July 20, 2007

Planes, Trains and Dead Sea Scrolls

By Michael Klam

With its concentration of museums, gardens and theaters, Balboa Park is San Diego’s cultural epicenter. In a single day you can take a class in botany, learn to do the tango, view a fresco, ride a mini-train, sip tea among Birds of Paradise and Indian Shots and catch a world-class production under the stars.

You’ve got community artists at the Centro Cultural de La Raza and the World Beat Center on the southeast side, flamingos roaming wild (sort of) on the northeast side, the Museum of Man to the west, the roses to the east, the fountains, the pond, and the orchids spreading their waves of liquid and color throughout.

Johanna Saretzki, Hispanic Outreach Coordinator for the San Diego Natural History Museum standing in front of the pictures that depict Israel and San Diego asking the question “can you tell the difference?”

In short, Balboa Park is a place where San Diegans can roam and find everything from peaceful places under the trees to worlds of exploration and thought-provoking exhibition in galleries and museums.

On June 29, The San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) — a binational museum dedicated to researching and exhibiting the natural evolution and diversity of Southern California and Baja California — opened the most comprehensive display of the Dead Sea Scrolls since their discovery in 1947.

The scrolls, one of history’s most important archeological treasures, give insight into ancient Israel and the origins of Judaism and Christianity. Found near the Dead Sea in a region remarkably similar to San Diego, the scrolls include both biblical texts and non-biblical descriptions of community values and culture. Written as early as 250 BCE, their themes range from moral guidance to social identity, from deep connection to transcendence.

The exhibit itself is a journey (with text and audio guidance in English and Spanish). You are first greeted by pairs of photographs and asked whether or not you can tell which is San Diego and which is Israel. The photos are so similar — beautiful, arid, Mediterranean-style climates — that you find yourself second-guessing your first impressions, especially the final beach and cliff shots.

Then, top Israeli photographers Neil Folberg and Duby Tal take you on a trip through the landscapes of Israel, including some stunning shots of the unique color and earth formations of the Dead Sea region.

As you make your way to the scrolls, you travel into a written and photographic history of the archeology and science behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. You read about the first Bedouin goat herder to stumble on the historical documents in the caves outside Qumran and the group of scientists who would decipher and splice together 50,000 fragments, taking over a decade to interpret the texts. By the time you head down to the bottom floor of the museum to see the actual writings, you have experienced a complete history of the places and people behind their discovery and preservation.

“To allow yourself to be immersed into the world of the scrolls is fascinating,” says Delle Willett, Director of Marketing at SDNHM. She explains that people have different motivations for exploring the exhibit. Some come for religious reasons or to confirm their beliefs. Others are interested in the historical or archeological side. Either way, the museum is set up to allow visitors a “gradual way to do the discovery,” she says.

Traveling to the bottom floor of the museum, you enter a cave-like environment, darker and cooler than the floors above. (The room has to be darker to preserve the scrolls.) You are given an audio stick with options in English and Spanish, and your self-guided tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls begins: Deuteronomy manuscripts containing the Ten Commandments; the War Scroll, describing life and philosophy at Qumran, the archeological site nearest the caves; the Damascus Document, which guided fathers in “guaranteeing the moral character of their daughters as prospective brides;” songs of the Maskil (sage) to protect against evil spirits; the jars, pottery, coins and writing instruments of the Qumran community whose inhabitants may have believed in the promise of a terrestrial paradise — Ezekiel 47’s revivifying river streaming from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea — just before they got sacked by the Romans.

The writings speak of war and conquest, and you are asked by the voice on the audio stick, “Who stashed the Dead Sea Scrolls? Did the people of Qumran hide scrolls as the Romans approached? Perhaps people from Jerusalem hid the scrolls when the Romans sacked the city. Maybe all of these explanations apply.”

As you leave the exhibit, the last voice you hear is that of SDNHM’s president, Dr. Michael W. Hager. He invites you to visit the talk-back area and express your thoughts about the scrolls. “The written word still has incredible power,” he says. “We respect diversity of faith. What do the Dead Sea Scrolls mean to you? What ideas inspire you? What is your point of view?”

Willet also believes in diversity, exploration and community participation at the park. “Balboa Park,” she says, “where minds explore and spirits soar.”

And speaking of soaring, the San Diego Air & Space Museum (SDASM) opened on June 28 its exhibit, Historia de la aviacioñ en México, a history of Mexican aviation depicted in paintings.

Cross-fertilized — in the sense that the paintings, brought by renowned artist Candelario Castañeda, are accompanied by poetry and song — the exhibit shows the rich history of Mexican aviation through words, music and visual art.

This bilingual display finds a fitting space in San Diego because of Charles Lindbergh, the namesake of our airport, who made a tremendously popular goodwill flight to Mexico in 1927. His visit inspired robust enthusiasm for aviation, other goodwill flights, record attempts, and the manufacture of the modern aircraft in Mexico.

A photo of Lindbergh in Mexico City is a part of the “Historia de la aviacioñ en México.” exhibit.

Eighteen paintings chronicle Mexico’s aeronautical achievements: Joaquin de la Contolla’s first flight in 1877, Mexico’s air participation in World War II and a 2005 tribute to Boeing Aircraft.

“We are definitely interested in the history of Mexican aviation,” says curator Karen Lacey. “We want to build a collection and exhibit more of that rich history,” she says. SDASM has invited the Hispanic community to come to the museum and give their oral histories of aviation in Mexico and bring their artifacts.

“People stop and look,” says Lacey. The combination of photographs, music and poetry is intriguing to the museum visitors. “This exhibit is a first step in trying to reach San Diego’s huge Hispanic base,” she says. “(Mexico) has as long a history in aviation as in (the United States).”

Visual art is also coming to the San Diego Model Railroad Museum (SDMRM) in Balboa Park for the first time. This groundbreaking exhibit, From Model to Canvas: A Private Collection of Mexican Railroad Paintings, opens on Aug. 4.

It was a Mexican donor — preferring to remain anonymous — who provided the artwork created by artists such as Susana Maqueda, Mario Rangel and Guillermo Garza Galindo.

Highlighting work from the late 20th century, the bilingual exhibit offers visitors a chance to view model trains and their aesthetic, artistic interpretations on the canvas. While the museum dedicates itself to “the heritage of railroading,” this display is also “a celebration of Mexican artists,” according to Evangeline Reed, Marketing Coordinator for SDMRM.

“There is a sense of culture that we haven’t had in the museum,” says Reed. “We want to connect with the Hispanic community. We are totally aware of San Diego’s diversity,” she says.

The model railroad exhibit, www.sdmodelrailroadm.com/, runs from Aug. 4 to Sept. 3.

The aviation exhibit, www.aerospacemuseum.org, is currently open and runs until Aug. 19.

And the Dead Sea Scrolls, www.sdnhm.org/scrolls/, also currently open, ends on Dec. 31.

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