From April 2006 to June of 2007 I worked on a long-term project with the San Diego Natural History Museum to develop the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition.
I’ve chosen some images to highlight my contributions to the exhibition. Please keep in mind that all decisions came about as a collaborative process with the other two content team members and the larger exhibit team. As with any project, there are some ideas that I championed or fleshed out, which is what I’ll focus on here.
When doing the background reading for the Discovery and Science section, what first hit me was the lack of consistency in the “facts.” Unlike other interpretive projects I’ve worked on—say, what an African antelope eats—every single reference source had a slightly different story about how the scrolls were discovered, who discovered them, what year, etc. This presented an interesting storytelling challenge. If we couldn’t present the “facts” as the museum’s point of view, what were we to do? The scrolls also continue to generate controversy even today. How were we to portray those varying voices in the exhibition?
Another thing I wondered about was what it felt like to be the first person to read the scrolls and recognize how old they were. It must have been thrilling. So I started looking for first-person quotes. Once I found them, we realized what a great storytelling device it would be. Why not use the words from the Bedouin shepherd himself who found the scrolls, or the scholar who first read them, or the Israeli conservator trying to protect them now? So we found a series of point-of-view quotes and sprinkled them throughout the entire show.
The panel to the right of the photo is the quote from Muhammad edh-dibh, the Bedouin who is credited with finding the scrolls (with or without help from his cousins!) I also searched for a photo of him by his tent in the desert, instead of the often-used “glory shot” of him all dressed up (shot in a photographer’s studio and looking like silent film star Rudolph Valentino).
Another question I had: What did the area look like before it was excavated? In all the books, the only photos showed Qumran fully excavated. But no one had taken any notice of the site until the scrolls were found, so it couldn’t have looked like much. Through our curator and our wonderful contact at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, we eventually acquired photos of the site pre-excavation. And one of the magicians at Giant Photo used a NASA software program to “stitch” them together into the panorama of rubble you see here.
Choosing photos to tell the story is one of the most enjoyable parts of an exhibit developers’ job. I kept searching for a shot of the antiques dealer named Kando (my favorite character in the scrolls story) that I felt captured the feel of Jerusalem at the time. Once we saw this image from an archive in England, it was an easy decision to blow it up nearly life-size, so visitors could feel they were stepping into the shop. I love the guy carrying the espresso. Kando is in the center, wearing the fez.
The photo in the tent is of the archeology team eating lunch at the dig in the 1950s. I found this photo by studying published records, books, and articles. There were very few color photos available from this era. These caught my eye in an article, then we tracked down the source (again, the wonderful Ecole Biblique) and asked them to send us digital copies from this photographer’s Ektachrome slides. There’s a wonderful quote we paired with it (from a different source)—about drinking brandy in “rude tin cups”—that brought it to life for me.
The final gallery of the exhibition was intended to show how the Bible “evolved” over the last 2,000 years. This was a really tough content section, as most of the manuscripts had to be chosen long before the story line was written. (And, it wasn’t our intention to produce a show about religion.) After much back and forth and input from the team, I finally had the crystallizing thought—Ideas Over Time—and clear titles for three sections: Ideas Survive, Ideas Spread, and Ideas Inspire. Once this jelled, all the pieces fell into place and all the manuscripts we had (rather magically) fit and told the story.
While it was the hardest writing I’ve ever done, it’s also what I’m most proud of.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of this team, and I’ll always be honored to have contributed to the experience that nearly 400,000 people enjoyed.
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