The Human in “Humanities”

By Hannah Firestone ’16, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives Oral History Intern

Located on the second floor of the Library, the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) of Dumbarton Oaks is home to unique historical photographs, drawings, and field notebooks documenting undertakings such as surveys of important Byzantine sites like Hagia Sophia or the Cathedral of Eufrasius, as well as photographic corpora for a variety of subjects, such as Moche ceramic vessels and their iconography. This material is accompanied by digital collections, including ICFA’s Oral History Initiative, which I will be working with most closely during my internship this summer.

Robert Van Nice, Jr. his wife, and ICFA Manager Shalimar White examine an architectural drawing of the Hagia Sophia  on the occasion of Van Nice, Jr.’s ICFA oral history interview.

Robert Van Nice, Jr. his wife, and ICFA Manager Shalimar White examine an architectural drawing of the Hagia Sophia on the occasion of Van Nice, Jr.’s ICFA oral history interview.

In this initiative, scholars or former staff members (or their surviving family members) who have contributed to ICFA’s archival collections are interviewed by ICFA staff about their work, with the goal of contextualizing the materials that they have donated to the department or the collections they have processed. ICFA’s Oral History Initiative is a close cousin of the Dumbarton Oaks Archives (DOA) Oral History Project, a project that focuses on people who have been involved with Dumbarton Oaks throughout its history. The two oral history collections complement each other well: they share many interviewees, but the interviews in each present different sides of their experiences with Dumbarton Oaks.

In the case of both collections, I am fascinated by how much interviewees remember about projects that they were engaged in decades ago. Take Semavi Eyice, a Professor of Byzantine Art and Art History at Istanbul University and a two-time Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks. Eyice was interviewed in late 2011, when he was in his late 80s, yet he recalled not only the first and last names of various individuals, but also their middle initials. He also described the clothing styles worn by people that he encountered during World War II and on field expeditions in Turkey in the 1950s. Details like these make vivid the distant memories of the speakers as humans, rather than just as characters mentioned in the archived notebooks and correspondence.

In this way, the different collections of ICFA complete one another. The architectural drawings of Hagia Sophia created by Robert Van Nice, Sr. over a period of 50 years illuminate the history of the building’s construction, while his notes provide insight into his methodology as an architect. In turn, the oral history with his son, Robert Van Nice, Jr.  can further color in what we know about Van Nice, Sr. and his work: how he used the nickname “Sophie” when speaking of Hagia Sophia at home, or how he was frequently frustrated by the birds living in the ancient building because they would steal his tools or soil his drawings. Because of the existence of these multiple media and perspectives, ICFA can deepen a researcher’s understanding of the elder Van Nice: his son’s recollections and perceptions deepen our knowledge of him as a committed architect.

Getting to learn about the significance of the materials in our collections to the people who created them or who were close to their creators, as well as the challenges that arose in the process of their creation, makes it easier for me to understand their significance and to appreciate the work that went into them. These oral histories highlight the human aspect of humanities scholarship that has been supported by Dumbarton Oaks over the past seventy-five years.

About me: I am a rising senior studying Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard. I have a particular interest in reproductive health and justice, which I did not think would overlap at all with my work at Dumbarton Oaks, but this talk of “digital surrogate” and “born digital” has me second guessing that assumption.

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