The Ugly Business of Capturing Beauty

by Brett Davis, ’17

Dill.Color (2).jpgI’m crouching in the soil next to a dill plant, dirtying the business casual pants that have no sane place in a humid D.C. summer. Beads of sweat, turned milky from sunscreen that’s given up the fight, drip onto my camera screen. This, in turn, blocks my view of the dill that I’m determined to present glamorously. After loud sighs and soft profanity, I finally give up and sit down—in good company amongst the bugs that’ll soon start crawling up my legs.

Videography is ugly business.

With any luck (not to mention hours of post-production work) the ugliness of the filming process will be hidden and the final product will be a strictly beautiful affair. While film can take on many purposes, the goal of my current project—a virtual tour of the gardens—is mainly aesthetic. It feels almost oxymoronic that the extraordinary beauty of these gardens is captured through such ugly and ordinary means.

A lot of jobs are like this: custodians spend nights plunging toilets to keep great palaces looking fresh for visitors. Statisticians weed through oceans of data to reveal trends hidden within. A fast-food worker fries chicken paste in a greasy, rat-filled kitchen and sends forth a pristine batch of chicken nuggets. All of these roles are on a spectrum of the glamor, and the exhaustion, that they provide. But in each case, beauty, loosely-defined, emerges from the mundane jobs of people everywhere.

Museums are like this, too. In its capacity as a gallery, the mission of Dumbarton Oaks is to collect, preserve, and present the beauty of Byzantine, European and Pre-Columbian culture. Part of my job here has been to document museum activity from top to bottom—from directors discussing the building’s roof renovation to interns monotonously sorting through thousands of coins. None of it seems particularly extraordinary, and yet the product of it all certainly is.

InternFun (1).jpg

To some, the character of modern videography and social media presence may seem mismatched to an institution which spans back three quarters of a century and is dedicated to the study of materials ten times as old. Yet at its core, the process and aims of videography mirror that of the museum itself: each concerns mundane or ugly work aimed at capturing, preserving, and presenting beauty.

Why do we do it? Perhaps having passion for something means seeing beauty through the mess. Michelangelo used to say that he could see the sculpture withina block of marble, and similarly (on a much more modest level) I’m beginning to see the shot that could make that dill plant look fabulous. Just like how the museum staff can see the future exhibit framing that will help artifacts shine. Or how the garden staff can see the flowers rising from a plot of dirt and weeds. Work, then, really just becomes the process of getting from the vision to that beautiful reality.


Much Ado About Everything

by Melissa Rodman ’18

Melissa blog photo

from Stephen H. Grant, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 104.


Railroad magnate-turned bibliophile Henry E. Huntington declined countless interviews during his lifetime, suggesting instead that his legacy would remain through his extensive collection on playwright William Shakespeare: “This library will tell the story.”[1] Yet Huntington’s story often plays second fiddle to the founding and development of the Folger Shakespeare Library, compiled and curated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Huntington’s contemporaries, the American husband-wife literati duo Henry C. Folger and Emily Jordan Folger.

The Folger Shakespeare Library—and its founders’ mission, philosophy regarding the humanities, obsession with Shakespeare, and compulsive collecting practices—represents one of many philanthropic arts institutions I am investigating this summer while working on the “Mapping Cultural Philanthropy” project at Dumbarton Oaks. The project ultimately will pinpoint the manifold arts and cultural institutions in and around Washington, D.C., situating these museums and libraries physically on an interactive, online map and intellectually in the context of their benefactors’ varying visions of cultural philanthropy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While Huntington’s collection cropped up in my research solely in comparison to the Folgers’ library, his presence in that narrative echoes several themes that weave through this cultural philanthropic landscape: (1) balancing the collector’s interest with his/her intent for the public; (2) carving a niche for oneself and one’s collection in relation to other collectors, either at the individual or the national level; and (3) making ethical judgment calls in the face of cultural heritage claims and often dubious acquisition practices.

