Showing posts with label Museum of the Bible. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Museum of the Bible. Show all posts

August 27, 2017

Conference - Authenticity, forgery, provenance, and ethics at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting


The 2017 Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, will be held in Boston on November 18–21, 2017 and will feature an interesting panel on legitimacy and forgery and the ethical and unethical trade and publication of historic archaeological material with limited or no provenance. 

The title of the panel is:  Avoiding Deception: Forgeries, Fake News, and Unprovenanced Material in Religious Studies

Session date and time:  November 19, 2017 from 1:00 PM to 3:30 PM
Rome and Location: Orleans (Fourth Level) - Boston Marriott Copley Place (MCP)

Invited speakers include: 


According to the annual meeting program book this session will delve into the following: 

Why is provenance important? Although the forgery of documents and artifacts has always been a primary concern in religious studies, recent events surrounding the colloquially designated “Jesus’ Wife Fragment” and various unprovenanced fragments touted as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls have propelled scholars into a new era of forgery studies. While some may suppose that scholars are easily able to identify and disprove such items as forgeries, the complicated landscape in which such materials surface and are distributed has necessitated the adaptation of scholarship to remain diligent in preserving authentic items of history for study. This panel will address the challenges facing scholars in identifying and disproving forgeries in our current era. Invited speakers will similarly offer a space to examine the complexities and current status of forgeries in religious studies, identifying ways scholars can navigate the field without perpetuating erroneous materials in their scholarship. Time will be left following the panel for students and faculty to meet and mingle, in order to facilitate networking between scholars interested in similar material.

July 21, 2017

Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Hiring Plan at the Museum of the Bible

Long before the news broke about a US Civil Complaint requiring forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, or Egypt's more recent concern about its trafficked papyrus, the Museum of the Bible's decision-making regarding who to hire and for what purpose was a bit off center.

In 2015,  I created a list of known persons who had identified themselves as Museum of the Bible employees using available open source data out of growing concern for their collection practices.  At that time, only a limited number of the individuals had any formal museum or curatorial background, and the few that did were frequently at the nascent stage of their professional careers.  None of those I documented listed anything in their backgrounds that would have attested to having had experience in ethical collection management. 

 

Additionally, only one employee was listed as a conservator/restorer.  Given the size of the future museum, and its burgeoning collection, one would assume that personnel with experience in both these important skillsets would have been required and should have been a top priority for a museum with a growing and extensive collection of objects and manuscripts.

Instead, the restorer of record had no formal conservation training, and listed his university degrees as having a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Sciences and Journalism. One curator of Cuneiform tablets had no museum experience at all and listed his former posting as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. Another curator, of Medieval Manuscripts, had been a summer intern at the Smithsonian.

Revisiting this list, to see who may have come and who may have gone since the first list was compiled, I also came across two newish job announcements.  The first is for a registrar, and includes some normal registrar duties as well as a hodgepodge of other duties:


The second job posting however was extremely specific and was not your run of the mill typical museum vacancy.  It seemed the Museum of the Bible was looking for an Intelligence & Investigations Specialist, "to obtain and evaluate intelligence concerning threat information and conduct investigations into possible illegal activity against Museum of the Bible (MOTB), to ensure the security and safety of MOTB assets and interests."


While museums and their museum security risk managers routinely look at threat levels as part of their wider risk assessments, this job description seems to be a lot more specific.

  • Conduct predictive threat analysis to support domestic and international Executive Protection operations for VIPs, designated individuals, and MOTB staff as directed.

But enough on potential new hires.  Filing away those that have worked for the Museum of the Bible in the past and have subsequently left the Green's museum behind,  I thought I would also try to see where former collaborator Dr. Scott Carroll has been keeping himself over the last year since parting ways with the Washington DC apologists.

Instead of dissolving mummy masks in Palmolive soap...


In April of this year he also spent a bit of time at St. Andrew's Church in Hong Kong giving some inspirational talks with some of his old friends including Josh McDowell and colleague Todd Hillard.  Carroll identifies himself as the CEO of the "Inspired" exhibit, a travelling showcase of religious-themed objects where attendees are "immersed in the finest collection of biblical artifacts that had ever been in the city: Papyrus fragments, cuneiform tablets, medieval manuscripts, stunning Hebrew scrolls, and some of the most important early translations of the Bible in the world."  

Does the melody to this song sound familiar?

