Into the Gardens

Friday, January 16th

By Lorena, Harvard ’18

do garden

The camera whirrs as the last photograph of my second roll of film is taken and I wind the dial down to “0.” Ozdemir has just graciously taken the last photo on my disposable camera as I am standing by the side of a pool. Although I had instructed him to “make sure the pool is in the photo—and me too!” I’m more concerned about getting a good shot of the pool. It’s probably in the high thirties or low forties, but I swirl around the lawn in a floral sundress. Actual flowers are conspicuously absent from the lawn, but even without anything in bloom I can tell what a majestic place this is. The very structure of the paths, walls, occasional sculptures, and trees fits together in a composition of shape and line.

Our guide and course leader, James Carder, talks about the art installation in Lover’s Lane Pool, where a series of strange tubes rise from the frozen water’s surface. At the top of the cloudy transparent tubes are black pipes, which look like the intersection pieces of PVC pipe. Inside the tubes you can make out wires descending from the black pipes. James explains that the artist and musician Hugh Livingston has installed a temporary “sound sculpture” here. The pipes are like organ pipes and will emit a recording of remixed natural sounds, creating a strange music to fill the hills and terraces of the gardens.

The gardens! After five days of wondering whether the weather will permit us to visit the gardens, we are here and it is sunny and, to me, balmy (although the rest of the group is wearing winter jackets). James leads us around the gardens, detailing the history and development behind the beauty. When he mentions Mélisande’s Allée, an allée extending down from Lover’s Lane Pool, I am convinced I must return. In the spring, the allée is overtaken by swarms of flowers as they sequentially come into season, changing the color and smell of the path as spring gives way to summer. Another patch of bright color we are missing on this sunny January day is the yellow swell of forsythia that, in spring, covers the side of the valley and spreads into the woods across the Dumbarton Oaks property line. For now, the blue azure of the sky and the mossy celadon of the lawns will do.

When Words Fall Short

Thursday, January 15th

By Aaisha, Harvard ’16

Like many other people, I too used to strongly associate Washington, DC, with government offices, bureaucrats, and diplomacy. I had heard about the wonderful museums sprawled across the city, but had considered them to be a small part of a city synonymous with power politics. How wrong was I!

Having been interested in these topics separately, I applied for the Wintersession course at Dumbarton Oaks, “Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy, and Diplomacy in America,” to learn more about the intersection of these topics. Dumbarton Oaks, known as a “home of the Humanities,” seemed the perfect institute to explore these new ideas.

In the past four days, I have not only come to realize that cultural diplomacy through art and philanthropy was a popular idea in the Gilded Age, I have also learned that DO is not just an ordinary research institution. Famous for its landscaped gardens, Dumbarton Oaks also comes to life because of its wonderful staff and their passion for their scholarship. It’s contagious, and one cannot help but wonder if studying art and culture is one’s true calling.

Having spent most of our time at DO or museums around Washington, DC, for the past 3 days, we started the day with a two-hour tour of the neighboring Georgetown area. Our course leaders had carefully designed the walk to incorporate several quick stops at important cultural centers, which included Tudor Palace, the Phillips Collection, DuPont Circle, Dumbarton House, and Evermay, among others. After returning to DO, the extremely knowledgeable Dr. James Carder, house collection manager at DO, led a tour of the DO Archives and talked about the famous Dumbarton Oaks Conversations (yes, the ones that led to the formation of the United Nations!). At lunch, we were joined by Mr. Ryan Hobert of the UN Foundation, who enlightened us about the relevance of energy and sustainability to philanthropy and diplomacy.

IMG_1429What seemed like an incredibly enriching day continued to get better. After lunch, our group of sixteen made its way to the National Gallery of Art, where Mr. Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions of the National Gallery, led us on a mind-blowing tour of the gallery. A walk through the mesmerizing galleries of the museum and a behind-the-scenes peek of the upcoming exhibition that was being set up were topped by a visit to the design workshop of the National Gallery. If words could describe the workshop, I’d write a book. But the whole experience was one to be cherished in person and preserved in memory.

