Thursday, July 19, 2007

Creating the Dead Sea Scrolls visitor experience

I was honored to join the team at the San Diego Natural History Museum to help develop the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition, open from June 29-December 31, 2007. This post also features some of the amazing partners who helped make the experience so special for visitors. The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation and features pieces loaned from the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, The National Library of Russia, The British Library, Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, The Saint John's Bible Project, and the San Diego Public Library/Wangenheim Rare Book Room.

Some of our goals as a team:
• creating an exhibit experience that puts the scrolls in context, both in time and in place
• take people on a journey to Israel
• show the similarities in climate and geography between San Diego and Israel
• tell the story of the scrolls’ discovery and conservation
• give people a feel for the nearby archeological site—Qumran—as we were showing many objects found at that site
• present the show in a way that allowed people of differing faiths and belief systems to feel comfortable
• explore how the ideas represented in the scrolls have influenced the world over the last 2,000 years

Here is one of the comparison photo pairs from the queue area before you enter the show. The flip-up label below each pair asks the question, "Israel or San Diego?" The educational panel on the right compares Israel and San Diego as biodiversity hotspots. The photo show, in the first gallery, features Israeli photographers Duby Tal, Neil Folberg, and Yossi Eshbol.

This is the introduction about the discovery of the scrolls. Next to the cave is the Bedouin man who first found the scrolls. His first-hand account is quoted to the right. My thanks to Jim Trever for sharing his father's wonderful photographs with us.

One of my favorite characters in the scrolls story was Kando, a Arab antiquities dealer. With the help of the Allegro Archives at the Manchester Museum we were able to find this wonderful photo of him outside his shop (he's in the center, wearing the fez), and then created a rustic display case to show some of the actual boxes and tins that held scroll fragments. Thanks to the Old Coin Shop for donating three period-appropriate coins to dress this case.

A scaled-down replica of the archeologists' tent (custom-made by Tentsmiths based on photographs) helped create the feeling that you are there. The rustic cases, all built by the carpentry wizards in the museum's exhibits department, show the actual camera, baskets, surveying equipment, and hand-painted topographic plans from the dig (on loan from the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem). The plans were scanned at full size by the team at Giant Photo, laminated, and put out on the table for visitors to look at more closely. The wonderful photograph, also from the Ecole, shows members of the team having a midday meal. Giant Photo did an amazing job printing and mounting the photos and panels for this entire show, all 12,500 SF of it!

The biggest challenges for me as an exhibit developer/storyteller:
• Sifting through the many versions of the stories
• How to present religious documents without doing a show about religion itself
• Creating a show where, regardless of their interests—religion, science, archeology, history, art or culture—a visitor would feel welcome.

It was challenging material. Once you start reading about the scrolls, it’s clear that no one agrees about them! For example, you might think it’s straightforward to report who found them and when they were found. But, every telling of the discovery is somewhat different. Were they found by accident by a shepherd boy or quite deliberately by a Bedouin relic hunter? Were they found in 1945 and hung in a tent for two years or found in 1947 and taken to Bethlehem right away to be sold? We weighed all the information carefully and then worked on writing the panels to reflect the unknowns.

Another source of controversy is: Where did the scrolls come from? While many scholars and archeologists believe the scrolls were connected to the nearby site of Qumran, there are nearly as many who believe they were brought from Jerusalem to protect them from the invading Romans. Some of these scholars can get pretty fired up about their theories.

We decided as a team early on to try to have the people in the story tell the story, using first-person quotes throughout the entire experience. The educational panels make it clear throughout the show that there are conflicting theories, and that we will never know for certain who wrote the scrolls, who hid them, and why.

At the end of the experience we ask visitors, “What do the Dead Sea Scrolls mean to you?” Their comment cards are collected and become part of the exhibit experience for others to read. This "talk-back" area also features a gorgeous sculpture called My Torah by modern artist Becky Guttin.

I hope that you will take a trip to San Diego to see this amazing show. I’m very proud of the end result and was honored to work with such amazing people on the design and content team and it’s gratifying for the show to be getting nice reviews and very positive visitor comments. I would like to thank the team at the museum for allowing me to be part of their world for a year, as well as the many, many people who contributed resources to make the show so special. If I didn't mention you here, please know that we appreciate your contributions!

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  2. Stephanie,

    Hats off to you and the gang for the hard work you must have put in on the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit! I wish I could head on over to San Diego and check it out in person. I guess I’ll just have to continue the journey of user experience from your blog and photos.

  3. Stephanie!

    This looks just terrific! It seems to pull together so many of your valuable messages in once place.

    I really hope I can get to see it...