One of the objects in this travelling exhibition was this Taj Torah, purportedly produced in Yemen in the 17th century.

https://www.facebook.com/lhmhk/photos/a.171038406282348.48921.166677980051724/1486097368109772/?type=3&theater
While in Hong Kong Carroll also popped in for a dedication ceremony at Evangel Seminary, affiliated under the Evangelical Free Church of China, where a Torah scroll was being donated by Ken and Barbara Larson.



The Larsons, founders of the family-owned furniture chain Slumberland, have purchased Torah scrolls as apologetic tools for establishing the reliability of the word of God with the intention of giving many of them to evangelical seminaries.  

Torah's are normally retired to a Genizah, a vault, or a protected receptacle, in which holy things which are posul are kept until burial. When holy objects are no longer in use as according to Jewish law, they cannot be destroyed, but should be treated with the same respect and care allotted the deceased.


One of these, the Larson-Bethel Baghdad Torah dates predominantly to the early 17th century.


Carroll states the Torah dedicated to Evangel Seminary in these videos “comes from Eastern Europe, very likely from Germany”  and “dates to the 18th century.”


According to statements in the video, the Larson's currently list their donation count at 36. 

Carroll's next 2017 stop was Bangkok, Thailand, where he recently concluded a teaching assignment on Bible Backgrounds and Ancient Cultures in early July.   Sadly none of these religious outreach visits seemed to include any mention of the ministry of collecting ethically. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

July 8, 2017

Thou Shall Not Covet thy Neighbor's Cuneiform

Op/Ed By:  Lynda Albertson

As the US press and social media came alive in condemnation as a result of the Hobby Lobby smuggling case, I couldn't help but notice that while the hashtag #HobbyLobbyisISIS is noticeably attention-grabbing, (as well as probably inaccurate), the more important facet of the "is-that-object-looted" puzzle was still being overlooked. 

I asked myself, instead of simply rewording the press release announcement released by the government, why hadn't US news organizations dug deeper into the development of the Green Collection in ancient art.  Especially since everyone now seems hellbent, (excuse the pun) on crucifying the fundamentalist Christian collector or finding some way to tie Hobby Lobby to Da'esh.

This is a case that has been widely publicized since 2015, and it's not the only time the Greens or their large collection have come under scrutiny or been accused of acquiring objects through untrustworthy channels with illicit ties.  

In June 2014 Dr. David Trobisch, Director of Collections for the Museum of the Bible even attended ARCA’s annual art crime conference where he heard concerns made by Dr. Roberta Mazza, a papyrologist and ancient historian from the University of Manchester about the Green Collection's unprovenanced papyrus fragments.  Those fragments however were not mentioned in this current civil complaint. 

While this US civil forfeiture case underscores that illicit traffic in cultural objects contributes to the despoliation of a country's ancient heritage and causes irreparable loss to the world's heritage knowledge, why is it then that the public only wakes up and takes notice when ISIS ties are tangentially inferred?

Are trafficked Middle East artifacts only worthy of the world's indignation when they are looted to fund terrorism?  


As the general public responded to the press coverage over the last two days most of the grumbling I've come across was either ISIS-funding related or centered on whether or not the punishment fit the crime.   I use the word "crime" here loosely because no criminal charges were filed for the looting and theft of the 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae which ultimately were the subject of this civil forfeiture.  

In civil cases, the object of the law is the redress of wrongs by compelling compensation or restitution.  As those following this case closely are painfully aware, civil law deals with the disputes between individuals, organizations, or between the two, in which compensation can be awarded to the victim.  Criminal law is the body of law that deals with crime and the legal punishment of criminal offenses.

A civil fine is not a criminal punishment.  

Civil case fines are primarily sought in federal investigations in order to compensate the state for harm done to it, rather than to punish a wrongful conduct, something many like myself would have liked to have seen happen given the Green's less than stellar record when it comes to vetting antiquities for inclusion in their collection.   In this case, Hobby Lobby only suffers so much harm as is necessary to make good the wrong they have done (to the state). 

Civil penalties, in this case a $3M fine, do not carry any jail time or other legal penalties.  This fact illustrates why no one from Hobby Lobby was criminally charged, despite the large number of objects seized and subsequently forfeited.

This may also explain the absence of any noticeable public remorse on Hobby Lobby's part for their role in this antiquities smuggling affair.  The lack of regret can also be seen in the unrepentant statement by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, in his company's press release after the federal civil ruling was publicized. 


