Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks

1980 – Present

by | Nov 1, 2001

Maya Mosaic Mask

Interest in Pre-Columbian art and archaeology has grown in Latin American countries at a rapid pace. Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard-affiliated institution in Washington DC, houses an extensive collection of Pre-Columbian art, ranging from Andean textiles and feather work to Mayan limestone relief panels. It also contains the Pre-Columbian Studies Program (sharing space and resources with Byzantine Studies and Studies in Landscape Architecture and Garden History). While its collection continues to serve as a premier example of ancient American art, expansion in Dumbarton Oaks’ library and symposium programs has been dramatic.

In the early years at Dumbarton Oaks, Elizabeth P. Benson laid the foundations of the Pre-Columbian Studies Program to develop and grow over three decades. In addition to the care she devoted to the collection of Pre-Columbian art, during her eighteen years at the institution, she established the annual symposia, held smaller meetings, and initiated our publications series.

In 1980, the torch was passed to Elizabeth Boone who served as Director of the Pre-Columbian Studies Program for the succeeding fifteen years. During her tenure, Boone maintained the high standards established by her predecessor in the care of the collections, organization of meetings, and selection of fellows. In 1995, Boone left to be succeeded by the author.

Through time, changing sensibilities and legal parameters shifted the focus of the program away from collecting objects to expanding its library. The change has been dramatic, from a few books in the personal library of Robert Woods Bliss to over 25,000 volumes, today. While many scholars still make a pilgrimage to “D.O.,” as it is affectionately called, to examine objects, increasingly, the reputation of the Pre-Columbian library as one of the world-s best and most user-friendly for scholarly studies is a draw for archaeologists, art historians, and many other scholars of the past. Library growth has been carefully tailored to focus on the geographical areas of interest to the Blisses (Mesoamerican, Intermediate Area, and Andes). The collections also include extensive works on the fauna and flora of tropical America, ethnographic and historical accounts on the more recent occupants of these regions, and publications on neighboring peoples and areas, such as the Amazon and North America.

The growth of the library, in turn, has increased the value of a Pre-Columbian fellowship. Although still restricted to only a few scholars per year, the program has become more defined. “Regular Fellows” are those holding the doctorate and who are usually working on an important project in an established scholarly career. “Junior Fellows” are graduate students writing their doctoral dissertations. These scholars are in residence during the academic year with a separate fellowship program for the summer months. To the fellowship program, Visiting Scholars and Short Term Residents have been added to provide opportunities to a wider range of researchers.

Although Mildred and Robert Bliss supported archaeological field research, Dumbarton Oaks has ceased directly sponsoring such endeavors. A small Project Grant program is maintained, however, to provide funds for emergency excavations of endangered sites in Latin America. This resource has helped to play a critical difference in retrieving information from important archaeological resources under imminent threat of severe damage or destruction. The rapid urban expansion occurring in Latin American countries has made this a particularly important program.

A growth in the number of scholars investigating Pre-Columbian subjects, has helped to expand the diversity of topics covered in symposia and other meetings. While maintaining its leadership role in the study of Pre-Columbian art, the investigation of a wider range of social issues and processes has been explored in symposia. The subject matter may have broadened, but the program stays true to respecting the tastes and interests of its founders by serving as a place where the increasing number of social scientist archaeologists and humanist art historians can find common interests and discussions.

Fewer than fifty scholars attended the first Pre-Columbian conference at Dumbarton Oaks, on the Olmecs. Now, the annual symposium sometimes reaches attendance figures of 200. In addition to symposia, two Public Lectures are held yearly, and at least one smaller conference also is held. In the last several years, these different venues have supported the discussion of topics such as Native Traditions in the Post-Conquest World (1992), Formative Ecuador (1995), Pre-Columbian States of Being (1996), Pre-Columbian Music (1998), Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia (1999), and many other topics.

Growth presents opportunities, but also challenges. The quantity of books entering the premises, yearly, has put a strain on facilities. The development of electronic media and communications provides new ways to record, store, and present information but are so new as to leave many issues uncertain, such as the longevity of files or web sites. Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks is working to rise to the challenge of these changes, including the challenge of escalating interest in Latin America in pre-Columbian art and archeology. It is involved in larger institutional plans for expanding our facilities. A large-scale digitization project is under way as is an archives program seeking photographs and documents from retiring senior scholars. So too, attempts to increase our interactions with Latin American colleagues is an important objective as we approach the beginning of our fourth decade.

Whatever the future may hold, the outstanding Pre-Columbian art collection, its “jewel box” gallery, and the scholarly activities that take place around them will continue to play a critical role in advancing our knowledge of ancient America, its art, and its peoples in the context of a broad intellectual engagement with the diversity of human cultures and societies within a common human experience.

Winter/Spring 2001

Jeffrey Quilter is an active archeologist currently completing a long-term project at Rivas site, a large prehistoric ceremonial complex in Costa Rica. He is the current Director of Pre-Columbian Studies and curator of the Pre-Columbian Art Collection at Dumbarton Oaks. 

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