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The Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Natural History boasts the largest Dead Sea Scrolls collection ever made available to the public. Over a six-month period — June 29-December 31, 2007 — the museum will present 27 scrolls, including ten scrolls that will be on display for the first time. For this reason alone, the exhibition is well worth attending.

Because of the exhibits popularity, each ticket is assigned an entry time. The museum staggers its admission to the Scrolls Exhibition at fifteen-minute intervals, and this does a good job of keeping the crowds small and manageable. Those who buy tickets on site will be assigned a later entry time, so it is a good idea to buy tickets in advance at www.sdscrolls.com. Since general admission to the Natural History Museum is included with a ticket to the exhibition and since the other exhibits at the Museum are worth seeing as well, I would recommend showing up early to explore the rest of the Museum before your admission time.

The exhibit is divided into three parts. Part One focuses on the history of the Land of Israel and the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Part Two includes an audio tour, various finds from Qumran, the Scrolls themselves, and a few medieval Biblical manuscripts. Part Three is a twenty-minute movie titled, Ancient Qumran: A Virtual Reality Tour

Part One of the Scrolls Exhibition begins with a series of beautiful photographs from all over Israel. This portion focuses on the extreme variety of climates, plant and animal life, and topography that fit so closely together within Israels borders. Although this part of the exhibit had some attendees wondering aloud what any of this had to do with the Dead Sea Scrolls, I found it helpful in contextualizing the later material, since Qumran's climate and location played such an important role in the Scrolls preservation. This section also offers a nice transition from the content in the Natural History Museum's other exhibits to the topics of religion, political history, and archaeology.

After briefly sketching the natural, political, and religious history of ancient Israel, the exhibit tells the story of the discovery, excavation, study, and preservation of the Scrolls. This section includes a number of hands-on activities, such as two pottery puzzles and an interactive paleography chart that should keep children interested in the exhibit.

Part Two has a distinctly different feel from Part One. Before entering Part Two, each patron is given an audio-tour handset with a number pad and a contoured speaker meant to be held up against the ear. Each display in Part Two is labeled with two numbers corresponding to the appropriate English and Spanish sections of the audio tour. The content of the audio tour is excellent. It includes clear information about the artifacts, interviews with respected scholars, and optional extra information for the more curious museum-goers. The only problem with the audio tour is that the numbers go out of order. Some people might feel compelled to try to follow the exhibit numerically, and this would cause them to run back and forth a bit. The other problem with the numbering system is that three numbers are simply skipped. Typing these skipped numbers into the audio tour handset yields descriptions of scrolls that are currently not on display. The omission of these three numbers from the sequence might lead some patrons wandering around the exhibit looking for the missing displays.

The actual content of Part Two, however, more than makes up for the audio tour's quirks. The first few displays contain remains (both originals and replicas) of the material culture found at Qumran, including pottery, tefillin, coins, inkwells, and a reconstruction of one of the "benches" found in the "scriptorium." Then comes the highlight of the exhibition: the Scrolls themselves.

Unfortunately, not all 27 scrolls will be exhibited at once. The three scrolls on loan from the Department of Antiquities of Jordan — a fragment of the Copper Scroll (3Q15, J5998 Piece no. 18, Column 10), Testimonia (4Q175), and The Isaiah Pesher (4Q162) — will be at the Museum for the entire exhibition. The 24 scrolls on loan from the Israel Antiquities authority, however, will not all be on display all at once. From June 29 to the end of September, the Museum is showing twelve of the IAA scrolls: Paleo-Leviticus (11Q1), Deuteronomy (4Q31), Isaiah (4Q56), Psalms (11Q5), Targum Job (11Q10), Minor Prophets in Greek (8HevXIIgr), Commentary on Nahum (4Q169), Papyrus Bar Kokhba 44-the Alma Scroll (5/6Heb 44), Songs of the Sage (4Q511), the Book of War (11Q14), the Damascus Document (4Q271), and the Community Rule (4Q258). From October to December, the Museum will show the remaining twelve IAA scrolls: Paleo-Leviticus (11Q1), Deuteronomy: The Ten Commandments (4Q41), Samuel (4Q51), Zephaniah-Haggai (4Q77), Psalms (11Q5), Targum Job (11Q10-621, 629), Genesis Commentary (4Q252), Shirot olot ha-Shabbat-Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q400-674), Papyrus Bar Kokhba 46 (5/6Hev 46), the Messianic Apocalypse (4Q521), the Book of War (4Q491), and Enoch (4Q201).

Seeing the scrolls in person is, of course, an amazing experience, and the displays are set up so that several people can get a good view of a given scroll at the same time. This, combined with the scheduled entry times, makes viewing the Scrolls a much less crowded experience than I had anticipated. Each scroll is accompanied by an enlarged photo of the scroll and a written explanation of the scrolls significance. The audio tour has a good description of most of the scrolls and even points out some unique features of certain manuscripts that can easily be noticed by a layperson.

After presenting the scrolls, Part Two concludes with a few brief features on scribal practices and the transmission of ideas throughout the centuries. It contains a few medieval biblical manuscripts and pages from the St. John's Bible, an illuminated manuscript of the Bible in English by Benedictines, which is set to be completed in 2008.

Unfortunately, I have a major complaint about the end of Part Two. Throughout the entire exhibit, nobody had mentioned the existence of Part Three, the virtual tour of ancient Qumran. After finishing Part Two, museum patrons are led to the gift shop, which is right next to the Museum exit. At this point, most of the attendees assume that the exhibit is over and leave, probably unaware that they have missed an important part of the exhibit. This is a shame, since Part Three is worth seeing.

The virtual reality tour is a twenty-minute video created by Robert R. Cargill, a doctoral candidate at UCLA. The video, which is narrated live by a museum employee, guides the viewers through a reconstruction of the site at ancient Qumran as we think it looked just before its destruction. Its main focus is the sites water system and how we think the system may have served the ancient community, but other features of the site are discussed in sufficient detail as well. After the video, our narrator fielded questions from the audience about Qumran. The questions asked by my group were difficult, and I was pleased by how well the narrator was able to answer them.

Overall, I am thoroughly impressed with the San Diego Natural History Museum's Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition and would recommend it enthusiastically. The exhibit conveys a good deal of information in a clear and engaging manner, and it should hold the interest of children, laypersons, and experts alike. To see this many of the Dead Sea Scrolls at one time is an amazing opportunity that no one should ignore.

Bradley W. Root, The University of California, San Diego

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