Works in Progress

Thursday, January 15th

By Jessica, Harvard ’16

A guard slides a panel to the side, guiding us with a subtle nod through the open space into a closed, empty gallery. On the blue walls of the vacant rooms hang countless brown paper–wrapped parcels. Crowned with white bows, the packages, varying in size and shape, seem like so many presents lined up on Christmas morning, simply waiting to be unwrapped. But, alas, white papers affixed to each parcel warn us against fulfilling our desire to discover what canvases lie beneath the wrapping: “Do not remove cover without permission of director,” each proclaims.

The space in which our class stands is a work in progress, an exhibition not yet ready for the eyes of the public in a cordoned-off wing of the National Gallery of Art. It will be but the day’s first glimpse of the largely unknown early life of an exhibition, a period fraught with diplomatic and cultural consideration.

Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions at the National Gallery and our guide for the afternoon, leads us from the clean, stately gallery into a vibrant garden of design. Past exhibition posters line the molding, Corinthian columns lounge against the walls, and perfectly scaled replicas litter every surface. We have wandered into the creative playroom of the NGA, the laboratory of Mark Leithauser, chief of design.

It is here we begin to consider the richly complex process of composing an exhibition. From a single black-and-white photograph of a Rodin sculpture is born a gallery transformed into a sculpture garden, a scene from history brought to life. Mr. Thompson and his team take works of art and fashion a new reality in the space of a gallery, orchestrating confrontations with different cultures and inspiring authentic aesthetic experiences.

Later, in another wing of the museum, Mr. Thompson expands upon this theme of the museum as a space for constructing interactions with cultures distant from our own. The table we sit at is covered in stacks of books: past exhibition catalogues featuring the artwork of the Aztecs, Cambodians, Chinese, and many other cultures. These were not simply collections of artistic objects, though, Mr. Thompson explains. Each exhibition represented a dialogue with another country or culture, inspired more often than not by the political developments of the day.

The exhibition with the record for the most visitors per day at the NGA, he notes, followed the conclusion of the Second World War. Featuring masterpieces taken from Germany, Austria, and Japan, the exhibition was a start to the process of repairing the perception of these countries, not as enemies but as cultural nations not unlike our own.

Within the galleries of the NGA, the seeming disparity between diplomacy and the fine arts collapses. Works of art transcend classification as mere mimetic representations of the world and come instead to represent the cultures, countries, and times from which they came.

On the Aesthetic

Wedneday, January 14th

By Michelle, Harvard ’18

During a morning discussion about the philological vocabulary of giving, we stumbled upon the idea of the aesthetic. It’s a word we don’t hear too often in our daily lives, but one that describes the experience of connecting to a piece of art. Questions naturally arose about factors affecting this interaction. For example, how does the instinct to take photographs of artworks change how we internalize them? What role does a piece of art’s physical presence play in the aesthetic experience? While these questions are quite debatable, today’s visits to Dumbarton Oaks’s object storage and the Kreeger Museum made it clear that there is something to be said for being able to interact directly with art.

When we ventured downstairs to object storage, we were lucky enough to have Juan Antonio Murro and John Hansonshow us some of their favorite Pre-Columbian and Byzantine pieces. Juan Antoniodescribed how Robert Bliss had an incredible eye for distinguishing between artifacts and objets d’art within his Pre-Columbian collection. And it was true—while a human skull could have been classified as an artifact, yes, it was intricately decorated with blue tiles. An Inca tunic was definitely a piece of clothing, but also completely covered in square tocapu patterns. Likewise, John talked about dust from the Hagia Sophia that was once stored in cigarette tins and let us examine a beautiful mosaic within a worm-eaten wooden frame with magnifying glasses. Being able to view and even handle these objects up close allowed for a much more personal connection to the artworks than I believe I would have had from hearing stories about the pieces or viewing them online.