First, why begin collecting? Put simply, many of the collectors featured in the “Mapping Cultural Philanthropy” project—Duncan Phillips, Charles L. Freer, Huntington, and Folger—were Gilded Age industrial tycoons who had the financial means to do so. But beyond that simplistic explanation, their stories look remarkably similar. Art, whether contemporary paintings, Asian vases, or Shakespearean folios, enriched these collectors’ lives. Yes, the competitive game of possession did fuel their desires. But it appears that making much ado about a single item kept some of them going, focusing their attention and stoking their humanity. Some philanthropically-minded collectors thought that building collections would enable the public to have similar experiences by interacting with their carefully chosen pieces. For others, like Arthur M. Sackler, collecting mattered only so long as his name was attached to (read: engraved on) the building.

Next, what to collect? Some, like upstart William Wilson Corcoran, collected art with an eye toward cultivating “good taste” for oneself. Others, like the Folgers, gravitated toward areas of study that had interested them academically while at college. Still others, like Dumbarton Oaks’s own Robert and Mildred Bliss and collectors in the twenty-first century, scouted meticulously for items that would appreciate in value as the years went by and their collections continued to grow.

And finally, where do the ethics of acquiring objects fit into the picture? From ongoing repatriation debates surrounding the Elgin Marbles to the questionable origins of some pieces in the Harvard Art Museums, questions about ethics continue to shape, direct, and modify the art world today. Huntington’s and the Folgers’ collections, in California and Washington, D.C., respectively, are comprised of British folios. Freer dedicated his life to art from the Far East, yet the gallery he designed with exacting instructions and its contents remain in D.C. Triangulating the roles of collector, intended viewing public, and provenance becomes “the story” each of these cultural philanthropic institutions leave readers to ponder.

—Melissa Rodman is a junior at Harvard College and a senior staff writer at The Harvard Crimson. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.

[1] Stephen H. Grant, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 127.


Enclosing the Secrets of the Past: The Byzantine Lead Seals at Dumbarton Oaks

By Tyler Dobbs ’16

If you’re a normal person, mention of a seal probably makes you think of this:

Seal 1

If you’re an aesthete or antiquarian, this might come to mind:

Seals 2

But only the strangest and most singular of scholars—the Byzantinist—will picture this:

Having just finished an undergraduate degree in classical literature, I dare not claim the distinction of being a Byzantine historian. Nevertheless, I have spent the last three weeks cataloguing a few hundred of Dumbarton Oaks’ 17,000 Byzantine seals, so Byzantine sigillographer seems like a fair job description.

Unlike their waxy red counterparts, which proliferated in the medieval West, the extant Byzantine seals were usually struck from lead or another metal. Moreover, they were always double-sided. Despite its distinctive, coin-like appearance, a Byzantine seal served the same function as any letter seal: it enclosed the document and signified its author.

Few extant Byzantine seals—and none in the Dumbarton Oaks collection—remain affixed to the letters they certified. A rare exception, below, gives us a sense of how the seals were used.

Seals 5

This document, the bull Laetentur coeli, briefly reunited the Greek Church with the papacy at the Council of Florence in the mid-fifteenth century. On the left are the signature and seal of Pope Eugene IV; on the right, those of Emperor John VIII. (Unique among Western Europeans, the pope continued to use a late antique lead seal, suggesting the antiquity of his office.) As you can see, a cord ran through the middle of the seal. To open the document, the recipient cut the cord, allowing the seal to hang down from the bottom.

While the elite could afford seals inscribed with name and office, custom-made designs were beyond the reach of the everyman in Byzantium. Hence, many extant seals are anonymous, inscribed with such messages as Οὗ σραγίς εἰμι τὴν γραφὴν βλέπων νόει (Know whose seal I am by looking at the letter). I’ve personally catalogued more than a dozen seals with that inscription.

