The entire staff of the Harvard Semitic Museum—home of one of this country’s most important archaeological collections—has been dismissed, leading to a rancorous contretemps concerning the institution’s leadership and its future direction.
The ten employees of Harvard’s primary archaeological museum are to be replaced by two new staffers and a part-time secretary. Travelling exhibits will no longer be sent around the country under museum auspices. Its vast collection of 19th-century Middle Eastern photographs is to be dispersed to other Harvard museums. The museum will now feature instead its important archaeological holdings, consisting of over 40,000 artifacts.
Under the Harvard Crimson headline, “Sabotage of the Semitic Museum,” Martin Peretz, editor of The New Republic and a lecturer at Harvard, called the affair “an ugly story” and even lobbed a puff of a charge of anti-Semitism against the museum’s director. Frank Moore Cross, the university’s highly respected emeritus Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages and a past director of the museum, accused Peretz of “libel.” Peretz countered that Cross’s characterization of what he had said was twisted.
At the center of the controversy stands Lawrence E. Stager, director of the museum, Harvard’s Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel and the director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon.a In addition to Cross, Stager has been strongly supported by the dig’s benefactor, New York financier Leon Levy.
Harvard Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Jeremy R. Knowles, who has ultimate authority to order the cutbacks, called the layoffs “painful.” Harvard president Neil L. Rudenstine backed Knowles’s decision, saying, “A difficult thing was done, but done in as well-considered a way as it could be.”
The dismissed staff and their supporters had a much different view, accusing the university of shabby treatment and charging that personal animosity on the part of the museum’s director and a space grab by his academic department were behind the abrupt layoffs. Even the Cambridge City Council rallied to the staffers’ cause, condemning the cutbacks as “another in a continuing series of affronts to the people of Cambridge by Harvard University.”
The divisive issue is the latest development in the museum’s checkered history and involves a million-dollar budget deficit and accusations that Stager deliberately undermined efforts to reduce the deficit by imposing a year-long ban on fundraising. As the story unfolded, it was also learned that Stager had his secretary remove the cartridge from the museum’s fax machine and transcribe staff fax messages. Stager’s defenders countered that, as director, he had every right to know what was going out in the museum’s name and that the staff had been acting behind the director’s back.
Lending an eerie backdrop to the debate is the long shadow of campus violence from the Vietnam War era, which indirectly provided the Semitic Museum with a windfall—a windfall Stager says it can no longer afford. In 1970 a bomb intended to damage the Center for International Affairs, then housed at the museum, blew a hole through the roof of the building. Lying undamaged amidst the rubble under the roof were more than 18,000 forgotten 19th-century photographs of the Middle east. Prominent among them were over 800 rare photos taken by the famous Bonfils family of photographers—Felix Bonfils, his wife Lydie and their son Adrien. It was this photographic collection that would later come to play a prominent role in the decision to lay off staff.
During the 1980s, thanks to the efforts of Father Carney Gavin, the museum’s then-executive director, and of curator Nitza Rosovsky (wife of then-Arts and Sciences Dean Henry Rosovsky), the photo collection gradually emerged as a centerpiece of the museum. The Bonfils collection became the subject of one exhibit. In another exhibit, fifty 19th-century photos were paired with contemporary photos taken from the same vantage point. Alternating with these were travelling exhibits featuring archaeological finds from Shikmona, near Haifa; from the City of David in Jerusalem; and from Stager’s dig at Ashkelon.
The museum had clearly succeeded in raising its public profile. Far from being an obscure study and research institution nestled in the quiet streets away from the bustle of Harvard Square, the museum began drawing such prominent visitors as Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi oil minister; Queen Noor of Jordan; and Teddy Kollek, the long-time mayor of Jerusalem. But behind this success would lie the question: Is this what the Harvard Semitic Museum should be about?
The museum was founded in 1889 with money donated by industrialist Jacob Schiff “to promote sound knowledge of Semitic languages and history.” During the Second World War the museum was closed for five years while the space was used by the armed forces. A little more than a decade after reopening, however, the museum went through a period when it was banished to its own basement and much of its holdings 065were dispersed to other Harvard institutions. People wishing to study the museum’s remaining holdings had to hope that a faculty member with a basement office would answer the doorbell and let them in.
The above-ground floors at the museum were then rented to the Center for International Affairs (CFIA)—initially for a period of five years. Instead, CFIA stayed for 25. For a time, Henry Kissinger, future Secretary of State and adviser to presidents, had an office in the museum’s building. Whether the intended target of the 1970 bomb was Kissinger’s office or the CFIA’s offices is unknown. In any event, Kissinger was away in Washington when the explosion occurred. The museum did not reopen (or re-reopen) to the public until 1982, and then shared space with Harvard’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC). In the years following the reopening, the rediscovered Middle Eastern photographs became an important feature of the museum’s exhibits.
But even as the photo collection and the travelling exhibits were bringing wide attention to the museum, they were also becoming the flashpoint over the museum’s future direction. Sources have told BAR that although Gavin and his staff favored the prominence given the photographs, Stager—who became director in 1987—did not. Nor did Stager, according to these sources, much like Gavin himself or the high salaries Gavin ($83,000 a year) and his staff had been earning.
