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Art at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum

Dumbarton Museum Sculpture

Last weekend we visited Dumbarton Oaks Museum.  I love this museum because of the unique collection and the story of how the collection came together. Quite a few attendees had never been to this museum.

Below is a little snippet from the museum’s website about the previous owners Robert and Mildred Bliss.

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss were enthusiastic collectors and judicious patrons of scholarship and the arts. A graduate of Harvard University, Robert Bliss (1875–1962) pursued a distinguished career as an officer and diplomat in the Foreign Service. Mildred Bliss (1879–1969) inherited a fortune from her family’s investment in the patent medicine Fletcher’s Castoria. Sharing a taste in the art of little-known or under-appreciated cultures, the Blisses developed unique collections with the help of knowledgeable friends and scholarly advisors. They envisioned Dumbarton Oaks as a home of the Humanities, a place of natural serenity and intellectual adventure.

The Byzantine Collection opened to the public in 1940. The Music Room, built in 1928, displays works of art of the so-called House Collection, and the Pre-Columbian Collection was installed in 1963 in a wing added to the existing buildings and designed by Philip Johnson.

Because Robert Bliss had the unique opportunity to work in different countries in Europe and South America he was able to study and collected historic artifacts that are both beautiful and artistic.  This was quite admirable and I have enjoyed his collection for many years.

Here is what we found in the museum.

The Museum Gardens


Both Robert and Mildred had a passion for gardening. They are quite lovely, and worthy of a tour. We didn’t go into the gardens today because it takes several hours to fully appreciate the scenery.

Here is a photo of Dumbarton Oaks Museum.  As you can image there is ample space for a very large collection.  The mansion gives quite a wonderful backdrop for the collection.

The Byzantine Empire


When you walk past the very friendly man standing at the information desk, and take a sharp left, you will find yourself in a courtyard like setting filled with antiquities that look Roman, but are from the Byzantine Empire.  You will find a spectacular bronze horse, mosaic tiles on the floor, portrait statues, urns, and other various items.  Every time I see the mosaics on the floor, I wonder how many feet walked over those tiles before they were transported to rest in this home.

Next, we went into a room with artifacts from the Byzantine era that are related to early Christianity.  The sarcophagus is my favorite item in the room.  I find the carvings to be very detailed, and interesting.


In the room you will also find items from the museum’s coin collection.  We admired the map depicting where all of the coins originated in the following countries: Spain, Mediterranean, Turkey, and Morocco.  We also were wondering what the letter M stood for.  Money?


A Room for Music and Discourse

Next we went to the music room. This room is filled with European art, concert piano, and several photos of Robert and Mildred Bliss.  The room is Renaissance in character.  The floor and ceiling is a reproductions inspired by examples at the guardroom of the historic Château de Cheverny near Paris.  The mantelpiece is French Renaissance, sixteenth-century that came from Château de Théobon in Loubès-Bernac, France.

Robert and Mildred used the Music Room for musical programs, scholarly lectures, and intellectual discourse. It continues to serve these purposes at Dumbarton Oaks, hosting an annual public lecture series and the Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks concert series, which was inaugurated in 1946.


We next went to view the Pre-Columbian exhibit space.  The art is housed in special exhibit buildings that are circular, and allows ample light to shine into the rooms from all sides. Also, if you stand in certain spots of the room your voice amplifies without much effort.  In this collection, you will see artifacts from Mesoamerica, the intermediate area, and the Andes.  The well known groups that you will find represented are the Inkas, Aztecs, and Mayas. Other groups that are represented are from the Olmec, Veracruz, and Teotihuacan cultures.   Their art is the stonework  that are finely sculpted anthropomorphic figurines and polished jade renderings of ritual objects. You will also see molded and painted ceramics from Nasca, Moche, and Wari cultures.  Gold and silver objects from the Chavín, Lambayeque, Chimú, and Inka cultures.