: The best interviews incorporate a mixture of question types. Biographical or fact-based questions and name or place association questions are useful in that they help to “warm up” the interviewee and to set him or her at ease.  Indeed, these seemingly basic questions (which often elicit interesting and unexpected responses) are just as important as the “hard-hitting” ones—for instance, those comparing personal with broader (societal or institutional) reactions to past events or social dynamics. Finally, while oral histories call interviewees to reflect on the past, it is also worthwhile to ask the interviewee—a person who, like the interviewer, is an individual living in the present moment—about his or her vision for the future.
  • (6) Respect time constraints:  Sadly, an interview cannot continue indefinitely, and some questions will inevitably go unasked.  The clock is ticking as the camera is rolling, and it is the interviewer’s job to prioritize questions accordingly—and to strike a careful balance between the depth and breadth of the discussion.
I was able to interview Susan Boyd, who--in addition to serving as Curator of the Photograph Collection (ICFA)--participated in a number of fieldwork projects in Cyprus and in modern-day Macedonia (FYROM).

I was able to interview Susan Boyd, who served as Curator of the Photograph Collection (now ICFA) and who participated in a number of  Dumbarton Oaks-affiliated fieldwork projects.

While I am not a real detective, I do love a good mystery story (give me anything Agatha Christie)—or any good story, for that matter.  Perhaps that is why I’ve enjoyed my summer in ICFA so much:  I’ve had the chance to “read up on” an array of interesting people and then to hear their (oral his)stories as they tell them.  Beyond just reading or listening to their stories, though, I’ve also gotten to help in recording them—and even, to a certain extent, to help in shaping them.  As I see it, the oral historian is something like a co-author—or perhaps a ghostwriter—of an interviewee’s oral history.  Without doubt, the interviewee is the primary author (not to mention the protagonist) of his or her tale, but the interviewer, the question-asker, lends to that tale its particular narrative bent by encouraging the interviewee to focus on specific topics.

In just a few days, my part in ICFA’s Oral History Initiative will come to an end, but the project itself will continue after I go.  As long as there are more mysteries to solve—as long as there are more stories to collect—ICFA will have its work cut out for itself, and you, Dear Reader, will be able to follow along once the Oral History Initiative web page (which is currently in progress) launches.  And so, since I am not quite a detective, I can happily say the following:  case not closed.

 About Me:

I graduated from Harvard College in May with a degree in English.  I am deeply interested in the intersection of technology and education.  Thus, when my internship with ICFA ends, I will seek to work in the Digital Humanities field while applying to graduate programs in English.  My eventual aim is to teach at the university level and to aid in the development of online supplements for humanities education in primary and secondary school classrooms.

[1] That is not to say, of course, that our oral histories are at all confrontational.  On the contrary, our conversations are quite congenial.  What I mean to say is that the very nature of the interview process places both the interviewee and the interviewer on the spot.