(RNS) — In an empty case on the fourth floor of the Museum of the Bible, a label explains: “The loaned articles intended for display here are still in transit.”
The display, at the beginning of the “History of the Bible” gallery, symbolizes perfectly how the principles guiding the development of the museum, which opened in November just off the Washington Mall, have lagged behind its headlong physical growth.
The promised loans are replacements for materials yanked from the exhibit because of what a museum official calls “guilt by association” with thousands of cuneiform tablets that the Green family, the museum’s founders and its main funders, was forced to return last July, along with a payment of $3 million. That was after the U.S. government brought suit for the “unlawful importation” of goods, likely looted from Iraq, that had been smuggled and mislabeled.
In a statement accompanying the settlement, the Greens said that their family-owned business, Hobby Lobby, “was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process.” Hobby Lobby President and Museum of the Bible Board Chairman Steve Green added: “We have accepted responsibility and learned a great deal.”
There are signs they have. The museum recently added a “provenance” page on its website. Provenance, the record of an item’s origin and its chain of owners, is the accepted museum safeguard, perhaps the only workable one, against displaying objects that have been smuggled or looted.
Most serious museums provide one for any piece whose origins are not immediately clear. The MOTB’s new provenance list is anemic to say the least, with entries for just 32 out of more than 1,000 pieces. This is despite a promise by museum officials to provide a full online catalog by 2015.
But before its gala November opening the museum hired a highly respected cultural property lawyer to vet everything on display and pledged to observe acquisition protocols — and other guidelines of two professional organizations, one of which it plans to join. The holdings in the new building in Washington may soon be assumed to be clean, even if their origins are not immediately transparent.
What apparently is not part of this housecleaning effort, however, is the museum’s much larger sibling collection: more than 30,000 objects stored in a warren of Hobby Lobby warehouses in Oklahoma City and known as the Green Collection.
Legally the Museum of the Bible and the Green Collection are distinct: The MOTB is a nonprofit and the Greens do not technically own it; the Green Collection is the family’s private possession. (Specifically, it is part of Hobby Lobby, the family-owned corporation that the Supreme Court in 2014 found had its own right to religious freedom, allowing the Greens to deny employees insurance for certain types of birth control.)
The museum must provide the government with detailed tax information, has traditional ethical obligations to its public and is observing the trade-group guidelines. The Green Collection does not have the obligations and appears not to have taken on the constraints.
And yet there are perfectly good reasons to apply the same standards in Oklahoma City. First, because dozens, if not hundreds, of objects in the Green Collection may well be subject to foreign ownership claims as looted and smuggled. Second, the Greens continue to do academic study of pieces from their collection, and scholars — at least ideally — are not supposed to touch unprovenanced work. Finally, the bright line between the museum and Green Collection is a recent development: Until a few years ago MOTB officials were describing Green Collection objects as “their” collection. In short: The Green Collection must clean up for the sake of the Bible museum — or the Greens’ vessel for God’s Word will sail the unquiet seas of American public discourse bearing a 30,000-piece albatross.
Buy first, sort later
The original sin of both the Museum of the Bible and the Green Collection was an astounding 40-month buying blitz between late 2009 and early 2013. Primarily under the supervision of an unconventional scholar named Scott Carroll, Green representatives, accompanied at least once by Steve Green himself, vacuumed up biblical artifacts on four continents, with special attention to the Middle East.
With hundreds of millions to spend, Carroll acquired not just pieces, but whole pre-existing collections, from the famous to the undocumented; the speed, volume and buy-first, sort-later approach practically assured that some of the purchases would turn out to be tainted.
This style of acquisition is not new. Some of the world’s great museums were built on troves pillaged during the colonial era or before, and defenders of the Greens’ early methods have suggested that applying a higher standard to the MOTB is prompted less by professional rigor than by distaste for the family’s politics.
This argument mystifies those familiar with the last few decades of museum history. In 2008 the Association of Art Museum Directors adopted a standard set by UNESCO forbidding acquisition or exhibition of any materials whose provenance cannot be traced at least back to 1970.
“People say, ‘Everybody does it,’” said Robert Cargill, incoming editor of the journal Biblical Archaeology Review. “But they don’t. Museums used to do it, but they stopped.”
‘A used-uranium dump’
With the Bible museum moving toward industry standards, the Green Collection remains the true monument to Carroll’s collecting method.
It is a monument, moreover, that few are allowed to examine closely. The best recent illustration of this was the shuffling of an infamous item from the relative daylight of the museum into the black box of the Oklahoma City warehouses.
