Recently, I toured Dumbarton Oaks, which is a research library and collection in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The collection and estate was donated to Harvard University by Robert and Mildred Bliss, collectors of art and artifacts from around the world. The Blisses were particularly fascinated with Byzantine and Pre-Columbian art, as well as gardening and landscape design. The Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Garden reflects these interests.

We toured two main exhibits at the Museum and then spent the majority of our visit enjoying the gardens.

One exhibit we viewed focused on textiles from Byzantine. Entitled “Ornament: Fragments of Byzantine Fashion,” it demonstrated the way that Byzantine garments were dismantled, with the ornamental sections of clothing cut away from the bulk of the garment which would have been plain or solid in color. These more ornamental fragments were sold by traders. The exhibit explores the themes in the designs commonly found on these Byzantine garments, and related objects.

The Museum’s display style was much more like that found in art museums or anthropology museums, rather than my area of expertise–history museums, and the Byzantine empire is far from the usual topics and time periods I study, but I enjoyed viewing these pieces, amazed by how well many of these textiles were preserved, several hundreds of years later. I was also interested to learn that researchers are able to gleam information about the people who wore these clothes from the stains and folds of these garments, which were removed from the burials of medieval Egyptians. They also speak to the aesthetics of the period.

Of more interest to me were the Pre-Columbian artifacts from Mexico and South America. This exhibit was in a beautiful array of circular areas and hallways with floor-length windows all around. These artifacts spoke to the religious and cultural life of the pre-conquest indigenous groups of Latin America.

Finally, we toured the gardens, which were designed by Beatrix Farrand, in consultation with Mildred Bliss. Beginning in 1921, the two women drew on their knowledge of European garden tradition in order to create the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks. The garden consists of a series of terraces. It was designed and evolved over 30 years with every single element carefully considered and chosen. Read more about Dumbarton Oaks Museum & Gardens at their website.

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