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The scrolls themselves get an oddly underwhelming treatment inside a huge circular display case in a fourth, lower-level gallery. A total of 20 scrolls will go on display during the run of the show, according to a press release; four of them will enjoy their world premiere at Discovery. Surrounded by even more artifacts — a mammoth piece of the Western Wall, desiccated fiber rescued from the area around Qumran, those olive pits — the shreds of ancient scripture feel almost secondary. Maybe that’s part of the point: While the scrolls here are depicted as the end of a long historical dialogue and the beginning of global and theological transformations, their own content and provenance make up just a slice of the story.
Despite the controversy that dogged the 2009 Toronto scrolls show, Discovery Times Square’s exhibit makes no mention of the furor that continues to surround the artifacts as they travel the world. In the weeks leading up to the Toronto opening, Muslim activists had lobbied to shut down the exhibit, claiming that the scrolls were “stolen” and illegally obtained when Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967.
Ben-Ami bristled at a question about the controversy. “We’re talking about culture, material culture, archaeology and 3,000 years of history in Israel,” she said. “Political questions did not come up.” San Diego State University’s Risa Levitt-Kohn, who shared curatorial duties with Ben-Ami, was also a curator of the Toronto show; at the time, she likewise punted the political question in an interview with the Forward, saying: “I’m an ancient historian. I can tell you about the past.”
Overall, “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times” maintains a reverential tone of historical importance while working hard to ensure that its explanatory texts don’t demand too much of the Times Square crowd. The solemn air evaporates at the gallery’s exit; the inevitable gift shop includes Ahava skin-care products from Israel and made-in-India stuffed camels (large, $120), and, as gallery patrons exit “Scrolls” — after digesting three millennia of human history — they are faced with the latest addition to Discovery Times Square’s basement, the Cake Boss Cafe. What would an archaeologist think?
Michael Kaminer is a frequent contributor to the Forward.