Was new to the world of acquiring these items?  Did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items?

Let's look at his statements more closely.  

While Hobby Lobby, may be "new" to the world of acquiring antiquities, the fact that it has purchased more than 40,000 objects since November 2009 does not in any way make it a neophyte collector of ancient art.  

In addition to the cuneiform tablets seized in this well publicized case, the Green Collection already had in its possession the third largest holding of cuneiform tablets in North America (over 10,000 pieces). This means Green and Hobby Lobby by proxy had ample prior opportunity to explore what could and should go on any customs declaration for objects that contain writing first developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia between 3500-3000 BCE.  

In 2010, a year before the seized cuneiform tablets arrived in Memphis, the Greens had also already consulted with Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, a cultural heritage law expert with DePaul University 's College of Law, about import restrictions for ancient antiquities who is reported to have advised them about their need for deeper due diligence in their collecting.   Given Gerstenblith's impeccable familiarity with the cultural heritage law, it can be assumed that the Greens as collectors were not as ignorantly naive to the road they were embarking down as the firm's press statement this week seems to imply.

But setting aside the intricacies of import and customs documentation specifically related to ancient antiquities coming from Iraq, Hobby Lobby itself has some 32,000 employees, 750 stores in forty-seven states, and $4 billion in yearly revenue, much of it based on imported items. 

It's corporate headquarters include a 9.2 million-square-foot manufacturing, distribution, and office complex in Oklahoma City.  Its warehouse has an hourly employee base of 2500+ employees with 80+ members of management, headed by an Assistant Vice President of Warehouse Operations, who reports to the Senior Vice President of Distribution.

When importing merchandise from foreign countries Hobby Lobby is fully aware there are certain trade laws and regulations, and that U.S. Customs oversees the compliance of those laws. They even have an international department responsible for training and compliance to ensure the import process go smoothly, not to mention a manual outlining laws and regulations, valuation, assists, and country of origin requirements which can be downloaded here

So to imply to the public that Hobby Lobby "imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items" seems a bit unapologetic coming from an apologist.   

Especially given Green's business thrives on supply-chain distribution members in its shipping department who would have to have, given the large scale operation of receiving imported cargo from across the globe in support of Hobby Lobby's national operations, sufficient knowledge of what the legal requirements are for import.  If they didn't, they certainly knew who to ask. 

As I have mentioned in a previous post, the estimated 40,000+ objects in the Green Collection equates to acquiring 6,666 objects per year or collecting a whopping 18 new objects per day.  Compare that acquisition rate to the number of employees working on the Green's or the Museum of the Bible's payroll who are tasked with historic object provenance and one can easily surmise that an object's ethical collection history has never been either group's overriding priority.  

Emphasis instead has been on filling the Museum of the Bible, Washington DC's about-to-be-opened 430,000-square-foot, eight story massive red brick museum located over the Federal Center SW Metro station.  To put that into perspective, one NFL football field is 57,600 square feet.  The Museum of the Bible has seven and a half football fields of space it needs to fill. 

Given the scale of archaeological theft in biblical area source countries and the number of objects with questionable origins which have already been identified by various researchers following the Green Collection prior to this forfeiture, it's time for Hobby Lobby's founders to do more than just open their wallets, purchase, and if caught, pay civil fines and forfeit the objects in question.

Opening their wallets has been the crux of the problem, as the Green's appetite for unprovenanced antiquities, and the profits to be had from this appetite, have likely been a motivating factor for others to loot, thereby destroying whatever context the objects may have had.

It's time for the Greens to fulfill the promise previously made by their employee. 

In 2014 the director of Collections at the Museum of the Bible, David Trobisch, informed Dr. Roberta Mazza that the Green Collection was going towards full digitisation and open access.  This has yet to happen. 

They should also make every effort, before making any further acquisitions, to ensure that the objects they are purchasing have been legally obtained and been legally exported from their country of origin.  

If the Greens truly want to make amends, they should fill their future Museum of the Bible with acquisitions collected ethically, and make the details of their past purchases open to researchers and investigators so that they can start to set things right by restituting any objects previously purchased without sufficient moral and ethical consideration. 

Exodus 20:15 and 17 King James Version (KJV): 

“Thou shalt not steal." 

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

I think that includes cuneiform tablets, clay bullae, incantation bowls and papyrus fragments.

July 6, 2017

Civil Complaint requires forfeiture of thousands of cuneiform tablets and clay bullae, but is that enough?

