More on Oxyrhynchus, the Robinson Papyri, and the Museum of the Bible

At Hyperallergic, Michael Press has written up a very interesting piece on some of the various projects that receive financial support from the Museum of the Bible as revealed through tax documents. The whole article is worth reading. Of specific relevance to some of the recent news about “first century” Mark is the following bit:

“Besides funding institutions, the Museum of the Bible also reports grants to individuals — most of which are non-itemized scholarships. One grant, however, is itemized in some detail: in 2016–2017, the museum awarded $225,311 to an unnamed individual as a “research grant for Early Christian Lives, Proteus/Ancient Lives, and Imaging Papyri projects as well as establishing a research center.” All of these projects involve the Oxyrhynchus papyri, the largest group of papyrus documents from the ancient world. …The unnamed individual who received the grant from the Museum of the Bible is presumably Dirk Obbink, an American-born papyrologist currently at the University of Oxford. Obbink is the principal investigator for all of the projects named on the Form 990. Obbink’s relationship with the museum has been public for years, though the exact nature of it has never been clear. Obbink is listed as Papyrus Series editor for the museum’s publications with the prominent Dutch academic publisher Brill, and has been paid by the museum as a consultant, but in comments to Megan Gannon of Live Science in 2015, Obbink suggested that the Greens had more direct control over his work. Unlike many other collaborations, this arrangement was never made public — there is no press release on the Museum of the Bible website. It was also unusual in that the grant was made to an individual rather than an institution. (In a statement to Hyperallergic, the EES declared that “the EES has not, and has never had, any arrangement of any kind with the Museum of the Bible.”)”

There are a number of noteworthy things here. I mentioned earlier that the Ancient Lives project, whose website was down for quite some time, recently resurfaced in a different form. Perhaps it is this injection of funding that resuscitated the site, although I don’t see any reference on the site itself revealing that the project is sponsored by the Museum of the Bible. Curious.

For now, the only other point I’ll highlight is the old Live Science article on the Sappho fragments. Looking back at that interview now with my renewed interest in the Robinson Papyri, a number of things jump out. The article repeats the mistaken view that the University of Mississippi at one point owned the papyri. This is demonstrably not true. As I noted last year, the papyri were the private collection of David Robinson and were bequeathed to William Willis, who donated some, but not all, of the papyri to Duke University. The remaining papyri seem to have been dispersed after Willis died in a way that I have not yet been able to track.

The Live Science article continued with an interview with Dirk Obbink:

“Obbink said he knew the Sappho papyrus had a legal, documented provenance all along. ‘There’s no question in my mind about where the piece came from,’ Obbink told Live Science. ‘I can absolutely guarantee that there’s no question about that.’

So why wait a year to reveal its collecting history? For one, Obbink said he had been invited to take part in the panel at the 2015 SCS meeting specifically to address the text’s provenance, with the understanding that he would be announcing new information. He said he thought the meeting would be an appropriate, scholarly venue to talk about the collecting history.

Those intervening months also allowed Obbink to try to track down other papyri pieces that may be linked to the new Sappho poems. Robinson’s total collection at the University of Mississippi included many more items than the 59 packets from the 2011 Christie’s sale. Through various sales, these texts have dispersed widely across collections in Europe and the United States over the past few decades. Obbink said he wanted to check if any more Sappho fragments were hidden in those scattered manuscripts.

“The Robinson collection hadn’t been thoroughly looked at since it was all together,” Obbink said. “There was a quite extensive paper trail to try to track down. I had to see if there were any other pieces that could be recovered and published with the group. That didn’t happen overnight.” Obbink did not actually find any more Sappho pieces from earlier dispersals of Robinson’s collection, but, he added, “If someone else had identified other fragments in the collection, that would have interfered with my research.” … In the coming months, Obbink said the plan is to make the collecting documents and related photographs of the London Sappho papyrus available online, including letters, transcripts and other papers from people, including Robinson, who worked on this collection early on. …Some skeptics raised the possibility that the Sappho papyrus might not have belonged to the Robinson collection at all — that instead it may have been tucked in with the lot before the Christie’s sale. But Obbink says the piece does have its original Robinson collection inventory number attached to it. That will hopefully be made clear when the documents go online.

So, I wonder: Were these documents ever placed online? And what is the “original Robinson collection inventory number attached to” the Sappho fragments? Does it fit into the sequence of pieces at Duke? Perhaps I missed these announcements. If anyone can point me toward this information, I would be most grateful.

This entry was posted in Antiquities Market, Duke Papyri, Green Collection, Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to More on Oxyrhynchus, the Robinson Papyri, and the Museum of the Bible

  1. Prof. Christopher P. Jones has recently posted comments, “Some thoughts on P.Oxy LXXXIII 5345 (P. 137)”
    https://www.academia.edu/36897353/POxy_83_5345_Gospel_of_Mark_

  2. Not sure how this part is relevant here but Prof. Willis died, aged 84, July 13, 2000, after ill health (affecting his eyesight) and reportedly after a stroke.

  3. Melissa Sellew says:

    Thanks for your continued interest and questions about the ethics of papyrological research, Brent. It is much appreciated. Let me comment on one thing in particular, the rebooting of the Ancient Lives project: as far as I know from my personal involvement, no Green Scholars Initiative, or Hobby Lobby, or Museum of the Bible funds were ever used in support of Ancient Lives – certainly not directly. (I do not include here any support those entities may have given Dirk Obbink, who was our UK partner in affording access to and use of digitized images of the Oxyrhynchus papyri for the website, for any other purposes or activities.) In 2013 I became the Principal Investigator for a team at the University of Minnesota on a research initiative that arose out of the original Ancient Lives web-based crowdsourcing project that had been launched in the summer of 2011 (which itself was a collaboration between Oxford and the University of Minnesota). We applied for a joint NEH and AHRC (UK) grant, with the Oxyrhynchus Papyri project, headed by Obbink at the time, as our UK partner; the title of the project was “Resurrecting Early Christian Lives: Digging in Papyri in a Digital Age” and was funded (2014-2017). In addition to permitting the site to run for an additional 18 months as originally set up (at least until the operating system at our host site the Zooniverse shifted platforms, making the site inaccessible), the grant funded extension of the platform to include Coptic texts, a complete overhaul of the user interface, as well as major improvements to the unseen “back end” of the system running the user data and algorithms. I am not aware of any infusion of funds into Ancient Lives stemming from any sources besides that NEH/AHRC grant, apart from additional Zooniverse and University of Minnesota contributions to development of the newly designed web interface. I have not had direct contact of any sort with Obbink since my visit to the Sackler Library at Oxford in July of 2015, so cannot comment on what support he has or has not received for his other projects. We are currently seeking new partners who wish to employ our crowd-sourcing program to help identify or otherwise classify unpublished texts, but insist that these partners be committed to free access, transparency, and open source principles so central to contemporary standards of scholarly ethics.

  4. Patty says:

    I wish we could get some clear answers.

  5. Of potential interest:
    Origin Stories: A Forum on the “Discovery” and Interpretation of First-Millennium Manuscripts.
    https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/origin-stories-forum/

  6. Patty says:

    I appreciate you keeping up with this because it feels as though hardly anyone cares. If I lied to the public as a professional I’d get canned ASAP. But not them! They just keep on keeping on as if they hadn’t done a thing.

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