Dumbarton Oaks

I forgot to take a context photo once again, so this is thanks to Wikipedia. We never saw this view, having scuttled in from the street entrance.

Reading this week:

  • Steam and Quinine on Africa’s Great Lakes by David Reynolds

The other day, in our continuing efforts to visit every museum in DC, my super amazing girlfriend and I set out to explore Dumbarton Oaks! Remember when Harry and Meghan turned down “Earl of Dumbarton” for their son? Anyways off we went!

Except we didn’t go there first. My super amazing girlfriend is very sensibly into teahouses, and so our first stop for both tea and lunch was Ching Ching Cha which I recommend you go to because it comes highly recommended by both me and my super amazing girlfriend. They have a wide variety of teas available. I went with a black tea while she went with I think a hibiscus tea. Below you can see a picture of me looking at the tea, appreciating its terroir and stuff before sipping it down. I followed the tea with a delicious egg custard. All in all an A+ experience.

Sated and energized, we went off to Dumbarton Oaks. We had timed tickets and they mean it there. We tried to sneak in about 30 minutes early but a much harried woman was guarding the desk and making sure everyone followed COVID protocols, which I appreciate. I hope she is paid well. After a short jaunt to a flea market we finally got in.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Dumbarton Oaks. I don’t tend to like, read ahead on these things, so I enter wide-eyed and impressionable. The impression I got was that man, it seems like it would have been fun to be a rich person in the early 20th century going around just buying up people’s cultural heritage and not being worried about it at all.

Icon of St. John Chrysostom

I can direct you to the webpage for the History of Dumbarton Oaks, where you can learn that the museum was the result of the collecting efforts of Robert and Mildred Bliss. A fun fact I learned from that webpage is that Robert and Mildred met because their parents married each other; Mildred’s mom married Robert’s dad. Interesting! Robert was a diplomat and it was apparently in Paris that they caught the aforementioned bug of buying up cultural heritage. They wound up specifically interested in Byzantine artifacts and also pre-Columbian artifacts from the Americas. We couldn’t figure out and I haven’t found why they were interested in those two topics in particular.

I know I have already brought it up twice but what I am trying to get to here is that this place gave me an especially weird feeling of like, wow this is a bunch of other people’s stuff just sitting here in Georgetown for some reason. This is an unfair criticism of this museum in particular because I realize this is in many ways just sort of what museums do, a fact which has not stopped me from going, again as discussed, to as many museums as possible. But something about this one just drove that home. Maybe it was because it is so explicitly a museum designed around two people’s particular and unrelated interests. Or maybe it is because of the two sarcophagi they had next to each other, both of which lacked any particular explanation of what happened to the dead dudes previously using them:

Top: “Sarcophagus with Architectural and Apotropaic Imagery,” Bottom: “Seasons Sarcophagus

I hope those dead guys are okay besides, you know, being dead. I know I am being negative about this museum so far but there was a lot to like. I haven’t particularly ever been into the Byzantines at all so I didn’t really know how to process the artifacts they had on display but there was some really cool stuff. The first artifact pictured, the icon, is a mini-mosaic and is maybe the size of a hand, so all those little tiles it is made of are in fact very tiny. Impressive! They have a huge collection of Byzantine seals, which they use to tell the story of the Byzantine empire in a compelling way, showing how the events going on in the Byzantine world are reflected in the seals used to uh seal official communications. I have also been shitting on the Blisses for buying up people’s cultural heritage, but if you go to the linked pages about the different artifacts they have fairly detailed acquisition histories and they bought I think all of this stuff from dealers and the like, so they are not directly responsible for the pilfering. Except of course for the mosaics on the floors they repurposed from millennia-old archaeological sites via digs they sponsored. Anyways!

Besides their Byzantine artifacts, they also have a huge collection of pre-Columbian artifacts from the Americas. These are housed in a more modern wing of the complex which is a beautiful architectural complex comprised of circular rooms lined with glass, centered on a fountain and placed within the gorgeous Dumbarton Oaks gardens which we didn’t get to explore on this trip. It’s a peaceful and very different sort of setting and we both liked it a lot. It was against this background that we looked at the artifacts and wondered how they got here.

