Michael Hager defends embattled curator

November 23, 2008

San Diego Natural History Museum director lashes out at exhibit critics

Michael Hager, the director of the venerable San Diego Natural History Museum, where a controversial, religiously oriented exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls took place last year, has emerged from a lengthy silence, grappling with critics of the exhibit in a letter published in Canada’s National Post. In turn, a response by University of Chicago historian Norman Golb has also appeared in the same newspaper.

The exchange of letters coincides with the issuing of Golb’s review of the current New York Jewish Museum scrolls exhibit, and follows the publication of an article, also in the National Post, questioning the scrolls exhibit that is scheduled to open next summer at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The article, by Adam McDowell, reveals that the Toronto exhibit will be curated by the exact same person who curated the San Diego exhibit, Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn. The article further points out that the above-mentioned historian, Norman Golb, subjected the San Diego exhibit catalogue (prepared by Dr. Kohn) to a searing critique in a 24-page analysis that is available on the University of Chicago website. In light of Golb’s analysis, Mr. McDowell questions whether controversy will also surround the Toronto exhibit.

Critics of the San Diego exhibit claim that its creators down-played and excluded the views of Golb and other supporters of the Jerusalem theory of scroll origins, hiding the current polarization of scrolls scholarship from the public (see below for links to news items in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, and other major sources dealing with the two basic theories of scroll origins).

Rather than respond to these claims, Mr. Hager’s letter signals the “curious” phenomenon of “untraceable e-mails … sent to the board of directors of the San Diego Natural History Museum prior to the opening of our Dead Sea scrolls exhibition, making unfounded claims and citing Norman Golb as an expert.”

This statement gives rise to a number of questions. To begin with, what exactly does Mr. Hager mean when he says that “untraceable e-mails” were sent to the board of directors of his museum? Did the museum attempt to “trace” e-mails received by its board of directors? And what kind of “unfounded claims” were contained in the e-mails? Is he referring to the claims discussed in the public exchange of letters (see here and here) that took place between Risa Levitt Kohn and an amateur critic of the current series of Dead Sea Scrolls exhibits, six months before the San Diego exhibit opened?

Further, does Mr. Hager seek to imply that Norman Golb, a well-known historian who has authored a 450-page book on the scrolls, is not an “expert”? What then is Mr. Hager’s definition of an “expert”?

It should be pointed out that Golb’s book, as well as several articles published by him and available on the University of Chicago website, sharply criticize the way the Dead Sea Scrolls have been presented in museum exhibits. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising to learn that the board of directors of one or more of the exhibiting institutions have received emails “citing Norman Golb as an expert.” What is surprising, is that the voice of the only scholar who has written at length on these exhibits has been specifically excluded from them. Are the museum directors and curators responsible for these exhibits incapable of taking a little criticism?

In this regard, Hager also asserts that Norman Golb “ignited a controversy” in his museum. Did Golb run around the museum with a torch, setting fire to ancient Hebrew manuscripts? Did he violate the canons of scholarship or the “ethics of museology” by publishing an article in which he exposed a lengthy series of erroneous and mendacious statements contained in the exhibit?

Hager does not explain why the San Diego museum never responded to Golb’s critique, but he asserts that the scrolls exhibit was “thoroughly researched by a team of accredited biblical scholars, with several alternative theories … presented.” What Hager fails to mention, is that several internet bloggers have demonstrated that virtually all of these “accredited biblical scholars” are conservative Christians (just like the members of the original Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly, with which some of them were associated), and that they all defend the old Qumran-Essene theory of scroll origins or variants thereof. See, e.g., the lengthy series of articles on this topic published on the NowPublic site.

Hager also touts the fact that the “largest gathering of religious scholars ever assembled was … in San Diego for a joint meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature” that took place while the exhibit was on, and that “as many as a thousand” of them actually went to see the exhibit. It’s certainly not surprising that “religious scholars” associated with an “Academy of Religion” would profit from the opportunity to see a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. But are “religious scholars” experts on the scientific investigation of complex archaeological, paleographical and historical data?

In other words, why is the director of a natural history museum touting religion, when the exhibit in question was attacked as lacking scientific legitimacy?

Finally, Hager vigorously defends Risa Levitt Kohn, stating that she has “very high academic standards.” Does Hager mean to imply that Dr. Kohn is an “expert” on the scrolls? Dr. Kohn’s own statements on this matter are confusing. In January of 2007, she asserted that she was a “Dead Sea Scrolls scholar,” but a few months later, after it was pointed out that she had never published anything on the scrolls, she confessed that she is “far from an expert” and has only a “tangential” knowledge of the field. Are such contradictory statements about one’s own expertise the sign of “very high academic standards”?

Perhaps, now that he has come out from his lair at the museum, Mr. Hager should defend Dr. Kohn’s “standards” by responding to Golb’s critique of her exhibit catalogue. Perhaps, in addition, he should explain exactly what Dr. Kohn meant when she said the the scrolls are “not really Jewish texts,” and that the museum did not wish to “confuse” the public by presenting an accurate account of the current state of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship. After all, when “Dead Sea Scrolls scholars” don’t respond to detailed criticism, and when they make obscurantist and misleading remarks that are an embarrassment to themselves and to their employers, what does that reveal about their scholarship?

For background on the two principal theories of scroll origins, see these news items:

Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2008 (“There are two competing theories about the scrolls,” etc.)

Jewish Week, October 20, 2008 (The New York Jewish Museum’s current scrolls exhibit “highlights a roiling scholarly debate that continues to hound the scrolls,” etc.)

The Jewish Museum in New York’s press release of September 12, 2008 (“Scholars have two basic theories about who used the scrolls,” etc.)

New York Times, August 15, 2006 (“Despite the rising tide of revisionist thinking, other scholars of the Dead Sea scrolls continue to defend the Essene hypothesis, though with some modifications and diminishing conviction.”)

USA Today, January 2, 2007 (“The nature of the settlement at Qumran is the subject of a lively academic debate. The traditional view … is [etc.]. The second school says,” etc.) 

Le Monde, November 5, 2008 (article by Alain Beuve-Méry, the well-known grandson of Le Monde‘s founder Hubert Beuve-Méry) (“The ties between the Essenes … and Qumran have now been reduced to nothing, just as the major American historian and paleographer Norman Golb had already written.”) This article, incidentally, plainly confirms that the Qumran-Essene theory has now all but collapsed.  That is surely why, as Mr. Beuve-Méry makes clear, the new French translation of the scrolls, in nine volumes prepared by researchers of the younger generation, has been organized not according to “cave” as in translations prepared by members of the Dead Sea Scrolls monopoly group, but in accordance with the inductive approach that Golb has been recommending for years.

To which we must now add the above-linked National Post article of November 12, 2008 (“Academics are divided between two principal theories regarding the origin of the scrolls,” etc.)

See, however, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2007 (“Wall texts and the exhibition catalog by the show’s curator … Risa Levitt Kohn, acknowledge that competing theories [note the plural] exist but stick mainly to a low-keyed assertion of the mainstream view. “You don’t want to confuse people with so many competing theories, so they walk away, saying, ‘Well, nobody really knows anything!'” Kohn said, smiling.”)

For further information on the museum controversy, see also Norman Golb’s review of the current New York Jewish Museum exhibit of the scrolls.


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