We Choose What We Say

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I went and visited a very interesting museum while in Jerusalem. It was called The Bible Lands Museum. And I knew, right off the bat, based on the name, that this museum would be heavily skewed toward understandings of history based on Abrahamic religion in general, if not Judaism specifically. But that’s actually part of why I chose to go. I wanted to see what sort of story of our past this place would craft based on the stories crafted by the many Biblical scholars from history. How much would be the Bible bending to history, and how much would be history bending to the Bible?

The museum definitely lived up to its name. Right as you walk in to the main gallery, front and center on a decorational 3/4 wall, was a quote from Genesis 10:32. Not something I necessarily expected to see, but not something I was particularly surprised by either

But I didn’t need to wait much longer to see just how outside of my expectations this museum would go. All I had to do was put in my headphones and hit play on the very first section of the audio tour

As I stood, looking at three separate small glass cases in front of this Genesis quote about Noah’s sons, the audio guide began telling me the history of these three Biblical individuals: Japheth, Ham, and Shem. It took just a few seconds for the cognitive dissonance to hit

You see, while I listened to the tale of these three sons, sons purported by the Bible to have triple-handedly become the forefathers of all future humans on earth, I approached the first case. Right in front, the placard read, in three languages “the descendants of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.” I was curious at first about how these small statues, one of which was not even human but rather an anthropomorphic form with a bull’s head, had come to be associated with this single son of Noah. They had no inscriptions on them, and none of them looked like the other. So how could archaeologists or curators have been so certain that this was who they depicted?

But as I circled the case, looking to see if there were perhaps inscriptions on the backs of the figures, I was met not with words by the creators identifying these figures, but rather words from the curators, painted onto more signs below. And as the curators provided more detail, it was revealed that these were not figures of Japheth at all. Rather, I was looking at a boy from 6th century BCE Samos, a woman and child from mid first millennia BCE Iran or Transcauscasia (provenance apparently not quite certain – as I would soon see was a hallmark of quite a large portion of this collection), a woman from 14th century BCE Mycenae, and a noble from 6th to 4th century BCE Iran. A span of hundreds of years and thousands of miles. And yet, despite each description having a number, no numbers were found anywhere near any of the four figures. The only way I could even guess as to which was which was based on a listing of material for each piece, something not every visitor, or even most, would be able to do. No, instead, the only definitive way that all of these figures had been identified was as the descendents of Japheth

I spent 3 hours perusing the rest of the museum, reading every inscription I could. Almost all of the remaining exhibitions lived up to this same standard

I could sit here listing details from each of the 20 galleries, along with the temporary exhibitions. But this is not an essay, and you are not here to be bored, or to receive a walk-through of that entire building. So instead, I’d like to focus on that one, small glass case, with those four, tiny figures, and that one, giant wall behind it

As people whose work is based in history, there are hundreds of layers of deliberateness in every word we use and every space we utilize to frame what we work with. No choice we make is without meaning, or without consequence. And I can’t help but wonder just how much meaning was intentionally put behind the aspects of that case’s construction. To believe in objectivity and extending goodwill to every fellow member of this academic field, is to assume that much of how that exhibit was framed to me was unintended, a product of my own search for a certain way to read that museum. But to know how much thought and effort and careful to design goes into the practice of curating and exhibit construction, is to be left grappling with the idea that perhaps it was not quite so accidental

The description of these four statues, giving their proper provenances and ascribing their true physical creators credit, was not on the front of the case. It was on the side. And not just any side, either, but the outer side. This case was sitting amongst the other two, in a triangular formation, on the rear house left, with the individualized descriptions on the left side of the case’s column. To the rear house right, was the case ascribed to Ham, with the figure’s physical provenance inscribed on the right hand side of the case. And to the front was the case ascribed to Shem, with the detailed description again on the left (although Shem’s purported descendants had numbers, unlike Japheth’s).

In none of these cases were the physical descriptions on the front, in a place to catch an observer’s eye. Nor were they in the center of the triangle, where a visitor standing inside would be able to see each of them in turn. Instead, they were on the sides facing the routes to the next areas. The sides where, were a visitor to head to the next location without stopping to turn and look for more information, the details would be missed entirely.

And this pattern repeated itself throughout much of the collection. I saw signs tucked into corners behind massive stone constructions, sign stacked a dozen to a case with no numbers on the artifacts, signs set so far back I had to take a picture and zoom in with my phone in order to read them, and signs more than large enough to be legible but with their top third featuring a different colored banner of a Biblical quote. There was, indeed, not a single gallery, out of 20, in the permanent exhibitions, with less than 3 quotes from the Bible. All of them in massive font, all of them in direct relation to at least one display case, and all of them making a statement that did not reflect the story the material culture told of itself, but absolutely reflected a story the Bible told of the places these pieces of the past called home.

Even with my knowledge of history and archaeology, and my deliberate attempt not to be influenced by these Bible quotes, they still shaped my perceptions and understandings of every gallery. I can scarcely begin to imagine the effects this would have on a visitor who did see the Bible as completely, literally, accurate. But perhaps I was supposed to try a little harder to put myself into such a person’s shoes

But the lesson I walked away from this museum with, was not that the Bible is inherently a propaganda piece, nor even necessarily wrong. Instead, it was an unsettling pondering about the ways in which we choose each and every word that we say. No matter the exact intention behind it, the person(s) designing those galleries had to comb through an entire Bible to select the quotes they did and fit them to the objects they did. And while to some, that may be a profoundly questionable decision, and clear show of deliberate bias. To me, I was left grappling, for the rest of the day, with the attempts in my head to find the line I drew that could make this act any different, or less acceptable, or more biased, than any other instance of curatorial labeling. After all, no knowledge source is completely unbiased, saved for uninterpreted physical objects. But these labels, by their very nature, have to be some form of interpretation. While the bias behind assigning Bible quotes to artifacts is indeed more controversial, is it any stronger, in its inherent bias, than any other potentially controversial history that might be included in a placard? I have an answer, but it’s not one that I would use this retelling to force onto others. And it is one that I spent much of the evening examining to ensure I knew just exactly where I stood on the question

This is not, in any way, to say that every interpretation of history is valid. There are interpretations out there that are inarguably more biased, less informed, and more harmful than others. Let me make that absolutely clear

But it is to say that, positive or negative, there is bias in most things. And that is a fact that is particularly clear, and particularly potent, in fields of study centered on the past and its retelling. In every museum label, every scholarly journal, every internet essay. We choose what we say. And what we don’t. Is this something you keep in mind when you frame your worldly understandings for others, and when you weigh whether to accept the understandings presented by others?