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.

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