Thursday, 3 May 2018

A Classical Archaeologist Visits Washington's Museum of the Bible

Melissa Bailey Kutner (Assistant Professor of Ancient Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) visited the Museum of the Bible (' Hobby Lobby’s Museum of the Bible Steals; Does It Also Lie?' eidolon  May 3rd 2018).
As an academic and a classicist, I also knew that the museum collection was full of Greco-Roman antiquities, in particular papyri, and that the process of their collection had ranged from careless to criminal. Much of the collection was amassed in a dizzying buying spree concentrated in 2009–2011. Questions — often raised by scholars of the Greco-Roman world (one of the most tireless has been Roberta Mazza) — about the provenance of these artifacts quickly proliferated. Some artifacts had appeared previously online at sites such as eBay. In one egregious case, dealers connected to the Greens labeled cuneiform tablets looted from Iraq as “tiles,” and smuggled them into the United States. The Greens were prosecuted by the US government for the smuggling and, after paying a fine of $3 million, returned thousands of artifacts, which yesterday were handed to Iraq’s ambassador in a ceremony in Washington DC. Although the Greens pleaded innocence (despite having been warned by a cultural property expert about their collecting), they have grown cautious about what they display, and only some artifacts have made it into the museum. The rest of the collection, by one testimony including whole crates of unprovenanced papyri, still lies in the Greens’ warehouse in Oklahoma. The Greens will likely avoid further prosecution and will keep the rest of their objects, while the museum itself now performs a legitimizing function for them. 
This is often the function played by public exhibition of artefacts in private collections, something discussed and questioned by Renfrew (2000 Loot, legitimacy and ownership: the ethical crisis in archaeology). Kutner  wondered:
would this disregard for archaeological ethics and information carry over into the displays? The short answer is that it does. The building showcases a context-less approach to the ancient world that is common among people like the Greens, who have increasing impact on educational and political policy in this country. [...] Since the Museum of the Bible will reach a wider audience than most classicists can even dream, this approach to artifacts is worrying, and it is worth thinking about what we can do as public intellectuals to counteract it — for example, by refusing to work on unprovenanced material (not only from the Greens, but from anywhere). 

The focus of Kutner's article is 'on how misrepresentation happens in the museum itself'. This raises of course the question of to what extent any museum display or collection can be 'objective' anyway. She stresses:
In certain galleries, the museum does seem to strive for what it evidently thinks is neutrality. Other exhibits, however, are blatantly proselytizing. And on the whole, objects are used in a talismanic fashion, to provide tangibility and a frisson of authenticity, while all the ways in which they bring into question the literal truth of the Bible are obscured or ignored. [...] The main thing one notices about all these displays is that dramatizations, videos, and insistent framing (through lighting, architecture, arrangement, and the museum’s quotes and texts on walls) overwhelm the objects. Objects are there to punctuate a story; the story is not determined by the objects. 
Worse still:
within exhibits  [...] any information that complicates or contradicts literal interpretations of the Bible is obscured or distorted, so that visitors likely come away with the impression that archaeology confirms literal interpretations of the Bible. [...]  All of the artifacts are subordinated to a story of the Bible’s development that largely stresses seamless transition and consistency. There is little attention to archaeological context. Archaeological sites are only invoked haphazardly. [...] Artifacts and archaeological sites are used to invoke tangibility, but with little context, or are mischaracterized in the service of a larger agenda. 
Some of the artefacts in some of the exhibition space seemed to Kutner to have been randomly scattered ('It is unclear what meaning these objects are meant to convey; their function seems to be: Behold! A piece of the past! They invoke a connection to the past without actually proving any particular argument'). Kutner says that overall,
'it is clear that non-textual objects are not considered very important. Words are what matter to the museum, but the museum has an awkward problem in telling its continuous story since textual evidence of the Bible comes so late.
Kutner's conclusion is that the manner in which the Museum presents the material:
does a certain violence to any viewer — religious viewers are misled about what artifacts actually show or prove and are robbed of the possibility of a faith that actually wrestles with contradiction. For a classical archaeologist, the violence is more particular: you have a keen sense of knowledge both lost and abused.

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