Peabody Museum to oversee Yale Babylonian Collection

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A cuneiform tablet in a a clay envelope, c. 2050 bce, is among the 42,000 inscribed documents from ancient Mesopotamia housed in the Yale Babylonian Collection.

The Yale Babylonian Collection will undergo a series of changes intended to enhance its use and conservation, and to expand access to one of the world’s leading assemblages of cuneiform tablets and other ancient Near Eastern artifacts.

The changes, announced May 12 by Yale University Provost Benjamin Polak, will better integrate the collection — a standalone entity since it was founded more than a century ago — into the university’s cultural heritage landscape. To that end, it will become formally affiliated with the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, though it will retain its name and identity as a distinct collection within the museum’s Division of Anthropology, Polak said. 

The collection — the largest assemblage in North America of textual material from ancient Mesopotamia — will remain housed on the third floor of Sterling Memorial Library. Its suite of rooms and offices will be renovated, according to the planned changes — a full description of which is available on the Babylonian Collection’s website.

“The Yale Babylonian Collection is a wonderful asset to Yale and a critical resource to the global community of scholars of ancient Mesopotamia,” Polak said. “The coming changes to the collection’s oversight and stewardship will only enhance its use and appreciation while safeguarding the condition of the tablets and other objects for study by future generations.”

Founded in 1910 by Albert T. Clay, the Laffan Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature at Yale, the collection consists of approximately 42,000 inscribed documents, as well as cylinder and stamp seals, figurines, clay models, game boards, ceramic vessels, and other artifacts. Among its treasures are a tablet of the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest recorded recipes known to exist, and the world’s earliest literary work by a named author.

Polak based the planned changes on the recommendations of an advisory committee composed of representatives of Yale’s cultural heritage community, interested faculty, and Babylonian Collection staff. He praised the collection’s staff for admirably stewarding an “exceptionally rare and unique collection.” Agnete Lassen, the collection’s full-time associate curator, will continue in her role under the planned changes.

Affiliating the collection with the Peabody will allow access to the world-class network of experts, facilities, and other resources that supports Yale’s museums and libraries, including conservation and storage facilities as well as security expertise, and digitization capability, Polak said. 

“The Yale Babylonian Collection will find a welcome home at the Peabody Museum,” said Peabody Director David Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology. “The museum is committed to maintaining the collection’s unique character while sharing its wonders with scholars, students, and the public.” 

The Peabody is planning an exhibition focusing on the collection that will open in 2018.

Other plans include improving the collection’s online catalog, expanding access to digital images of collection material, and carrying out a conservation assessment.

For full details of the changes, visit the Babylonian Collection’s website.

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