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'Dead Sea Scrolls' showcases an extraordinary ancient find

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If you decide, like thousands of others, to visit the much-anticipated "Dead Sea Scrolls" exhibition that is now open at the San Diego Natural History Museum, you're unlikely to pay much attention to the environment that surrounds the landmark artifacts. And the museum's exhibition designers are happy you won't.

"We want people to notice objects more than the walls, for the installation not to be overpowering. There's a lot of information to soak up in a certain period of time," says Duke Windsor, former exhibit designer for traveling exhibitions at the museum, who oversaw the team that has given shape to the show.

Some exhibitions featuring famed artifacts lean on flash and visual theater. Recent examples include the Clear Channel touring production "Saint Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes," a show heavy on glitter and tiaras that appeared at the San Diego Museum of Art in 2004; and "Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of Pharaohs" a lavish, elegantlyinstalled extravaganza that opened its national tour at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2005.



"The Dead Sea Scrolls," though it is a big-budget show ($6 million), is a different kind of blockbuster. Visually, the ambition is to create surroundings that complement what you see rather than steal the show.

"It's like using feng shui," says Windsor, "to create an experience that is sharply focused, but not imposing."

For this exhibition, he says, "the walls and the design shouldn't be intrusive. It has to have a spiritual feeling, so the objects can speak for themselves."

The San Diego Natural History Museum is billing this as the most comprehensive exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls ever assembled.

"This is by far the largest exhibition we've done," says Michael Hager, the museum's executive director. "And it was only made possible when we built this facility. I think it takes the museum to a high level, which is by intention, and we plan on keeping our exhibitions at this new level."

To shape the show, Windsor has enjoyed a lot of help. The museum has an exhibition developer, Nancy Owens Renner, and an exhibition designer for permanent exhibitions, Michael Field. Hager also hired a guest curator with the requisite scholarly credentials, Risa Levitt Kohn, who directs the Jewish Studies Program at San Diego State University. He even enlisteda "visitor experience consultant," as Stephanie Weaver calls herself, to help the exhibition live up to the high expectations that surround the display of 27 examples of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century.

To fulfill those expectations, the museum has surrounded the largest assemblage of scrolls to date with artifacts from Qumran and other rare religious manuscripts. And the designers of the exhibition have come up with what Hager says is a cogent concept that distinguishes it.

EPIC PICTURE

"An exhibition is a collaborative art form," explains Renner. "It's people painting one canvas all at the same time."

That canvas, all of them agree, is narrative.

"We wanted to tell stories about the objects," Renner says.

At the beginning of the exhibition, the designers decided to introduce the viewer to the Dead Sea landscape in the present tense. First, on screen, with a "flyover" Google image; then through a sequence of photographs of the terrain, the flora and the fauna of the region by Israeli photographers Yossi Eshbol and Shai Ginott. Like all desert ecologies, itsupports a larger number of species than people might imagine. And given the similarities in climate and terrain to parts of Southern California, the museum has included comparative pictures by Doug Jewell and Michael Field from the museum.

Then, one level down, you descend into the past. The museum staff has built an artificial cave entrance that visually announces the transition - the show's most dramatic design flourish. These galleries contain artifacts from Qumran, the village closest to the caves where the scrolls were hidden. They are set among re-creations of the pantry and a writingtable, as they might have looked. Then come the scrolls themselves, in a space with indigo blue walls and installed, by necessity, under dim light.

"We took a spare approach, consistent with the philosophy and aesthetic of the Qumran material itself," Renner suggests, echoing Windsor's feng shui comments.

Field, too, emphasizes the virtue of subtlety in the design of the exhibition.

"Most of the effort is spent on things you don't see."In the last section, called "Transmission of Ideas," a viewer will move forward in time again. There, the show will focus on the widespread influence of the Hebrew Bible, via the inclusion of later religious manuscripts and books. Selections shift from the first Hebrew Codices from the National Library of Russia to the contemporary St. John's Bible from Wales, which will contain some 1,150 hand-drawn pages and 160 illuminatedimages when it is completed in 2008.

The exhibition aims to evoke the complex saga of discovery and decoding that has taken place since the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This, too, is built into the structure of the show - subtly.

"The show follows a meandering pathway, to create that sense of discovery," says Renner.

HUMAN SIDE

There is an entire section devoted to "Science and Discovery," which employs props to convey some of the excitement of the early efforts excavating the cave and nearby Qumran. It's midway between the introductory section devoted to the present-day portrait of the region and the portion featuring artifacts from Qumran and the scrolls.

Here, there is a facsimile of the tent used by early figures at the site, like Father Roland de Vaux, along with original tools, facsimiles of their documents and photographs of them.

Elegantly composed images of the site by Neil Folberg are on view, too, as well as aerial photographs by Duby Tal. (Folberg is a widely exhibited American expatriate based in Jerusalem, and Tal is widely known for her aerial landscapes of Israel.)

There are also quotations from some of the people involved in this historical drama, beginning with the Bedouin shepherd, Muhammed edh-Dhib, who was the first to discover one of the caves and its contents.

"We wanted people to take away the human side of the story. In deciding what to tell people, we thought, 'Why not let the people involved with the scrolls tell their own stories?,'" says Weaver, whose work as a "visitor experience consultant" has encompassed the Children's Museum and the Botanical Garden in Chicago and the San Diego Zoo, as well as museums.

"My role is as a translator, who takes the information that the museum wants to convey and tries to suggest how to make the viewer excited about it."

Although Weaver brings a different perspective to the exhibition's canvas, as a sort of advocate for upping the entertainment quotient in museum experiences, she reached the same conclusion as the museum's in-house designers: convey a tale of discovery and dissemination.

Of course stories require a gallery of characters, and that led to the notion of introducing a multiplicity of key voices on the walls of the museum through short quotations.

There is the recollection of the late Eleazar Sukenik, an Israeli professor and accomplished scholar, catching his first glimpse of the discovered documents through a barbed wire fence. By that point, Jerusalem had been split in two by the military strife surrounding the creation of Israel.

Or the important insight of William Brownlee, one of the scholars who worked on an initial batch of scrolls: "We felt the urgency of preserving the text by photography at once, for who knew whether in the midst of the fighting a delay of a single day would result in the destruction of thescrolls."

As the design has been materializing into an exhibition environment, no one seems more amazed than Kohn.

"They take the scholarly material and make it come alive," she says.

If the public agrees, then the story of the show itself will have a happy ending for the museum's team of designers, as well as everyone else involving in the creation of this auspicious exhibition.
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