A Lasting Presence

Tuesday, January 13th

By Anne, Harvard ’16

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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.

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