Week 3: Dumbarton Oaks

Museum Mission: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, in Washington, DC, is an institute of Harvard University dedicated to supporting scholarship internationally in Byzantine, Garden and Landscape, and Pre-Columbian studies through fellowships, meetings, exhibitions, and publications. Located in Georgetown and bequeathed by Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, Dumbarton Oaks welcomes scholars to consult its books, images, and objects, and the public to visit its garden, museum, and music room for lectures and concerts.

When I entered the museum at Dumbarton Oaks, the man at the desk asked whether I wanted to see the museum or the gardens. Like a good visitor services person, he gave me information about each: closing times, exact locations, whether they cost money (the museum doesn’t, the gardens do). But I didn’t want to see just one or the other, and after visiting both, I reflected on how the two complement each other.

Both display art that tells stories. The museum is full of old, often ancient, artifacts that portray the stories comprising cultures’ belief systems: mosaics of Jesus, Mary, and saints from Byzantium; depictions of pre-Columbian creation stories; figures of Greek gods. Highlights of the gardens include art based on Greek and Roman mythology.

Most salient to me was the mosaic of Apollo inside (accompanied by text that mentions the story of Daphne and Apollo), followed by my turning a corner on a path outside and recognizing Pan as the small sculpture who greeted me. The stories (or same story, different characters) of Daphne and Apollo, and of Syrinx and Pan, have always intrigued me.



The museum and the grounds both indicate a zeal for knowledge and exploration.  Everywhere I sensed a yearning to learn everything, see everything, and collect from everywhere. Pieces from around the world adorn what was once the home of Robert and Mildred Bliss. Their thirst for knowledge and objects was not limited to one culture (though they were especially interested in the pre-Columbian Americas and the Byzantine Empire). Likewise, a brochure refers to the gardens’ “eclecticism,” a variety of plants and settings to experience.

According to Dumbarton Oaks’ website, Robert Woods Bliss spoke of the intended scholarly use of the place: “There was a need in this country, we thought, of a quiet place where the advanced students and scholars could withdraw, the one to mellow and develop, the other to write the result of a life’s study.” The museum brochure states that the Blisses “envisioned a ‘home of the Humanities,’ a place of natural serenity and intellectual adventure.” A quote from Mildred Bliss on the outer wall of the gardens refers (seemingly all in one breath) to the wish for continued scholarship of the humanities, and to the role of trees and gardens “in the humanist order of life.”

One can see, but not access, each part of Dumbarton Oaks from the other. From the Pre-Columbian Galleries, the visitor can catch a glimpse of the gardens – and be enticed to (pay $8 to) see more. Once in the gardens, the camera captures better pictures of the building than from the street. Ultimately, though, each has its own entrance, and strolling back and forth, in and out, is not an option.

Flowers at Dumbarton Oaks

Pictures of the house were just a few of the hundreds of photographs I took outdoors. My images (granted, on a low-tech point-and-shoot camera) of the dimly lit art and text inside mostly turned out dark and blurry. The grounds, however, lent themselves amazingly well to photography, and I had a wonderful time taking pictures outside.

Flowers at Dumbarton Oaks

Pebble Garden



About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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