Exploring Dumbarton Oaks: from (A)rchitecture to (Z)iolkowski

By Katie Borrazzo ’18, 75th Anniversary Social Media intern

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives are adjacent to my workspace, and hold a wealth of information on Dumbarton Oaks’s past from A to Z – most of which comes from an age when “cc-ing” someone meant handing them a physical carbon copy.

The Dumbarton Oaks Archives are adjacent to my workspace, and hold a wealth of information on Dumbarton Oaks’s past from A to Z – most of which comes from an age when “cc-ing” someone meant handing them a physical carbon copy.

When I mention to my friends—even the ones who, like me, grew up in D.C.—that I am interning at Dumbarton Oaks, I am no longer surprised to hear the response, “Oh, so you’re gardening or something?” This is not an unreasonable assumption, given that the gardens are the most visible part of Dumbarton Oaks. Luckily, the work that I am actually doing—writing blog posts to commemorate seventy-five years since the Blisses donated Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University—means that I can explain that Dumbarton Oaks is a research institute and then continue on with more details about the institution than most could have imagined even existed. With any luck, the blogging initiative will help to uncover some of the mystery enveloping the giant research institute in the middle of Georgetown.

More specifically, I am completing the last twelve blog posts, which, as part of a series of seventy-five posts, cover a wide variety of topics, from the early days of the Byzantine studies department and Dumbarton Oaks’s activities during World War II to the voices of scholars who had an important impact upon the institution and their fields of study. The blog posts will be published beginning in September, and they comprise an eclectic cross-section of Dumbarton Oaks past and present: subjects include great scholars, the history of the gardens, and image comparisons of various spaces within the institute in a “then and now” format. I have become remarkably more well-versed (and have even come to appreciate) using the physical archives—a revelation, given that at school, I usually eschew actually going to the library in favor of easier-to-access online JSTOR articles. An undeniably authoritative feeling accompanies the short trip to the archives to check out a file folder, as I write down my name, the folder’s title, and the date on one of the oversized checkout cards.

The blog post on which I am currently working will, in a way, represent the culmination of my efforts and time at Dumbarton Oaks, as I attempt to encapsulate “the importance of Dumbarton Oaks during the past seventy-five years and its ongoing importance in the future” in a concise, engaging, and original format. Maggie, the intern on the Oral History Project, and I have been interviewing the Directors of departments, including Jan Ziolkowski, Yota Batsaki, John Beardsley, Gudrun Bühl, Gail Griffin, and Kathy Sparkes. When I talked with Jan about trends in Dumbarton Oaks history, he was curious to understand how interns like me might take the skills which we have cultivated here back to school. Dumbarton Oaks fosters scholarship within us, inspiring a regard for the humanities which can only come from being immersed within a world that is not obsessed with coding and start-ups.

Through the reading of the Director’s Notes in each successive annual report on the activities of the Institution, I seem to have inherited some of the so-called—as John Beardsley termed it in a recent conversation— “mission anxiety” that pervades Dumbarton Oaks. I am reassured by the fact that, as a whole, the intern program serves several of its constituencies, as it provides opportunities for undergraduate students while fostering an appreciation of the humanities in ever-younger waves of interested students.

This summer, I have come to a fuller understanding of the role that the humanities can play in society. I have learned ways to think about re-envisioning lessons of the past as guidance for approaching the future. The big questions that have plagued society for millennia have often been qualitative—not quantitative—and the humanities work toward imparting the answers on those who will listen. I hope that my efforts will, in a small way, add to the wealth of knowledge that Dumbarton Oaks contributes to the world.

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