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Harvard’s Semitic Museum is set for big changes

Harvard University museum’s  thousands of items includes a wooden mummiform coffin.

JESSICA RINALDI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Harvard University museum’s thousands of items includes a wooden mummiform coffin.

Semitic Museum director Peter Der Manuelian.

JESSICA RINALDI FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Semitic Museum director Peter Der Manuelian.

Cambridge — Among the many arresting objects in the collection of Harvard University’s Semitic Museum are three small bird mummies, which were collected from somewhere near Luxor, in Egypt, near the end of the 19th century.

On Jan. 22 this year, all three were subjected to CT scans, or high resolution X-ray computed tomography, by Emma Sherratt, then a Harvard postdoctoral fellow.

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Many mummy cases are empty. These were not. The scans revealed the impossibly delicate skeletons of birds, replete with tidily tucked-in wings. Using 3-D imaging software, these images were combined into digital animations showing both the mummies and, in cutaway imagery, the birds themselves in the round.

I was recently shown one of these videos by Adam Aja, curator at the Semitic Museum, in the institution’s tidy but somewhat cramped storage area. Mesmerized, I watched as the opaque but evocative outer layer of the slowly rotating mummy was stripped away, and the intricate, frail structure of tiny bones revealed, still intact, inside.

Inspecting these same images, Helen James, a research zoologist and curator in the Division of Birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, was finally able to identify the mummified bird: it is a common kestrel.

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With a rich but checkered history and a collection that can look anciently opaque and mysterious from the outside but is in fact full of wonders, the Semitic Museum is presently on the cusp of great change. And under its new director, professor Peter Der Manuelian, technology, from 3-D printing to the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, is set to play a leading role in the chapter just beginning.

The Semitic Museum was established in 1903. Dedicated to the archeology, history, and culture of the Ancient Near East, it holds more than 40,000 items, including sculpture, pottery, cylinder seals, and coins; Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic glass; ethnographic Palestinian costumes; and a particularly rich collection of cuneiform tablets. Many of its holdings are from excavations in Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Cyprus, and Tunisia, sponsored by the museum.

The museum’s basement is used not just for storage but for hands-on research and an ongoing project involving the baking and cleaning of thousands of clay tablets. These tablets hold some of the world’s earliest extant written records.

And here, too, technology comes into play. Thanks to salts that rise to the surface and crystallize, many of the tablets have deteriorated over the centuries and can be extremely hard to decipher.

One by one, however, they are being subjected to reflectance transformation imaging, or RTI, a process that involves applying different levels and angles of light, all combined like the images of the bird skeleton, to enhance the clarity and legibility of the inscribed scripts. The results are a great aid to scholars, certainly, and have already sparked major new discoveries. But they also open up exciting new dimensions for public display.

Dedicated to teaching, research, and ongoing overseas digs, the Semitic Museum shares its Divinity Avenue building with Harvard’s Department of Near-Eastern Languages and Civilization and the Center for Jewish Studies. But it is very much open to the public, and a great place to take anyone interested in the culture of the Ancient Near East and Egypt.

Not all of the changes planned by Manuelian, along with deputy director and curator Joseph A. Greene, and assistant curator Aja, relate to technology. Some are about the more basic business of accessibility and presentation.

Already, a new elevator has been attached at the back of the handsome three-story building, allowing handicapped access for the first time. Made to blend discreetly with the old building, the new structure opens up an alternative entrance. Manuelian calls the addition a “game-changer.”

A new logo has also been designed, based on the museum’s largest and most important object: a door jamb from the Great Temple of Amun at Karnak featuring an incised image of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II.

Over the next year, Manuelian plans to update the museum’s physical presentation with everything from banners on Divinity Avenue to entrance-level monitor screens, a visitors desk, brochure racks, balustrades, book and merchandise displays, and — perhaps above all — new exhibition spaces.

He hopes to use the “prime real estate” of the ground floor for temporary exhibitions, incorporating engaging new technologies. The shows will change over each year. (The current display, “The Houses of Ancient Israel,” is impressive in its way, but has been up for a decade, and looks dated.)

Upstairs, on level two, the galleries will be devoted to the museum’s holdings of Egyptian objects. And here, too, Manuelian has ambitious plans to revamp the current displays, using the latest digital technologies, supplementing the museum’s own collection with occasional loans from great Egyptian collections, both near and far.