Such anonymous inscriptions are far more interesting than initially appear, for each one is a little poem. The line consists of twelve syllables, with a word-break after either the fifth or seventh syllable. (Syllable length does not make a difference here, in contrast to classical Greek verse.)

These inscriptions also tell us about Byzantine popular piety. Both personalized and anonymous seals often often bore the image of a saint, such as the Virgin Mary:

The Greek reads Ἥν ἐλπίδα τίθημι ταύτην σφραγίζω (She in whom I place my trust is depicted on my seal.). While the religiosity of medieval Byzantium is well known, it is striking how closely the Byzantines identified with the saints. The seal, like the signature, was an extension of the self. By sealing his letter with a saint’s image, the writer is claiming the saint as his representative.

The same phenomenon can be seen on this seal, decorated with a now faint depiction of St. Michael. The inscription says Κλίσην φέρω σὴν (καὶ) θέλ(ω) (καὶ) σὴν σκέπην (I bear your name, and I desire your protection, as well). Though we know nothing else about the seal’s owner—where he was from, what position he held was—from the seal we learn that his name was Michael, and he marked his correspondence with an image of his heavenly namesake.

Though the seals are small in size—all 17,000 at Dumbarton Oaks fit comfortably in a refrigerator-sized cabinet—they tell us a great deal about the Byzantine Empire. The literary sources, focused on the deeds of emperors and patriarchs, are largely silent about middling bureaucrats and provincial ecclesiastics. Personalized seals often provide the only evidence of people who were important enough to send extensive correspondence, but not so important as to feature in the imperial annals. Anonymous seals, too, are a boon to modern historians, for they show how the average literate Byzantine, who could not afford a personalized design, portrayed himself.

As it grows ever more complete, Dumbarton Oaks’ online catalogue of seals (including my own modest contributions) will help scholars reconstruct the lives and concerns of the people ignored by Byzantine writers.

Some Swell Swale: An Analysis of My Relationship with a Developing Garden

By Andrea Brown ’19

The native pollinator garden at Dumbarton Oaks, recently designed and planted by Tyler Fellow Deirdre Moore, is named “Some Swell Swale” after the Maurice Sendak story “Some Swell Pup.”

Sendak CoverThe alliteration potential was likely the reason for the naming. However, as the Garden Biodiversity intern, the garden is my summer project. I have realized that there are some deeper connections between the children’s book and my relationship with the newly planted garden back behind the parking lot.

The story of “Some Swell Pup” proceeds as follows: A brother and sister buy a puppy. They realize how hard it is to control said puppy. Finally, they come to appreciate the puppy for the young lovable doggo it is, despite its messiness. The tale also features a wise old dog with a purple cloak.

My relationship with the garden has followed a similar path. I will describe the three phases of the experience.

Phase One: We Just Got a Puppy and We’re So Excited

Book: Isn’t she cute?

Me, first day: The garden is so cool. All the plants are native and have been chosen to attract a diverse array of pollinators to the garden. I get to learn how to identify a bunch of native plants that I actually have a chance of seeing around the area.

Phase Two: The Dog Is Chewing Up Our Chair

Book: Our house is just a shambles! We know that mutt is a raving lunatic! It eats everything and makes messes everywhere!Garden 2

Me: The garden was so recently planted that nothing is flowering yet. The Coreopsis are only two inches high and the planted trees are either a foot tall or half dead.

One day, a woman, peering through the fence next to the garden, asked if we were going to plant anything there, even though we were done with the planting. (Note: this phase occurred during a really hot day of weeding in the garden, and thankfully passed quite quickly.)

Phase Three: Oh, I Get It. We Can’t Expect a Puppy to Be Trained Yet.

Book: After some guidance from the wise cloaked dog, the children begin to realize that raising a puppy takes effort. “Hey, he bit me!… That’s love…How sweet,” they say.

