Thomas Whittemore’s manifold narrative
The Bibliothèque byzantine of Collège de France presents the archival collection of Thomas Whittemore (1871-1950), an American multi-specialist—an English professor, an amateur archaeologist, a humanitarian, and a passionate advocate of cultural and art preservation—who was known for leading the preservation of the Byzantine mosaics and wall paintings in Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii in Istanbul, Turkey, between the 1930s and 1940s.
For European and North American Byzantine scholars, then and now, Whittemore has been known as the founder and director of The Byzantine Institute, Inc., formerly based in Boston, MA, and the Paris Library of the Byzantine Institute in France—now known as the Bibliothèque byzantine, Fonds Thomas Whittemore – Institut byzantin, Collège de France.
Today, his oeuvre and related archival collections are preserved in various institutions in France and in the United States. At the Bibliothèque byzantine, the archival material Fonds Thomas Whittemore – Institut byzantin, ca. 1890s-1950s covers some aspects of Whittemore’s early activities in Egypt, Russia, Greece, and Turkey between the 1910s and 1920s, as well as the Paris Library’s development and role in the advancement of Byzantine scholarship in Europe and North America from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Not a Single Story
Thomas Whittemore was born on January 2, 1871 in Cambridgeport, MA, and he died on June 8, 1950 in Washington, DC. In the early 1890s, Whittemore’s career focused on English Composition, English literature, and theatrical plays in Tufts College. This period in Whittemore’s life can be discerned through the Tuftonian journals that have survived in the Bibliothèque byzantine.
Evident between the archival materials, Whittemore may have begun to show awareness in the fields of archaeology and preservation in the early 1900s—one decade before becoming actively involved with excavation projects. Between the journal pages, there are: an annual report from the Egypt Exploration Society, an article about libraries, and a list of books about architecture.
We can presume that he may have purposely kept these items because he aimed to be informed about the practices of archaeology, preservation, and libraries—fields that he would later dedicate his life to until his last breath. It is clear from this example that the nuances, which are usually tucked in between pages of journals, notebooks, or photographs, are the understated details in archival collections that also matter.
In the 1910s, Whittemore’s interests gradually shifted to archaeology and Ancient Egyptian art, eventually leaving his position at Tufts College. During this period, Whittemore became the American representative to the Egypt Exploration Society, and his role was to inform the American subscribers of the organization about the progress of the excavations in Egypt, which was also the organization’s method in soliciting funding.
This newspaper page includes an article about Egypt’s Tell el-Amarna, the purpose of the excavation, and Whittemore’s role in the project. The article also informs readers that Whittemore “was unable to arrive until the close of the excavation [because he was] detained in Constantinople on account of work for the Russian refugees”—the next stage in his career.
Between the late 1910s and 1930s, Whittemore also devoted much of his attention to the needs and education of the young Russian refugees, who were affected by the October Revolution of 1917. From the correspondences, one can get a sense of Whittemore’s and his social networks’ political mindset about the grave situation in Russia and its former territories between the 1910s and 1920s. For instance, Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff, former Professor at the University of Wisconsin, passionately asked Whittemore on December 30, 1920, “[i]s it not permitted to hope that the generous enthusiasm of Americans will come now to the rescue of the Russian victims of this tremendous war which is now going on in Russia?”.
Certainly, an individual’s story is never simple, as evident with Whittemore’s archive in France and related collections in the United States. Instead, it is fluid, interchanging, and interconnected. Between ca. 1929 and 1950, Whittemore’s past efforts and interests came together like an orchestral piece when he became the director of The Byzantine Institute and the Paris Library of the Byzantine Institute.
In ca. 1929, Whittemore envisioned an organization that would support, campaign for, and conduct the preservation and study of Byzantine art, architecture, and monuments in the former Byzantine Empire, alongside his vast social network of specialists, benefactors, avid supporters, and friends that he had met and collaborated with starting from his early days at Tufts College. In spite of economic instabilities in most countries starting in 1929, Whittemore believed “that [the] day has come, and the revelation of [the Byzantine masterpieces are] as significant for Turkey as it is important for the appreciation and scientific investigation of Byzantine Art.1”
Around the Summer of 1930, Whittemore negotiated “with Halil Bey for a concession to clear the Mosaics in Sancta Sophia2”,while he and the Institute team were also occupied with their first official fieldwork project in the Red Sea Monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul in Egypt. In ca. 1931/1932, the Institute fieldwork staff began to uncover the Byzantine mosaics of Hagia Sophia, revealing the ingenious craftsmanship of the Byzantine artists. According to the newspaper article “Mosaics Found in St. Sophia Are Described” in the New York Herald Tribune on February 18, 1936, Whittemore “emphasized the fact that his work is not restoration, but preservation, for no new materials were used [and they treated them] ‘as one would an old manuscript or bit of tapestry.’”
