ROM bringing Dead Sea scrolls to Toronto

In a blockbuster that the Royal Ontario Museum compares to the 1978 King Tut exhibit, the museum plans to bring the Dead Sea scrolls to Toronto next summer.

In a blockbuster that the Royal Ontario Museum compares to the 1978 King Tut exhibit, the museum plans to bring the Dead Sea scrolls to Toronto next summer.

Sixteen of the scrolls, which were found by Bedouin goat-herders and by archaeologists between 1947 and 1956 in 11 caves on the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, will be on display.

The scrolls, written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek between 250 BC and 68 AD, had been hidden in the caves for more than 2,000 years.

"The Dead Sea scrolls are the earliest written record of much of the first testament or the Torah or the Bible plus a number of other texts about law and the apocalypse," ROM chief executive William Thorsell said in an interview with CBC News.

"They have been in those jars for 2,000 years, so when you look at Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, the Ten Commandments, these are the earliest written records that we have of these foundation documents really of a number of great traditions," he said.

The exhibit is the most ambitious planned by the ROM since the opening of its new Crystal extension designed by celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind.

"It's really a symbol of why did we do all that expansion; why are we still building galleries here," Thorsell said. "We're really doing it to try to generate activity like this, programming that really matters to people."

Thorsell is hoping the chance to see the ancient scrolls will draw tourists to Toronto.

Six months of lectures, special programs and events around the exhibit are planned to engage students and the public in debate about the significance of the ancient documents.

"They are foundation documents in the Jewish tradition, in the Christian tradition and they are seen as divinely inspired in the Islamic tradition," Thorsell said.

"So this really gives us an opportunity in Ontario, where we have a lot of diverse people, to sit down and have some actual public debates about who wrote this material, how it's united but also divided people over the years, what the ideas are in them and how some of those ideas have changed. "

Eight of the original scrolls, written on papyrus and parchment, will be on display for three months at a time.

That's only a fraction of the more than 1,000 scrolls found, but visitors will have access to a full written translation of all the works, along with videos and background information. Also to be displayed are the jars they were stored in and the stone portals of a temple that the Romans disassembled in 70 AD as well as other artifacts from ancient Judea.

They'll be shown in the huge Garth Weston Hall, which has the security and humidity controls needed for such fragile objects, Thorsell said.

The ROM negotiated the exhibit with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which has responsibility for the scrolls and has made them available to scholars for study.

"The scrolls come over on a first-class seat carried by people who are responsible for them and there is  a very strict protocol that we are dealing with here on bringing them to Canada, how they are displayed — light is the biggest enemy — plus you have to worry about humidity and temperature and so forth," Thorsell said.

The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit will run June 27, 2009, until Jan. 3, 2010, at the Royal Ontario Museum.