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Bible Bumble: The Befuddled Build-Up to the New Museum of the Bible

How is the ambitious, soon-to-open Museum of the Bible (MOTB) hoping to repair the collateral damage to its reputation, now that Hobby Lobby—the crafts and home decor company led by the museum’s founder, chairman and mega-donor, Steve Green—has been roundly condemned by the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York for committing antiquities-collecting sins of biblical proportions?

The museum’s face-saving strategy is to distance itself from this debacle.

Rendering of the Museum of the Bible

According to the museum’s statement, as reported by the Washington Post:

The Museum of the Bible was not a party to either the investigation or the settlement. [The activities of Hobby Lobby, not the museum, were scrutinized by the feds in this case.] None of the artifacts identified in the settlement are part of the Museum’s collection, nor have they ever been. [But were they intended to be?] The Museum adheres to the current Association of Art Museum Directors standards on the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art, as well as guidelines set forth by the American Alliance of Museums. [Words in italics are my own comments on MOTB’s statement.]

That said, the cuneiform tablets that caught the attention of Customs officers when they were falsely identified as low-valued “Tiles (Sample)…

Image of one of the forfeited cuneiform tablets
Exhibit A  from US Attorney’s press release

…were clearly not destined to be arrayed in Hobby Lobby stores alongside the Assorted Mosaic Tiles:

It seems reasonable to presume that Hobby Lobby’s thwarted acquisition of thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, as well as approximately 144 cylinder seals—now forfeited, along with $3 million, under the settlement agreement—was undertaken to enrich the museum’s displays and/or to provide it with study materials, whether by loan or by gift. If eventual tax-deductible donations to this 501(c)(3) nonprofit museum were contemplated, the $1.6-million purchase price of a group of artifacts that Hobby Lobby’s consultant believed could be appraised for $11.82 million (see p. 10 of the US Attorney’s Verified Complaint) might have piqued the IRS’s interest. (My questions to the company and the museum about whether the objects had indeed been intended for eventual transfer to MOTB have not been answered at this writing.)

The Museum of the Bible’s scholarly mission and its standing in the museum community could be significantly compromised by Hobby Lobby’s transgressions: As stipulated by the Archaeological Institute of America’s Code of Ethics, many scholars “refuse to participate in…the valuation of such [undocumented] artifacts through authentication, acquisition, publication or exhibition.” Undocumented antiquities, AIA says, “are those that are not documented as belonging to a public or private collection before Dec. 30, 1970, when the AIA Council endorsed the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property” [my link, not theirs].

In comments to the Washington Post, Robert Cooley, a biblical scholar, archaeologist and vice chairman of MOTB’s board, tried to insulate the museum from guilt by association with Hobby Lobby’s discredited collecting practices:

The curators and the director of the collection department [biblical scholar David Trobisch] have professional standards they go by. The museum does not accept collections without full documented provenance and credibility records. Every item in the museum is documented.

David Trobisch, director of collections, Museum of the Bible

If that’s so, the “full documented provenance” for “every item in the museum” should be made publicly available, to dispel the lingering doubts raised by the Hobby Lobby fiasco. And Hobby Lobby should make public its new “Antiquities Policy” (p. 8 of the Stipulation of Settlement). The US Attorney’s Office has a copy of that policy for importation and purchase of cultural property, but declined to release it to me.

Notwithstanding the controversy, the in-construction, 430,000-square-foot MOTB, a stone’s throw from the Smithsonian museums in Washington, is still scheduled to open Nov. 17, according to the museum’s July 6 press release, issued the day after the US Attorney’s Office announced its settlement agreement. As of this 2015 press release, the museum’s Green Collection was said to contain some 40,000 objects. The museum’s 2016 Annual Report puts the value of its collection at $201 million. (At this writing, my request for an update on the number of objects in the collection has not been answered.)

From the Museum of the Bible’s 2016 Annual Report

The Hobby Lobby case’s Stipulation of Settlement mandates the belated indoctrination of Hobby Lobby personnel in the legal and ethical standards for acquiring antiquities. Designated officials “shall be trained no less frequently than annually in the basics of customs requirements, provenance requirements and due diligence in the purchase and importation of cultural property,” in the words of the stipulation. (There’s no word as to whether MOTB’s staff will be required to undergo similar training.)

For a detailed, incisive analysis of the court case and the revelations in MOTB’s Form 990 tax returns (including sizable donations of objects by Hobby Lobby), see cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire‘s blog: here and here.

In its statement regarding the Artifacts Import Settlement, Hobby Lobby claimed to have been utterly clueless about the widely disseminated guidelines governing ethical antiquities collecting:

“We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled,” said Hobby Lobby President Steve Green. “Hobby Lobby has cooperated with the government throughout its investigation, and with the announcement of today’s settlement agreement, is pleased the matter has been resolved.”…

The Company went on the say that it “was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes. The Company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items. However, since learning of these errors, the Company has been an active participant with the government’s investigation and supports its efforts to protect the world’s ancient heritage.”

Nice try. But the reputational injury from being the intended recipient of goods that were “smuggled into the United States through the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, contrary to federal law” (in the words of the Attorney Office’s press release) can’t be healed by a facile apology for “some regrettable mistakes.”

Now that Green and Hobby Lobby have seen the light, MOTB (accused of no wrongdoing) may be able to stay in the good graces of museum professionals, archaeologists and scholars. Or Green’s and his company’s contrition may turn out to be too little, too late. A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office answered, “I have no comment,” to my questions as to whether there are any investigations into the circumstances surrounding the import of objects owned by the Museum of the Bible (as distinguished from Hobby Lobby). Likewise, he declined to say if the settlement agreement marks the end of the Hobby Lobby case or if more civil or criminal complaints might be forthcoming.

While we await further developments (or lack thereof), here’s the museum’s fly-through rendering of its grandiose galleries:

an ArtsJournal blog