Saturday, March 17, 2012

Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls

For a little less than a month longer, the Dead Sea Scrolls will remain on display at the Discovery Center in Times Square in New York City. If you can afford the steep entrance fee, I would recommend catching this exhibit before it moves on.

As Edward Rothstein of the New York Times points out in his eloquent review, this exhibit stands out because of the depth of its historical content, not because of any one spectacular object, or even a set of objects.  Even arranged in an inviting rotunda, fragments of parchment fail to elicit aesthetic wonderment.  However, the way in which the exhibit's producers and curators connect the objects excavated by the Israel Antiquities Authority with their larger regional histories and the traumatic historical events that led to the dissolution of communities at places such as Qumrun and Masada, lends the tiny fragments on display an exquisite richness.

Aside from the history that the objects represent, I was particularly struck by the history of the objects themselves.  A video produced by the Israel Antiquities Authority describes how the scroll fragments were first excavated and then examined in ways that would make today's archivist or conservator cringe.  For far too long, scroll fragments were laid out in a light-filled library, prodded by scholars as they smoked or ate with their other hand, and bound together with adhesive tape!  Yikes.  At the end of the video, a very earnest, and very professional-looking, conservator explains the necessity of painstaking conservation work and minimal light exposure to ensure that these scrolls are preserved as well in the years to come as they were for thousands of years in clay jars within caves near the Dead Sea.

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