Cuneiform Tablet - Image Credit U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York
By: Lynda Albertson


At the heart of the investigation, were import irregularities related to ancient artifacts shipped to Hobby Lobby, Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! The firms Mardel, Inc. and Crafts, Etc! were affiliates of Hobby Lobby and both maintained their principal corporate offices adjacent to Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City.  

The antiquities were shipped to Hobby Lobby and their associates by dealers in Israel and the United Arab Emirates (“UAE”), all of whom have been left unnamed in the civil complaint.  The objects were shipped without required customs entry documentation being filed with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and bore shipping labels that falsely and misleadingly described their contents and their value, in some cases as “ceramic tiles” or “clay tiles (sample).” In truth, the mislabeled objects were ancient clay and stone artifacts that originate from the area of modern day Iraq, which had been smuggled into the United States after their contracted purchase in the Middle East. 

Hobby Lobby's growing Green Collection is purported to be the largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts worldwide and is estimated to be made up of more than 40,000 biblical-related antiquities, purchased and assembled by the Green family, who are founders of the national arts and crafts chain.  The bulk of this collection is intended to be displayed in their 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in Washington DC in November of 2017.

As is often the case with illicit antiquities smuggled around the globe, the intercepted packages, destined eventually to join the museum's collection, had their shipping labels intentionally mislabeled, stating the country of origin as imports from Turkey and Israel, not Iraq.  The shippers also used multiple shipping addresses for objects destined for a single recipient.  This too is a technique used by smugglers of all types, not just illicit antiquities, as it is a means of avoiding scrutiny by customs authorities. 

In the DOJ press release Bridget M. Rohde, Acting United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and Karin Orenstein, Assistant United States Attorney, of counsel, announced that Hobby Lobby Stores has agreed to pay a $3 million federal fine and forfeit thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts believed to have been smuggled in 15 shipments, 5 of which were stopped by the CBP on their way to the Greens.   

Hobby Lobby had executed an agreement to purchase the objects, despite their likely illicit origins, in 2010 for $1.6 million.  They paid for the antiquities via wire payments to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of five individuals.  This despite noticeable suspicious irregularities in the objects purported provenance and no direct contact with the objects' "owner.  The civil complaint also outlines conversations related to the purchase and import which indicate intentional changes to invoices and shipment to disguise the objects' value, and in some cases to change to purported seller. 

As DOJ documents state Title 19, United States Code, Section 1595a(c)(1)(A) provides that “merchandise which is introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States contrary to law . . . shall be seized and forfeited if it . . . is stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced.”

Legal measures specific to Iraq also make it a violation of U.S. law to import any cultural objects removed from Iraq since August 1990, unless exported with the permission of Iraqi authorities.  Illegally importing objects that meet this criteria are subject to criminal penalties and fines.

Equally important Under Article 3 of Iraq’s Antiquities Law No. 59 of 1936 (as amended in 1974 and 1975), all antiquities found in Iraq, whether movable or
immovable, on or under the ground, are considered property of the state. Under Article 16 of Antiquities Law No. 59, private persons generally cannot possess antiquities. Article 26 of the same antiquities law prohibits the export of Iraqi antiquities and defines “antiquities” as movable possessions which were made, produced, sculpted, written or drawn by man and which are at least 200 years old.  Southern Mesopotamian objects definitely fall into this category as any collections management expert in Near East antiquity would be aware of.


Is a $3 million fine and the forfeiture of 450 ancient cuneiform tablets and 3,000 ancient clay bullae enough?

As a result of this investigation, Hobby Lobby has agreed to adopt internal policies and procedures governing its importation and purchase of cultural property, provide appropriate training to its personnel, hire qualified outside customs counsel and customs brokers, and submit quarterly reports to the government on any cultural property acquisitions for the next eighteen months.


So much for remorse. 

NB: No one has faced criminal prosecution (read: jail time) for their actions. 

November 6, 2015

The Good the Bad and the Ugly in Crowdfunding: How Two Museum Projects Measure Up Differently.... Featuring The Tesla Science Center and the Museum of the Bible

Abdul Halim Attar with daughter, Reem
Image Credit: Joshua Abu al-Homsi/Twitter
Most people who have spent any time surfing the web in the last few years have heard about crowdfunding.   Newspapers are full of feel-good stories of individuals raising thousands of dollars for uplifting causes.  Some, like last summer's campaign, which raised $130,000 for the family of Abdul Halim Attar -- a displaced pen-selling Palestinian-Syrian refugee from Yarmouk in Syria, help struggling families when life throws them a curve ball.  Others give inventors much-needed start-up capital to carry a drawing board concept through to market fruition. 