To make one final complaint, we were left unsatisfied with the way these objects were presented. Part of the reason the Blisses were interested in these objects were because they considered them and wanted others to consider them art pieces, instead of just maybe historical artifacts. I do like appreciating these pieces as art and thinking about the artists and their lives that were so very different from my own, but my super amazing girlfriend and I both wished there was more context or something that we couldn’t put our fingers on to explain these objects. For example, I wanted to know in what context they were found; it would have been edifying to learn if these objects had been found in graves or buried in foundations or just found in the ground somewhere. We appreciated the art of these objects but more explanation of their symbolism or meaning would have been useful too. Of course, considering the provenance of these things maybe they just don’t know.

I don’t have an excellent conclusion here. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum is not particularly large, but it has a very interesting array of artifacts, especially if you are into the Byzantine empire. Since these objects are there, I recommend that you go and look at them and appreciate them for what they are. But it was just that something about the whole museum left me feeling unsatisfied about how these objects got here, or maybe how to appreciate them, or maybe something deeper and more fundamental. But also wow this necklace is an astounding display of craftsmanship:

Gold Skull Necklace

Montpelier

Reading this week:

  • To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair by Annie B. Hore

After an extremely good weekend full of poffles and yarn and books and excellent times and of course presidential sites, we rounded out our journey with a trip to James Madison’s Montpelier.

As much of the weekend had been it was cloudy when we arrived and some rain was just thinking of clearing up, but the entrance to Montpelier is meant to impress and does. As you enter the gate you drive through some shallow rolling hills across massive fields of a massive estate. The weather meant it was quiet and we saw deer grazing across the road from a full-sized horse track as we made our way to the visitor’s center. Popping out of the DeLorean in the nearly empty car park, I quipped “busy day” to the only other woman around, who replied with the remarkable comment “you know I only ever met John DeLorean once – and helped his wife over a fence.”

Our guided tour of the house and grounds was once again fantastic. We had one other person join us, and our tour was given by a member of the estate’s board and part of the conservation team, so she was extremely knowledgeable. The estate had been in the hands of several generations of Madisons and she walked us through that history and how it was intertwined with the Virginia tobacco trade, first near the coast and then migrating to the Piedmont. Much like Highland, I think a lot of what was most interesting about Montpelier was the history of the estate itself as an historic site. Again like Highland, it has only been in the past five years or so that they have restored the house to something like Madison would have known and done the archeology to establish the history of all the people who lived there.

Our guide contrasted that to someplace like Mt. Vernon, which has been a historic site catering to visitors since 1853. Since our tour guide was on the board, we got to learn a lot about how they choose which artifacts to put in the building and where they get them, and a lot of what I was thinking about was the historiography. I extracted myself from that line of thinking for long enough, however, to pause in Madison’s study, the room where he did so much research on the nature of freedom and confederations while overlooking his land worked by people he enslaved.

Much like Highland, the story of slavery at Montpelier felt a little tacked on, though with a significantly better budget. They have an award-winning exhibition on slavery at Montpelier, awkwardly tucked into the cellar. The exhibit was brutal and honest and enlightening, but was a thing to do after the tour proper. They have also reconstructed a number of dwellings for enslaved persons and other plantation buildings on the south yard. Here the story of slavery on the plantation continues, and maybe I am an old fogey but I wondered if there was too much attention to the flash instead of substance. But overall it was good and honest.

The most recent owners of the estate were the DuPont family, and a great deal of the modern appearance is due to them. Marion Scott, née DuPont was the last heir to the estate, and loved horses, so the horse track was her doing. She is also responsible for the formal garden on the grounds, which in Madison’s day was a vegetable garden and orchard. The formal garden was nice, but I am much more a sucker for a vegetable garden and orchard. You add a fish pond to the mix and I go absolutely gaga. Much like Highland the estate has extensive, miles-long trails, and apparently a wonderful old-growth forest, but our clothing did not quite match the weather so we didn’t wind up taking advantage of it.

