The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego

Dead Sea Scrolls at San Diego Natural History Museum — an update (July 10, 2007)

Curator Risa Levitt Kohn in the mouth of a cave near Qumran, as depicted on the San Diego Natural History Museum website

Some of you may have read Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit misleads public? (July 2).

As anyone could see, my intention in writing that piece was not to question the performance of Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn as curator of the exhibit currently taking place at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Rather, it was to inform readers of — and incidentally to assert my agreement with — Dr. Kohn’s important statement, quoted in the L.A. Times, that to “confuse” people by telling them the truth is something that must be avoided.

Still less did I intend to suggest that the members of the Board of Directors of the museum were in any way to fault for Dr. Kohn’s decision to present a biased and misleading exhibit on the scrolls — for how could there be fault, when that decision, for the reason succinctly stated by Dr. Kohn, is entirely justified and appropriate?

Since last week, however, there have been a few developments that appear to signal an increased danger of confusion, and so I thought I should bring them to the attention of anyone who, like Dr. Kohn and myself, wishes to prevent such an event from occurring.

First, a resident of San Diego named Christopher Hall commented on the affair, in terms that strike me as (at best) ill-conceived.  Writing in response to my letter of July 5 published on the Voice of San Diego website, he suggested that the museum “is marketing this exhibit under false pretenses,” and that it is “a non-profit, public benefit corporation with a board of directors who should immediately investigate this matter….”

Did Mr. Hall pause to consider that if the museum’s board of directors were to “investigate this matter,” then this exhibit, funded with six million dollars of grants provided by the CEO of Qualcomm and other donors, could end up confusing the public and becoming an embarrassment for the academic clique represented by Dr. Kohn? Surely neither of those results is desirable in a system of ordered liberty such as ours, and it is highly puzzling that a man of Mr. Hall’s integrity should have sought to suggest the contrary.

On a more positive note, also on July 5, Ms. Delle Willett, the museum’s able marketing director, rose to the occasion with admirable dignity and explained that “a guy named Norm Golb,” as she put it, “just loves to follow these Dead Sea Scrolls around the country and talk about how we’ve got it all wrong.”  This informative statement helped correct the somewhat austere image of a purported Oriental Institute professor that some of us previously had from articles in the New York Times and other unreliable sources, and gave us an insight into the true nature of a man who travels around the country, sniffing after scrolls wherever they might go and making foolish claims about them.

After Ms. Willett’s corrective statement, things finally appeared to be settling back into their normal state of indifference, where they always belong.  Unfortunately for the museum, however, this state of calm was again broken, on July 9, 2007, by the publication of a series of comments on the Voice of San Diego and other websites.

Apparently, a pair of unscrupulous individuals, going by the names of “Niki W” and “Suzanne,” discovered that on Jan. 9, 2007, Dr. Kohn had stated in writing that she was “fortunate to have been selected” as curator on account of her status “as a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar.”  (Cf. the attached photo, featured on the museum’s website and picturing Dr. Kohn in the shade of one of the actual Dead Sea caves, as a token of her deep personal involvement in scrolls studies that went into the making of the exhibit.)

However, interviewed by (again) the Voice of San Diego on June 2, 2007, Dr. Kohn explained that she was “far from an expert” and that she “didn’t really study Dead Sea Scrolls much, other than in kind of a tangential way.”

Imagining a contradiction between these statements, our San Diego commentators proceeded to question whether Dr. Kohn was hired as curator “on the basis of the false representation that she was a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar”; and, if not, whether it was “appropriate for the museum to hire someone without the requisite expertise to curate such an important exhibition.”

In response to these impertinent comments, allow me to insist that the nature of scholarship and expertise has greatly changed over the past few years in this country.  Surely in our time and day a casual, tangential acquaintance with a field sufficiently qualifies one to serve as a “scholar” capable of making informed decisions, particularly with regard to what is or is not likely to create public confusion.

Therefore, I cannot accept the suggestion that Dr. Kohn’s avowed lack of expertise in this field in any way disqualifies her from being a “scholar” or from serving as curator of this exhibit. I am sure the CEO of Qualcomm will agree with me on this matter, and for that reason alone “Niki W” and “Suzanne”‘s suggestion is again spurious and, in fact, highly dangerous to public reason in an ordered society.

If any of you were as grimly entertained by reading these Dead Sea Scrolls pieces as I was by writing them, please email them to your friends! Thanks, and don’t despair, there is still some odd measure of hope left in the world!

1 Comment »

  1. […] Dead Sea Scrolls at San Diego Natural History Museum — an update (July 10, 2007) […]

    Pingback by “What a mess, huh?” « The Dead Sea Scrolls controversy in San Diego — March 22, 2009 @ 2:04 am | Reply


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