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75 Years/75 Objects: Celebrating 75 Years of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 11:21 am | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

An eclectic mix of objects drawn from Dumbarton Oaks’ Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and House Collections will greet visitors as they enter the museum starting this September. Seventy-five objects, chosen to commemorate the anniversary year, will be displayed between September and May 2016 in nine themed, monthly rotations devoted to the ways that a museum deals with its important collections. Some artworks on display have histories uncovered by curatorial research, some are fragmented objects that were separated and then reunited, others are pieces that might not be what they purport to be, and many are not ordinarily on view to the public. This special exhibition commemorates the seventy-five year history of the collection since Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss’s donation of their estate to Harvard University in November of 1940 as a research institute and museum.

Integrating art history methodologies, curatorial practices, and the three collections, 75 Years/75 Objects cuts across eras and continents to push visitors to engage with thematically arranged groups of objects as well as the roles that museums play in shaping and influencing the visitor’s viewing experience. In particular, the nine themes—“Researching,” “Reconstructing,” “Collecting,” “Reinterpreting,” “Conserving,” “Reuniting,” “Pondering,” “Questioning,” and “Revealing”—illustrate the work that Dumbarton Oaks does as a research institute and museum.

The themes, conceived in a spirit of curatorial collaboration, showcase groupings of objects that might otherwise be unlikely display-mates. This allows curators to point out the significance of artworks and to emphasize the overarching themes of the exhibition. Dumbarton Oaks, representative of many museums’ missions in a larger sense, does not preserve the past in a static manner, but instead builds upon the meanings of objects whose histories are continually rewritten as new information comes to light, or revised as new interpretations replace old understandings. 

The relatively small scale on which Dumbarton Oaks operates gives staff the opportunity to get involved in the exhibition plans at every step of the process. The series of nine rounds presents a challenging set of exhibition considerations, to which curators and designers worked to devise both practical and aesthetic solutions, many of which will be invisible to the public eye. Because the rotations will rapidly cycle in and out at a nearly unprecedented speed of one exhibit per month, special attention was given to the mounts, cases, banners, paint colors, and labels. Elements such as temporary walls and textile partitions will lend different atmospheres to the same exhibition space, updating it while working within the confines of a limited area. Wall text and labels will be concise, and iPads will occasionally be introduced and integrated into the displays to feature additional information on the history of the artworks. All of these decisions will contribute to a more focused viewing experience.

During the month of November (“Collecting”), viewers can look forward to seeing some of the greatest highlights of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. French Impressionist Edward Degas’s The Song Rehearsal (ca. 1872–73) from the House Collection will be among the works on view. Mildred Bliss went to great lengths to acquire this piece, and her determination exemplifies the passion and seriousness with which the Blisses regarded their role as collectors. A number of important Byzantine artworks, including jewelry, textile wall-hangings, and icons, as well as the first piece of Pre-Columbian art that Robert Bliss acquired, will also be on display in November.