Dollars and Scholars

The Rebirth of the Semitic Museum

There is nothing new under the sun at the Harvard Semitic Museum. When President Bok and 300 backers of the museum gathered at Divinity Avenue three Sundays ago to celebrate its long-awaited opening to the public, they were re-enacting, with almost uncanny precision, an event that had taken place 79 years before.

This was the Semitic Museum's second official opening. And if the squat brick building had its own voice, it might well ask why the University failed to honor the promise it made in 1903 to maintain the museum as a scholarly and public institution. The answers would be neither happy nor simple.

The story of the museum's trek back toward respectability is generally a more cheerful one, but it too is complicated--by a curiously anachronistic faith in the power of knowledge to smash prejudice and a desire to make bedfellows out of those two long-time strangers: the scholar and the general public.

These concerns did not trouble millionaire rail-road financier Jacob Henry Schiff in 1903, when he presented Harvard with its first Semitic collection and a building to put it in. Schiff, who hailed from one of Europe's most distinguished Jewish families, invested his money in a private war on anti-Semitism, firm in his conviction that "the gaining of a thorough knowledge of the civilization of those who have been before us means a better humanity and happier conditions for ourselves, and even more so for those who come after us." Harvard President Charles W. Eliot graciously accepted the gift and the spirit that accompanied it in the name of the University.

Supported by an already thriving Semitic Department, the infant museum got off to an impressive start during Eliot's last year in office. But Abbott Lawrence Lowell assumed the presidency after Eliot's retirement in 1909, and the department and museum soon began to decline. Established professors died or retired, and no replacements were hired. Funds for museum upkeep and expansion mysteriously dried up. From the '20s through the early '50s, the few remaining Semitic scholars at Harvard sturggled for academic survival while colleagues at Chicago, Pennsylvania and Yale Universities were making impressive headway, sponsoring archeological expeditions, scholarly publication and museum expansion. Recall that Indiana Jones, the hero from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" acquired his Ph.D. at Chicago.


Legal difficulties over Harvard's treatment of the Semitic museum first cropped up when Dean McGeorge Bundy proposed in 1958 that the building be sold. Concerned about Eliot's original pledge to Schiff, a Faculty committee strongly recommended instead that the upper floors be rented out for no more than five years to raise funds for the museum. The Center for International Affairs (CfIA) moved in, and workmen literally tossed the museum's mahogany display cases out the window.

The CfIA ended up staying for 21 years, relegating the museum to the building's basement. But in the meantime--despite a bomb blast anti-war demonstrators staged in 1970 to protest the presence of then-Professor Henry A. Kissinger '50 in the building--things were finally stirring in the department. Top scholars were brought back to Cambridge, partly as a result of pressure from the stubborn few who stayed through the lean years and partly to keep up in the academic rat race.

"Forty years of shadowy existence" was how President Bok described the period at the most recent dedication ceremonies at the museum. He added that he was "ashamed" that the University had waited until 1982 to reopen this plucky little institution.

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"Harvard is a pretty exasperating institution to work with," says Carney Gavin, the museum's current curator. "It's like dealing with the Catholic Church, or the U.S. Government." Gavin arrived here in the late 1960s as a doctoral candidate in Syrio-Palestinian archaeology and took an immediate interest in the large and dusty collection of artifacts he found locked away in the basement at 6 Divinity Ave. That jumble of clay figurines and broken pottery on plywood shelves was the Harvard Semitic Museum: nearly 10,000 objects tucked into 3467 square feet of space. Trying to locate anything in that congested basement was like setting out on an archaelogical dig.

Graduating into the position of de facto curator of the museum in 1973. Gavin promptly took it upon himself to lead the forgotten institution out of exile.

He then learned just how exasperating Harvard could be: "I tried to find the seat of power--formally, informally... I tried very hard." Gavin found nothing but what he saw as inertia and indifference. All the while, he was preparing a list of embarrassing questions to ask the administration: What part had Lowell's widely recognized personal prejudices played in the apparently systematic sabotage of Semitic studies at Harvard during the '20s and '30s? Why was the University no longer picking up the tab for heating and maintenance as Eliot had promised in 1903? How did Bundy almost get away with selling the building in 1958?

Gavin posed some of his most aggressive queries in the newsletters he began producing in the early '70s, nestled in innocuous cloud-balloons in the corners of his whimsical covers drawings: "Does Harvard's treatment of Mr. Schiff's gift warn would-be donors?" The great philanthropist had died bitter and disappointed in 1920 after seeing the University turn its back on his generosity.

The human side of his museum's roller-coaster history means a great deal to Carney Gavin. A bluff, bulky, gigantically affable man, he makes friends--and remembers their names--with instinctive ease. He saw that his cause carried little weight among the administrators: he had no money. So Gavin, a practicing Catholic priest, turned to his last resource: people. He marshalled a vast army of eager volunteers out of thin air, and by the mid-'70s, hundreds of area professionals and students were helping him put his museum back together again. He once even piled the entire Harvard football team into a truck and sent it off to Brandeis to retrieve a long-lost collection.

Gavin also made friends with his upstairs neighbors, the scholars of the Center for International Affairs. He invited them to get-togethers and dropped subtle reminders that the building did not really belong to them.