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United They Stand: Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 13:15 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection can be thought of as an academic tripod. Its three legs—Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies—work both independently and in combination to support the institute’s ultimate goal of advancing knowledge. As three disparate disciplines, the fields of study coexist in a way that is unique to most research centers. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this coexistence, however, is that visiting researchers are afforded exposure to new perspectives that might affect their intellectual growth.

The Byzantine Studies program had its first fellows in 1941, the Pre-Columbian program in 1970, and the Garden and Landscape program in 1972. Since 1970, the interaction among scholars of these different disciplines has proven to be fruitful, and many scholars who have spent time at Dumbarton Oaks fondly recall such interactions when they have been interviewed for the Dumbarton Oaks Oral History Project. For example, Pre-Columbian fellow Ricardo Agurcia Fasquelle has spoken about the value of the weekly reports that are attended by members of all three programs. He called the experience “always enriching,” and noted that attending them made him able to see “the world from other people’s points of view.” Fasquelle also asserted that in order to study at Dumbarton Oaks, one had to be “willing to talk a language that isn’t just your own” and “be open to exposure to other fields and other ways of looking at data,” and that the results of such exchange could “only be productive and good.” He even went so far as to say that his archaeology fundamentally profited from the interdisciplinary interaction at Dumbarton Oaks.

In a similar manner, Annemarie Weyl Carr (Byzantine fellow, visiting fellow, junior fellow, and visiting scholar) discussed how individuals in different fields shared “common curiosities,” which had “been very exciting to look at together.” Carr reflected that it was through her interactions with members of other fields, particularly in the Pre-Columbian Studies program, that she “discovered anthropology,” a breakthrough that proved to be “critical” for the success of her studies. Profound dialogue could even take place in more casual times and places. Byzantine Studies fellow Elizabeth A. Fisher remarked that it was a conversation “just over lunch” with a scholar in another department that “opened [her] eyes” and induced her to consider “human capacities that [she] hadn’t thought about.”

Interdepartmental interactions at Dumbarton Oaks can be fostered in many ways. One way is through shared residency, formerly in the Fellows Building and now in the Fellowship House. These “close quarters” allow for the spontaneous meeting of neighbors. Collaborative projects also facilitate a “better mixing” of fellows in the words of Mark Laird, who cites the contemporary art installations in the gardens as one such venture that has resulted in a “better harmony at the institutional level.” Another example is the ability of the fellows to attend events such as colloquia and symposia sponsored by programs other than their own. Peter Jacobs, a former Garden and Landscape Studies senior fellows and the first recipient of the Beatrix Farrand Distinguished Fellowship, said he “enjoyed very, very much” attending the presentations of Fellows in different fields.

Maintenance of rapport among the three branches did not come without its challenges. Many scholars remember a time when it was perceived that the standing among the three programs was not equitable. Many thought that the Byzantine program was favored because it was the first to be established and that, with the creation of Pre-Columbian and Garden and Landscape Studies, these later programs necessarily had a junior status. When asked how Dumbarton Oaks had solved the problems of coexistence, former director Giles Constable replied:

Well, I doubt if they’ll ever be permanently solved, I think, the way you have three such different programs, not to mention the physical side of the garden and the museum. I don’t think that people often realize that D.O., although a fairly small institution, is an immensely complicated one with very different interests in these three fields which, inevitably to some extent, are jockeying for position with each other. The Byzantine was the senior program. And the Byzantinists, not only at D.O. itself but throughout the world, have always thought of it really as a Byzantine Institution and that most of the resources should be going there. Any cut-back they saw as very much at their expense.

This perception notwithstanding, the directors of Dumbarton Oaks have endeavored to make the three programs at Dumbarton Oaks increasingly equitable and productively intertwined. It has been the mission of each successive administration to obtain a balanced consideration of each of the programs so as to maximize their individual potentials as well as the potential of Dumbarton Oaks as a whole. And an important benefit of this effort is that Dumbarton Oaks’ scholars, often to their surprise, obtain inspiration from and engage in meaningful discourse with their colleagues from other disciplines. In the words of Henry Ford: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”