In the afternoon, we continued this adventure into the aesthetic experience with our second field trip, this time to the Kreeger Museum. After hearing a bit of background information about Mr. and Mrs. Kreeger (who met at a swimming pool), we were led through what used to be their home. While the dining room remains decorated with the same Monet paintings that adorned the walls during their lifetime, the living room now displays a combination of early and later Picasso paintings, which made me appreciate the flexibility the Kreeger Museum has in making small adjustments to its space. And as I painted in high school, it was really special to get up close and personal enough with the paintings to see every brushstroke. Coincidentally, I forgot my camera during this visit, so my attention was completely focused on the art.

Would I have had the same aesthetic experience if I were exploring Picasso’s and Monet’s works online, or if I were trying to photographically document my visit to the Kreeger? I can’t say. But engaging with Dumbarton Oaks’ Pre-Columbian and Byzantine objects and viewing the Kreegers’ collection definitely lent a lot of insight into the extent that the aesthetic experience is improved by interacting on a personal level with art. And in turn, this speaks for the importance of having cultural centers and homes for the humanities where people can go to have these experiences. I’m so happy to be enjoying behind-the-scenes tours of such places in DC this week, and looking forward to visiting the Dumbarton Oaks Archives and National Gallery of Art tomorrow!

Philosophy and Philanthropy

Wednesday, January 14th

By Rachael, Harvard ’16

rachael smith imgMy third day as a participant in the Dumbarton Oaks Wintersession course on culture and power was full of lovely surprises. Our visit to the Kreeger Museum was a real treat, featuring a room filled with colorful Monet seascapes; dark, brooding early Picassos; and, my favorite, Mondrian’s Dying Sunflower. Before this visit, I had only ever associated Mondrian with the color-block style for which he is famous. Our visit to the Kreeger was an outstanding success. The museum introduced me to one of my new favorite paintings, and at the same time broadened my conception of this well-known artist.

My favorite part of the day, however, was our lively morning discussion with Professor Jan Ziolkowski. Our discussion centered on a comparison between the cultural philanthropists of the Gilded Age and today’s so-called “venture philanthropists,” whose approach to philanthropy is modeled on the economic strategies of venture capitalists. In particular, we considered the idea that by primarily focusing on questions of economics, one collapses other important aspects of philanthropy, such as morality and aesthetics. We noted that today’s donors have a tendency invest in a philanthropic project that will show immediate “practical results.” Such donors are more inclined to invest in projects with readily quantifiable results (such as number of lives saved by administering X vaccine), as this will assure them of the efficacy of their investment. However the “results,” that is, the value, of investing in a project in the arts, such as founding a library, is perhaps not so easily quantified. Does this make an investment in the arts any less worthy? “No!” screamed the hearts of the humanities students filling the room!

This discussion really got me thinking about the problems that the humanities face in the twenty-first century. It seems to me the issue is a double-edged sword. If we live in a world where people take value to be strictly economic value, then we begin to lose the possibility of appreciating a purely aesthetic object. We thought of families taking selfies in front of monuments before they’ve even looked at them, and teenagers recording a concert with their iPhones to post on Facebook rather than enjoying the experience itself. For such a teen, the concertgoing experience is no longer one of aesthetics, but one that is translated into social capital. All of us in the roundtable discussion feared that the non-commodified aesthetic experience is growing scarce.

All of this talk reminded me of the ideas put forth by Martin Heidegger in A Question Concerning Technology. In this essay, Heidegger argues that as the world becomes increasingly mechanized by technology, humans in turn will increasingly conceive of the world as mechanizable. According to Heidegger, eventually the only thing that that matters to the technological society is maximizing efficiency, reliability, and economy. In such a society, man loses the things that most make him man, such as his ability to appreciate aesthetics. From our discussion today, I can’t help but worry that we are facing the situation of which Heidegger warned: in the commodification of the aesthetic experience humans are losing their humanity. It is a thought that truly frightens me, one that I try to put away one sunflower painting at a time.

