Thursday, December 25, 2014

Harvard Semitic Museum refurbished

THE HARVARD GAZETTE: The old, made new. Refurbished Semitic Museum celebrates the past while reorienting for the future (Corydon Ireland). This article describes the new renovated Semitic Museum, but also gives a capsule history from its opening in 1903. As I've mentioned before, I got my PhD back in the 1980s from the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations ("NELC") program at Harvard. Most of my courses were taught in the Semitic Museum, back when most of the artifacts were locked up in the basement and unavailable. Professor Lawrence Stager was hired during the time I was a student there and he was the one who set about changing all that. I'm surprised he isn't mentioned in the article. Nevertheless, it is a highly informative piece that is hard to excerpt. But here's just one taste:
Central to understanding the museum’s past is its first director, David Gordon Lyon (1852-1935). Born in Alabama, educated in Germany, and the first university chair of Assyriology in the United States, Lyon was an energetic scholar of Semitic languages, whose passion was establishing a museum.

“The beginning of this wonderful story goes back to this gentleman,” said Manuelian, who is Phillip J. King Professor of Egyptology. “He was quite a dynamic lecturer and speaker,” and brought with him from Germany the idea of “the seminar principle,” that a good collection accelerates understanding and scholarship.

The joint lecture discussed the persistent and peripatetic Lyon, the shifting fates of the museum building, and the Harvard collection of more than 40,000 Near Eastern artifacts.

A devout Baptist with an appetite for exactitude but with discipline leavened by Southern charm, Lyon taught Hebrew, Assyrian, Syriac, Aramaic, Akkadian, and other languages first set down in cuneiform. For 40 years he collected artifacts, and recorded trips to the Holy Land with deadpan ethnographic photos of ordinary life. “Lyon was a pioneer,” said Greene, a documentarian of what turned out to be the last two decades of the 500-year-old Ottoman Empire, then in decline.

He also wrote obsessively in diaries. There are 38 volumes — one a year — culled from small notebooks that Lyon would transcribe at night. Today, they provide a rare window into the Harvard of a century and more ago.