Money for the upkeep of the photo collection was not a problem at first, thanks to financial support from the Saudi royal family, but in the late 1980s those funds began to dry up. The growing money problems—by 1992 the museum had a deficit of a million dollars—forced matters to a head. Arts and Sciences Dean Jeremy Knowles appointed Stager to head an eight-man faculty committee to make recommendations about the museum’s future. Joining Stager were two other members of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department (NELC)—chairman John Huehnergard and Peter Machinist (Cross’s successor to the Hancock chair)—and the directors of Harvard’s Fogg and Peabody museums. During the year-long deliberations of the faculty committee, restrictions on fundraising for the museum were imposed.
Released this past November, the faculty report recommended that the museum’s ten existing positions be replaced by an assistant director and a curator of archaeological materials, supplemented by a part-time secretary. It also urged that the museum discontinue hosting travelling exhibits and that its 19th-century photographs and ethnographic materials be given to other museums on campus (primarily the Fogg and the Peabody).
In a key passage, the report said, “During the past decade the limited financial and human resources of the Museum have been spread too broadly. Attention paid to the photographic collections and to the promotion of travelling exhibitions … has … reduced the attention that could be given to developing the ancient and medieval collections, which form the core of the Museum’s collections and should be its highest priority. … Ninety percent of the total deficit has been incurred by the Photo Archive Account (almost $715,000 since 1986) and the Exhibits/Public Programs Account ($235,000).”
Critics of the decision immediately charged that the deficit was merely an excuse to fire staffers against whom Stager bears a grudge and to cripple the museum’s public exhibits. Defenders countered that the changes would halt the drain on the institution’s limited resources and return its focus to its core holdings—more than 40,000 artifacts from Harvard excavations in Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Tunisia.
When the faculty report was released, Rosovsky resigned in protest; the nine other staffers, including Gavin, were laid off two weeks later.b
Following their last day of work, Gavin, Rosovsky and six other staffers issued an open letter stating that the make-up of the faculty review committee was unfair, because it was chaired by Stager and included two other NELC faculty, but no one from the museum’s staff. “Stager’s lack of management and neglect of fundraising are among the reasons the Museum is in such difficulties,” the letter charged. “NELC stands to gain from the Museum’s demise. … We believe we were fired because [NELC], with whom we share the building, needs more office space, and that … Stager bears a personal animosity towards long-time members of the staff.”
The letter turned out to be just a warmup for the fireworks that followed.
Peretz, who has served on committees that helped organize three museum exhibits, was quick to rally behind the dismissed staffers. In his Crimson article, Peretz charged that Stager “had zero interest in the 066work” of the museum. Stager, claimed Peretz, has “waged a war against the museum.” Peretz described Stager as “a learned but extraordinarily narrow specialist [who] saw the space and the moneys the museum uses as assets he could annex to his own archaeological enterprises. … Save for the Silver Calf exhibit, which presented discoveries from Stager’s dig in Israel, the director of the museum has not been involved in the museum’s activities.”
Peretz continued, “The Semitic Museum has been for more than a decade one of the few places in the world where Jews and Arabs, Israelis and their Middle Eastern neighbors have consistently worked together beyond the rancors of politics on matters of common inheritance. … The ongoing public life of the Semitic Museum was mainly the achievement of Father Carney Gavin, its chief curator, and of his co-workers.” Peretz then asserted, “Stager just doesn’t like Gavin.”
Peretz also attacked the make-up of the faculty committee, particularly Stager’s chairmanship. “It is strange that the director of the museum should have been the person to lead an inquiry into how it has fared under his stewardship. This was a set-up, but with a twist. Stager wanted the museum not exactly to fold, but to contract radically. Two members of his committee [the directors of the Fogg and Peabody museums], moreover, would be beneficiaries of this contraction. … They are to inherit the parts of the collection which Stager wants to dispose of. Neither of them has examined the holdings soon to fall under his jurisdiction. … The odds are that the artifacts and records of Semitic peoples will not absorb much of their energies or space.”
In discussing the museum’s financial difficulties, Peretz acknowledged the magnitude of the problem. “But part of the responsibility for the deficit, surely, lies with the director who raised no money and then exploited the scarcity of funds as a reason to strangle the museum entirely.”
Peretz compared the museum’s ban last year on fundraising to a similar policy initiated in 1926 by then-Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell. Peretz noted parenthetically that President Lowell had also initiated a quota limiting the number of Jewish students that would be admitted to Harvard, had been “unaccountably hostile to” the nomination of the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice (Louis D. Brandeis), and indeed had been “unaccountably hostile to almost anything that smacked of Jews.” Stager, Peretz charged, was like Lowell in that both had barred the Museum from fundraising. Why Peretz found it necessary to invoke Lowell’s behavior in 1926 for comparison is unclear. And why, if this comparison was needed, Peretz deemed it relevant in this context to detail Lowell’s widely acknowledged anti-Semitism also remains a question.