Donation-based crowdfunding is pretty self-explanatory. Almost anyone can post a cause or an idea on a relevant crowdfunding platform and ask for donations to help make something happen.  Sometimes, but not always, those who donate receive a special perk in exchange.  In the case of start-up companies, project backers sometimes receive beta-release versions of the product under development; an incentive that works well for cash-strapped technology-entrepreneurs. 

With the onset of internet based crowd funding its now easier and relatively hassle-free for anyone to ask a large number of people each for a small amount of money.  That in turn has made crowdsourcing an appealing tool for museum organizations.  Instead of writing a lengthy 100 page grant proposal or fronting the money for expensive charity dinners in the hopes of attracting wealthy philanthropists, art and museum administrators and fundraisers can now turn to crowdsourcing as a means of generating much-needed cash to carry out missions and projects. 

The Power of the Crowd

Turning to the internet, flamboyant cartoonist Matthew Inman launched a crowd-funding campaign via the Oatmeal to buy the property of Nikola Tesla’s former laboratory, located in Shoreham, New York.  His campaign needed $850,000 and raised $1.37 million in six days with the help of 33,000 Tesla-loving backers.   Further assisted by a grant approved by the state of New York for an additional $850,000 the fundraisers were able purchase the inventor's lab property, yet still needed more capital to accomplish their goal of building the museum in honor of the savvy engineer.

Not to be discouraged, Inman publicly asked Canadian-American business magnate Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, to donate one million dollars in a Tweet.  Accepting the gauntlet thrown down, Musk accepted and challenged Tesla-loving Oatmeal followers to again dig into their own pockets to raise the difference needed in order to make the museum a reality. 

Using the Indiegogo platform Inman started a Buy a Brick, Build a Museum campaign spurring internet-savvy donors to come up with the additional funds.  The result?  He raised a whopping $518,566 towards the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, a sum more than two and a half times his original goal.

The power and value of crowdfunding, as these examples clearly illustrate, has changed the speed as well as the way individuals charitable contributions can be accessed.  

Organizations now have the ability to quickly and easily raise necessary funding in safe, secure crowdsourcing portals and at nominal costs to the fundraiser.   Some organizations have even gone so far as to build professional grade crowdfunding platforms into their own websites circumventing the overhead fees charged by most crowdsourcing portals.   

Anyone and virtually any cause, anywhere, can now tap into this type of funding.  No project is too big or too small.

But while giving small dollops of money to help someone who is less fortunate or to a good cause, like the development of a new museum, is commendable, people should carefully consider who they are funding and make sure that they donate responsibly to reputable persons and organizations so as not to fall prey to fraudulent or irresponsible fundraisers.


Just because a group is a bona fide charity doesn't always mean that a contributors' funding will be used wisely or in line with the donor's wishes or ethics. 

On October 7, 2015 the Museum of the Bible started its own in-house “One Million Names, Be One in a Million” campaign asking one million donors from around the globe to declare their belief that the bible should be celebrated by contributing to the funding of the yet-to-open Washington DC museum. With a crowdfunding campaign embedded into the Museum's own website with a matching video campaign on Youtube donors are being asked to contribute $20, $50, or $100 to the museum "where needed most."  

The Museum of the Bible's fundraising webpage states that donations "will become part of your personal legacy … a perpetual testimony of your commitment to this great Book." In appreciation, the fundraiser declares that the museum will permanently memorialize the donor's name on a wall in the museum, which is scheduled to open to the public in 2017. 

What is missing on the fundraising page though is a statement on just how the Museum of the Bible's "where needed most" funds might be utilized.   Will they go towards building the museum itself? Will they fund the employment of highly trained museum staff so that the MoB can avoid any more unpleasant surprises when importing antiquities without proper import documentation for the museum's collection?  Or will "One Million Names" donors contribute to sponsoring "hundreds of Christian student leaders to Israel" as part of the Covenant Journey project Tim Smith, the Museum of the Bible's Chief Development Officer, writes about here.    

Smith's blog post says, in part, that (the)

"Museum of the Bible is a founding sponsor of Covenant Journey because it furthers the Museum’s goal of inviting all people from across the world, from all backgrounds and religious affiliations, to engage with the Bible."    

