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Bible Bumble: Copy Confusion Muddles Museum of the Bible

My belated visit to the three-month-old Museum of the Bible (MOTB) during my recent Washington sojourn began inauspiciously and went downhill from there: When I asked the woman at the ticket counter where I should begin my journey through the galleries, she advised that I skip the top floor and work my way down from the floor below.

I wisely disobeyed those instructions, once I learned that the floor I was encouraged to skip featured an exhibition of some 800 objects on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority’s National Treasures. This array of archaeological finds—“The People of the Land: History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel”—is one of the few consistently authentic experiences to be had in a museum that is compromised by a raft of reproductions (“facsimiles,” in MOTB label-lingo) and cheapened by hokey re-creations of ancient sites, inhabited by costumed characters (more on that below).

Most of the objects in the Israel Antiquities Authority’s display were of compelling archaeological and historic interest but had negligible aesthetic impact. Pride-of-place was given to this ancient miniature, the first object encountered by visitors. Its age and beauty stopped me in my tracks:

Human-headed ivory inlay, Lachish, Late Bronze Age, 14th-13th century BCE
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In displays on the floors below, many of the objects raptly admired by visitors were mere reproductions, sometimes unbeknownst to the viewers:

“Wow! It’s the real one!” an awestruck young man exclaimed to his friends while snapping a photo of a faux “Rosetta Stone”:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I broke the news to the young visitor that the object of his enthusiasm was not, as he had called it, “the real one,” whereupon he pronounced himself to be “an idiot.” I assured him that his understandable mistake wasn’t his fault.

As with other reproductions, the label for this “Rosetta Stone” includes the word “facsimile,” and adds (at the bottom): “Original now in the British Museum.” But several visitors whose conversations I overheard in front of various MOTB “antiquities” were clearly clueless: Like most museumgoers, they arrived with the reasonable assumption that museum objects are the real thing, not deceptively realistic stand-ins. Whether they realized it (by careful label-reading) or not, they were being shortchanged.

I confess that I was also slightly confused by this label for the historically important “Tel Dan Stele.” I’m still not sure what “(Original)” refers to here:

Dispelling some of my confusion, David Trobisch, MOTB’s director of collections, told me (in response to my emailed query) that “the exhibited Tel Dan Stele is not the original artifact; it is a facsimile.” Surprisingly, I encountered reproductions of this pivotal object in two places at MOTB—the aforementioned top-floor exhibition (“The People of the Land”) and another archaeological exhibition from Israel—“In the Valley of David and Goliath, Bible Lands Museum,” relegated to the sparsely visited basement galleries, where I took this photo:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The label in the “David and Goliath” display notes that the Tel Dan inscription “confirmed the historicity of King David, thus dismissing the claim that he was merely a literary invention of the authors of the Bible.”

But neither of the two labels for reproductions of this unassuming, battered fragment captures its profound significance as “the only mention of King David [from near the time of his reign] outside the Bible.” Those words come from the label for the authentic chunk of basalt, which was previously loaned to the Metropolitan Museum by the Israel Antiquities Authority, courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (where it is customarily displayed). It was, for me, one of the highlights of the Met’s 2014 “Assyria to Iberia” exhibition.

Here is the actual Tel Dan Stele, as I saw it in that monumental show:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Met’s label told us this about the inscription highlighted in white chalk, above:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Tel Dan Stele offers some support for the Museum of the Bible’s debatable position that the stories of the Bible are factual history. That stance is contradicted in the writings of Yosef Garfinkel, whose excavation with Sa’ar Ganor of Khirbet Qeiyafa, a fortified city in Judah from the time of King David, is the subject of the “David & Goliath” show.

Yosef Garfinkel, as seen in a film shown at the Museum of the Bible’s exhibition
Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

Sitting on a bench at the entrance of that exhibition, but overlooked by most visitors, is a book about the Khirbet Qeiyafa excavation that Garfinkel co-authored:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Leafing through it, I came upon this passage that the Museum of the Bible’s founder, chairman and mega-donor, Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby and an evangelical Christian, might find heretical:

As has become clear after nearly 150 years of textual criticism and the analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Septuagint, the biblical text is a nightmarish mixture of legends, mythologies, memories, chronicles, royal propaganda, religious ideologies, countless editors and scribal errors [emphasis added]. It has an intricate redaction history that effectively makes it a secondary historical source.

Still, Garfinkel takes the middle ground in the debate over whether the Bible is factual or apocryphal:

Today, some archaeologists even claim that they do not use the biblical tradition at all in their research. This is of course a methodological error; in the study of the past, all available data should be used.

To me the Museum of the Bible’s over-reliance on reproductions is a fatal failing, especially in the context of the high standards of scholarship and authenticity of its neighboring museums—those belonging to the august Smithsonian Institution. Part of the reason why MOTB became, in large measure, a compilation of copies may be a decision not to use a large number of antiquities from the collection formed by Green, whose unorthodox collecting practices have come under unfavorable scrutiny.

The overview of Museum Collections on the museum’s website lists books and manuscripts but no archaeological objects. Those objects in the galleries that do come from the Green Collection (including facsimiles) are cryptically marked “GC” on their labels.

The museum’s aura of authenticity is further compromised by kitschy recreations of Biblical sites. Walking through “The World of Jesus of Nazareth”…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…I was repeatedly accosted by friendly natives exclaiming, “Shalom!”:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

At least the space’s faux stone walls are appropriately labeled:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This immersive experience (complete with a mikveh—the Jewish ritual purification bath) is nothing compared to the section devoted to “The Hebrew Bible,” entered after waiting on a long line (below). I arrived there too late (about 4 p.m.) to get access before the museum’s 5 p.m. closing, which may have been a good thing, unless the experience was worth the wait.

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to its website, the museum’s take on the Hebrew Bible consists of a “series of walk-through scenes [that] are theatrical environments inspired by art installations and constructed with high-tech finishes.” From the descriptions of the 15 sequential galleries (and from firsthand accounts from my local friends, who previously did get inside), these immersive multimedia experiences could aptly be described as Disney-Meets-Torah.

Case in point:

The night of the first Passover is brought vividly to life through 360-degree audio. Guests hear the drama raging outside as the plagues descend on Egypt.

Cue the lice and locusts! Bring on the frogs! Should we play the plague soundtrack at our immersive family seder later this month? Dayenu!

Happily, the next stop on my four-day Washington sojourn was another new museum that I belatedly visited for the first time—the Smithsonian’s extraordinarily comprehensive, deeply moving National Museum of African American History and Culture, which assiduously collected authentic artifacts to illustrate and illuminate a people’s tumultuous history. It felt like a palate-cleanser after the bad taste left by MOTB. (I’ll have more on NMAAHC, later.)

A NOTE TO MY READERS: My Washington travel for this, my previous National Portrait Gallery stories and my planned NMAAHC post was at my own expense. If you value my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notifications of new posts.

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