Shelby White is one of New York City’s top museum donors. With her late husband, financier Leon Levy, she was an enthusiastic collector of antiquities, loaning or donating many great works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she serves on the board. (Those who can’t make it to the Met can pick up Glories of the Past: Ancient Art from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Collection.) A financial journalist and author of What Every Woman Should Know About Her Husband’s Money, White started the Leon Levy Foundation on her husband’s death in 2003, and in 2011 signed the Giving Pledge.
Every summer, White helps at an archeological excavation in Ashkelon, Israel, which she has supported for 25 years. She also supports antiquity-related scholarship: from a publications program at Harvard, to special exhibitions, to a $200 million gift that founded the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU.
Philanthropy: How did you get started in antiquities?
White: I had a job working for Encyclopedia Britannica. We did a film on ancient Greek art, and I fell in love with it. Then when I met my husband, he turned out to be interested in ancient history. It was very much something that we shared.
Though they come from long ago, these artifacts speak to me and say that the past is still relevant. You look at a Roman bust and you say whoa, this looks like someone I know, or you look at a Greek bronze and think, “these people were being influenced by other cultures.” We began to collect ancient art, and to support the work of archaeologists who were digging up the past. I’m head of the American Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and we’re big supporters of their work in Israel, including their new national campus where the Lod Mosaic, the exceptionally beautiful Roman floor from 300 A.D., will be housed.
Philanthropy: And you go out to an excavation every year.
White: I like to dig. What shall I say? I love to be in a little hole the size of a small box for five hours in the broiling sun digging up a pot or a bone. I find doing this kind of detailed work exciting. The site that we fund is called Ashkelon. It was continuously occupied from Canaanite to crusader times.
Philanthropy: What sorts of finds have come up there?
White: The most exciting find was something called the Golden Calf. It was actually bronze, but it would’ve looked golden because it would’ve been polished highly. It was next to a little shrine: actual evidence of calf worship. Calf sculptures had been found before, but never in a setting with so much evidence that somebody was worshipping them.
We do find things that are very beautiful and go on display. But even more exciting is the overall understanding the artifacts give us of how cultures changed and succeeded each other. Archeology tells us how societies migrated, where people were coming from, how they were earning a living. You might find a winepress, so you know they were making wine, or you might find bones that show what their diet was. We can tell from DNA analysis things like whether they were marrying in the tribe or out of the tribe, whether they were bringing things from other areas, what the trade was—just a wealth of material.
Some archaeologists say, “Show me a sherd and I can reconstruct the civilization.” I’m not able to do that yet, but I take their word for it. There’s no question that it’s these details that allow us to know what the past was.
It’s a large excavation, and we have published many volumes about it. There will be ten reports eventually, covering the Canaanites, the Philistines, the Babylonian kings during the occupation, and so forth. We also give grants to publish work from other excavations. A lot of times archaeologists dig and then don’t publish, but publication is becoming extremely important. A lot of things are now done online with less intensive digging, because there are electronic methods of discerning the outlines of buildings without digging down. So you’re seeing a big change in archaeology.
Philanthropy: Tell me more about the new academic center at NYU.
White: We realized that the way that the ancient world was being studied was very narrow, very defined by nineteenth-century German scholarship. So my husband and I thought about starting an academic institution, and after he died I funded the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. It crosses geographic boundaries and disciplines. We don’t necessarily want to make sharp distinctions between, say, anthropology and archaeology. We need disciplines, but our focus is on interconnections.
As my husband liked to say, “Those who specialize in one aspect of antiquity tend to be blind to anything else. Archeologists who look for pottery sherds will not see coins, and, conversely, those who look for coins will not find sherds.” Archaeologists usually add, “If you look for both, you don’t find anything.”
We have graduate students and post-docs, public lectures, and a wonderful exhibition program. The exhibition we have on currently, “When the Greeks Ruled Egypt,” tells about the descendants of Alexander the Great and how they came to Egypt, trying to retain their own identity while also adapting to local customs—the story of immigrants through time.
Philanthropy: In contrast to conserving things that are very old and have been underground for millennia, you also conserve things that are living and fleeting—from the New York and Brooklyn botanical gardens, to parks and preserves, and bird habitat. It’s a lovely contrast.
White: I was very fortunate in the fourth grade to have a wonderful teacher who took our class on birding trips. I could spot things quickly, and I’d say, “Oh look, there’s a semipalmated plover.” She invited me to the Brooklyn Birding Club, and I went out with them and discovered how magical birds are. I’m teaching my grandchildren all about the local species.
Our foundation is trying to reduce bird collisions. Each year millions of birds are killed because of glass skyscrapers, city lights, and now windmills. Bird migration patterns and behavior haven’t adapted to these technologies, so we’re trying to adapt the technologies to them. This is a big problem we don’t hear a lot about, but in the attempt to promote solar and wind energy, there are some damaging consequences. We want to help lessen the problems.
We have also established the Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve, on the island of Eleuthera, where visitors can walk miles of trails through the native habitat and view the medicinal plants that were part of bush medicine, the food plants that sustained the islanders, and the hardwood trees that helped the economy.