Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum

Dead Sea Scrolls at the Museum

The view of the Charles River and the Longfellow Bridge from the Museum of Science's cafeteria
[lead dropcap=”yes”]When I’m on vacation, we always try to make it to at least one museum or zoo with the kids. As they get older, we’ll probably be able to develop more ambitious itineraries, but for now an outing every other day or so is all we can do.[/lead]

For this vacation, our first trip was to the Museum of Science in Boston. This has been one of my favorites from when I was a kid and some of what I remember is still there (which is both good and bad.)

I’d managed to get hold of some passes to the current special exhibit “Dead Sea Scrolls: Life in Ancient Times”. The Israeli Antiquities Authority has shipped over artifacts dating back 3000 years, including a 3-ton stone from the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem (the one destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD[1]) and some among the thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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I’ve long had a fascination with the scrolls, ever since I began reading books of biblical archeology and the magazine Biblical Archeology Review, when I worked for Whittemore’s church supply and Christian bookstore in Needham, Mass, from 1989 to 1992. That interest was piqued when the store’s owner, Ernie Martin, told me that the original Mr. Whittemore was once offered some of the scrolls for purchase by an Orthodox priest who was storing them in his basement in Worcester, Mass. The priest later sold them through a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal to a go-between who was secretly representing the nascent State of Israel.

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The exhibit was amazing, and didn’t just showcase the scrolls, but also highlighted the elements of life in the Holy Land from about 1,000 BC to about 100 AD, including many household items, materials from the Temples and Qumran and even Masada. The conservation and restoration of the Scrolls, as well as their original discovery, were important as well. Unfortunately, no photography of any kind was allowed in the room where the scroll fragments were displayed.

One interesting thing I learned: One of the scrolls, an excerpt from the book of Numbers that had commentary interspersed among the verses and some of the scrolls was written in red ink, which was very rare at the time. The archeologists speculate that these scrolls were used for liturgical functions, showing which verses were to be read aloud. If true, this shows where the custom from our own Catholic liturgical books such as the Sacramentary come from. This would be the origin of “Say the black; Do the red.”.

Walking with dinosaurs

After the Scroll exhibit we decided to see as much of the other exhibits as we could. The Omni theater, planetarium, and other separate shows would have to wait for another time. Bella let it be known that she’d really love to see fossils, so we headed over to the dinosaur exhibit. They have a full-scale model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex there. It’s not the original from my childhood, which was replaced some years ago with a new model that was more accurate according to the latest paleontological theories, including its stance, which is more horizontal. Standing next to that thing makes Jurassic Park all the scarier when you can see the scale of the creature with your own eyes.

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Sadly, the transportation gallery was nearly unchanged from my childhood except it was all a little shabbier. The amazing scale models of famous ships throughout history were in cases that are getting cloudy with age. A full-size working steam engine sat unmoving with signage dating from the 70s. It all just felt a bit neglected. An enterprising curator could really develop that earea into something interesting with a story to tell.

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Much better was the Discovery Center, which had a variety of exhibits whose task was to teach visitors about using your eyes and your brain to observe, deduct, and classify the world around us, whether it’s minerals, snowflakes, animals, or even an old replica schoolhouse. The schoolhouse was clever because they asked you to figure out how old it is based on the evidence such as the kinds of nails used and the size of lichen growing on the foundation and the like.

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After passing by the audiokinetic sculpture, a mesmerizing Rube Goldberg contraption of ramps and balls and spinning gizmos and note-making devices that held our attention for far too long, we ventured into the bird exhibit. The kids love birds and can identify many species on sight. This was handy as the displays of stuffed birds were left intentionally unlabeled. Instead the curators encouraged us to do as we would in the wild and use the resources given to us to figure out the names of the birds. In this case, various cards and computer programs throughout the gallery that described each bird.

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In the end, we saw less than a quarter of all there is to see in the museum, but about all that a pack of small children, 7 and younger, could take in, flitting from one display to the next, trying to absorb it all at once.

But that’s okay because we bought a family membership for the year. It costs about the price of one full-price trip for our family, plus comes with a lot of perks, including extra tickets if we want to bring along a guest. It’s not cheap, but it’s less than the cost of school tuition and we’re getting a decent science curriculum out of it. If we go just a couple of times in the next year, it’s paid for itself and more.

Plus next time, I want to take the kids to see the giant Van de Graaff generator. Homemade lightning never gets old, no matter how many decades they’ve been doing it.


  1. Yes, AD as in Anno Domini, as in Year of Our Lord, and not the “neutral” academic CE, as in Common Era, as in let’s count from His birth because that’s the way everybody’s done it for centuries, but let’s pretend He doesn’t have anything to do with the calendar.  ↩
Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
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