The Israel Museum on Tuesday pulled the priceless Dead Sea Scrolls out of a heavily fortified vault ahead of its re-opening to the public following a five-month shutdown due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The museum, Israel’s largest cultural institution, closed down in March as the country entered lockdown. But budgetary problems left the Yerushalayim museum shuttered after Israel began easing restrictions on public spaces in May.
Most of the museum’s 500 employees have returned from months of furlough ahead of Thursday’s re-opening, which will also see the return of other treasured artworks and artifacts. Throughout the empty galleries, curators and cleaners dusted off works, removed protective coverings and returned masterpieces from storage.
The Dead Sea Scrolls — fragile, two millennia-old parchments that include the oldest existing copies of Biblical texts — came out of “deep sleep” in the museum’s climate-controlled vaults to return to display, Shrine of the Book curator Hagit Maoz said.
The delicate scrolls require low light and humidity for their long-term preservation.
“Each scroll sits in the showcase only for three months, then we rotate the parts,” said Maoz. “Because we didn’t know how long we won’t be here … to be on the safe side we decided to take everything down” to the vault.
“I feel that the museum is returning to life,” she said. “A museum that can’t welcome its patrons is a dead museum. An artwork and exhibit are not complete without visitors.”
Though the country began rebooting the economy in May, the Israel Museum struggled to raise funding to allow it to “sustainably open for the duration of the crisis,” director Ido Bruno said.
Israel closed its borders at the start of the lockdown, and the international tourism on which the museum relies for ticket sales plummeted from a record high of over 900,000 visitors in 2019 to zero by mid-March. The museum received funds from American donors and a pledge of funds from the Culture Ministry that helped it re-open.
In line with Health Ministry regulations, entry to the museum will be restricted to a cap of 2,000 people at any given time, and tickets must be ordered online in advance.
“It’s very, very difficult to be a director of a closed museum, because museums want to be open,” Bruno said. “They want to welcome people. They want to open up.”