Me: We can’t expect the garden to be lush and in full bloom just a few weeks after it was planted. The fact that the plants are taking in the sandy soil (used so that water running off from the parking lot will percolate more quickly) is really encouraging. After mulching, the garden looks much more finished, and I’ve already seen a few bees and wasps checking out the garden. Weeding the garden also gives me the chance to watch the native plants develop and work on my plant identification skills. Plus, the milkweed is flowering!

Garden 3When more plants begin to flower, I will be working with Kim Frietze, another gardener here, on sampling and collecting pollinators who visit the garden. This will give us an idea of how successful various plants are in attracting specific species, and will allow us to have some insight into the success a native plant garden can have in attracting native pollinators.

At the end of these three phases, the children of “Some Swell Pup” are looking forward to their years with the pup, just as I am excited about my summer with the garden.

Art Collecting, Nation Making

By Joy Wang, ’16

It was January 1832, and Alexis de Tocqueville was, to put it mildly, unimpressed. After his weeklong stay in the nation’s capital, the conclusion of a yearlong tour that would produce his famed Democracy in America, Tocqueville’s assessment of the fledgling capital was dire.

Forty years before, Tocqueville observed, the planners of the city of Washington had envisioned a metropolis of millions and a city that “would be the hub of the Union’s internal and external commerce.” But “[t]he population didn’t come; vessels did not sail up the Potomac. Today, Washington presents the image of an arid plain scorched by the sun, on which, scattered here and there, are two or three sumptuous edifices and five or six villages that constitute the city. Unless one is Alexander or Peter the Great,” Tocqueville opined, “one should not get involved in creating the capital of an empire.”

Dim as his judgment was, such a charge was hardly unwarranted. Among the capitals of the Atlantic world, Washington—estranged as it was from the cultural and commercial capitals of Boston and New York—was peculiarly provincial, even something of a cultural backwater.

But this comparison with the artistic life of the Old World accounts for some of the relative underdevelopment of American public culture, and museum culture in particular, at the midpoint of the nineteenth century. America, which had neither the institutionally-chartered acquisitiveness of church and monarch nor the stable patronage of the great families of the European aristocracy, was reliant to a much greater degree upon the loan or bequest of the holdings of one or several prolific private collectors in establishing its first public galleries.

In this regard, there are few cities whose transformation has been more striking or important than our nation’s capital, nearly all of whose museums were established between 1870 and 1950. A plurality of these institutions were formed from the collection of a single philanthropist or family—think of the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery, the Freer/Sackler Galleries, and of course, Dumbarton Oaks itself.

For the past two years, Dumbarton Oaks has convened a Wintersession course, “Culture and Power: Art, Philanthropy and Diplomacy in America,” exploring these themes. And for the first time this summer, a team of four interns (of whom I am one) is diving deep into world of turn-of-the-century museum history in the first year of the Mapping the History of Cultural Philanthropy Internship.

Through a series of a dozen case studies of D.C.-area cultural institutions—from the earliest attempts to transform William Wilson Corcoran’s painting collection into a national gallery to Andrew and Paul Mellon’s successful establishment of the National Gallery of Art—we’ll be exploring the ways in which the collecting philosophies and aesthetic preoccupations of private collectors in the D.C. area influenced and continue to shape the educational missions of the museums and galleries that they helped to found.

The transformation of the nation’s capital from the “arid plain” of Tocqueville’s recollection to a vibrant cultural center is one that was decisively shaped by the tastes, vision and passion of a circle of collectors, dealers, historians, and artists, who sought—in ways as eclectic as their interests—to bring the arts to a nation for which artistic enlightenment was essential.

In Democracy and America, Tocqueville had worried that the fragile institutions of self-government in America were especially susceptible to the tyranny of an intellectually conformist democratic majority. A century later, Duncan Phillips (of the eponymous Collection) feared the social consequences of that same tendency towards conformity, this time to the “-isms” of the turn of the century: “When art was for the church it had an educated public. When art was for royalty the court and its academies set the superficial standards. Now that art is on the town the academy of the public and its enlarged electorate in artistic affairs represents the public lack of taste.”

