Harvard Semitic Museum To Undergo New Changes

Semitic Museum Reconstruction
Jessica C. Salley

The Semitic Museum on Divinity Ave., home to the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department and the Ashkelon excavation along with its museum galleries, remains open as an elevator is added to the building this year.

Under the leadership of new director, professor Peter Der Manuelian, and with the support of a new umbrella organization, Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, the Harvard Semitic Museum is set to launch an array of both structural and exhibitional developments in the coming years.

The Harvard Semitic Museum was founded in 1889 and has been located at 6 Divinity Avenue since 1903. It features collections from regions across the Ancient Near East. Roman glass, Egyptian mummies, ethnographic garments from Palestine, pottery from Cyprus, and one of the largest cuneiform tablet collections outside of Baghdad are a few of the many diverse artifacts currently on display.

The upcoming changes to the museum are intended to increase accessibility and overall attendance. Manuelian is personally overseeing the changes, along with deputy director and curator Joseph A. Greene and assistant curator Adam Aja.

“We are embarking on some pretty grand plans to renovate the spaces in the museum, make them friendlier, make them more accessible, make them more exciting, and augment the different shows with interactive technologies to teach visitors more about the Ancient Near East,” Manuelian said.

Within the museum, Manuelian plans to transform the first floor gallery into a rotating special exhibitions gallery. The second floor will feature a permanent Egyptian exhibition, while the third floor will contain collections focusing on Mesopotamia.

“Manuelian’s grand vision, I estimate, will take us 5 years, and maybe more. There will be a lot of steps to take in the interim,” Greene said.

According to Maunelian, the exhibitions will also heavily feature the use of technologies like interactive screens enabling visitors to see enhanced images of real artifacts, 3-D printers, and virtual reality headsets.

“For us, the technology is a way of expanding our gallery square footage without having to build anything,” Greene said. “ You can now do things with technology that are simply astounding.”

While many of the changes are organizational, some are physical and practical. One planned change is the installation of an elevator in the building—a feature the building has lacked for over a century.

“[The addition of an elevator] sounds mundane,” Manuelian said, “but because we have galleries on the second and third floors, and there are many people who have trouble negotiating stairs, two-thirds of our museum had been cut off from public view.”

With the elevator’s scheduled completion in December of this year, Manuelian believes that its presence will be a “game changer” for attracting more student visitors and members of the public.

Students also expressed hope that the proposed changes at the Semitic Museum will spur increased interest.

“On Harvard’s campus it seems like there a thousand things for undergraduates to do and see,” James M. A. Bollinger ’17 said. “Hopefully, these changes will at least increase undergraduate interest in its exhibits and message.”