For the Fall 2022 semester, the LitHum reading list was expanded to include The Exultation of Inana by the Sumerian poet and high priestess Enheduanna, 2285-2250 BCE. Inscribed clay tablets from circa 1750 BCE with the text of this work are currently on display as part of the Morgan Library exhibition She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia. But that is not the only Columbia connection to this exhibition: the Morgan’s first curator of ancient seals was Columbia art history professor Edith Porada.
Edith Porada came to the US from Vienna in 1938. Her first assignment was to catalog the collection of Near Eastern seals at the Morgan Library, then the largest collection of seals in the country. Porada received a grant from the American Philological Association to create a modern catalog with photographs (not drawings), with a reasonable arrangement and very clear text, as she described it in her 1987 oral history. These volumes, published in 1947 and 1948, became the standard work on art, iconography and the history of cylinder seals.
Starting in 1956, Porada served as the honorary curator of seals and tablets at the Morgan. Before joining Columbia, she worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and taught at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, the Asia Institute and at Queens College from 1950 to 1958. In 1955, Porada came to Columbia as Visiting Professor. She eventually joined Columbia as an Assistant Professor in 1958, soon received tenure in 1960, and was promoted to full professor in 1964. Ten years later, she was named the Arthur Lehman Professor of Art History and Archaeology. While Porada officially retired and became Emerita in 1981, she continued to serve as a Special Lecturer until 1987. She was still teaching Columbia students at the Morgan Library at the time of her death in 1994.
In 1983 Hathaway W. Scully endowed the Edith Porada Professorship of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology, which is currently occupied by Zainab Bahrani. In establishing the named professorship, then University President Michael I. Sovern noted how Porada had not only made Columbia the major center for the study of ancient Near Eastern art and culture but had also enlarged the traditional study of art history to include cylinder seals as art. In 1989, Sovern again honored Porada’s legacy with the presentation of an honorary Doctorate in Letters: “you have made profound connections between the human experience and the interpretation of the cylinder seals, revealing their importance as art and as documents of ancient commercial, political, and religious life.”
The Morgan Library’s She Who Wrote exhibition was curated by Sidney Babcock CC 1979, MA 1983, MPhil 1984, one of Edith Porada’s own students, along with Erhan Tamur, a curatorial fellow at the Metropolitan Museum. In addition to Enheduanna’s text, now part of the Core Curriculum, there are depictions of women as goddesses, priestesses, and even writers (Enheduanna herself?). Selections from the Morgan’s seal collection are also permanently on view in Belle da Costa Greene’s former office, the North Room. The show closes on February 19, 2023.
February 1, 2023 addendum
Roberto C. Ferrari, Curator of Art Properties, alerted us to even more connections . . .
Porada also donated to Art Properties a number of archaeological objects that we still hold, including Neolithic artifacts and ancient Near Eastern objects (they have yet to be cataloged). She was also instrumental in working with Arthur M. Sackler to acquire from private collectors for Columbia over 2,000 cylinder and stamp seals from the Near East, some as early as 3,000 BCE to the neo-Babylonian period, all of which are in Art Properties.
Francesco de Angelis, Professor of Art History and Archaeology, and Zainab Bahrani, Edith Porada Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology and Department Chair, also contributed this note with the names of the graduate students in the curatorial seminar at Columbia.