I am sitting here trying to reflect on what I learned about Madison by coming here. I learned a lot about his family history. He was definitely born into privilege and which afforded him the opportunity to go to the University of New Jersey, ie Princeton. Our tour guide compared that, however, to Berkeley in ’69 which is a useful perspective. I still wonder at revolutionaries – many people think they dream big, but how many people dream big enough to start a whole new country? But I think it is easier to dream big when you are already safe and secure. By that measure, a man like Madison, secure for generations nestled in the Virginia foothills and living off the labor of generations enslaved workers, would have been able to dream big indeed.

Second dead president in three days.

Highland

Reading this week:

  • The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa

Second on our tour of presidential sites in the greater Charlottesville area was Highland, the home of James Monroe!

I arrived at Highland in a terrible mood because the DeLorean betrayed me and wouldn’t start, so we had to take an Uber there. But we had the place almost entirely to ourselves and the staff was all extremely friendly (the kind of friendly you get when you are there to talk to tourists and there are nearly no tourists to talk to) and although it was cloudy it was fairly warm and it is a gorgeous area nestled there in the uh highlands of the Virginia piedmont.

Although we were at Highland for James Monroe there is not really a whole lot of James Monroe there. Our most famous presidential doctrinaire bought the place I think because owning a plantation was the hip thing to do if you are an up and coming 18th century Virginian, and he bought this particular plot because his bff Jefferson was next door. There are three buildings at the site that are contemporary to James Monroe, and that does not include his house. The contemporary buildings are two rooms of a guest house he had built (the backside of the white building in the photo at the top) along with an overseer’s house and a smokehouse which I was disappointed to find had its door closed and locked so I couldn’t see if they had fake hams hanging up.

Once you poke around the grounds you can go into the guest house, which is connected to a larger yellow house and contains (I guess I should say houses) a museum to the plantation and James Monroe. It is quaint and I feel like they must feel like they’re in competition with the James Monroe Museum for James Monroe primacy. Nonetheless I learned a few things, like the fact that Monroe is the dude behind Washington in “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” They focus a lot on his foreign policy work and credentials, which is close to both my heart and my super amazing girlfriend’s, so that was interesting to read about. They have a number of James Monroe artifacts and I am certain that for all James Monroeifiles it is a must-visit.

Probably the most interesting thing about the site was sort of the history of the museum. Apparently for a long time they thought that the yellow house in the photo above was Monroe’s. It was only recently they figured out it wasn’t and that the original house had burned down shortly after Monroe died and his heirs had to sell the place to pay off Monroe’s debts. And then it was only about five years ago that they did some archeology and found the foundations of Monroe’s actual house, which are now outlined in the stones in the above photo. Pretty stunning that they’re still only just figuring out what his house actually looked like.

Overall the place had kind of a weird vibe, as in when you go to Washington’s place they’re like “a Great Man lived here” but Monroe’s place feels like the house of someone I could know. That’s not crazy, because most of the buildings on the site were built in the late 1800s, and even in New Haven there were plenty of antebellum buildings in the neighborhood I lived in, and those were occupied by grad students. If Highland has a major advantage over the other two presidential sites we went to, it was probably the sheep, which were very cute.

I praised Monticello for how they addressed slavery, and although Highland didn’t do a bad job it felt a little tacked on. I suspect it is because the place isn’t running on a massive budget and not only lacks the detailed records that Jefferson left behind but even if they had those they probably lack the resources to put up interactive displays or the like. Still, they name names where they can and make sure to not try to excuse or sweep under the rug Monroe’s status as an enslaver.

Overall I think we spent about an hour at Highland. If we had known and prepared better we probably could have taken advantage of the trails on the property, which extend into the woods and I am sure would have been quite beautiful. As it was we spent some time wandering around outside and pondering the balance between expansive foreign policy and being nestled into rolling foothills. Then we called an Uber (talk about labor relationships) and hit up a yarn store.