- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2008

Dumbarton Oaks has more to admire than the spring blooms in its gardens. Its art galleries, off the 32nd Street Northwest entrance to the Georgetown property, reopened Tuesday after being closed to the public for renovations since January 2005.

Carried out with subtlety and restraint, the overhaul improves the viewing experience within this cluster of 20th-century additions to the estate’s original Federal-style house. Reinstalled galleries and new orientation and temporary exhibition spaces make it easier to understand the Byzantine, pre-Columbian and European artworks amassed by diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, Mildred, who gave their collections and estate to Harvard in 1940.

Thankfully, the changes haven’t altered the appealing eccentricities of the scholarly Dumbarton Oaks complex. Among its unique spaces are the Renaissance-style Music Room and modernist domed “pods” by Philip Johnson. As intimate as the Phillips Collection, this old-fashioned house museum continues to set the stage for some of the most pleasurable art viewing in town.

“We have no blockbuster exhibits, no cafeteria,” says curator and museum Director Gudrun Buehl. “We are happy to skip the current trend of the museum as a collective shopping-education-recreation center. Art museums should go back to basics. We must encourage a deeper appreciation of the permanent installations.”

Under her guidance, the remodeling was undertaken to update the existing buildings and presentation of the Blisses’ remarkable collections without the architectural pyrotechnics typical of larger museum renovations. The most noticeable change is a reversible one: the red paint applied to the courtyard at the center of the museum. More scarlet than Pompeiian red, it is a reminder that the ancient classical world was once a brightly colored place.

Set around the courtyard perimeter are Roman busts and other antiquities that visually pop against the fiery hue. More artifacts are displayed within elegant mahogany-framed vitrines set into newly opened archways within the walls.

More fundamental changes, fortunately, are invisible. New heating, cooling, fire-suppression and security systems are hidden behind walls and ceilings to provide a more comfortable and safe environment and allow fragile artifacts to come out of storage and be placed on view.

Within the existing buildings, spaces are reconfigured to ease the visitor flow within the rambling galleries. From the entrance lobby, a long hallway enables visitors to bypass the courtyard and reach a new museum shop. It bisects a corridor leading to the Music Room and Mr. Johnson’s 1963 pre-Columbian wing before widening to become a gallery for an exhibit on the Blisses’ collecting habits.

The remodeling completes a seven-year effort undertaken by Philadelphia-based Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates to update Dumbarton Oaks with much-needed contemporary facilities. In 2004, the architects completed a gardener’s lodge for the landscaping staff, and the following year, a new library and refectory for scholars. They undertook the renovation of the art galleries in collaboration with preservation architect Oehrlein and Associates of the District.

Each part of the museum, designed by a different architect, presented its own restoration challenges. The most ornate space, the Music Room, was added by architect Lawrence White of New York-based McKim, Mead and White to the west wing of the house in 1929. It rises to a beamed ceiling decorated by French designer Armand-Albert Rateau in colorful poster paints, which had flaked off continuously during the years. Working with Evergreene Painting Studios in New York, James Carder, archivist and manager of the house collection, had the patterns restored in more durable acrylics and installed a new sprinkler system within the hollowed-out beams.

Mr. Johnson’s pre-Columbian wing, indisputably one of the architect’s best works, required a more uncompromising solution to preserve the integrity of its eight galleries, which are arranged around a slate fountain. On the outside, the leaky flat roof was repaired with sloping sheets of lead-coated copper and more downspouts to drain rainwater. Between the limestone-clad piers, the curved glass bays were replaced with insulated panes offering protection against the damaging rays of ultraviolet light. They enabled the curators to remove the curtains blocking the windows.

Unlike the Music Room and other parts of the building, Mr. Johnson’s galleries didn’t provide an obvious way to conceal sprinkler pipes without destroying their domed ceilings, so with the city’s approval, the architects left them out. A new ramp was installed to make the pavilion handicapped-accessible to a hallway inside the museum. It is covered in the same Turkish limestone as the piers and fitted with railings to match the bronze trim in the galleries so as to blend seamlessly into the original architecture.

Within the renewed setting, the curatorial team worked with Baltimore exhibit designer Charles Mack to create more didactic displays that still emphasize visual discovery and delight. “Objects have been better contextualized through new and thematic groupings,” says Ms. Buehl. “But we haven’t lost the beautiful-object approach of the Blisses. This isn’t an archaeological museum.”

In the pre-Columbian pavilion, clear acrylic cases are placed in front of the windows so ancient objects from Central and South America are viewed against the lush landscape outside. In one, a pair of gold bird-shaped headdress ornaments look as if they are flying through the garden. Larger artifacts, such as a Maya temple lintel from Guatemala, are centered to align with doorways and attract the eye from a distance.

Byzantine treasures are arrayed to suggest an early Christian church within a 1940 addition designed by architect Thomas Waterman, who worked at Colonial Williamsburg. At the west end of the room, a vitrine displaying rare sixth-century liturgical objects discovered in Turkey, including a piece of a silver-covered altar, is placed in front of a curved partition recalling an apse.

One of the few missteps in the project was to tuck the new orientation exhibits in a former office to the side of the entrance lobby, away from the rest of galleries. Visitors should not miss this remote space. Wall panels devoted to the Blisses’ collections and estate, plus a playful display of animal sculptures provide an excellent introduction to the sensitively renewed museum.

WHAT: Dumbarton Oaks Museum

WHERE: 32nd Street Northwest between S and R streets Northwest.

WHEN: Daily except Monday, 2 to 5 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/339-6401

WEB SITE: www.doaks.org

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