December 18, 2018

San Diego museum culls worldwide collections for Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit

When a young Bedouin goat-herder entered a long-forgotten cave in the Judean desert and found some old jars filled with strange looking manuscripts, he had no idea he had stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological treasures of our time – the Dead Sea Scrolls. It was 1947, and the scrolls had been lost for 2,000 years. During the next decade, archeologists would discover remnants of approximately 900 manuscripts in 11 caves, linking the modern world to the formative years of Judaism and Christianity and opening a doorway to an ancient Middle East culture and its traditions.

On June 29, the San Diego Natural History Museum will open the exhibition “Dead Sea Scrolls,” the largest, most comprehensive show ever of these ancient treasures. It will include authentic scrolls, illuminated biblical manuscripts, artifacts, landscape and aerial photography and interactive displays about science, discovery and exploration. Thanks to loans from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), 24 Dead Sea Scrolls – 10 exhibited for the first time ever – will be on display during the six-month run of the exhibition.

“We’ve really gone out of our way to present the context of the story, the context of the place, how these things were discovered, what some of the various theories are about them and the site that was closest to where they were discovered,” said Risa Levitt Kohn, curator of the exhibition.

Many aspects of this exhibition are unique. Designed specifically for the San Diego Natural History Museum, this is not a traveling show. Normally, most of the Dead Sea Scrolls are permanently housed under the care and custody of the IAA, who usually, to ensure preservation of the 2,000-year-old parchment, allow only one set of scrolls to be exhibited for a three-month period outside of Israel. The San Diego museum has been granted the unprecedented opportunity for an extended exhibition with 12 scrolls displayed for the first three months and an additional 12 in the last three months. This is no small feat, considering the rigorous standards of the IAA.

“Our goal is to preserve them for at least another 2,000 years,” said Pnina Shor, head of the IAA’s Artifacts Treatment and Conservation Department. “The Dead Sea Scrolls are extremely fragile and sensitive, and three issues have to be considered carefully before allowing them to be exposed for [even] a limited period of time: illumination, temperature and humidity. On our site visit we check that the venues that wish to exhibit them are up to it and will be able to maintain our strict requirements.” After the exhibition, she adds, the scrolls will return to Jerusalem, where they will have to “rest” for at least another year.

Kohn herself has forgotten what it means to rest because of the amount of time and energy that goes into curating a world-class exhibition, yet she exudes an aura of deep satisfaction – much as you’d expect to see in someone who has spent months digging in the dirt and chipping away at rocks, slowly unearthing treasure after buried treasure.

Misconceptions about the Dead Sea Scrolls abound, she said.

“When many people think of them, they assume they are all biblical in nature. They’re often surprised to hear that there are [around] 900 scrolls, of which only 207 are biblical.”

The biblical scrolls contain all the books in the Hebrew bible, except the Book of Esther – a mystery that remains unsolved. There are also numerous apocryphal manuscripts (texts not included in the biblical canon) and the so-called “sectarian scrolls,” which contain biblical commentary, religious legal writings, prayers, poems and compositions that predict a coming apocalypse.

Although their origins have been a subject of controversy, most scholars believe the scrolls were copied and composed by a group that broke away from mainstream Judaism to live a communal life at Qumran. They called themselves the “Sons of Light,” and those living in Jerusalem – including the priesthood at the Temple – the “Sons of Darkness.” When the Romans invaded around 68 C.E., the Qumran community hid their manuscripts in nearby caves, where they remained until the Bedouin goat-herder found them.

The stories that surround the Dead Sea Scrolls are filled with the unexpected, and the story of how this exhibition came into being is no exception. Three years ago Kohn, the director of the Jewish studies program at San Diego State University and also the first person to earn a doctorate in ancient history and Hebrew Bible from UCSD, was having lunch with her former professor and renowned biblical scholar, David Noel Freedman. They were joined by Weston Fields, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation. Fields had just returned from an exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at a small museum at Grand Rapids, Mich., and his enthusiasm over its success was contagious, Kohn said: “I became intrigued with the idea and plied him with questions: ‘how much did it cost, how much space did you need, how many scrolls came, what’s involved in putting this together?’ Eventually I turned to Dr. Freedman and said, ‘We need to do this here,’ and he said, ‘No, you need to do this here.'”

Next came the exhaustive research, and then came the hunt for museum venues. The San Diego Natural History Museum had just undergone a major expansion and seemed in every way to be a perfect fit. To her surprise, Michael Hager, president and CEO of the museum, thought so, too.

As daunting an undertaking as this has been, things have gone remarkably smoothly so far, considering the scope of the project, Kohn said, while acknowledging that she’s had the good fortune to draw upon the expertise of world-renowned historians, archeologists, biblical scholars and scientists, many of whom will participate in the museum’s series of lectures related to the show.

When Hager felt that that the story shouldn’t end in 68 C.E. with the latest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, she learned there was a very large collection of biblical manuscripts from about a thousand years later that are kept in the Russian Library in St. Petersburg. Negotiations began to bring out some of that collection, then some from the British Library and, as Kohn said, “It sort of started a domino effect and that’s how we got to the situation we have now – where we have [manuscripts] coming from all over the world.”