Museum Closure Loss To Public
We, the undersigned, represent over fifty docents associated with the Harvard Semitic Museum. As volunteers who have taken time from our professional activities to serve the museum we were deeply concerned with the future of the institution, and over a year ago, on November 2, 1992, wrote to President Neil L. Rudenstine expressing our concern. The President answered our letter saying that a committee had been appointed by Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles to guide him in making changes which will "improve the function and relevance of the Museum" and in "finding solutions that will be intellectually and educationally sound, as well as financially feasible." The President added that both he and Knowles believed that the "role and structure of the Semitic Museum needs very careful consideration."
We recently received a copy of the Advisory Committee's Report from the Dean's office and were stunned to find that the "restructuring" of the Semitic Museum meant firing the entire devoted staff whose work we know well. Could no other solutions be found? We also question the objectivity of the Advisory committee. Was there not a conflict of interest in appointing Professor Lawrence E. Stager, the museum's director, as chair of the committee which was supposed to look into the affairs of that very same museum? In addition to Professor Stager, there were two other members of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) on the eight-member committee. Their recommendation that the current staff be fired resulted in a gain of four offices, two rooms in the basement, and two large galleries for the future use as office space for NELC. We are also astonished that the directors of two other museums, also on the committee, suggested that an important collection of photographs dating back 150 years (and not "turn of the century" photographs as the committee stated) be divided among three other Harvard institutions. We learned that no one on the committee even looked at the collection.
We were surprised to see the report often referring to "traveling exhibitions." We checked our own records and double-checked with the staff of the Semitic Museum and found that the total amount of time when traveling exhibits were shown during the past 11 years was only 10 percent. We were also surprised to read that archaeology was a neglected subject. Eight our of the museum's 24 exhibits were devoted to archaeology, and we also know that for over two years Dr. Carney Gavin, Nitza Rosovsky and other members of the staff worked first on a planning grant, which was awarded, then on an implementation grant from NEH to install a permanent archaeological exhibition on the top floor of the building. Even though that grant application did not materialize, it is simply not correct to say that archaeology was neglected.
And while on the subject of exhibits, we do not understand some of the contradictions we read in the Report of the Advisory Committee, in the Harvard Gazette and in the statements made by the Dean and members of the Committee to The Harvard Crimson: How can the Museum remain open to the public when the entire staff was fired? Who is going to prepare exhibitions? Professor Stager or other members of NELC? Where are the exhibitions going to be shown if the top floors of the building where the galleries are located are going to be used by NELC?
Since many of us had been there since the museum reopened to the public in April 1982, we thought that the "function an relevance" of the museum were obvious. We were the ones who interacted with the public and saw the effect which the exhibitions had on school children, senior citizens, students and professors, the public at large, Jews, Christians and Muslims. We felt that we helped people to be better understand customs and religions different from their own. We were proud that through an institution at Harvard University we could bring even a small measure of tolerance to a polarized world. We wish to share with your readers the contributions which the Semitic Museum's public programs have made since 1982 and what Harvard is losing. We wish we could convey the pleasure some of Harvard's older alumni expressed as they went through "The Jewish Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe" saying "Harvard finally recognized its past errors." We witnessed Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani walking through that exhibition, just as a group of Jewish alumni were viewing "Harvard's Arabian Nights." We were present when Queen Noor of Jordan opened the exhibition "Monumental Islamic Calligraphy," brought to the museum at the request of then-NELC Professor Annemarie Schimmel, and met with Mrs. Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson who later established the Dorot Professorship which Stager now holds. We were honored be trained for "The City of David: Discoveries From the Excavations" by Tamar Shiloh, the widow of Yigal Shiloh who excavated the site. The Semitic Museum was a small place where visitors could enjoy an intimacy not found in other places. The wonderful comments in the guestbook testify to their feelings and to the good publicity which Harvard gained.
We now read that one of the goals of Harvard University is to maintain good relations with the communities around it. We cannot think of a place which better fulfilled this role than the Semitic Museum with its excellent exhibitions. We grieve the University's recent decision.