New York University recently accepted a $200 million donation to create an Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The donation was made by the owner of one of North America’s largest private collections of archaeological artefacts, Shelby White, on behalf of herself and her late husband, Leon Levy. The massive scale of the gift has stimulated media interest in the story, and the problems that it raises. Admittingly, there is nothing new in this sort of donation. It is archaeology that has changed. A number of American universities and museums have thus adopted policies against accepting money from collectors such as Leon and White.
But there is clearly no consensus on the issue. Lawrence Stager, a board-member of the Shelby White-Leon Levy Program for Archaeological Publications, told the New York Times:
“The jihadists, as I would call them now â€” who think that to even publish anywhere an item that doesn’t have a provenance is forbidden â€” this is an utterly ridiculous position,” he continued. “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.”
“Jihadists” and “purists”? The lines have certainly been dramatically drawn in the North American debate, as clearly, much is at stake. And even a faculty member of one of the universities that do not wish to receive funds from Leon and White appears ready to change their policy (also in the New York Times):
“If there were basically no strings attached, I think we’d have to sit down and think very hard about our ethical position here,” said James C. Wright, chairman of the department of classical and Near Eastern archaeology at Bryn Mawr.
“The question is: What’s the line?” he added. “What sort of person’s money would be so dirty that you wouldn’t touch it?”
There is of course so much more at stake here than American academic policies, and the debate deserves some European perspectives, not only because it is European heritage that is the focus of White’s donation to the NYU, but also because of its wider implications for the discipline.
Related stories: “Donor at Center of Artifacts Storm” (The Harvard Crimson, 6 April 2006) / “Doubts on Donors’ Collection Cloud Met Antiquities Project” (New York Times, 10 December 2005).