As I noted on Friday, Steve Green, in his capacity as Chairman of the Board of the Museum of the Bible, announced that the museum would be repatriating some 11,500 artifacts that were acquired with “insufficient provenance.” I’ve taken some time to try to gather my thoughts about this news. My initial reaction was that Mr. Green is making a good resolution to a bad situation (albeit a bad situation of his own creation). As I’ve reflected on what has gone on over the years with the Green Collection and the Museum of the Bible, I view this latest development as a step in the right direction and as a good start.
A couple things about the announcement stood out to me. The first is numbers. The number of papyri being returned to Egypt is said to be “approximately 5000.” I wonder how many they are retaining? It has been hard to get a straight answer about the numbers of different classes of artifacts acquired by Hobby Lobby. Scott Carroll occasionally offered “guesstimations” (his word), but these seem to have little value. At the SBL session in November 2019, when I asked Mike Holmes specifically about the number of papyri acquired by the Green Collection, he said roughly 5000 pieces. So, it would appear that nearly all the papyri in the Green Collection and Museum of the Bible holdings are being repatriated to Egypt. I wonder what those ratios are for cuneiform pieces?
The second thing thing that stood out about the announcement was the overall narrative. Mr. Green presents himself as a naive beginner who learned that you can’t trust everyone (“I knew little about the world of collecting. It is well known that I trusted the wrong people to guide me…”). He has vowed to be better as the museum moves forward. What’s missing here is how the change of heart came about. As some others have already pointed out, this announcement is the direct result of, in the first instance, outside pressure applied early on by Brice Jones and Roberta Mazza (see her thoughts on this latest news here), pressure that was magnified and contextualized by the work of Candida Moss and Joel Baden, and a number of others. Without this initial impetus, I think the Museum of the Bible would be in a very different place today.
But it’s also important to acknowledge the work of some people inside the organization, the “many dedicated curators,” without whom, I suspect, we don’t get this outcome. Mike Holmes hasn’t always had all the answers I’ve wanted from him, but I don’t think there is any doubt that he has been working hard these last few years to try to bring some order to the chaos and achieve an ethical resolution. I’m grateful to him for this work. It’s also worth highlighting the efforts of some of those who left the organization, like Christian Askeland and Josephine Dru, people who were, I would venture, driven out because they were ahead of the curve at MOTB in coming to the realization (again, thanks to the outside intervention or Mazza, Moss, et al.) of the importance of being up front about provenance.
So, we can be grateful to these people and to Mr. Green for eventually doing the right thing, and at the same time I think we are justified in asking for more. I began by describing this announcement as a good start. Here’s what needs to happen next:
The acquisition records: All records concerning acquisitions should be made public as quickly and efficiently as possible. Such records will allow scholars to trace the paths these artifacts travelled on the antiquities market and the networks of dealers trading in unprovenanced antiquities. I understand that many of Hobby Lobby’s acquisition records are less than ideal (recall the vague inventory in the invoice allegedly showing Dirk Obbink’s sale of four stolen Oxyrhynchus papyri to Hobby Lobby). That is unfortunate, but these records should be made public so that scholars can sort through them. I would, for instance, like to know exactly how much of the Hobby Lobby collection was acquired through Professor Obbink, either as a seller or broker of materials. In addition, if Mr. Green is serious when he says he will “will continue to do the right thing” when others (presumably including national governments) can show “better claim” to items he has acquired, then a complete, online, publicly available archive of purchase documentation for the Green Collection would be a good place to begin.
The tax deductions: If Mr. Green truly wants to do penance for his past “missteps,” he will refund whatever profits he or the Hobby Lobby corporation gained from the donation of any of these items to the Museum of the Bible (as well any profits gained from the donation of the fake Dead Sea Scrolls). It is well known that the donation of artifacts to the Museum of the Bible resulted in vast tax deductions for the Greens (documented in Moss and Baden’s Bible Nation). A full reckoning for Mr. Green’s past actions would include the repayment of those ill-gotten gains. Otherwise, the artifacts being returned now could be viewed as simply being discarded after having served their purpose (a 200% profit for Mr. Green through tax benefits).
Ongoing vigilance: Mr. Green’s statement characterizes these problematic acquisitions as the result of ignorance at the start of the undertaking (“early years,” “early mistakes,” “early missteps”) and unscrupulous consultants with whom he “cut ties.” If the nod to consultants is, as it seems, an oblique reference to Scott Carroll, then the “early years” would be roughly 2009 – 2012, when Scott Carroll departed. But as others have noted, the dodgy acquisitions continued after Carroll’s departure. It’s worth recalling that, for instance, the four supposed “Dead Sea Scroll” fragments that Mr. Green bought from Andrew Stimer (now acknowledged as fakes) were purchased in October 2014, and it seems Professor Obbink was on the payroll until 2017. Cleaning house is an ongoing task, not a moment in the past.
So, as I said, this is a good start. Let’s see what comes next.