To be sure, there are few museums today that would take so lofty a view of their own ambitions. But this vision of art as both a respite from and central feature of public culture is an inescapable one, and these questions—of who chooses how we think of art and aesthetic value, how the appreciation of art, from the Great Masters to Asian pottery to abstract expressionism, matters for citizens and their nations—are lively ones for a nation still in the making.


On Interdisciplinary Connections and History

By Ashley Zhou ’17

As the Annual Report Intern in the Publications department, I’m fortunate to be able to interact with all the different branches and areas of study at Dumbarton Oaks. Through my work in copyediting the Annual Report text, conversations with department heads and staff, and my own research, made possible by the library here, I have become somewhat more acquainted with academic fields I had not previously encountered. In particular, I recently have been perusing some of Dumbarton Oaks’s publications in Garden and Landscape Studies—an area that I wouldn’t have imagined would resonate with my academic interests in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Asian American studies.

Blog ImageOn a whim one day, right before lunch, I opened a book on the shelf adjacent to my cubicle that was being displayed as a recent Garden and Landscape Studies publication, entitled Food and the City: Histories of Culture and Cultivation, edited by Dorothée Imbert. In the volume, I came across the paper, “Transforming a Hostile Environment: Japanese Immigrant Farmers in Metropolitan California” by Donna Graves. Graves traces the relationship between Japanese labor, particularly that of Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants), and Southern California’s agricultural economy from the 1880s to post-internment. Facing the consequences of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the accompanying anti-Asian racism, California’s particular racist anxieties about Asian immigration, bars to naturalization as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” and circumscribed economic opportunities, Issei and other Japanese living in California—at this time, like in contemporary Filipino-American community, the majority were men—nevertheless claimed a niche market for themselves by truck farming, or growing crops for shipment to local markets, and cultivating nurseries. By the early twentieth century, Graves writes, they were pulling ahead as market leaders, particularly in growing flowers, and continued to build on their profits through interethnic organizing, vertical integration, and close collaboration with other Japanese Americans.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, the atmosphere of the nation grew increasingly anti-Japanese. During this time the efficacy of Japanese Americans’ organizational efforts, as exemplified by their financial success, became recast as suspicious behavior. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes by the U.S. government in 1942 and imprisoned in relocation camps until the end of World War II, a punishment that the Canadian and Australian governments also extended to their Japanese citizens. Upon returning two years later, many Japanese Americans were unable to access the land they had owned, and those who did often found their plots and farm equipment rendered unusable. However, even deprived of their livelihoods and their homes, they resisted federal policies discouraging resettlement with or near large groups of other Japanese and defied the racism and violence of the communities where they had lived before. With limited options and still facing lingering, postwar anti-Asian sentiment, many took up contract gardening, with its low barriers to entry, while others in Northern California found success in selling flowers to national markets as airfreight expanded.

But today, most Japanese Americans no longer work as fruit or flower farmers. The years after WWII eventually pushed them out of the industry entirely, due to corporate consolidation, changing demographics, postwar urbanization, and outsourced growing. Their decreased visibility in non-professional service jobs, their high rate of educational attainment and achievement, the prevailing myth of East Asians as the “model minority,” the fear that Asian countries will usurp the United States’ status—compounded, these factors have all but erased the history of struggle that Graves illuminates. Of land being taken, then taken again. Of what was never offered or allowed to begin with. Graves cites Asian American Studies scholar Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, who writes that the American “concentration camps had a devastating impact on the entire social fabric of the Japanese community, one that continues today, nearly forty years later.” This on top of stolen land. This on top of Jim Crow laws, the closeness of slavery. This—an America I and many more taught ourselves to see.

