Scrolls Exhibit Paying Dividends

May 7, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Last year’s “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit at the Van Andel Museum Center helped propel the venue toward one of its biggest attendance years ever.

Running from Feb. 16-June 1, the exhibit, a collaboration between the Public Museum of Grand Rapids and the Israel Antiquities Authority, drew 235,541 visitors in 106 days — an average of 2,222 a day. The Art Newspaper, an international journal of news about museums and galleries, ranked the Dead Sea Scrolls as the 40th most visited temporary exhibit of any subject in the world. The only U.S. cities to join Grand Rapids on the list were New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Among antiquities exhibits, the Dead Sea Scrolls was ranked second to “Aztecs,”presented by the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Less than half of those visitors, 112,000, were natives to the West Michigan area. The rest were tourists that left behind nearly $6.5 million in Grand Rapids. When coupled with the direct expenditure of more than $2 million by the museum, the total economic impact on West Michigan was nearly $9 million, according to a joint study by Travel Michigan and Michigan State University.

That translated into a fund balance of $2 million for the museum, which was applied to lessen the impact of a year of dramatic cutbacks — including halving its professional staff.

Now, the Public Museum of Grand Rapids and the Israel Antiquities Authority have reached an agreement with a pair of museums to put the exhibit on tour. Beginning in October, the Dead Sea Scrolls will appear in Texas at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until December, then in January 2005 will begin a three-month stay at the Mobile, Ala., Gulf Coast Exploreum.

This is the first time the Public Museum of Grand Rapids has produced a traveling exhibit and it will provide a significant source of income — the Houston show will net the museum $100,000.

“The exhibition will continue to get exposure, as will the catalogue produced with it,” said Timothy Chester, director and CEO of the Public Museum of Grand Rapids. “From the museum’s point of view, there is a rental fee, which means it’s a source of revenue for us — which will be very useful in meeting budget holes.”

“This is our first foray into the world of producing traveling exhibitions,” he said. “It’s one thing when you produce something you do in house, but it takes another whole set of skills to take it on the road. It’s like the difference between hosting a Broadway show and producing a Broadway show from scratch.”

Project coordinator Ellen Herron will continue to work on the exhibit along with Israeli personnel as it travels. Although the extent of the exhibit’s travels remains up to the Israelis, the exhibit will eventually return to Grand Rapids, either for another run or dismantling and its return overseas.           

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