Written by Thomas Busciglio, ICFA Intern (Spring 2015), University of California, Santa Barbara – Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po)
Edited by Rona Razon and Fani Gargova
In 2014, I worked for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the famed museum of modern art. There, in close contact with the public, I saw a woman kneeling in front of a Dali masterpiece, a couple of tourists trying to grasp the meaning of a pair of boots painted by Magritte, and a young mother and her two children searching for “Picassos that look like Picassos.” After such experiences and being educated as an Art History student, I became all the more convinced that museums were places designed primarily for seeing. Each of those people seemed to have a personal relationship to the works of art displayed in the various galleries. Art was performed like a new religion with the museum as its temple, where believers would venerate their icons.
However, I realized that there was much more to be understood when I was accepted to be a spring intern in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) of Dumbarton Oaks, starting in March 2015. My internship was divided into two projects: assist the curators with the Holy Apostles exhibit and complete the digitization of the William E. Betsch photographs. I did not suspect that my involvement in the former would radically change my perspective on the role of museums.
But every story has a beginning, hasn’t it? So once upon a time, right after the Second World War, three scholars with ties to Dumbarton Oaks, Paul A. Underwood, Albert M. Friend, and Glanville Downey, took on the task of visually reconstructing the lost Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, an imperial mausoleum of prime importance for the Byzantine empire. Destroyed in the 15th century, it is now the site of a mosque, Fatih Camii, which was built for Mehmed the Conqueror. Several translations, drawings, and a great number of notebooks later, the investigations and findings of the three scholars led to a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks in 1948. However, for various reasons, their conclusions were never published. Hence, the possibility of understanding the complexity of the Holy Apostles faded for the second time…
This is where I modestly appear. My first task was to assist the exhibit curators, Fani Gargova, ICFA’s Byzantine Research Associate, and Beatrice Daskas, currently a Humboldt Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Munich, with the installation of The Holy Apostles – Visualizing a Lost Monument in the Dumbarton Oaks Museum’s Orientation Gallery.
By this point, much of the work had been completed by Gargova and Daskas. They had studied and digitized an impressive amount of material related to the reconstruction project. They had reexamined primary sources contemporary with the building, mostly poetic descriptions by writers Nicholas Mesarites and Constantine the Rhodian. After a two-year transatlantic collaboration, Gargova and Daskas reunited at Dumbarton Oaks to finalize the selection of items to be displayed, which would be able to touch a modern audience. I joined the team to work on the last details of the enterprise. I was tasked to finalize the information labels, design additional promotional elements (i.e., postcards and bookmarks), and assist with the physical installation of the exhibit.
In conjunction with the 2015 Byzantine Studies Symposium entitled “The Holy Apostles,” ICFA provided a fresh look at the scholars’ project in the 1940s, as well as at the lost monument itself. As the symposium precisely evoked the church and its influence, the decision was made to use the ICFA archival materials in an exhibition that would complement the work of the distinguished speakers in the symposium. Along with the research conducted by those eminent scholars on reasserting the cultural importance and long-term influence of the Holy Apostles in other renowned religious buildings such as the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, the exhibit sought to introduce new audiences to the remarkable work of Underwood, Friend, and Downey, who were themselves engaged in a process of intellectual comprehension.
In the first week of my internship, I was introduced to the oversize drawings of Paul Underwood and the material that would be put on display in the Museum’s Orientation Gallery. While I was immediately fascinated by the intimate link to scholarship in the making they could still inspire, I also wondered if anyone would be able to relate to them. How the public would react to 60-something-year old documents that are neither masterpieces by Picasso or Dali, but the working tools of scholars, was indeed a prime concern. Facing a Dali painting, visitors can always marvel at the colors and figures, appreciate the brushstrokes, and admire the composition, even if they are not aware of the context of creation or the artist’s life. Paintings are visual in nature, and their language is thus more immediate and direct. Scholarly notes and sketches, on the contrary, ask for concentration and focus; they demand to be understood and assessed in detail.
And this is the point when I truly recognized that objects in museums do not exist solely to be seen. They had to speak, to say something to their audience. I learned that the purpose of displaying all kinds of materials was not only to make them visible, but it was also to make them understandable. The role of ICFA is not only to preserve archival materials, but also to understand and interpret them, a process that showed its necessity especially in the context of the accompanying online exhibit that was created simultaneously. The quest for viewing is above all a quest for identification, as exemplified by one handwritten letter Daskas and I successively attributed to Underwood, then Downey, then Underwood again. We also had to dismiss several visually compelling items, as we realized that accessibility goes with legibility, a clarity of view reflected by the organization of the online exhibit into distinct categories, as well as the careful listing and description of the materials in the label texts that we devised.
The exhibit space itself, which I worked on the most during my time there, can be compared to the jewel box destined to house its precious objects and serve as its background as much as its reflection. Every element – the color of the walls, the font of the panel texts, the frieze of citations drawn from the texts of Nicholas Mesarites and Constantine the Rhodian that we positioned right below the ceiling – was part of a bigger picture. Most museum visitors will probably never notice the details that go into creating an exhibition’s framework. Too often, I have seen them rushing to the artworks to feast their eyes on the beautiful, fine objects. They are in the act of seeing, of immediate visual pleasure. But all of a sudden, I had gone through the mirror and the entirety of the exhibition made sense to me as an intern, as a path on which those technical elements smoothly led the visitor to a renewed experience with the material. Museums – as I am now convinced – are not mainly places of seeing. They are places of storytelling.
Nine of Paul Underwood’s finest architectural drawings, as well as handwritten notes and reflections by Friend and Downey, are henceforth offered to the public to be viewed and admired in the context of the exhibit. Before that, they were documents or objects to be consulted, serving as scholarly references, and stored in folders. Processed by the exhibition environment, their meaning and place was redefined. What the relationships between the archival and museum worlds, between repositories and exhibition spaces, taught me is that one has to see to understand, yet one has to understand to really see. In ICFA, the Holy Apostles project was not only a reading process for me, it was a true translation.
Additional photographs and information about the Holy Apostles exhibit project are available on the Dumbarton Oaks Library and Archives Facebook page.