I have come upon Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in several different contexts recently, so I’ve decided to dedicate this series of posts to exploring some of these encounters. I mentioned one of its projects, on Plant Humanities, in a post last month, but the institution’s relationship to plants and horticultural is multi-faceted and justifies a closer look. I have only spent one day at Dumbarton, but it was definitely memorable. I made an appointment to see an exsiccatae guide to medical plants by the Danish botanist and physician Johannis de Buchwald: Specimen medico-practico-botanicum (see earlier post). Anatole Tchikine, curator of rare books, also found other items that intrigued me, including a British exsiccatae of grasses published by one of the many agricultural societies then working to improve farming.
After I finished in the rare book room, I toured the museum and learned a little more about its history. Dumbarton Oaks is an estate in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. that Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred bought in 1920. They were wealthy philanthropists and he was also a diplomat. They enlarged the house and had Beatrix Farrand design a garden. The couple also created a significant library of rare books and manuscripts as well as an art collection. They had three areas of interest that Dumbarton Oaks still focuses on today: Gardens and Landscape, Byzantine, and Pre-Columbian studies. Robert Bliss was an alumnus of Harvard University, and he and Mildred left their estate and part of the surrounding gardens to Harvard, while 27 acres were given to the National Park Service as a public park.
If the name Dumbarton Oaks is lurking in the history part of your brain, as it was in mine before it moved to the plant part, it’s probably because you learned about the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in history class. It was a 6-week-long series of meetings held in 1944 among diplomats from the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and the Soviet Union. Along with participation from other nations, they worked out plans for an international organization designed to help rebuild the world collaboratively after the end of World War II and became the United Nations. Being in Washington, DC makes Dumbarton Oaks not only attractive as a research institution but as a tourist attraction with a beautiful museum dedicated to its founders’ three areas of interest. While these fields are very different, they play off each other beautifully in terms of the aesthetics of the displays. In addition, the garden focus works into representations of plants in gardens in Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art. I didn’t have much time in the garden itself, but I did manage to visit the gift shop, with beautiful items to at least look at as well as a selection of books including many Dumbarton Oaks publications, among them The Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century (Batsaki et al., 2017) that I’ll discuss in a future post.
In connecting Dumbarton Oaks with Harvard University, Robert Bliss envisioned that the art and library would be well-used in education and research, and it is. Over the years, there have been exhibits and conferences held onsite and many of these resulted in publications. In addition, there are fellowship programs that allow graduate students and scholars to work in the library for considerable periods of time. I’ve already mentioned the Plant Humanities Initiative (see earlier post), and there was a recent exhibit on the botanical artist Margaret Mee that included pieces by other distinguished artists. Both these endeavors are tied to efforts to make the richness of plant biodiversity better known and its perilous condition in the present age better understood. Dumbarton is definitely an elite institution, but like its founders, who funded an ambulance corps in France during World War I, it is responsive to present-day needs. I think this is one of the reasons it seems so vibrant. Though it is a scholar’s oasis, I left there feeling a renewed sense of cultural diversity as well as engagement with the living world.
Mildred Bliss was among several wealthy women who collected botanical and horticulture books and art in the 20th century. They all created large and distinguished collections that are continuing sources of inspiration and knowledge today. Rachel Hunt with her husband Roy, endowed the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It has an outstanding library as well as large archives, and a notable collection of botanical art. All three are growing collections, with the art program nourished by the International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration series hosted by the Institute. Then there is Rachel Mellon who with her husband Andrew W. Mellon created the Oak Spring Garden Library at their horse farm in Upperville, Virginia. The library is now part of the Oak Spring Garden Foundation which was founded after Rachel Mellon’s death in 2014.
I am fortunate to have visited these three institutions. Each is a notable destination. Dumbarton is tied to a rich museum, the Hunt is part of a great university, and Oak Spring is nestled on a farm in Virginia horse country. They are amazing places not only for the riches these women had the intelligence and taste to acquire, but also because of the wonderful people working there that keep the joy of botany alive in all its beauty.
Batsaki, Y., Cahalan, S. B., & Tchikine, A. (2017). Botany of Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.