The 21 Dead Sea Scrolls that went on display Monday at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth could fit in a Big Mac container, and only two or three of them would have to be folded to fit. The scraps of ancient texts, some no larger than postage stamps, are the centerpiece of an exhibit that fills two floors of the cavernous MacGorman Performing Arts Center.
Taking remnants of history and surrounding them with sympathetic artifacts, murals, simulations, films and interactive computer consoles to create an immersive experience is becoming huge business. The "Dead Sea Scrolls & the Bible: Ancient Artifacts, Timeless Treasures" is one of these highly choreographed interactive shows.
Unlike some other shows that have been in our area recently, such as "Genghis Khan: The Exhibition" at the Irving Arts Center, which had no in-house connection to Khan, the Southwestern Seminary owns many of the scroll snippets, and it coordinated the exhibition with assistance from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
It should not be confused with "The Dead Sea Scrolls: Words That Changed the World," organized by the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Israel Antiquities Authority, which had a similar presentation -- including a gallery of pages from the newly created St. John's Bible commissioned by St. John's University for the millennium.
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The recipe of must-haves for these shows is becoming almost formulaic. Large, beautiful photographs set the scene -- in this case, Qumran, a desolate area on the shores of the Dead Sea, an adjective describes the whole area.
Display cases of artifacts to suggest museum cred? Check. There are lots of pieces of pottery, ceramic and glassware that come from a time when B.C. moved to A.D. Special emphasis is placed on utilitarian household wares such as plates, bowls and cooking utensils, and even more important in making a connection with the people from long ago are a few personal grooming items such as combs, razors and pots called unguentaria for cosmetics or medicinals.
These little homey items plus a replica of a modest dwelling are there to paint the picture of regular folks, going about their day-to-day business. However, the Bedouin's tent in a circular corner spot bears an uncanny resemblance to the yurt in the Khan diorama. Their similar cleanliness and lack of tools, signs of cooking and storage make their sterility suspect. They are more like an ancient Motel 6 than actual living quarters.
More successful are the limestone walls that are used throughout as a constant reminder of the desert locale. The chalky white color is reminiscent of the limestone blocks on the front of new suburban Metroplex homes. The block walls become more elaborate as the chronology moves forward through the exhibit: basic stacked blocks for the first centuries where the establishing wine amphora are, to medieval arches in the gallery that displays 10 of the most historic Bibles -- a Gutenberg Bible, Luther Bible and a King James Bible from 1616 owned by the man himself, King James I.
There is also a Walton Bible, which immediately suggests Walmart, but this Walton is from the 17th century and his Bible is written in nine languages.
The top floor (the beginning of the routed floor plan) of the performing arts center is staged to set the scene. Antiquities, photographs and the story of finding the scrolls in 1947 is told. It is believed that the scrolls were hidden during the first Jewish revolt against the Roman occupying forces in A.D. 66-70 when the settlement of Qumran was destroyed. Almost 2,000 years later, the scrolls were found by sheep herders. Eventually, 11 caves were found with hidden scrolls.
At the end of this part of the exhibit are replicas of some of the most precious scrolls not in the exhibit, such as the 24-foot-long Isaiah scroll, the most complete scroll in existence. These replicas are made so that visitors can get very close to see the tiny handwriting in Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic.
Downstairs, after walking through a re-creation of cave No. 4, where hundreds of manuscripts were found, the visitor finally sees the real scroll pieces. The sheepskin on which they are written is ragged and so discolored, it looks like tortoise shell. The pieces are so fragile that a sneeze would blow them to dust, which is why the ones on display are encased in huge, climate-controlled Plexiglas boxes with light sensors that that come on when someone is directly in front of fragment.
The burly gentlemen in dark suits loitering around the exhibit are the scroll's security entourage; do not even think about getting too close.
These tiny shreds of history are the oldest known pieces of the Hebrew Old Testament. Once they were found and identified, they clarified Bible passages that had been translated so many times that the original meaning had become obscure. They are considered priceless, even though the shepherds sold the first ones they found for less than $100.
The fragments are from a private collection and institutions. The Kando family of Bethlehem loaned its treasured scroll -- the largest piece in private hands, which contains Chapters 37-38 of Genesis. It has never been on display before.
The Southwestern Seminary has included seven of its scrolls and borrowed additional ones from the Hebrew University and the Department of Antiquities in Jordan for a total of 21 fragments. These are the heart of the exhibit, and they are in two narrow galleries in the center of the ground floor. Expect a traffic jam there as visitors stop to read the translations and ponder the significance of the scraps.
Granted, the ones on exhibit were specifically chosen to have resonance -- and they do; it can be quite moving to see the three or four lines of text that remain intact.
After the scroll display and the gallery with glorious examples of new calligraphy and illustration by Donald Jackson for the 1,100-page St. John's Bible, the tour is dumped into a very large gift shop. If the abrupt transition from the holy to the commercial is too abrupt, the tour picks up again just outside the gift shop (the usual -- T-shirts, key chains, mugs and also Nativity scenes in olive wood) with a replica of the Wailing Wall, where visitors can print little prayers and stick them in the crevices just like they do at the Jerusalem wall.
This is another lurching moment of the clash between centuries, when the pieces that vibrate with historical significance collide with replicas and the manufactured experience. But the experience that is offered is certainly better than watching a National Geographic special on biblical archeology.
Short of visiting the museums of the Middle East, with a side trip to the Dead Sea, this will have to do, as it is not likely that anything short of the Dead Sea Scrolls will be worthy of such attention.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113