What exactly does being a founding sponsorship entail?  

If one looks a little closely, Covenant Journey seems to be established and run through Liberty Counsel or at least the website URL registration and contact telephone numbers are the same for both groups.  Liberty Counsel is managed by Mathew Staver and the business in Florida is listed as "a legal organization that specializes in evangelical Christian litigation and public relations."  In contrast, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has listed Liberty Counsel as an anti-LGBT and hate group.  How does the Museum of the Bible relationship with the founders of Liberty Counsel support Covenant Journey's own mission?

In the last three years, the Museum of the Bible is reported to have received more than $230 million in tax-deductible donations.

The ethics of charitable giving in a time of crowdsourcing

The NonProfit Times, a business publication for nonprofit management has reported that crowdfunding has hit $5 billion US dollars annually, with close to a third of that funding going towards potentially worthy charitable causes.  According to their estimate, that's a substantial $1.5 billion per year, much of it managed through major portals like Causes, Kickstarter, Razoo and Indiegogo. 

As crowdsourcing gains traction the benefits of reaching individuals via the internet as a tool for funding in art and heritage projects are easy to see.  But before hitting the donate button, contributors should be sure that the organization they intend to contribute to actually does the things that it tells its supporters it does in its donation solicitation. 

By adopting a “truth in advertising” approach, potential donors who love science and modern alternating current electricity or religion and the bible should not be afraid to demand a breakout of how their donations will being put to use.  Charitable organizations have administrative costs, but those who subscribe to the basic tenet of ethical fundraising and accountability should be willing to provide their donors with a breakdown of how much of their donation will be used for the specific cause advertised and how much will be used for other ancillary things. 

Before giving even small sums, donors should start out with a healthy dose of skepticism and look for signs that the organization dedicates its funding in ways that are consistent not just with the museum's fiscal needs but with the donor's own ascribed ethics.  If a donation request comes from a group claiming to care about heritage or the world’s cultural history, a first and simple step might be to spend some time searching the internet to see what the group represents itself to be and who it is affiliated with.  

If your search turns up concerns or questionable ties, and if there is a chorus of people saying there are problems with the organization that need to be addressed then it's probably best for the donor to give his or her $10 to someone they know is truly needy and not just harnessing the potential of the web. 














October 27, 2015

America’s Museum of the Bible - Hobby Lobby Owners Under Federal Investigation for Possibly Trafficked Assyrian and Babylonian Cuneiform Tablets

For years various academics have questioned the collecting and conservation practices of billionaire collector Steve Green, the philanthropist behind the $800 million, eight-story Museum of the Bible.  Slated to open in 2017, the museum will occupy a historically protected warehouse built in 1923 just minutes away from the National Mall and the US Capitol in Washington DC.  But Green's collection raises more questions than it answers.

Where are the thousands of antiquities coming from that have been purchased to supply this expansive museum?   And as a private museum, has the largest evangelical benefactor in the world cut corners in formulating his museum's acquisition policy, forgoing the standards propounded by museum associations and those dictated by international treaties?

Most of the general public are more familiar with the Green family via their landmark case against the US government objecting to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which required that corporations above a certain size provide medical insurance benefits to their employees, including coverage for certain contraceptive methods.  In approving an exemption as a result of the case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S. (2014), the US Supreme Court decided in Hobby Lobby's favour stating that the Affordable Care Act's mandate requiring that for-profit corporations supply their employees with access to contraceptives at no cost to the insured employee could be opted out of by commercial enterprise owners who are opposed to contraceptive coverage based upon their religious beliefs.

GC.MS.000462, a papyrus fragment sold
on eBay in 2012 which has a text from
Galatians 2:2-4, 5-6 in the New Testament
But the Green's success in rulings over contraception has now been overshadowed by a federal investigation into the museum's collection practices regarding antiquities from ancient Assyria and Babylonia, what is now Iraq.

According to the Museum of the Bible website, the Green's purchased their first biblical object in November 2009.   Since that time, their collection has grown to an estimated 40,000 objects including Dead Sea Scroll fragments, biblical papyri, rare biblical texts and manuscripts, cuneiform tablets, Torah scrolls, and rare printed Bibles.   That's 6,666 objects per year or a whopping 18 objects purchased per day. Compare that to the number of employees currently working for the Greens in relation to their new museum and one can surmise that an object's collection history has not been a principle concern among the staff or consultants vetting historic items for inclusion in the museum's collection.

