The Harvard Semitic Museum has changed its name to the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East (HMANE) to better “reflect its core mission in clearer terms,” said Director Peter Der Manuelian. “We wanted a more inclusive and descriptive name, one that accurately reflects the diversity of our collection.” Founded in 1889, the museum was conceived as a teaching tool to study the ancient histories and cultures of people who spoke Semitic languages, among them Israelites, Moabites, Arabs, Babylonians, and Phoenicians. The new HMANE name was a decision years in the making, as Manuelian explained in a chat with the Gazette.
Peter Der Manuelian
GAZETTE: What prompted the name change?
MANUELIAN: When the Semitic Museum opened at 6 Divinity in 1903, the name was meant as a blanket term for all the peoples of the ancient Near East who shared the somewhat extended family of “Semitic” languages. Our focus remains on the wide variety of diverse peoples living in the eastern Mediterranean region, parts of modern-day Iraq, and even of north Africa: the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Philistines, Israelites, Phoenicians, and others.
Our original mission has not changed, but the term “Semitic Museum” is less widely understood in the public domain. People either had no idea what they might see in a “Semitic” museum, or they (incorrectly) believed the museum was exclusively devoted to Jewish exhibitions. Many had heard the word “anti-Semitic” but “Semitic” was less common. The ancient Near East provides the world’s first examples of centralized political authority and written language, with sophisticated science and literature. The social, literary, political, artistic changes and innovations are foundational to global human history. And the region continues to be the basis for modern identities — we can’t understand current political events there in a cultural or historical vacuum.
GAZETTE: Why is the name being changed now?
MANUELIAN: The change is not a reaction to any particular event, but rather our attempt to reflect our core mission in clearer terms. The process took a great deal of time and thought. Over a period of many years, we held discussions with stakeholders and distributed questionnaires about the museum to visitors and others, both on campus and off. We held focus groups, organized discussion dinners with faculty across the Harvard community, from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the Law and Business Schools. We even devoted Museum Studies courses to the issue.
Regarding the name, we know that no name is perfect. For example, the “Near East” is not particularly “eastern” to colleagues living on the other side of the world. But in our defense, our building stands in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We considered the term “Middle East” but it tends to refer to modern times more than “Near East” does. And the term “Ancient World” casts the net too far across the globe given the specific collections we have. We ran a range of names by different sectors of the community, gathered opinions, and studied the branding of many like-minded institutions. We believe “Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East,” or “HMANE” for short, to be the clearest and most inclusive description of what we have and what we do.