The following is a guest post by Fiona Greenland.
Last week’s news that Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby faced civil forfeiture for illegally importing Iraqi antiquities came as no surprise to cultural property experts. The company had been under scrutiny since 2015, when news of the investigation broke. And even before the investigation, scholars, including Roberta Mazza, an ancient historian at the University of Manchester, identified inconsistencies in the provenance histories, or ownership records, of antiquities obtained for Hobby Lobby-backed Museum of the Bible. Equally unsurprising in the wake of the forfeiture announcement were the muddled claims about Hobby Lobby funding ISIS. The forfeited antiquities at the heart of the civil complaint were shipped in late 2010 and early 2011 – prior to the period when ISIS is known to have been associated with archaeological looting in Syria and Iraq. Joel Baden and Candida Moss, two theologians who have closely studied the MoB and Hobby Lobby, rejected the connection in their New York Times editorial on July 6. But the HL-ISIS meme persists, with the frustrating result that the everyday illegal practices of the global antiquities market are overshadowed by ISIS drama.
A lot has been written about Hobby Lobby’s dodgy antiquities deal, and I will defer to the legal experts for analysis of the civil complaint (check out Rick St. Hilaire’s blog). There is good reason to care about this story. The illicit removal of artifacts from archaeological sites destroys information about the objects’ context and history, can damage the artifacts, and is linked with other forms of criminal activity. This is true not just in the Middle East but all over the world. Equally worrisome is the possibility that when a big firm like Hobby Lobby spends big money on antiquities, looters are encouraged to keep digging and dealers are emboldened to sell objects that shouldn’t be on the market in the first place. Those are real problems and yet what I want to focus on here is the rest of the iceberg. Hobby Lobby’s buying power is setting ancient historical studies on a new axis.
The Museum of the Bible has some 40,000 artifacts, making it one of the world’s largest private collections of Biblical artifacts and texts. To put that in perspective, the Harvard Semitic Museum, a leading research institution for ancient Near Eastern studies, has about the same number. But it’s not just size that matters. The Museum of the Bible has acquired showstoppers including the Codex Climaci Rescriptus and important pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Harvard Semitic Museum built its collection over some 70 years. The Museum of the Bible amassed its collection in 7 years. Relatively quickly, then, the center of gravity for Biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern studies has shifted. A dilemma for scholars stems from the fact that so many of the Museum of the Bible’s acquisitions are unpublished. It’s a dilemma because the academy favors tantalizing discoveries, and archaeologists, papyrologists, and text specialists in Biblical studies are incentivized to seek out unpublished texts rather than review and refine well-known ones.
The Museum of the Bible’s Scholars Initiative invites academics to research and write about those extraordinary artifacts in its collection. As Baden and Moss have pointed out, however, before undertaking the research scholars are carefully screened. They must sign a non-disclosure agreement. Researchers who have refused to join the Scholars Initiative have been denied access to the collection. Researchers who did join have found themselves embroiled in controversy for appearing to toe the party line for Hobby Lobby.
It’s easy to conclude that squeamish academics should simply stay away. Nobody is forcing anyone to collaborate with the Museum. But to say that is to ignore the underlying problem of turning cultural objects that belong to “all people” into private interests. Here I like the concept of academic sovereignty as formulated by Charlie Eaton and Mitchell Stevens (2017). The concept gets us thinking about an organization’s power over scholarly inquiry and academic instruction. Academic sovereigns straddle multiple institutional domains, are autonomous, ubiquitous, and durable, and contribute to several discourses. While Eaton and Stevens focused on universities, I can’t help but see that kind of power in Hobby Lobby, which has annual revenues on par with several major US universities.
You don’t have to be a Near Eastern specialist to be concerned about the broader outcomes of a private group, with a pronounced political and religious agenda, having the power to control the empirical underpinnings of a discipline. What the Hobby Lobby-Museum of the Bible case means for all of us is that when the basis of knowledge production is privatized the grounds for critical inquiry are also vulnerable to delimitation.
Fiona Greenland is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. She is currently completing a book titled Ruling Culture: Art police, tomb robbers, and the rise of cultural power in Italy.