Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Chicago scholar attacks Seattle scrolls exhibit

Since initiating this blog, our attention has been drawn to Norman Golb's review article "The Dead Sea Scrolls at Seattle's Pacific Science Center". The link is:

Golb's article

(1) provides a detailed account of the exhibit's omissions and slanted presentation of evidence;

(2) includes a list of specific questions that visitors to the exhibit should ask themselves as they examine the presentation of the items on display;

(3) notes that "the American Association of Museums ... has for many years publicly expressed a determined opposition to notably one-sided exhibits of controversial subjects"; and

(4) concludes by demanding that the public be informed of any financial support provided by donors under the condition that the Scrolls be depicted in exhibits as the writings of a "sect living in the desert."

Golb's critique of an earlier scrolls exhibit, entitled "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Ethics of Museology", appeared in The Aspen Institute Quarterly: Issues and Arguments for Leaders (1994). The link is: http://oi.uchicago.edu/OI/PROJ/SCR/MUSEOLOGY/ethics_of_museology.pdf


At 6:15 AM, Anonymous Curator_in_the_making said...

I think you need to realize that archaeology and its theories are a continually changing landscape. The popular theories and explanations of today, aren't the ones of yesterday. Nor will they be the ones of tomorrow.
The exhibit is well presented. It is not biased in any one direction, as it presents a POSSIBLE view point of the lifestyle in Qumran. Never did it say that it's word was law. It does bring up the other possibilities of what life was like and who could have lived there. This project has also probably been in the making for several years now, as these large and complicated exhibitions often are. New evidence is presented every week and including those changes or theories would probably have set the project back years. And it would be continually set back if it took into account every new piece of evidence that came to light. We might never have seen it, if we tried to keep pace with discoveries and thoughts.
Just this week evidence was presented on latrines in Qumran and how far away they were from the settlement. Does that fall in line with the Essenes and their concepts of purity? Or does it simply illustrate a secular communities' desire to keep waste away from the town center? We can present theories until we're blue in the face, but the fact is we'll never know. We can go where the evidence leads us, but as always the evidence can lead in different directions according to the person looking at it.
Suffice to say, to call this exhibit biased is simply uneducated. It simply presents the prevailing theory, but it touches upon those other theories out there. The exhibit presents like any you might find in a major university classroom. Two years from now, the prevailing theory might be leaning towards the secular, but we can't know that.
If there's anything the public needs to know about this exhibit, its that archaeology and our concepts of the past never stay static.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Curators_Should_Do_Their_Homework said...

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At 2:36 PM, Anonymous Curators_Should_Do_Their_Homework said...

Curator-in-the-Making reveals a sadly inaccurate, indeed amateurish, understanding of the current state of Scrolls research and its history. Several points must be made.

(1) The recent Associated Press article on the purported latrine states:

"The nature of the settlement at Qumran is the subject of a lively academic debate. The TRADITIONAL VIEW... is that the settlement was inhabited by Essene monks who observed strict rules of ritual purity and celibacy and who wrote many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The SECOND SCHOOL says the people living at Qumran were farmers, potters or soldiers, and had nothing to do with the Essenes. The scrolls, according to this view, were WRITTEN IN JERUSALEM and stashed in caves at Qumran by Jewish refugees fleeing the Roman conquest of the city in the first century."

Curator-in-the-Making's reference to a plurality of "other possibilities of what life was like at Qumran" seeks to gloss over this fundamental opposition between the TWO SALIENT THEORIES of Scroll origins. That is the current state of Scrolls research, and has been for the past decade at least.

(2) What is the history of this polarization of Scrolls scholarship into two contrasting views?

Stated as briefly as possible: the Jerusalem-libraries theory was first proposed in a series of articles that appeared during the 1980s. Then, in the wake of the Scrolls monopoly scandal and the appearance of news accounts on the Jerusalem theory in the New York Times and Haaretz (among other major papers), the Ecole Biblique appointed Professors Robert Donceel and Pauline Donceel-Voute to examine and develop Father De Vaux's findings.

After they had completed their work by rejecting De Vaux's Essene hypothesis -- a development that stunned the Ecole Biblique hierarchy -- the late Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld and others took it upon themselves to independently review the evidence, and concluded that no Essenes inhabited Qumran, that there is no evidence the Scrolls were written there, but rather that they came from Jerusalem.

Then, Dr. Yizhak Magen, a senior archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority, put together a team to engage in ten seasons of excavations at Khirbet Qumran. This official group, just as the Donceels, Hirschfeld and others before them, reached the same conclusion that Qumran was a secular Jewish site and that the Scrolls came from Jerusalem. The conclusions of all of these researchers have been widely known since the New York Academy of Sciences conference of 1993 and since the Brown University Conference of 2002.

