By GUY LAMOLINARA
"I think that it's very appropriate for a library to be hosting this exhibition, because it gets at what knowledge really is, how it gets passed on to us over the centuries and how we go about discovering our own past."
So said Irene U. Burnham, head of the Interpretive Programs Office, who, along with her staff, is directing the presentation of "Scrolls from the Dead Sea: The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Scholarship."
This major Library exhibition was made possible by a generous grant from the Project Judaica Foundation with additional support from Hilton International. Delta Air Lines is the official carrier for the exhibition.
"In December 1991 we were approached by representatives of the Israel Antiquities Authority," where most of the scrolls are stored, "about the possibility of a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition," said Michael W. Grunberger, the exhibition curator and head of the Library's Hebraic Section. "We contacted Dr. Billington, and he immediately agreed that we ought to mount such an exhibition."
This exhibition is more than just a chance for people to see some of the 2,000-year-old scroll fragments that were discovered in 1947. It is also an opportunity to become better acquainted with the intellectual challenges -- and the controversies -- that have consumed scholars for more than 40 years. Thousands of articles and hundreds of books have been written on the scrolls in every language.
Although the scrolls will be seen thousands of miles from the site of their discovery in the caves of Qumran, near Jerusalem, they will be presented in the context in which they were found.
"One of the goals of the exhibition is to have you understand the world in which the scrolls were created," said Ms. Burnham. For example, persons entering the Madison Building gallery will see a giant photomural of the desert environs of Qumran and the excavation site.
Ms. Burnham and Dr. Grunberger traveled to Israel last year during the early preparations. "An exhibition person believes that you cannot separate content from visual presentation. If you do, you will not have as good an exhibition," said Ms. Burnham. "For example, 'Scrolls from the Dead Sea' depends a lot on what Israel and the Dead Sea area look like. And having visitors to the Library see what the area looks like will give them with a fuller understanding of the scrolls' significance."
It is generally believed by many scholars that members of the sect living near the caves of Qumran were Essenes, who lived an ascetic, celibate life, writing their scrolls and then storing them. Visitors will see the linen wrapping in which some of the scrolls were found and the jars in which some were stored. These and other artifacts found in the caves -- and on display -- will bring visitors closer to the Dead Sea community.
One of Ms. Burnham's goals for the exhibition is to present the different views of the site where the scrolls were found, who produced them and what the scrolls mean. For example, the exhibition text near the photos of the Qumran archaeological site will note that scholars variously believe it was a Roman fortress, a pottery factory or perhaps a winter villa. "I think we would not serve the visitor very well if we did not present all sides," said Ms. Burnham.
The same is true for the scrolls. Opinions on their interpretation will be seen next to the display of a particular scroll. Ms. Burnham's trip to Israel helped her to decide that this kind of comprehensive approach was imperative to the success of "Scrolls from the Dead Sea." She and Dr. Grunberger had a chance to meet with some of the scroll scholars working at the Israel Antiquities Authority.
"It was clear that the minute you said anything definite about any one of the aspects of the scrolls that somebody -- even if they themselves were the ones to tell you the 'definitive' story -- was going to say, 'Yes, but you can't say that for sure,' " Ms. Burnham said.
The visit also gave Ms. Burnham a clearer picture of the monumental task that the scroll scholars have undertaken. "It was obvious that not only does one have to be a strong scholar, but also adept" at piecing together the thousands of fragments into places where they might plausibly belong.
What does Ms. Burnham hope visitors will get out of the exhibition?
"I hope they walk away with a sense of wondering about the past, about how miraculous it is that these items have survived for 2,000 years, and about the different theories on the scrolls," Ms. Burnham replied. "I also hope viewers get some insight into how the scholars work.
"And, of course, I hope visitors go away with the satisfaction that they have finally seen the Dead Sea Scrolls that they have heard so much about for so long."
"Scrolls from the Dead Sea: The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Scholarship" runs through Aug. 1. For hours and ticket information, see this article.