In 2014 a papyrologist with the University of Manchester named Roberta Mazza, attending a show presented by the Greens at the Vatican, recognized an Egyptian papyrus fragment with a New Testament text as having been offered for sale on eBay two years earlier. Internet commerce sites are popular with smugglers because they require very little background data — no provenance. For a museum to buy antiquities laundered through the web is like buying a gun with a filed-off serial number – the missing information puts one at risk of becoming the last link in a chain of lawlessness.
Looters have been especially active since the Arab Spring, and there is a recent report of their using child labor and committing murder. Yet it took three years from Mazza’s complaint for David Trobisch, director of the MOTB’s collections, to announce that the papyrus fragment would not be in the Washington museum. (Trobisch is trained in textual scholarship, not the hurly-burly of museum acquisitions.)
Meanwhile, the museum refuses to take further questions on the fragment, on grounds that it now belongs to Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby has “respectfully declined” a request to discuss the object. Asked whether the corporation felt any obligation to inform the public about its holdings, a representative responded that “as a private collector, Hobby Lobby does not maintain a policy on answering questions about items it has purchased.” It is as if the fragment had been magicked out of public scrutiny.
Several other troubled artifacts have been associated with the Oklahoma City warehouses. Those smuggled cuneiform tablets were stored there.
In their book “Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby,” Candida Moss and Joel Baden report that the head of the Green Scholars Initiative, the handpicked group of academics allowed to study both MOTB and Green Collection objects, told the authors that upon taking the job he was informed that there were entire crates of papyrus fragments in Oklahoma City no one could match to a provenance.
Some of these may be lawful; some may be hot. And some could be both hot and products of a disturbing recovery technique Carroll demonstrated in a YouTube video, dissolving an ancient papier-mâché mummy mask in a sink full of water to get at the papyrus pieces from which it was constructed. (The method was adopted by Christian apologist Josh McDowell, whose resulting video drew a comment on the website Evangelical Textual Criticism: “The processes described in this video are slapdash, deplorable and not reflective of good practice in Christian scholarship.”)
Moss speculates that such cases are “the visible tip of the iceberg of the Green Collection — but until they tell us or let slip what else they have, it’s anyone’s guess.”
Nobody thinks all 30,000 objects are ethically challenged. Gary Vikan, who toured the warehouses in 2013 while applying for the job Trobisch eventually got, saw many printed books — a category where hot merchandise is rare — and recognized Ethiopian manuscripts from reputable collections. A large aggregation of old Torah scrolls appears to be part of an admirable repair-and-restoration project. And yet that leaves thousands of objects unspoken for.
The objects’ resulting isolation from the legitimate world of ancient artifacts is stark. Cargill, of the Biblical Archaeology Review, says of the collection: “You can’t show a lot of it, because either the pieces are inferior or they’re hot. It’s useless to reputable scholars, who won’t write about recently smuggled goods. You can’t sell most of it to a straight buyer. It’s like a used-uranium dump: It just sits there in the dark and glows.”
A possible solution
The potentially damning asterisk next to Green Collection items can be removed. The first step, according to Vikan, would be to document every object — a huge job, but one for which the Greens clearly have the resources. Next, they could make the resulting catalog completely transparent to the public online, and thus to nations that may have legitimate ownership claims. Finally, the collection could adopt a procedural mechanism for negotiating settlements in good faith.
The Green family may have higher standards forced upon it. Last July The Times of London reported that the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities’ Department of Reparations was investigating Hobby Lobby for what the newspaper called “possible illegal acquisition of national artifacts.” The investigation’s first focus, The Times wrote, was the New Testament fragment offered on eBay. But the article also quoted an unnamed department official as saying, “There is no doubt that there could be more.”
In October, Shaaban Abdel-Gawad, the head of the Reparations Department, confirmed that the case was under investigation. Representatives for both the Museum of the Bible and the Green Collection say they have no knowledge of Egypt’s initiative. But if it proceeds, a second international scandal could rock their world. (Asked how many Egyptian objects are in the Green Collection, a Hobby Lobby representative emailed: “I’m sorry. That’s not information that I’m able to provide.”)
The Green family doesn’t need to wait for the Egyptians, though. It could clean up the Green Collection on its own, for all the right museum-world reasons — plus one more. Both the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case and the Museum of the Bible were intended to showcase and project an exalted morality. The Greens do not see themselves as just another super-rich family: They believe that along with their wealth, God gave them a higher calling.
So far, the circumstances surrounding the artifacts in the Oklahoma warehouses could be seen as falling short of that elevated mission.
(David Van Biema is co-author, with Patton Dodd and Jana Riess, of “The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to Renewing Your Faith with a Rediscovered Spiritual Practice.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
(RNS has a board member who is also on the leadership staff of the Museum of the Bible.)