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