A Battered Museum Picks Up Its Pieces

Layoffs Spark Allegations About Director

After substantial layoffs and months of flying accusations, top officials at the Semitic Museum are trying to pick up the pieces after the most contentious year in the museum's history.

But the controversy that emerged last fall raises lasting questions about who, in a time of tight faculty budgets, has the final say in what gets cut and what survives. And the actions of museum director Lawrence E. Stager, who copied staff members' fax correspondence without their knowledge, have left many confused about the ethical limits of privacy in the age of hightechnology communications.

The museum's problems came to light in early November when a Faculty committee report recommended that the museum drastically cut its staff and reduce expenditures for public exhibitions. The changes were necessary to curb the museum's approximately $1 million deficit, the report said.

The report and the subsequent dismissal two weeks later of ten staff members set off a string of charges by staffers and several financial supporters of the museum. Many said the committee's review had been biased and that stager had thwarted much-needed fundraising efforts.

Days after the report was released, eight of the staff members sent a letter to Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles protesting the committee's recommendations.

The staffers charged that in recommending the relocation of several of the museum's exhibits, the committee had emphasized the needs of the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) at the cost of the "public component" of the museum. The eight-person committee included three NELC professors and was chaired by Stager.

The committee also included representatives from two other museums that stood to gain parts of the Semitic Museum's collection in the suggested reshuffling of resources.

The staff members and other museum supporters also charged that Stager, who is Dorot Professor of Archaeology, had hurt the museum's fundraising efforts. For a year-long period. Stager prevented staff members from soliciting donations without express permission from him or from Knowles.

Donors existed to help the Semitic Museum, charged museum supporter Martin H. Peretz in a letter to The Crimson, but were put off by what he cited as the administration's apparent lack of commitment to the institution.

Staffers had already accused Stager a month earlier of ethical misconduct for intercepting and duplicating the staff's museum fax correspondence without members' knowledge.

Stager admitted to ordering the numerous fax transcriptions, but said he had acted in order to keep tabs on the financially strapped museum's fundraising process. He was not disciplined or rebuked by the Faculty for his action in transcribing the faxes.

"There's nothing about that that invades anyone's privacy," Stager said of the fax transcriptions. "Anything dealing with museum business I, as director, should know about."

And Stager insisted that since he had become the museum's director in 1986, he had done his best to curtail the museum's rising deficit.

No Inclusion

The staff members, whose service to the museum totaled 150 years and individually ranged from 25 to 13 years, also objected to their not being sufficiently included in the year-long review of the museum.

When they were subsequently laid off, the eight staffers said they were dismayed that, despite their written reponse to Knowles--and his own characterization of the process as open--the dean made the cuts without listening to any of their objections.

"The conclusions to the report were made long before our response to the report was made," said Nitza Rosovksy, former curator of exhibits, the day Knowles announced the layoffs.

In March, the museum began its search for new staff members. Instead ,of 10 staff members, however, the museum wouldnow have two, following the Faculty committee'srecommendation.

In late April, a museum searchcommittee announced laid-off Curator ofPublications Joseph Greene as assistant directorand University of Pennsylvania Mellon Fellow JamesA. Armstong as assistant curator.

All former staff members were allowed to applyfor the new positions and, all other things beingequal, were supposed to be given strong preferenceif they applied.

Some staff members were not at all surprised atthe rehiring of Greene, who did no sign the letterof protest.

"I have no question about his qualifications,"said Elizabeth C. Carella, former curator forarchaeological collections. "I predicted and manyof us predicted that [Administrative Dean of theFaculty] Nancy Maull and her search committeewould search high and low in the basement of theSemitic Museum and find Joseph Greene." Greenebegan working at the museum in April; Armstrongwill start September 1.

This spring, the museum sponsored a lectureseries and is currently preparing "the Pyramidsand the Sphinx 100 Years of American Archaelogy atGiza," an exhibit that will open in November innewly renovated first-floor space.Crimson File PhotoThe Semitic Museum has been enveloped bycontroversy this year.