Oleg Grabar, the great Islamic art and architecture historian, moved to the United Staes in 1948 when his father, André Grabar, took the position of Director of Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. At that time, he was eighteen years old. A prolific writer who shaped western perception of middle eastern Islamic culture, Mr. Grabar was a member of the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Studies Board of Scholars, and was later a Senior Fellow.
Having been associated with Dumbarton Oaks for over sixty years from his first stay with his father in 1948 until his death in 2011, Grabar had many stories to share about his early life, his scholarship, and the atmosphere at Dumbarton Oaks. Below are excerpts from his interview.
After moving to the United States, Grabar went almost immediately to study at Harvard College. He had previously attended the University of Paris, and in 1950 he graduated with a degree in medieval history from Harvard and diplomas in medieval and modern history from Paris. He later went on to earn both a MA and PhD from Princeton University. —
I didn’t know anything about American universities. I was given the choice between Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. The only thing that distinguished it to me was the color. I still remember the three colors as being three different colors. Why I went to Harvard I have no idea. But in any event, I went there and eventually graduated.
The move from France to the United States was a mild culture shock for Grabar, but he noted that life at Dumbarton Oaks was something totally unlike anywhere else. —
My first week at Dumbarton Oaks was Christmas, ’48. It was an introduction to the feudal world of Dumbarton Oaks because at Christmas time, in those days, Mrs. Bliss always invited everybody at Dumbarton Oaks for a Christmas party. Everybody received a gift. She’d never known me but she knew my father had an eighteen-year-old son. I forgot what gift she gave me, but there was a little package for me under the Christmas tree. Everybody received something like this, and this was my first introduction to her…. My first impression of Dumbarton Oaks was that nobody spoke English. It was essentially a European institution with wonderful European manners.
Glen Bowersock, Oleg Grabar’s fellow Member at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, has remarked on Dumbarton Oaks’s ability to “straddle the Atlantic.” And for Grabar, one fond memory in particular highlighted this belief that Dumbarton Oaks existed somewhere between the continents. —
My mother, the old Russian historian Vasiliev, and Otto Demus, a handsome Austrian Byzantinist, and, at the time, the Princeton Byzantinist, Bert Friend, holding arms together and going up and down the Music Room, which was where the Greco painting is now, and singing Viennese operettas in German – nobody would sing them in anything but German. It was really wonderful to me. That was their world.
America didn’t exist as a culture for them. Nice and wonderful though it was, it was a world totally of its own, where tea was very important, where to be seen at the swimming pool was very important, and so to them it was part of a nice little feudal world. The hierarchy was very clearly established. Everybody knew who was who, who had the right to do what and not to do what.
Dumbarton Oaks evolved greatly from the end of the Bliss-era when Grabar first arrived. He noted that at first it was not a library, but rather “shelves surrounded by genteel living.” As this changed into the more institutional structure we know today, he lamented some of the changes that modern practices brought about, namely changes to the structure of the Dumbarton Oaks symposia and the field of Byzantine studies. —
I think the symposium played a very important role [when]…the people preparing the symposium were all working together on the symposium. So, the symposium was not like now. People work wherever they are, then come the day before they give their talk, give their talk, and go away. These later symposia did not create as much excitement as the symposia of the ’50s, which were really, truly milestones – the one my father did in 1946, what Dvornik did, the first one Kitzinger did – they were really major intellectual creations.
Byzantine studies have been in trouble for the last twenty years. It’s not a field that is a growing – it has been taken over by all kinds of other forces than whatever is required of pure scholarship. The great thing about the central, western, and eastern European scholars of yore, as well as the first group of Americans who were there was that they were really only interested in scholarship. They had no other agenda.
The early symposia that Grabar discussed had the same feudal undertones which permeated Dumbarton Oaks as a whole. —
At the symposium itself, in the front row, were the big couches. Enormous couches where the very distinguished, elderly professors would sit. It was like a royal court. You have the top princes sit in front, then you have the variety of lower aristocrats behind, and then some poor little graduate students in the back. But the graduate students were future aristocrats, so they belonged there.
In all of his remarks, Grabar always seemed to return to the idea of collaboration. Whether the collaboration was on a symposium, an excavation project, or an article, Grabar believed the exchange of ideas between scholars was of prime importance, but was something otherwise only seen with “mathematicians and physicists,” but not in the humanities which he saw as much more individual. —
The atmosphere of the place has changed because people are not in a monastery together. They are in a library together, whereas in the past it was like a monastery: you had breakfast together, you had lunch together, you had dinner, you spent all day together. I don’t know whether it’s true, but in the past, it used to be a community working together, which I don’t think it is now.