Sackler Gallery Sets Record as Multitudes Flock To Bible Exhibit

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

The display of rare early Scripture at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is drawing record crowds, even prompting long lines with 40-minute waits last weekend.

"In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000" is both a curatorial and an attendance coup for the museum, which has steadily attracted larger audiences in recent years despite its underground location on the Mall.

Most of the pages and fragments of early biblical works, gathered from libraries and museums around the world, have been brought together for the first time in the United States. Unlike many museum shows, this one is not traveling to other locations.

"You look at what is popular now -- 'The Da Vinci Code,' 'The Judas Gospel.' You have all of that in the air," said James Ulak, the museum's deputy director. "Then you have a devoted audience of scholars and laypeople who have followed these subjects all their lives. They are delighted to see the texts."

Last Saturday the Sackler and the Freer Gallery of Art -- they are connected physically -- had 3,778 visitors. That was the busiest day for the visitors at the Bible show. During the three-day weekend, officials there counted 9,560 visitors, one of its busiest weekends ever.

Because of the physical layout, Ulak pointed out, only 100 to 120 people are allowed into the show at a time. The lenders also requested that the number of viewers be limited because of the fragile state of the materials.

On Nov. 12, when the show drew the biggest crowds, about 400 visitors were waiting in line.

The show follows the development of the Christian Bible from its earliest forms on scrolls and scraps of papyrus to its consolidation in book form. The Sackler organized the show with the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and borrowed the rarely seen objects from two dozen prestigious institutions. The British Library, the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai in Egypt and the Israel Museum were among the lenders.

The 70 artifacts also require careful study; pages and fragments are written in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic and other languages. "The texts are somewhat in the realm of artifacts and relics. That is all a great draw," Ulak said.

Besides the scholars, officials said, the show is attracting Sunday school and other church groups, as well as ethnic groups whose cultural history is represented in the show.

The Smithsonian reported in September that its art museums were attracting record crowds, especially with the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Sackler attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to its exhibition earlier this year on the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Last year a survey of textiles from the Ottoman Empire drew about 1,229 people each day and a 2004 show of Buddha sculptures was the gallery's most popular recent show. It drew about 2,000 people a day. Museum officials haven't figured out the average daily attendance for the Bible show, but believe it could set a record.

The record for single-day attendance was something of a fluke. On July 6, 2002, 27,000 visited the museum, but most had come downtown to prowl the tents pitched on the Mall for the Silk Road Folk Festival. The brutal summer heat drove them into the Sackler in search of air conditioning and bathrooms.

With the Bibles, Ulak said, "we are bringing in what I think is an expanded audience from our usual group." The show continues until Jan. 7 and the museum officials are recommending coming in the afternoon early in the week.

The Sackler wasn't the only Smithsonian Institution facility that was bursting at the seams over the holiday weekend.

The Natural History museum was, and always has been, a popular destination for families. It had 50,000 visitors last Friday.

Also, the zoo had a record 21,130 visitors last Friday, thanks to the mild weather, the new Asia Trail -- and the popular pandas. That was 10 times its tally on Thanksgiving Friday in 2005.

In all, counting Thanksgiving Day, the Smithsonian had 371,146 visitors over the four-day holiday weekend. That beat 2005, but not 2004, when the complex drew 404,768 people.

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