Of course, the preservation campaign in Hagia Sophia was not a one-man show. Whittemore surrounded himself with multi-cultural and multi-disciplined specialists in order to make his and the Institute’s mission a reality. A good example is Nicholas Kluge or Nicolai Karlovich Kluge, who worked closely with Whittemore and the staff of the Paris Library on fieldwork descriptions and reports. He was also one of the Institute’s leading restorers and copyists from the early 1930s until his death in 1947.
In the same period, Whittemore also established a scientific research center for Byzantine studies—a lasting contribution of Whittemore and The Byzantine Institute, which has served many influential scholars in the Byzantine community, such as Gabriel Millet and André Grabar, and has survived many challenging periods in history, from the Second World War to the Institute’s administrative uncertainties in the 1950s after Whittemore’s death3. According to Boris N. Ermoloff, the Librarian and Administrator of the Paris Library from ca. 1929 to 1967, the aim was to have an “international scientific centre” for Byzantine studies—a space for “Franco-American cultural” and “an element of American influence in Europe in general4.”
The Paris Library was established in order to support the research and publication needs of Whittemore and the Institute’s fieldwork staff, the French and American Byzantine scholars, as well as other specialists from other countries. The Library actively collected primary and secondary resources on Byzantium and related cultures, as well as photographic documentations of Byzantine art and architecture from various museums and repositories, including the Photothèque Gabriel Millet.
The possible interconnections between the archival holdings in Collège de France (i.e., Fonds Thomas Whittemore – Institut byzantin and Fonds Gabriel Millet) and in the Photothèque Gabriel Millet of the École Pratique des Hautes Études are also worth exploring. Here, researchers could gain an understanding on how Whittemore and the Paris Library may have collaborated with Millet, who was already a renowned Byzantine Art Historian; at the time the Library was trying to establish itself as a one-stop shop for the local and international Byzantinists. These collections illustrate an aspect of the formation, development, and convergence of cultural and art historical studies, as they are known today.
Carrying its founder’s mission and legacy, the Bibliothèque byzantine continues to serve the young, as well as the established Byzantinists and related specialists all over the world—offering diverse sources for research and publication purposes, from its founder’s archive to current publications.
Article disponible en français sur le site PSL-Explore : https://explore.univ-psl.fr/fr/thematic-focus/thomas-whittemore-un-byzantiniste-à-paris
This article was written by Rona Razon, archivist-chargée de mission sur le Fonds Thomas Whittemore at the Bibliothèque byzantine of Collège de France.
Ce(tte) œuvre est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution – Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale – Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International
- “RADIO TALK / by / Professor Thomas Whittemore / on / ‘The Mosaics of Aya Sophia’ / January 30, 1934.” Fonds Thomas Whittemore – Institut byzantin, Subgroup 01-Series 06-Subseries 04, Bibliothèque byzantine, Collège de France.
- Correspondence from George D. Pratt to Thomas Whittemore, June 04, 1930. Fonds Thomas Whittemore – Institut byzantin, Subgroup 02-Series 03-Correspondence #200, Bibliothèque byzantine, Collège de France.
- For more information about the Paris Library of the Byzantine Institute, see Rona Razon’s “Bridging Dispersed Archival Collections: Fonds Thomas Whittemore – Institut byzantin,” presented in August 2016 at the 23rd International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Belgrade, Serbia: https://salamandre.college-de-france.fr/ead.html?id=FR075CDF_BYZ-WHI
- “MEMORANDUM / OF THE LIBRARIAN OF THE PARIS LIBRARY OF THE BYZANTINE / INSTITUTE, Inc., June 15, 1950.” Fonds Thomas Whittemore – Institut byzantin, Subgroup 01-Series 01, Bibliothèque byzantine, Collège de France.