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History of the Pre-Columbian Collection

Philip Johnson Wing

Robert Woods Bliss was initially attracted to Pre-Columbian art for its aesthetic qualities, and his taste guided the acquisition of most of the pieces in the collection. His first purchase was a superb jadeite figure from the Olmec culture, which he bought in Paris in 1914. Bliss was one of the first collectors to emphasize the artistic significance of such objects, equating them with Greek and Roman antiquities and European paintings at a time when Pre-Columbian objects were generally placed in museums of natural history. After discovering this art, he developed an interest in the peoples and cultures of the Pre-Columbian world. He and Mildred Bliss traveled to sites in Mexico and Guatemala, and supported excavations in Panama by Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. When selecting pieces for purchase or documenting those already in his collection, he sought the advice of experts, including Samuel Lothrop of Harvard University and Matthew Stirling of the Smithsonian Institution.

From 1947 until 1960, Robert Bliss put his Pre-Columbian Collection on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It remained on exhibit there for fifteen years and garnered, as he put it, the steadily increasing response of a large and interested public. During the 1950s, Robert Bliss lent objects to temporary exhibitions in Paris, Stockholm, London, Zurich, The Hague and Berlin. In 1957, he published a catalogue of his Pre-Columbian collection, arguably the first of its kind in the field of Pre-Columbian art.

In the late 1950s, Robert Bliss began to plan a permanent home for the Pre-Columbian Collection. He chose the architect Philip Johnson to design a structure that would be appropriate for the collection and that would complement the Byzantine museum and surrounding gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. After Robert Bliss' death in 1962, Mildred Bliss saw the building project to completion. Since 1963, the Johnson Wing has housed a large part of the Pre-Columbian collection for public viewing.

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