In April of 2014 Italian papyrologist Roberta Mazza, a lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at University of Manchester, pointed out her concerns surrounding a papyri fragment in the Green's collection. Mazza identified a small papyrus codex page containing lines from Galatians 2 in Sahidic Coptic during a visit to the exhibition, Verbum Domini II, organized by the Green Collection in Vatican City, Rome.  As might be expected, the fragment had a less than stellar collection history.

Belonging to the Green Collection, the fragment was first identified back in October 2012 by Dr. Bryce C. Jones, then a PhD student at Concordia University's Department of Religion.  The Galatians 2 papyrus had previously been listed for sale on the online auction site eBay that same year through an irreputable dealer using the name “mixantik”.  “Mixantik”, who also has used the names "ebuyerrrrr" and "Yasasgroup", is/was an Istanbul-based trader with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ancient Coptic and Greek papyrus fragments from Egypt, all with little or no provenance.  This seller was also someone whom academics like Dr. Dorothy King and archaeologist Paul Barford had openly reported for trading contrary to Turkish and International law.

Concerned about the provenance of this piece of papyrus as well as other Green Collection practices, Roberta Mazza asked David Trobisch, the current director of the Museum of the Bible, both publicly and privately for more information on the acquisition circumstances of two specific pieces in the family's collection, GC.MS.000462 (Galatians 2) and P. GC. inv. 105 (the Sappho fragments). 

From the Green's employee she learned that the Galatians 2 Coptic fragment was purchased in 2013 by Steve Green from someone referred to as "a trusted dealer".   Records in the Museum of the Bible/Green Collection archives attest that the papyrus was part of the David M. Robinson collection which was sold at a Christie’s auction in London in November 2011.   

The fact that the auction sale records give no mention of the eBay seller, and conveniently does not contain a photographic record or detailed description of what the 59 packets of papyri fragments contain is suspect to say the least.  This lack of detailed documentation on auction sales involving antiquities makes it difficult to ascertain if any given object's origin is either licit or illicit.  This easy loophole leaves the door open for both buyers and sellers to slide suspect objects into the stream of international commerce undetected.  In a nutshell this method may be used to effectively launders smuggled cultural contraband and give an illegitimate object a plausibly legitimate collection history. 

Speeding forward to today, The Daily Beast has reported that the Greens have been under federal investigation for the illicit importation of cultural heritage from Iraq over import irregularities related to 200 to 300 clay cuneiform tablets seized by U.S. Customs agents in Memphis on their way to Oklahoma City from Israel.  The jointly-written article was written by Biblical scholars Joel Baden, professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University and Candida Moss, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible, spoke with Daily Beast reporters exclusively on Monday and stated that a federal investigation was ongoing and that “There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork—incomplete paperwork that was attached to it.” 

In 2008, the U.S. imposed an emergency import restriction on any archaeological and ethnological materials defined as "cultural property of Iraq. This import restriction was imposed to protect items of archaeological, historical, cultural, rare scientific or religious importance at risk of trafficking as the result of unrest in the country.  This import restriction continues additional restrictions already in effect continuously since August 6, 1990.

The selling of ancient Iraqi artifacts is absolutely prohibited under UN resolution 1483 from 2003, as you may find in paragraph 7 of the link here. 

A source familiar with the Hobby Lobby investigation told reporters at the Daily Beast that the cuneiform tablets were described as samples of “hand-crafted clay tiles” on their FedEx shipping label and were valued at under $300.   If true, this seems less like an simple oversight on the part of the shipper and more like direct falsification, not just of these objects' value but of their historic significance and origin as its doubtful that cuneiform tablets will be showing up in the Wall Decor section of Hobby Lobby anytime soon. 

American imports of art, collections and collectors' pieces, and antiques from Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria increased sharply between 2011 and 2013. Is a pattern developing?  Is this how heritage artifacts from source countries plagued by conflict are being folded into legitimate museum and private collections?

David Trobisch has stated that the Green Collection has one of the largest cuneiform tablet collections in the country.

In selecting antiquities, individual collectors and museums have choices. They can choose to focus exclusively on the historic, aesthetic and economic benefits of their acquisitions in formulating their collections or they can add ethical and moral criteria to their purchase considerations and not purchase conflict or blood antiquities.

By Lynda Albertson 

Excerpt from ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums
©2013