“Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times,” which opened on October 30 at the cavernous Discovery Times Square exhibit space in New York, touts itself as showcasing “the largest and most comprehensive collection of Holy Land artifacts ever organized.” Indeed, a more accurate title for this Bible-themed behemoth of a show, produced in partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority, might be “Dead Sea Scrolls: The Collected Works.”
While the exhibit’s ambition — to contextualize the creation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and to frame their effects on religion, borders and history — is spectacular, the sheer volume of notable relics ends up diminishing the show’s impact. Among the more than 500 objects, many on display for the first time, are pottery, coins, seals, jewelry, carvings, textiles and 2,000-year-old olive pits dug up in the deserts surrounding Qumran, where the scrolls were first discovered.
Focusing on objects rather than on texts is what sets apart Discovery’s exhibit from other recent shows about the infamous scrolls, including 2009’s more logocentric “Words That Changed the World” at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. “We want to give people an understanding of the history of Israel through this exhibit,” said Debora Ben-Ami, curator of the Iron Age period at the National Treasures Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority, a presenting partner of the exhibit. “In these artifacts, we can hear the voice of the people in our past, not just the priests and kings whose voices you hear in the Bible. Archaeology is about common people’s lives, and it allows us to tell the complete story of the scrolls.”
The exhibit opens in a darkened room where white text painted on black walls relays a passage from Genesis: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” A rumbling sound (God at work?) accompanies a female cantorial recitation of the passage. Doors swing open, and batches of ticket-holders are herded into a gallery where six giant video screens loop footage of archaeological digs in Israel and animated historical maps of the land. Standing in person over a display of three huge clay jars, a bearded young guide — noted in the script as a “rugged archaeologist,” but telegraphing Banana Republic — solemnly offers a welcome “to Israel — the biblical Land of Milk and Honey, at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe.”
Led into a third room, exhibit-goers enter a gallery where dates projected onto the floor provide a concrete representation of a journey back in time. Each date corresponds to a group of artifacts, from an iPad representing 2011 to ancient pottery representing 1200 BCE. “The material culture here gives us context for each period,” Ben-Ami said. “The idea is that history is a process. The development of a faith is a process.” The newest artifact in the gallery was discovered in September, according to Ben-Ami. It is a stone from the first-century BCE bearing the scratchy image of a five-branched menorah.