These days, when you enter the pretty Bowers Museum of Cultural Art (the lovely Spanish courtyard of which has played host to so many elegant nuptials), you move through a metal detector and get your purse searched at security. That's not the bad part, though; that comes a moment later at the front desk, where a nice lady makes you give her $18 to see "The Holy Land," an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, David Roberts and the House of David Inscription.
That's probably where my relationship with the Dead Sea Scrolls went sour.
See, here's the thing with money. John McCracken's slick slabs of resined red wouldn't piss me off if they didn't cost $30,000; I would just benignly ignore them. But they do cost $30,000, and so they must be vanquished because they are bad and wrong and even dangerous, to be wildly hyperbolic about the whole thing.
The Bowers? Had I paid, say, nothing to get in, I would have found the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit dull—but as the chipper civic booster I am, I would have nonetheless put the best face on the thing. It's, you know, educational and full of history, and right-minded people like things that are educational and full of history, so I'm sure I could have found something pleasant to say, although I wouldn't really have meant it.
But $18 changes everything. Those are blockbuster-exhibit prices usually reserved for King Tut's tomb or parking at Disneyland. The Dead Sea Scrolls could be just such a blockbuster exhibit—they're 2,000-year-old parchments around which religious scholars drool as they used to for the Shroud of Turin. They were discovered—filthy and crumbling in a damn cave—by a shepherd in 1947. Literary critic and novelist Edmund Wilson learned Hebrew specifically to probe their mysteries. More recently, they've been poked at (figuratively) by a JPL researcher who used the technology of deep-space exploration to read stuff that looked like nothing more than the ashes from a cigar. That's exciting! And fascinating! And educational and full of history!
The only problem is there's nothing to see. Despite my searching, I never saw the two fragments on display at the Bowers. I'm sure they were there somewhere, but—cripes!—two scraps in a museum?! It's almost as though you spend your hard-earned two bits to see a mermaid, and Barnum & Bailey give you a dead goat. Sucker!
The two bits of parchment are housed somewhere among a plate ("Plate," Crusaders period, 11th to 14th centuries); an Ashdoda figurine (a bizarre melding of a woman and a chair, so it becomes a chair with breasts, circa 1200-600 B.C.E.); an "amulet of Canaanite goddess" (circa 2000-1550 B.C.), which is shiny and pretty and golden. (B.C. and B.C.E.—Before Common Era, which is much more PC and less Eurocentric than "Before Christ"—are used interchangeably in the identifications here.) There is the House of David Inscription—a couple of pieces of rock that, after they'd broken, had been used as building materials until someone found them in '93 and joined them back together. It's cool: originally, it was a victory stele by King Hazael of Aram, celebrating how many kings he'd killed (70!), including Ahaziahu son of Jehoram, king of the House of David. See, this is cool because nowhere in the world besides the Old Testament is there any reference at all to King David, leading some to argue he's apocryphal, like King Arthur or Jan Crouch's breasts. But King Hazael, by slaying Ahaziahu, has laid the matter to rest! Unless, of course, King Hazael was himself a victim of Israelite mytho-cultural misrepresentation.
There are glorious photos in the exhibit: if I weren't feeling so taken, I probably would have spent most of this column describing their glowing beauty. Taken by the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jerusalem, they convey the quiet inside the traditional burial place of Aaron. It's primitive and ancient, and lit with eerie wonder. There are photos from 1914 of vast rocky deserts, with outcroppings of ruin just popping up amid the everyday. There are photos of a sheik with his son and daughter and a parrot. There is a photo of the same sheik in a tailcoat and starched high collar.
There are 50 lovely mid-19th-century lithographs by David Roberts. All in delicate pastel colors, they show people in turbans chatting casually atop fallen bits of temples, women with pots on their heads at the Fountain of the Virgin, and men in gauzy pantaloons. But one can only look at a few of these before the landscapes start running tediously together; all the figures are small, and all the columns are big. It's like looking at someone's vacation slides, but without any pictures of Maui.
At the back of the museum is the concurrent show "The World of the Etruscans." (Indigenous to Tuscany, the Etruscans lived well from the 7th to the 1st century B.C., when the Romans handed them their asses.) Much more successful, and with 335 artifacts instead of 20, it almost succeeded in calming me down. There, in addition to lots and lots of bowls and vases (in my first-ever art-history survey class, we had one semester to cover everything from the prehistoric to the Gothic, and our professor still took a month to teach us the differences between jug-handled amphorae and, um, other amphorae. God damn, I hate bowls and vases) are fabulous statues from the 7th century B.C. One bit of text informs us that the head to one statue clearly doesn't belong to the foreshortened body on which it rests. Eh, let's show it anyway!
Statues lie sexily atop their sarcophagi, looking like pygmies. Beautiful heads from the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C. are as intricate and shapely and exceptionally sculpted as anything the Greeks did later. The exhibit shows that one can pinpoint when Etruscan society began to stratify into classes. It points out they were the first to cultivate olives. It points out lots of things because it's educational and full of history—but at the same time, it doesn't suck!
"The Holy Land" and "The World of the Etruscans" at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; www.bowers.org. Through Jan. 9. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. $12-$18.
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