Learning about the tremendous amount of time and effort necessary from all parties—authors, editors, proofers, designers—for the publication of a single volume has allowed me to reconsider the implications of the materiality of a single book, or even a single article. I think about what it means that I can read about a Japanese American history of land cultivation in California from the comfort of my office here at Dumbarton Oaks. I can’t say I’m an expert, but I am excited by this scholarship and hopeful that it rings of something changing for a field of study frequently dismissed as a minority interest. I am heartened to see this essay published alongside the works of other prominent scholars in Garden and Landscape Studies and heartened that this kind of knowledge is gaining traction, even in this little corner of Georgetown.

Two Sides to Every Coin

by Alexandra Walsh ’18, intern in Byzantine Collections Catalogues

My fellow interns sometimes joke that it’s only a matter of time before I mistake a silver solidus of Theodosius III for a quarter as I pay for a can of soda at the nearest vending machine. My mind, they joke, has been boggled by the hundreds of Byzantine coins I’ve examined and catalogued over the past few months. But even with a caliper in one latex-gloved hand, and a gold nomisma hyperperon in the other, there’s no way that I will confuse my familiar American coinage with these expertly stamped pieces of Byzantine History.

As the intern for the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, I have had the chance to work on a number of projects, including compiling a functional bibliography for the new Byzantine Textiles project and sitting in on exhibition planning meetings for the 75th anniversary of the institution. These experiences have allowed me to witness the complex inner workings of the museum world.

Like most of today’s museums, Dumbarton Oaks is striving to digitize its collections to ensure that they are more accessible to scholars and visitors alike. Computers and databases may seem a bit out of place here—an eruption of modernity between the volumes of Sotheby’s catalogues standing in bookshelf and the hand written notes of Philip Grierson, the brilliant British numismatist who occupied a curatorial post here at Dumbarton Oaks from 1955 until 1997. While there are nine published catalogues of Byzantine coins from the Dumbarton Oaks and Whittemore Collections, many of the 12,000 coins, including more recent acquisitions, are still not included in print. Therefore, the museum’s current mission is to mount the post-catalogue acquisitions online.

Gold Solidus of the Empress Irene (797-802). Notice her bust is struck on both the obverse and reverse sides of the coin. (Accession Number: BZC.1948.17.2543)

Gold Solidus of the Empress Irene (797-802). Notice her bust is struck on both the obverse and reverse sides of the coin. (Accession Number: BZC.1948.17.2543)

That’s where I come in. Among my various projects, I have spent a great deal of time surrounding myself with money! Though I’ve catalogued over 140 coins onto the website, spot-checked, typed, and charted, the real fun comes when my magnifying glass and I head down to the two coins safes in the basement to do a little digging.

Every coin has an obverse and a reverse side. And I see every Byzantine coin in two distinct ways. Examining each precious face is the methodical means of preserving and tracking the past, giving true historical context. Flipping the coin over, each figure of Christ seated on a back-less throne and every Greek inscription stamped on a piece of copper tells its own story about the coin and its place in Byzantine society.

Some coins reveal political intrigue. For example, the practice of placing imperial busts on both the obverse and reverse sides of coins arose predominantly during the Isaurian-Amorian Period. And this relationship between fact and date also comes with a larger context: this pattern was a result of the iconoclastic controversy over icons. Apparently, coins were struck in this way because it was simply the polite way of removing offensive religious symbols from coinage.

Other coins demonstrate familial betrayal. Unlike most emperors during that period, who stamped figures of themselves on the obverse and their sons or heirs on the reverse, the Empress Irene, during her reign, printed her bust on both sides of coins. Was this a sign of importance? Or was this a reminder of the greed and power that led her to overthrow, imprison, and blind her own son with whom she first ruled jointly?

With each coin that I catalogue, I am afforded a fascinating glimpse of history. More than 1,500 years ago, these pieces of metal were passed around like small change from a vending machine. Now, though, they serve as reminders of the civilization through which Christianity found a voice and the daily lives of the people who formed a bridge between the Classical and Medieval worlds.