The Museum of the Bible installed and opened The Dead Sea Scrolls; From Discovery to Deception in its main History of the Bible gallery in October 2020. Several of the now confirmed inauthentic scroll fragments are on view, along with contextual and didactic labels. The key thematic takeaways include a history of the original discovery, the role of scholars and science in the detection of forgeries, and a major mea culpa on behalf of the museum, which is unusual for the field.
The introduction to the exhibit starts with:
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of the 20th century. It generated vast cultural interest, making the scroll internationally famous. Almost all the scrolls went to museums, but a few fragments ended up in private hands.
Until 1991, limited access to this small number of scrolls only added to their prestige and mystery, fueling a frenzied demand from scholars and collectors. Earnest buyers turned to dealers which created an opportunity for forgers. Counterfeit fragments flooded the antiquities market in the early 2000’s. Many professionals were deceived, including those at the Museum of the Bible.
Now the scholarly community is charged with separating dozens of fakes from the thousands of real Dead Sea Scrolls fragments. But how can we determine the difference between an authentic fragment and a counterfeit?
Discover the intense interest in the scrolls, and how scholars and scientists detected the forgeries.
One of the most important aspects of the exhibit was the museum’s extraordinary admission of culpability. Under the heading “Transparency Matters,” the museum makes the following humble acknowledgement:
“Museum of the Bible made mistakes. The scholarly community helped the museum to correct course, ask the right questions, and seek answers. It is the responsibility of the museum to steward collections and present facts with integrity. Forgeries and the illicit market threaten our understanding of the past and Museum of the Bible has the responsibility to detect and handle these issues.
Museum of the Bible took the first steps in righting a wrong and strives to be a model for other collecting institutions. This episode offers lessons for the future.”
To make good on the museum’s commitment to transparency, and to encourage ongoing scholarly discourse, the exhibition was accompanied by a research portal on the MOTB website which contains hundreds of curated fragment images including micrographs, multispectral photographs and Hirox videos. The images can be manipulated and zoomed, offering unprecedented access to examine research material. The portal also includes a feedback mechanism which encourages comments through a moderated discussion board.
The exhibition was organized by the Museum of the Bible and was co-curated by Colette Loll, Herschel Hepler and Christy Wallover under the direction of Rena Opert, Director of Exhibits.
16 October 2020 | Museum of the Bible Opens Updated Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit
5 April 2020 | Bible Museum, Admitting Mistakes, Tries to Convert Its Critics, by Tom Mashberg, New York Times
26 March 2020 | Fake Dead Sea Scrolls Displayed at Museum of the Bible, by Gordon Govier, Christianity Today