Assessment / Dumbarton Oaks / Robert Van Nice

Searching for order

Box 41 has yielded the most confusing organizational issues thus far.  The first folder, labeled “ANNUAL REPORTS, 1955-1964” seemed innocuous enough—most of the folders I’ve encountered so far have been a mix of correspondence related to the logistics of the Hagia Sophia project, timesheets, financial records, etc.  However, the first group of letters within that folder were from the late 1980’s and appeared to have been written after Van Nice’s retirement from D.O., and relate to the very early plans for processing the very collection they are in the middle of.

Many questions arise.  Why here, in the Annual Reports of 1955-1964 folder, in box 41? I would understand if this kind of documentation was kept at the beginning of the collection, a kind of mini-meta-collection to keep track of what has happened to it since its transfer from Van Nice’s office.  But, in box 41? Second, I am wondering about the timeline of the transfer of the documents. A letter from a scholar hoping to processing the collection in 1989 suggests that at that point the collection had already been sitting around for a little while.  The reply from D.O. stating that they would rather have their own staff do the processing, when they have the space and resources, seems to confirm this.  At some point between 1989 and now, however, the collection was processed to some extent, and during that process this group of letters was placed in a folder in Box 41.  Did Van Nice have anything to do with this? At what point was the collection firmly out of his hands? The folder also contains many letters where neither of the correspondents is Van Nice, although his name is mentioned.  Did he collect these letters himself, or did someone collect them afterwards and place them in this folder? And why would they put them in the folder labeled “Annual Reports, 1955-1964”?

Our best guess at the moment is that papers that were deemed “Van-Nice-Related” were at some point taken from the old Director’s files, as well as the Director of Byzantine Studies’ files, and placed with the Van Nicecollection.  Whether and how we want to keep them separate from the Van Nice material is something we will have to think about.  So far, it seems that these later files are mostly identifiable by the labels “VAN NICE” OR “VAN NICE FILE” written in pencil on the top of the pages, which themselves are not in their own folder.

Many of the folders contain all sorts of different material types–letters, drawings, even negatives and photographic prints.

Somewhere in this mess I found an interesting letter written by Van Nice in 1967 to then Director of Dumbarton Oaks John Thatcher, with whom he seems to have had a very good relationship.  The letter contains Van Nice’s first formal indication that he would like all of the material he collected on the Hagia Sophia project to become the property of Dumbarton Oaks.  Part of the letter reads as follows:

A few days before the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the investigation that I have been privileged to make of St. Sophia seems an appropriate time for taking care of something that has, as you know, been on my mind for a long time, namely, to suggest how the material collected over the years should be treated if something were to happen to me.

As the only person likely to be working, in our generation at least, in many of the building’s remote and hitherto unknown spaces, I have felt an obligation to assemble every kind of observable evidence which might in any way to contribute to our understanding of the structure and its history and uses…I want you to know, therefore, that all the kinds of field material assembled in the form of work sheets, drawings, photographs, etc., required for the completion of finished plates, and the notes, diagrams and recapitulations preparatory to the text will eventually become the property of Dumbarton Oaks…”(1967)

From an archivist’s point of view, this letter is extremely interesting not only because it documents the history of the collection itself in a precise kind of way, but also because it clearly indicates how the creator of the collection thought of its value—what he envisioned as its use.  Being sensitive to this information, if available, can make recognition of order, and subsequent reorganization (if necessary) much smoother and more respectful to the original envisioned nature of the collection.

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