The main focus of Ancient Art and Interpretation lies in scholarship, research, and education.
Located at the Legion of Honor, the department and its collection have been an integral part of the Fine Arts Museums since they were founded. Antiquities were considered essential to any museum in the early twentieth century, and both M. H. de Young, the founder of the de Young Museum, and Alma Spreckels, the founder of the Legion of Honor, furnished their institutions with a variety of ancient objects. The works they brought to their museums, and those that have been added over the years, cover broad geographical and chronological ranges within the ancient Mediterranean basin—primarily Egypt, the Near East, Greece, the Aegean Islands, Etruria, and Rome. One of the earliest gifts of ancient art to the Legion was a group of antiquities received by Alma Spreckels from Elisabeth, the Queen of Greece.
The Ancient Art Department also organizes special exhibitions at both the Legion and the de Young. In preparing an exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, further scholarship and research are undertaken to broaden the understanding and interpretation of the art, the people who made the art, the country in which they lived, the way of life, the material used, and even the functions of the art. The visitor benefits from seeing the art and reading the didactic material and the catalogue.
A lesser known fact about the department is its role in Interpretation, which dovetails with the fundamental principles of the department in research, scholarship, and education. Interpretation involves making the art understandable and accessible to the museum visitor. Usually it is accomplished through written material explaining the function, meaning, or history of an object so that the visitor can appreciate its significance within an art historical and social background. One of the functions of the curator in charge of the department is to write handbooks and general reference books, under the aegis of the Publications Department, on the multicultural and cross-boundary collections housed in the de Young and Legion of Honor that make up the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.