I recently had the opportunity to to see the Dead Sea scrolls exhibit at the Discovery Center in New York.  The exhibit is being advertised heavily (it seemed like there was a poster on every other block in Manhattan) and has been extensively reviewed.  The reviews have been generally positive, if at times puzzled.  In The New York Times review, for example, Edward Rothstein calls the exhibit “understated” and asserts that it describes an historical arc, even if (in my reading at least) it is difficult to locate the shape of the arc.

The exhibit is essentially two exhibits.  The first floor contains artifacts relating to the biblical period (ca. 500 BCE and earlier).  Then one descends to the second floor, where in addition to a collection of scrolls there are some artifacts from Qumran (an inhabited settlement near where the scrolls were found) and Jerusalem more generally.  There are also side exhibits on Masada, the Ten Commandments (where the second-oldest manuscript of them will be displayed for a short period of time), and the origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

First, the positive:  The scrolls are always fun to see, even if most of the ones on display, in terms of importance, would be on the “B list” for scroll scholars.  (For those unable to get to the Discovery Center, the Google digitization project offers another, albeit virtual, way to access the scrolls.)  The objects on the first floor give a nice overview of issues in biblical archaeology, even if they don’t break any new ground.  The objects on the second floor – composed primarily, as on the first floor, of a lot of pottery – also add some context to the scrolls.

There is much that we still don’t know about Qumran and the scrolls, and the exhibit does a good, “understated” job not sensationalizing or drawing unwarranted conclusions.  The result, though, is vaguely unsatisfying.  I was left with a feeling that the curators themselves did not know how to link these objects.  In fact, I strongly suspect that they could not acquire enough objects to mount a respectable exhibition on the Dead Sea scrolls themselves, so they acquired other tangentially related objects to fill out the show and then didn’t quite know what to do with them all.  The exhibit had a failure of nerves.

Yet this raises a very interesting question: Given all that we do not know, and if one had access to any and all objects, what might a successful exhibit look like?  How do you make a narrative when we don’t have one?

One suggestion is to organize the exhibit according to the history of scholarship.  Here is my whimsical and schematic first stab on how such an exhibit might look:

  1. Cairo Geniza: The discovery of the Damascus Document and the research that led scholars to link it to an early Jewish group.  Here we might also include information/artifacts on the early scholars of the literature that became known as the Pseudepigrapha (e.g., Jubilees);
  2. Josephus and his history of the time, including discussion of the Jewish “sects”;
  3. Discovery of the Scrolls, with the necessary story of the Bedouin shepherd and the Wall St. journal ad;
  4. The earliest explanations of the scrolls, with the emphasis on eschatology;
  5. The excavations of Qumran and the understanding of the community as a kind of “proto-Christian” monastery;
  6. The work on and reconstruction of the scrolls;
  7.  The Six Day war and the legal issues of scroll possession;
  8. Evolving emphasis in the 1970’s on the place of religious law in the scrolls;
  9. The struggle over and eventual publication of MMT, and the new insights that it gives us to the group’s origins;
  10. Purity practices;
  11. Food;
  12. Prayer and angels;
  13. Canonization and the developing sense of sacred literature, and the link to later Jewish and Christian canons;
  14. New archaeological research on Qumran and the graveyard, and what it reveals;
  15. Daily life for a member of the group

I feel like there should be a last exhibit that refers back to 1, but I can’t think right now of what that might be.

My point is that a thematically based exhibit with a (somewhat contrived) narrative thread might be the most effective mode of organization, while at the same time not speculating overmuch.