A Lasting Presence

Tuesday, January 13th

By Anne, Harvard ’16

mathews image

Since Sunday evening, I’ve been at Dumbarton Oaks with eleven other Harvard undergrads. We’ve been talking about cultural institutions like museums and the donors who make them possible. We started with Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, who gave their home and art collections to Harvard University in 1940 and were personally involved with the beginnings of their largest legacy. Their gift reflects their lifelong passions for art collecting and philanthropy. Dumbarton Oaks specializes in topics that were particularly dear to the Blisses, and in that way the Blisses’ personal presence continues to be felt here. But the Blisses also left room in the language of their bequest so that the institution’s activities in the arts and humanities could evolve over time.

After lunch, our group was invited to a talk with the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The library’s exterior blends in with its Capitol Hill location, but behind that façade is a Tudor-inspired interior appropriate for its area of study. Like Dumbarton Oaks, the Folger began as a reflection of one rich couple’s passionate interest, and it has similarly experienced both continuity and change since its founding. Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily Jordan Folger established the library in 1932 under the auspices of Henry’s alma mater, Amherst College.

One of the most interesting things that Director Michael Witmore talked about was the way in which academic organizations balance research goals with an educational or community-oriented mission, taking into account both the founders’ intentions and current needs. Although the Folger continues to prioritize research needs when allocating its budget, it also runs training sessions for DC–area teachers and engages the community with Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean plays.

Witmore talked about discerning the founders’ intentions and considering those intentions when making decisions for the library. For example, when board members asked whether performance should be a part of the Folger’s activities, Witmore turned to a letter written by Henry Folger in which he expressed a desire to see plays produced in the Elizabethan-style theater that was then under construction. Before we left, I looked in on rehearsals for Mary Stuart, a nineteenth-century play by Friedrich Schiller with Elizabethan subject matter.

My experience at the Folger Library speaks to a theme of this week’s course: How can modern trustees know what a benefactor would have wanted, and what options does an organization have a century later in a world that its founders probably never envisioned? Dumbarton Oaks and the many other cultural institutions that owe their existence to philanthropists must consider the immense personal investment that founders have made alongside the long-term interests of the institutions beyond their founders.

Reflections on the Humanities

Tuesday, January 13th

By Ritchey, Harvard ’17

This afternoon, we discussed the future of the humanities with Michael Witmore, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Dr. Witmore’s specific question focused on how the library could attract younger visitors and supporters.. He explained how students’ preliminary relationship with Shakespeare, be it in secondary or high school, determines their likelihood to support the institution. Beyond the Folger Shakespeare Library, it seems as though the conversation regarding the sustainability or the love of arts occurs at all liberal arts schools and institutions. Perhaps I am biased as I am an art history concentrator and enthusiast, but I feel as though it is impossible for our society to ever fully evade the humanities.

The humanities provide us with a point of reference, a topic that many of us can discuss. For example, asking other people about their opinion of a novel, a piece of art, a song, a movie—anything related to the arts—can facilitate a conversation. While not everyone can discuss string theory or the laws of gravity, everyone can feel a reaction to a work of art. Therefore, I believe that the humanities give the public something powerful: a way to connect diverse people. Institutions such as Dumbarton Oaks and the Folger Shakespeare Library can further the research done on these various forms of art so that our public discourse about these objects will never be complete. There will always be more questions to ask, different opinions to address; it is rare to find a conversation that ends with, “Well we have exhausted the works of William Shakespeare.”

I am not fearful that support or love of the humanities will subside because it is one of the few aspects of culture that connects us all. Whether we are cognizant of the fact or not, we are all patrons of the humanities in some way. When we read a book, visit a museum, listen to music, or watch a movie, we are all supporters. Therefore, I feel somewhat reassured that the humanities will continue to have a large presence in our society.