Peretz claimed, morever, that money could have been found if there had been the desire to do so. “[University president Rudenstine and Dean Knowles] should have known (and probably did) that there is still the prospect of a transfer of nearly $1.5 million from a private foundation to the museum. There are other pockets, and deep ones, too.”
Stager’s defense soon followed, in the same pages, from the pen of Frank Moore Cross. “The recent attack on … Stager by Martin Peretz is too full of calumny, whether uttered out of ignorance or malice, to let pass without a public response on my part,” Cross wrote.
Cross then zeroed in on Peretz’s link of Stager to Lowell. “I think Lowell’s anti-Semitism is well-documented. … [Peretz’s] parallel suggests to a literate reader that Stager, like Lowell, was moved by anti-Semitic impulses. This is libel. … a charge which if believed could end Stager’s career as an archaeologist in Israel. … To pair Stager with Lowell is unconscionable, and Peretz should publicly apologize, or in any case repudiate the anti-Semitic interpretation generally and most plausibly given to his remarks.”
As for Stager’s attitude toward Judaism, Cross countered that “Stager’s whole history is philo-Judaic.” Cross listed Stager’s graduate training, part of which took place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, his fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University, and his having been “a beloved protege of Benjamin Mazar, the doyen of Israeli archaeologists. Stager was awarded one of the largest and richest of the pristine archaeological sites left in Israel by the Israeli Council of Archaeology.”
“The claim of Peretz (surely not on the basis of his knowledge) that Stager is an extraordinarily narrow specialist,” Cross continued, “can be answered easily by drawing on the dossier collected to present to the President’s ad hoc committee appointed to review [Stager’s] appointment to the Dorot Chair. A leitmotif in the recommendations of senior scholars from many nations, including Israel’s most distinguished archaeologists, was the extraordinary breadth of Stager’s scholarship both in his own field and in adjacent fields, including anthropology (Stager is a member of Harvard’s Department of Anthropology), historiography, and historiographic theory, ancient Near Eastern and European.”
Cross went on, “If one reads Peretz, the Museum’s primary activity at Ashkelon is labeled Stager’s personal research, not the Museum’s. This is bizarre. It is the Museum’s most important project. In fact the major effort of the Museum at Ashkelon has been fully funded through the efforts of Professor Stager. But the fact that Ashkelon has not contributed to the Museum’s deficit does not disqualify it as a Museum program.”
Contra Peretz, Cross traced the roots of the museum’s problems not to Stager, but to the photo archives. “The chance recovery of an important collection of nineteenth-century photographs of the Near East in 1970 has led, slowly and steadily, to a distortion of the primary tasks of the Museum. The collection … proved a marvelous source of publicity … [but] became the primary source of the Museum’s deficit, as well as monopolizing the time of most of its staff. … The Advisory Committee has proposed that the Museum continue its important work of exploration, teaching, and research, and continue its program of public exhibits, but curtail its practice of pouring money we do not have into the bottomless pit of the Photo Archive. Unfortunately this can be done only by radically streamlining the Museum staff.”
On the question of fundraising, Cross wrote, “Stager did not issue a flat ban on the raising of funds. Rather, during the life of the Advisory Committee, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, supported by Stager, required that any approaches for money be cleared through the Dean and the Director of the Museum.”
Also speaking up on Stager’s behalf was Leon Levy, who wrote in a letter to the Crimson, “Neither I nor anyone else who has worked with [Stager] detected the slightest whiff of anti-Semitism. … Peretz’s implied comparison [of Stager with Lowell] would have been worthy of the late well-known senator from Wisconsin.”
In his own letter to the Crimson, Peretz responded to both Cross and Levy. Of Cross’s charge that he had, in effect, accused Stager of anti-Semitism, Peretz countered, “It is Cross who should repudiate this interpretation since this twisted construction is his. … I actually had some vague impression—erroneous, it seems—that the Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel is Jewish.”
As for Levy’s comments, Peretz wrote, “The letter compares me to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the hoariest of gambits to try to shut someone up, but an insidious gambit nonetheless.” Peretz labelled Cross’s and Levy’s charges a distraction raised by Stager’s supporters “because they cannot defend him against the real criticisms and charges that have been made against him, not only by me but, most tellingly, by many people who worked under his jurisdiction.”
In comments to BAR, Peretz kept up the attack on Stager. “He’s a bully,” Peretz asserted. Peretz also predicted that the fax episode will prove to be Stager’s undoing. “I know how Mother Harvard works. He has overstepped the bounds of civility. Stager won’t be the director of the museum for long.”
As we go to press, the museum has begun its search for the two curators who are to replace the previous staff.
The entire staff of the Harvard Semitic Museum—home of one of this country’s most important archaeological collections—has been dismissed, leading to a rancorous contretemps concerning the institution’s leadership and its future direction. The ten employees of Harvard’s primary archaeological museum are to be replaced by two new staffers and a part-time secretary. Travelling exhibits will no longer be sent around the country under museum auspices. Its vast collection of 19th-century Middle Eastern photographs is to be dispersed to other Harvard museums. The museum will now feature instead its important archaeological holdings, consisting of over 40,000 artifacts. Under the Harvard […]