Friday, April 10, 2009
Dead Sea Scrolls speak
In one of the classes I teach, we talk about museums and look critically at the practices and politics of collecting and displaying, from an historical look as well as contemporary practices. In fact, we look at how historical practices continue to inform contemporary practices, and left unresolved or silenced, continue the injustices of what was taken by who to validate their own views and who then is left disadvantaged once again. An upcoming exhibit in Canada, of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, is a pertinent example of the politics of culture. Cultural exhibitions are not innocent, but motivated. This planned exhibit raises many questions concerning what is being exhibited, who "owns" the artifacts, what stories get told (and which ones wiped out or mis-represented) and by whom and how does that then reproduce contemporary unequal power relations and for what effects? The Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered in 1947 by a Bedouin and were later stolen from Arab Jerusalem by the Israelis during the occupation of the West Bank during the 1967 war; these scrolls then became appropriated into Israeli holdings. Now they are coming to Canada to be exhibited as "ancient artifacts" of Israel--which of course didn't exist before 1948. The scrolls, however, are not decontextualized artifacts of the past but speak of the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the ongoing silencing of its history and claim to the land. The scrolls were stolen during the illegal occupation of Palestine, and both the scrolls theft and the occupation of Palestine are still ignored by the world. Palestinian representatives are asking Canada to recognize the illegality of Israel's appropriation of the scrolls, and to stop this showing of stolen artifacts.
"Beginning in June, the ROM will host a six-month exhibit of the famed Dead Sea Scrolls, organized in co-operation with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
But top Palestinian officials this week declared the exhibit a violation of international law and called on Canada to cancel the show.
In letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and top executives at the ROM, senior Palestinian officials argue the scrolls – widely regarded as among the great archaeological discoveries of the 20th century – were acquired illegally by Israel when the Jewish state annexed East Jerusalem in 1967.
"The exhibition would entail exhibiting or displaying artifacts removed from the Palestinian territories," said Hamdan Taha, director-general of the archaeological department in the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
"I think it is important that Canadian institutions would be responsible and act in accordance with Canada's obligations."
The Palestinians say the planned ROM exhibit violates at least four international conventions or protocols on the treatment of cultural goods that were illegally obtained."