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Dead Sea Scrolls

San Diego exhibit rare chance for up-close view of ancient history


Now nearing the end of its six-month run in San Diego, the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition has proven every bit as popular as its hosts had anticipated. As of Thanksgiving week, the presentation had been seen by more than 260,000 visitors.

In fact Black Friday was not only the busiest shopping day of the year, it was the biggest day yet for the Dead Sea Scrolls — 4,600 visitors in one day.

The popular exhibition will be around until the end of the year, and the show's organizers are projecting that the scrolls will attract a total of more than 400,000 visitors when all is said and done. That's well past the goals set by the San Diego Natural History Museum when the exhibition opened and museum staff have been pleasantly surprised at how the exhibition has appealed to people from all walks of life.

"I expected seniors and conservative type people," explained Delle Willett, the museum's marketing director, "but I've also seen people come through here covered in tattoos and body piercings. I've seen a lot of young people — really, the whole span of society."

The masses have come to see 15 Dead Sea Scrolls that are on display at the museum, located in San Diego's Balboa Park. Discovered in Israel beginning in 1947, the scrolls are widely acknowledged to be among the greatest archaeological treasures ever discovered and contain writings from the formative years of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Muslims, too, find elements of their religion in the scrolls. Thousands of fragments were found and then pieced together into more than 900 separate documents.

The 14,500-square-foot exhibition is proving popular because it's not just — as you would imagine — a number of ancient parchments on display in a dimly lit room. More than half the exhibition space is devoted to putting the discovery into context. A series of vivid, enlarged photos of Israel and the location of this archaeological find set the stage for the scrolls, transporting visitors to the Middle East and its arid countryside. In fact, the museum makes much of the fact that Israel and San Diego share climates that are quite similar.

Another popular part of the exhibition features timelines of various religions that also help give context to the discoveries and their importance to the development of these religions.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are only allowed out of Israel for three months at a time, which is why there have been two consecutive sets of scrolls on display during this six-month exhibition. There is talk that quite soon the scrolls will only be on display in Israel because they are getting too fragile to continue traveling.

Visitors to the exhibition have come from every state in the union as well as many international countries, according to Willet. San Diego County residents have accounted for a good portion of the visitors with about 56 percent coming from outside the county. Interestingly, a lot of visitors are returning for second visits because they just couldn't take it all in the first time, or because they returned with friends or relatives.

The museum suggests that you plan a minimum of three hours to see the exhibition and, to avoid crowds, come midweek or after 3:30 p.m. You'll also want to come about 30 minutes ahead of your showing time to allow plenty of time for the mandatory security check.

For more information on the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition, phone 877-946-7797 or visit Admission is between $20 and $28 for adults, $15 for children between 3 and 12.

Balboa Park

The San Diego Natural History Museum, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, is in Balboa Park, so there are plenty of other attractions close by to fill out your day. The park is home to the San Diego Zoo as well as 14 other fascinating attractions and museums. The zoo, one of the top-rated in the world, is worth a full day all by itself, but there are several other attractions to choose from that would be perfect to fill out your day before or after your visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Many of Balboa Park's buildings were the result of two expositions — the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition. Everywhere you go in the park you are reminded of the ornate, almost palace-like designs common in the first part of the 20th Century. When you get to the park, drop by the Visitor Center where you can buy combo passes that allow you to get in most of the museums for one flat price.

In the same area as the Visitor Center is the Museum of Photographic Arts. Rows and rows of wall-mounted enlarged black-and-while photos are tastefully arranged just like you would expect in any exhibit of modern art. This modern art does a wonderful job of conveying many historic times from earlier in the century. Many photos seem to be of cities and people of the 30s and 40s, including an almost unbelievable view of New York City in a 40's snow storm.

The museum features photos by some of the greatest photographers in the country but we thought some of the most fascinating photos were part of an exhibit by film star Jeff Bridges. His wife gave him a special camera shortly after they were married and this camera, in effect, creates wide angle black and white photos that are the same shape as a movie screen. Bridges apparently has taken photos on most of his movie sets, and this "behind-the-scenes" look at movie-making is not only artful, but interesting.

Next door is the Model Railroad Museum, a sure-fire hit with kids and a reminder of boyhood times for most baby-boomers. The Model Railroad Museum offers all the train set you always wished you could have had — actually a series of trains and tracks that show highly detailed dioramas of the local terrain as well as that of Southwestern U.S.

It's obvious that many hundreds of hours have gone into the careful re-creation of small cities, passenger stations, switching stations, freight yards and even such things as model refineries and other industrial locations. The train systems are not located all in one room, but spread throughout a series of rooms that take the visitor through the various geographic regions. Standing somewhere in the middle of it all are the middle-aged engineers — still boys at heart, every one.

Down at the southern edge of the park is the Aerospace Museum. This is probably the only air museum in the country that has the added realism of being located almost directly under the flight path of a major airport. When you�re looking at historic aircraft displays, somehow it just seems fitting to have the building rattled every several minutes by aircraft seemingly just a couple of hundred feet overhead.

The Aerospace Museum is a jewel for anyone fascinated with airplanes. The circular building is packed full of real aircraft, all displayed logically, whether by type or by historic timeline. The museum offers a replica of the Wright Brothers' airplane and even gives visitors a chance to lay in a flight simulator to see what that flight might have been like. A progression is shown through World War I aircraft, including one display where you can view the uniform, maps, goggles and other equipment of a real World War I ace. For those interested in military weaponry, it's astonishing to see what they used for bombs — a small hand grenade with missile fins that they just threw out of the cockpit.

Be sure and stop by the Spreckles Organ Pavilion, where free concerts are offered each Sunday. This has provided the soundtrack, no doubt, for many San Diego vacations and it's a great place to get off your feet for a few minutes while listening to a top-rated musician demonstrating this extraordinary pipe organ. Visitors of all ages enjoy the music.

For more information on Balboa Park, call (619) 239-0512 or visit

Photos courtesy San Diego Natural History Museum

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