Dumbarton Oaks Museum & Research Library

I’d visited the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens (which are an absolutely fantastic way to spend a nice afternoon; I brought a collection of essays by the nineteenth century critic and essayist, John Ruskin, because these gardens deserve to be appreciated next to some eighteenth or nineteenth century literature; in point of fact, I actually brought a collection of poems by William Cowper, just in case we could also visit the gardens, but there wasn’t enough time), but never the attached museum. So, on Sunday, we went.

A couple of decades ago, I was very intrigued by the architect Philip Johnson. One of his notable buildings was the Dumbarton addition, designed to display its Pre-Columbian art. It’s an amazingly well designed little wing. Circular rooms adjoining each other to create a larger circle, with the floors being golden wood radiating out to an outer green, white veined marble ring. The move away from lines and edges helped take me away from Western European modes of geometric thought (I wouldn’t necessarily say that the art therein enclosed was necessarily non-linear nor circular; the important part was the dislocation from ingrained modes of thinking). The golden wood matched the reappearance of wood and especially gold in the materials used in the art, while the marble reflected the use of jade, especially, but was also in dialogue with the turquoise.

The art itself is amazing, but there is always a ‘but.’ It was too disconnected. Not enough effort was made to help us see the pieces in context. There were so many varied and wildly different cultures in Mexico and Central and South America before my people (broadly speaking) gifted two continents with small pox and influenza, but the viewer is never given enough to understand Olmec versus Moche cultures, so that the collection becomes little more than an assemblage of beautiful and stunning bric-a-brac.

 

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