Reflecting these well publicized developments, TWO AUTHORITATIVE ARTICLES on Scroll origins appeared in the third volume (published in 1999) of the CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF JUDAISM -- clearly a major encyclopedic reference work. Of the two articles, one defends the Qumran-Essene theory, and the second defends the Jerusalem theory (a third article also appeared, dealing simply with the topic of prayer in the Dead Sea Scrolls). Perhaps the curators who created these exhibits are not aware of basic research tools such as the Cambridge History of Judaism, but it is their duty to obtain such bibliographical information so they can do their job -- namely, educating the public -- properly.

Thus, Curator-in-the-Making's argument that the exhibit was "several years in the making" and that the curators could not be expected to keep up with "new evidence", is highly misleading. The existence of two fundamentally contrasting views has been widely known for at least the past decade. The American Association of Museum has long held that museums should present topics that are the object of a scientific controversy in a neutral manner (see the AAM Fact Sheet entitled "Standards and Best Practices for Museums"). In light of this standard, it is obviously inappropriate for a museum to conceal, in a exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the basic state of research from visitors.

(3) Curator-in-the-Making attempts to defend the exhibit as presenting the "prevailing" point of view. The problem with this argument is that there is simply no evidence that the Qumran-Essene theory is the "prevailing" point of view. To be sure, TRADITIONAL QUMRANOLOGISTS CLAIM that their theory (to which, of course, they and their students have committed themselves in writing over a period of fifty years) is the prevailing one, but in light of the fact that the number of major scholars defending the Jerusalem theory (including the official Israel Antiquities Authority team) is steadily increasing, this claim is subject to doubt.

John Noble Wilford's NYTimes article of August 24, 2006, simply states that "others continue to support the Essene hypothesis, though with ... diminishing conviction". There is, of course, no statistical evidence available, but in light of Wilford's statement, the obvious level of controversy, and the clear editorial decision of the Cambridge History of Judaism, the "majority of scholars" argument seems a very weak ground upon which to justify the conduct of the Seattle and San Diego museums.

Indeed, even if one could verify the claim that a majority of scholars continue to support the Qumran-Essene theory, that would not be an excuse for carefully omitting any of the evidence that contradicts that theory from these exhibits, as well as any reference to the opposing view from the suggested reading lists accompanying them (to say nothing of the failure to invite a single scholar known for opposing the theory to participate in the museum lecture series). To imply the contrary, as Curator-in-the-Making does, is simply obscurantist.

Finally, with respect to the "Essene toilet": Curator-in-the-Making should make himself more critical of specious claims. Contrary to his or her statement, the recently unearthed feces were not exactly found "in Qumran". In fact, a latrine has already been excavated within the Qumran site, while the newly found feces have so far not even been scientifically dated. In light of these two facts alone, the suggestion that an Essene toilet has been found is purely arbitrary. The evidence does not simply "lead in different directions according to the person looking at it", as Curator-in-the-Making says; rather, there are scholarly criteria for assessing the value of historical and archaeological evidence and claims to interpret it in one or another way.

In this instance, Professor Golb has responded to the latest claim in quite detailed fashion. See http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2006/11/17/15197.aspx

Golb points out, for example, that the two works of apocalyptic imagination (the War Scroll and the Temple Scroll) adduced by these researchers as the basis for their measurement do not, contrary to their claim, speak of "1,000" cubits, but of "2,000" and "3,000" cubits respectively; and the newly found latrine is itself less than 1,000 cubits outside of Qumran. Thus, since Deutronomy 23:13-14 commands that a latrine be dug "outside the encampment", the apocalyptic texts cited by the researchers show merely that different Jewish groups had different opinions as to the sense of the commandment, but they clearly do not show that the authors of any of these texts lived at Qumran.

What is more, there are parasitological laboratories in Jerusalem (it is, in fact, a major field of study throughout the Middle East); thus, Golb properly asks why these researchers sent their findings all the way to France to get an opinion. The question of treatment of evidence should be of basic concern to a "Curator in the Making".

It is one thing to recognize that many scholars continue to support the Essene theory. It is another, altogether different thing to lend credence to shoddy, possibly unethical research and false assertions made in an attempt to sustain that theory. It is to be hoped that the curators of the upcoming exhibit in San Diego take great care to avoid repeating the misleading and sensationalist presentation of this so-called evidence that we have seen in recent days, if they choose to present it to the public.


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