Come on In: The Dumbarton Oaks Symposium

If the scholars here at Dumbarton Oaks are the lifeblood of the institute as we know it—the necessities, the aerators of resources, the vital signs—then the symposia are the institute’s great lungs, chambers of commerce between the internal and external, between one scholar and her peers, between Dumbarton Oaks itself and a broader community: the organ whose inspired function it is to breathe deep of fresh scholarship: a rhapsody of exchange.

Annual symposia have been held here since the time of the Blisses; they are one of our most time-honored traditions. In those early days, scholars treated Byzantine topics in their lectures, but even people without expertise in the field attended. Former Byzantine Visiting Fellow and Scholar Robin Cormack recalls an anecdote about how Mildred Bliss herself once attended a symposium, an occurrence that he considered generally uncharacteristic of her. In this exceptional case, however, she had a charmingly characteristic motive: the greening of her already green thumb. Cormack tells us:

One [Bliss story] that I always remember…is that Mildred Bliss, on the whole, didn’t have much interest in the Byzantine Center, but that to their surprise she turned up to one of the symposiums—which was

What the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople may have looked like

What the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople may have looked like

never published—which was the reconstruction of Holy Apostles in Constantinople. And it was noticed, I was told, that Mildred Bliss came to Underwood’s reconstruction of the ground plan of the church and at the end asked him if she could have a copy of his plan. He went around to her place a few days later to give her a copy and asked her why she wanted a copy of the ground plan of Holy Apostles in Constantinople, and the answer she gave was: “It looks as if it would be a great plan for a garden!”

Mildred Bliss was not the only curious layperson to have sucked out the symposiac marrow of Dumbarton Oaks. Former Assistant Librarian Caroline Backlund also attended symposia here regularly, and her experience attests to their universal warmth, rigorous pleasures, as well as to their community-building power:

I knew nothing about Byzantium until I came, and I learned so much. And I went to all the lectures and I went to the symposiums and struggled through things I didn’t understand. And I made a lot of close friends with scholars.

But let it not be forgotten that the welcoming atmosphere of the symposia is also distinctively fibered with what former Dumbarton Oaks docent and ICFA volunteer Inge Gaberman calls “the cutting edge of inquiry at these various fields.” This is in part the case because of D.O.’s commitment to hosting the most eminent of scholars, those who cast the most bountiful shadows, whom Junior Fellow Elizabeth Sgalitzer Ettinghausen (’43-’44, ’44-’45) reverently styles “semi-gods.” For example, Oleg Grabar recalls with delight: Every year we had a procession from Princeton, where I was graduate student, to go to Dumbarton Oaks for the symposium, where you kind of saw all the big shots you had heard about or read about. That was interesting and exciting.

Mr. Grabar was of course an Islamicist interested in Byzantine studies; and, as Dumbarton Oaks grew into itself, so too did its institutional compass grow to accommodate the Blisses’ other interests in pre-Columbian as well as garden and landscape studies, and the generous magnitude of their resources. Pre-Columbian scholar Richard Diehl claims that symposia became “an integral part” of his intellectual life. William Howard Adams, who was a member of the Garden Advisory

Garden design historian William Howard Adams

Garden design historian William Howard Adams

Committee at Dumbarton Oaks between 1978 and 1983, praises the high quality, even centrality, of symposia held here as early as the 1970s on garden history:

[Dumbarton Oaks] was really the only center [for garden and landscape studies]. There was—the scholarship going on—there was a good deal going on in England in garden history. It has its genesis, I think, really after the war. And lots of the Fellows and people who came up and were influential read at some of the symposia at Dumbarton Oaks. They were all international figures but I think the English garden history crowd, they quite often were members of the symposia.

In addition to becoming more omnivorous, the symposia at Dumbarton Oaks, though always rich with debate, also become more democratic. Greco-Roman history scholar Glen Bowersock says that, earlier in the institute’s history, “The symposia…were well-known for being elegant, well-catered occasions,” but that, under the bold direction of Giles Constable, they were trimmed back, re-centered on the scholarship, freeing up funds for less opulent but maybe more constructive purposes. Mr. Bowersock goes on to reminisce about a symposium that he himself organized and about symposia in general in a way I think synoptic of the merits of this venerable Dumbarton Oaks tradition:

I think they were wonderful, and there was plenty of money so you could bring people from anywhere. They were beautifully published in the Dumbarton Oaks Papers, and the entertainment was splendid. And we spent a lot of time in the Board of Senior Fellows scrutinizing proposals for the symposia to make sure that they were intellectually respectable, that they were good people to do it. I’ve always felt the symposia were a very important part of what Dumbarton Oaks does in the world.

And indeed, symposia are a very important part of what we do here; you needn’t organize a symposium to learn that. So come on in; pull up a chair; we can’t wait to share what we’re learning and to hear what you think.

Members of the 2009 symposium, "Past Presented: A Symposium on the History of Archaeological Illustration" (abstracts of which can be found at

Members of the 2009 symposium, “Past Presented: A Symposium on the History of Archaeological Illustration” (abstracts of which can be found at

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