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Mission & History

Mission

Through an active research and exhibitions program, the museum strives to advance knowledge, stimulate interest, and engage with our collections by inspiring visitors aesthetically, visually, and intellectually. Our mission is to connect scholars with art and objects, and scholarship on objects and ideas with the public.

The Founders

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss were enthusiastic collectors and judicious patrons of scholarship and the arts. A graduate of Harvard University, Robert Bliss (1875–1962) pursued a distinguished career as an officer and diplomat in the Foreign Service. Mildred Bliss (1879–1969) inherited a fortune from her family’s investment in the patent medicine Fletcher’s Castoria.

The Blisses began their collections in first decades of the twentieth century and provided the vision for future acquisitions after giving Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University in 1940. Sharing a taste in the art of little-known, not-mainstream art and cultures, the Blisses developed unique a unique collection with the help of knowledgeable friends and scholarly advisers.

From a Private Home to a Public Collection

The Blisses purchased the property that they named “Dumbarton Oaks” in 1920. In 1928 they added the Music Room, a Renaissance-style room designed to display their European furniture, tapestries, and other belongings, as well as to serve as a space in which music performances and scholarly gatherings could take place.

In preparation for the inauguration of the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection on November 1, 1940, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss undertook considerable planning, beginning in 1936. They aggressively increased their acquisitions of Byzantine and related artworks, creating one of the world’s great collections of Byzantine art. In 1938, the Blisses began to work with the architect Thomas T. Waterman (1900–1951) to design and build a library and exhibition spaces for the new institution. These were located to the west of the music room and incorporated mosaics from excavations at Antioch, which the Blisses had helped fund. In 1940 the Byzantine Gallery was opened to the public to allow and invite a broader audience access to the outstanding objects of their Byzantine collection, the only collection publicly on display at that time.

The Blisses engaged Marvin Ross (1904–1977) to catalog the Byzantine Collection, Elizabeth Bland (d. 1997) to register and help install the collection, Barbara Sessions (1899–1980) to assemble and catalog the research library (which by 1940 numbered some twelve thousand books), and Ethel B. Clark (1878–1964) to catalog Mildred Bliss’s collection of rare books, manuscripts, and holographic materials. They also initiated the Census of Byzantine and Early Christian Objects in North American Collections, employing researchers Louisa Bellinger (1900–1968) and Elizabeth Dow (1911–2000) to undertake the task. They acquired a copy of the Princeton Index of Christian Art and initiated the Dumbarton Oaks Papers in the hope that scholars would publish articles on objects in the collection. All of this was in place when the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection was legally transferred to Harvard on November 29, 1940.

Envisioning a museum space that would showcase their outstanding Pre-Columbian collection as well, the Blisses commissioned the postmodern architect Philip Johnson. The Philip Johnson Pavilion opened in 1963, brought to completion by Mildred Bliss after the death of Robert Woods Bliss in 1962. The more recent history of the museum includes the construction of the Courtyard Gallery in 1987 as well as two major renovations in 2008 and 2016.