A Gift Unearths a Rift

NYU's plan for $200 million institute on antiquity renews debate over collecting of ancient objects.
April 3, 2006

New York University triumphantly announced last week that it had received a $200 million gift to finance a new Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, designed as a haven for top-notch, cross-disciplinary scholarship “across geographic and cultural boundaries.” 

But while celebrated in certain quarters at NYU, the mammoth gift has laid bare deep divisions among anthropologists, art historians and others who study antiquity at the university and elsewhere in academe, centered around fundamental questions about how best to study ancient worlds and thorny disputes between museums and scholars over whether collecting ancient objects encourages the looting of archaeological sites.

One critic has resigned his honorary position with the university’s existing Center for Ancient Studies to protest NYU’s decision to affiliate itself with the donor, Shelby White, whose valuable private art collection has been attacked for including objects believed to have been stolen or looted from ancient sites.
“I do not want to be associated with Shelby White’s money in any way,” said Randall White, a professor of anthropology at NYU for 25 years. “She takes an approach to the archaeological record that finds collecting to be OK, and the fact that this new unit of NYU is going to give her the opportunity to fulfill her vision is deeply troubling.”

NYU officials were unavailable over the weekend to comment on the controversy, which was first reported by Science magazine. But the university’s president, John Sexton, defended the arrangement in an interview with The New York Times. “Shelby White and her husband, Leon Levy, over time have done extraordinary things to benefit the advancement of knowledge, archaeology studies, the appreciation and love for antiquity and antiquities,” Sexton said.

A group of faculty members who study antiquity in NYU's Institute of Fine Arts also made clear their support for the gift in a February letter in which they urged Provost David W. McLaughlin to accept it. "We believe the [new institute] would bring great intellectual value to NYU and that it would provide a model of international significance for the cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary research and teaching proposed," they wrote.

White and the late Levy, who was a titan on Wall Street, have given heavily and widely in the world of ideas, creating among other things the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for Mind, Brain and Behavior at Rockefeller University, numerous programs at Bard College, and the Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications at Harvard University. 

The couple’s work in the antiquities has been controversial,  however, because the private collection of ancient artifacts that the two have amassed has been the subject of much criticism. Last year, Italian officials said they were investigating whether as many as nine artifacts in the Levy-White collection could be traced to an art dealer who had been convicted of trafficking in stolen objects.

The collection has faced similar charges previously, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which houses some of the Levy-White artifacts, is one of several museums, including some at universities, that have faced scrutiny for collecting objects whose origins are unknown or uncertain.

Most archaeologists and other scholars who study ancient worlds believe strongly that cultural artifacts should remain in their original environments and contexts, where their meaning can be best understood. To do otherwise is “like ripping a page out of a history book of the earth,” said NYU’s Randall White, who is not related to Shelby White. “You can never put those back.”

Museum directors and some scholars, though, argue that collecting and displaying ancient cultural artifacts is essential to educate and inform future generations about ancient days.

"The jihadists, as I would call them now — who think that to even publish anywhere an item that doesn't have a provenance is forbidden — this is an utterly ridiculous position," Lawrence A. Stager, a Harvard archaeologist who serves on the board of that university's publications project sponsored by Levy and White, told the Times. "If you took that position, we wouldn't know anything about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those were found by Bedouin in caves beside the Dead Sea. None of them were found by archaeologists. If you followed the purists, you would totally ignore it."

Private collectors are often seen as contributing to the illegal trade in cultural objects by creating a market for them and enhancing their value in a way that encourages looters. So collectors like Levy and White -- who “is really the epitome of everything that’s wrong with collecting of antiquities,” said Malcolm Bell, an archaeologist and professor of art history at the University of Virginia -- are highly controversial in the world of ancient studies. Several institutions, including the University of Cincinnati, have declined to take money from White-Levy projects. (Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously said that the University of Pennsylvania had rejected White-Levy funds.)

White could not be reached for comment over the weekend, and she has declined other reporters' requests to speak about the controversy. But she has been quoted on several occasions defending how her collection was built. “Let me put it this way: We bought in good faith, we published everything, we supported archeology, and we supported conservation,” Ms. White told the New York Observer in February, in an article about the investigation in Italy. “We acted in good faith, and if we did anything wrong, I am prepared to address that.”

The history surrounding the Levy-White collection and White's collection practices make NYU’s decision to accept the funds and create an academic institute that might share or promulgate her views troubling, said Randall White.

“You can imagine what $200 million does when you throw it into a small pool” like archaeology and ancient studies,” he said. “Throwing $200 million behind the idea that object orientation and collections is the way to go could dramatically change the whole scene, in a way that those of us who spend our lives doing archaeology” are likely to rue.

That is true, said UVa’s Bell, if the arrangement with NYU gives White and/or her foundation authority to set the new institute’s direction. “Any time a large sum of money is given to supp archaeology and classics, it is potentially a very good thing,” said Bell, who is vice president for professional responsibilities – essentially “chief ethicist” -- at the Archaeological Institute of America. “The question is whether it comes with strings attached, ideological strings or others, that we don’t know about. If her perspective on antiquities and what the study of the material remains of the past should be is carried over to this institution, I think it’s really unfortunate.”


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