Assessment / Dumbarton Oaks / Hagia Sophia / Robert Van Nice

Getting Started

Being introduced to the mass of documents that make up the Robert Van Nice Collection at Dumbarton Oaks’ Image Collection and Fieldwork Archives elicited a contradictory response for me.  I felt as if the dozens of boxes contained almost too much material to contemplate and simultaneously I felt that they were relatively few to be the full surviving documentation of about fifty years worth of work and research and life.  There’s both too much and too little.

In any case, the answer to the question “What do I do now?” has filled books upon books of standards, suggestions, case studies, and theory of archival practice.  Over the course of the next six months or so, I will be assessing and processing  the Robert Van Nice Collection under the guidance and with the help of the staff of the Image Collection and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks.

Robert L. Van Nice (1910 -1994) is best known for the architectural survey of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey that he conducted between the 1930s and the 1980s.  He was supported by the scholar William Emerson, as well as Dumbarton Oaks in his endeavors.  He began to work as an independent scholar under Emerson, a Dean of the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1937 and also worked for the Byzantine Institute, Inc.  Van Nice was a visiting Associate at Dumbarton Oaks from 1950 to 1985, and his important work resulted in the publication of numerous articles on the architectural aspects of Hagia Sophia and the albums of plates of the architectural survey.  The collection consists of administrative material related to the Hagia Sophia project, correspondence, fieldwork, notes, and photographs.

Shalimar White has conducted a preliminary assessment of the collection, which is actually quite detailed already, and reveals the level of richness and complexity of the collection which I will continue to refine into something (hopefully) accessible, stable, and respectful of what remains of Robert Van Nice’s original organizational system and thought process inherent in the current form of the collection.  What this will actually consist of is a careful combing through of the material, followed by some amount of reorganization, and the compilation of a finding aid for researchers to consult when they are looking for specific material within the collection.

Although I did not start working with the actual archival materials until yesterday, the process actually began a few weeks ago when I began a modest amount of background reading of both Van Nice’s publications, as well as Byzantine scholarship more generally.  My background is actually in the history of science, and besides a few classes taken in classical/medieval studies and one very helpful class on the history of medieval architecture, I am relatively new to the world of Byzantium.

Van Nice, 5th from the left, photographed at Dumbarton Oaks in 1961. Incidentally, to his right is Otto Neugebauer, a well-known historian of ancient math and astronomy.  Byzantine Symposia photographs, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, olvwork448713.

The first set of boxes that I am working on is a set of 10, starting at around the middle of the collection, which Shalimar and Rona have identified as mostly administrative material.  The first folder I pulled out of Box 38 was labeled “FIELD EXPENSES 1969,” and the contents were as thrilling as the title suggests: receipts, charts of expenses, correspondence with automobile rental companies, and so on.  And yet, despite the less than mind-blowing nature of the material, I found myself drawn to the subtleties of the typefaces, the texture of the paper, the design of the business cards, and the formal, old-fashioned tone of the letters.  The tendency of the mundane to take on a new significance as it ages is well known, and although I’m not sure how long the thin copy-paper of the mid-late 20th century will hold its charm for me, I was surprised at how fascinated I was to flip through the Van Nice’s handwritten expense notes and to really get a feel for what he was doing on a day to day basis.

Hagia Sophia, photographed by Van Nice (no date). Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and CollectionHS.BIA.1610

This is, of course, exactly why archival collections are so valuable and so interesting.  Sure, they contain the occasional revelation or long lost secret, but perhaps even more importantly, they provide the context of quotidian minutia that otherwise can get lost amidst that which is considered worthy of saving, writing about, or publishing.

With Van Nice’s collection in particular, one immediately gets a sense of how meticulous he was.  Almost everything was saved, and although the internal order of his folders isn’t always obvious, there is a clear and consistent attempt to keep track of everything, and keep it together. Small internal folders simply made of folded paper keep track of precise groupings of reports, charts, and notes from various years, locations, and projects.  In a folder marked “AGENDAE,” for example, Van Nice neatly kept together a whole series of groups of to-do lists that span decades, including many he labeled himself as “obsolete.”  (Just in case you ever thought to-do lists were boring, the Morgan Library has a wonderful exhibit currently on display that might change your mind.)

That being said, there is also a level of confusion and incoherency in the collection that is a bit disconcerting.  The sequence of folders within boxes appears to have no real order other than a very general theme of budgets/finances/fieldwork notes for the set of 10 boxes I am currently working with, and there is no real consistency with the years that are represented, or in what order. While most of the folders retain Van Nice’s handwritten labels, some appear to have been re-foldered and labeled by a previous processing technician, making the process more confusing.

I often find myself thinking about the kind of research that could be done with this collection.  Already, I’m learning so much not only about the project at Hagia Sophia itself, but also about what it meant to do a large scale archaeological/architectural survey on a monument the scale of Hagia Sophia during the mid-20th century.  Van Nice’s correspondence hints not only at the incredible amount of bureaucracy that he and his team had to battle their way through in order to conduct their work, but also the popular opposition to his work at times resulting in protests against the secularization and the “damage” being done to the monument.  The days were long, communication between Istanbul and the States, while relatively quick considering the distance, moved at a pace that many would find infuriating and stagnating today.  One folder, simply labeled “ladders” contains a vast amount of paperwork devoted to the delivery of a single ladder that Van Nice needed for his survey.  The amount of work it took to make sure that it was not mangled during its flight to Istanbul, or trapped in customs once it made it, is astonishing.   The collection is, among other things, a fascinating look at what a large scale, trans-national project such as this one looked like and felt like from the inside out.

Images courtesy of Harvard University’s Visual Information Access site (, property of the Image Collections & Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks. 


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