Crowds welcome once-in-a-lifetime Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit

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SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The similarities between an Iowa cornfield and a Balboa Park museum may end with the blue sky, but when it comes to pursuing a Field of Dreams, Delle Willett believes she has a winner in the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the San Diego Natural History museum.

In the making for more than three years, curators have built a fascinating showcase for some of the most important religious documents in Judeo-Christian history. And in doing so, museum officials have proven that, yes, if they build it, they will come.

"Yesterday the lines were all the way over to the Reuben H. Fleet center," said Willette, the director of marketing for the Dead Seas Scrolls. "There's been a lot of word of mouth going on. People from across the country are calling me."

More than 85,000 tickets have been sold to date, including one gentleman who is traveling from Indiana to take in the exhibit, the longest running show of the scrolls' American tour.

At $24 to $28, even price has not seemed to matter, Willett said.

"I'm amazed at how many people said they were going to see it again," she said.

At least 400,000 people are expected to view the scrolls during its six-month run.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to encounter some of the world's most significant documents and artifacts, all in the same space," Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, curator of the exhibit and director of San Diego State University's Judaic Studies Program, said in a news release. "The scrolls are the oldest discovered copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible, and the ideas in them have shaped our world. They shed light on life, faith and culture in ancient Israel, which influenced Judaism and Christianity."

Museum officials said they do expect some repeat visits during the second half of the exhibit's stay since most of the scrolls will be rotated out of the display with others coming in their place. The arrangement was made to protect the delicate documents from too much exposure.

After the exhibit closes, the scrolls will return to their home base in Israel.


Significant history
The featured scrolls—written on leather parchment and papyrus—are part of an impressive collection of ancient manuscripts found in caves near the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea. The scrolls, were reconstructed from more than 100,000 pieces of ancient text, painstakingly pieced together to form more than 900 documents. They date from the third century before the birth of Christ to the first century A.D. The texts feature biblical books, including the Psalms, hymns, prayers and other important writings.

The documents are on loan to the San Diego museum from the Israel Antiquities Authority, with cooperation from the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation.

Although tickets are being sold at a rapid clip, Willett said daily sales are a little under their goal of 2,900 through the summer.

"A lot of the locals may be staying away until summer is over and the tourists go home," she said.

In the fall, the museum targets daily attendance at 1,700.

Some misinformation about the exhibit may also be causing some confusion. One local bus touring company was mistakenly telling tourists that the exhibit was sold out. It's not. In fact, about half of the visits are from walk-ups, although some may have to wait an hour or so for admittance. While waiting for admittance, Balboa Park offers a wide variety of entertainment options to pass the time.

To help control the flow of the exhibit, scroll entrance tickets are being sold at 15-minute increments, although once inside, patrons are welcome to stay as long as they would like.


Recreating the era
In addition to featuring the scrolls, the exhibit uses photography and authentic artifacts and tools to recreate the Qumran area, near where the scrolls were discovered. The artifacts include coins, sandals and an inkwell. The exhibit brings the past into the future by also highlighting the evolution of the biblical manuscripts into modern-day formats, including DVDs.

Another bright spot for the museum has been the popularity of 22 different lectures being offered in conjunction with the scrolls. Willette said 10 of the lectures are already sold out and many more are in reach of selling out. Several of the lectures have added second presentation times to keep up with demand. A new brochure is in the works to include lecture updates.

Willette said although many of the museum's exhibits offer lectures, few have proven to be as popular as those associated with the scrolls. The lecture topics range from social, science, historical and religious themes and some are $24 apiece.

 Of all of the elements that factor into a major attraction such as the scrolls exhibit, Willette said she's been most surprised by the diversity of those visiting.

"They are every type of person you can imagine," the director said. "People are bringing their kids, every color, every clothing outfit you can imagine. Tattoos."

Just like baseball.


If you go:
What: Dead Sea Scrolls

When: through Dec. 31

Where: San Diego Natural History Museum, Balboa Park

Hours: Mon 1–5pm; Tue, Wed, Thu 10am–5pm; Fri 10am–6pm, Sat, Sun, Holidays 9am–7pm. Note: Listed closing times are for entry. Patrons will be allowed to finish reviewing the exhibit past the official closing time.

Tickets: Depending on non-peak and peak hours, the cost is $24 to $28 for adults; $20 and $24 for seniors, students and military with ID and $14 for children ages 3 to 12. Discounts are available for museum members and groups.

Purchase: Advance only by Internet, phone and in person.

For more information: Call 1-877-946-7797 or visit sdnhm.org/scrolls/