Level three will be transformed into a grand, high-ceilinged gallery dedicated to Mesopotamian objects — including huge plaster casts of ancient statuary and, hopes Manuelian, a giant 3-D printed Assyrian relief of a bull, copied with permission from a famous object in one of the great European Assyrian collections.

For all this, of course, the museum requires money.

Manuelian, who became director of the Semitic Museum this spring, is on the case.

He is a patient, soft-spoken man with a wry sense of humor, a passion for teaching, and an impressive ability to attend to minute details even as he activates big visions. (Those abilities should assist him as he works to complete a biography of George Reisner, the archeologist famous for his discoveries at Giza.)

While at the helm of the Museum of Fine Arts’ Giza Archives Project (now “The Giza Project” and relocated to Harvard), Manuelian led an ongoing effort to collate all the material relating to Giza, not only from the famed Harvard-MFA Expedition led by Reisner, but from other expeditions and academic institutions around the world.

Collaborating with the innovative 3-D digital software company Dassault Systèmes (based in Paris but with US headquarters in Waltham), Manuelian and his small team used the Giza archives to build a richly detailed and navigable re-creation of the complex labyrinth of tombs and monuments at Giza, so that this most famous of archeological sites can now be explored virtually in 3-D.

What’s more, when the project is completed, each feature of the virtual site will connect to every relevant aspect of the collated archives, from maps to photographs, records, letters, and other relevant archival material. As a tool both of research and education, the project is already proving transformative.

Manuelian and his colleagues hope to bring similar innovations to bear on the collection of the Semitic Museum.

In his fund-raising efforts for the museum, Manuelian has the support of the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture (a consortium overseeing six Harvard museums). In his most diplomatic, unassuming voice — and with a hopeful smile — he notes that naming rights are available, and that any donor would be guaranteed to get “a big bang for a little buck.”

The museum’s original donor was Jacob Henry Schiff. A powerful railroad financier, Schiff was motivated, he said, by a desire to combat “anti-Semitism in Europe, social prejudice and ostracism in free America.”

(The term “Semitic” is not, however, synonymous with “Jewish,” as many people assume. Rather, it denotes a family of languages and, by extension, the ancient histories and cultures of the people who spoke them, including Israelites, Ammonites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Arabs.)

Schiff was a great supporter of the museum’s founding curator, David Gordon Lyon, a Harvard professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages (he was also Reisner’s teacher). He provided the museum and the archeological expeditions it organized with more than $275,000 over several decades, both before and after the museum’s opening.

That opening was attended by Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, who championed Lyon’s efforts, and a cast of dignitaries that included the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Eliot Norton, professor emeritus.

However, if the Semitic Museum’s beginnings were auspicious, its subsequent history was messy.

The museum grew for many years, and in 1933 acquired the world’s largest cache of cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals, and other artifacts from Nuzi, a provincial center of the bronze age Hurrian people in upper Mesopotamia. (Nuzi and the Hurrians are currently the subject of a fascinating show at the museum.)

But during World War II, the museum began to be broken up as first the Army and then the Navy took over parts of the building for their own purposes (a school for Army chaplains and then a school for Japanese language).

By 1957, its collections had been dispersed and in some cases destroyed. A decision was made to sell the building. But instead, part of it was rented out to the Center for International Affairs.

In 1970, a group of female revolutionaries known as the Proud Eagle Tribe — objecting to the role played by the Center for International Affairs, including its cofounder Henry Kissinger, in planning the Vietnam War — detonated a bomb on the top floor of the building.

After the explosion, which killed no one, museum assistant Carney Gavin went with inspectors to the top floor to assess the damage. Beneath the eaves Gavin found several dozen crates, unopened for decades, containing 28,000 photographic prints, lantern slides, and negatives. It was the world’s largest collection of 19th-century photographs of the Levant.

Meanwhile, the Near Eastern department, which still occupied the building, was growing, and the long-idle museum’s collections were swelling from the returns from overseas excavations. Formerly dispersed objects were retrieved. And then, after 40 fallow years, in April 1982, the Semitic Museum officially reopened under Gavin, its new director.

Now, 30 years later, a new surge.

Manuelian’s predecessor, professor Larry Stager, remains involved with the museum even as he oversees the department’s archeological expedition at Ashkelon, in Israel.

Manuelian’s hope is that, even as the Semitic Museum continues its activities in overseas digs and academic research, it will also become known as a dynamic, pace-setting museum patronized both by students and a curious public.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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