On Thursday, the US Department of Homeland Security announced that over 5,000 ancient Egyptian artifacts had been returned to their country of origin after previously being held at the Museum of the Bible, a Washington, D.C. institution that’s been troubled by various dustups since it first opened in 2017. The ancient objects that were recently returned to Egypt include numerous papyrus documents, heads of statues, fragments of coffins and funeral masks, and the papyrus artifacts are of particular interest to scholars. This mass repatriation has been years in the making, and comes on the heels of evidence that the objects may have been obtained illegally.
During and in the aftermath of the 2011 turmoil surrounding the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, many Egyptian treasures were furtively shipped from the country and sold all over the world; the US government has been particularly stringent about tracking these items down. There was, however, a previous indication that the Museum of the Bible’s return of the items to Egypt would take place. In March of 2020, Steve Green, the Museum of the Bible’s Chairman of the Board, stated that he had begun collecting “biblical manuscripts and artifacts” for the museum in 2009, when he knew little about the practice. Green also admitted that he had obtained “insufficient reliable provenance information” for many of the items he’d collected, leading to the return process that’s now unfolding.
Plus, the Museum of the Bible hasn’t just been reprimanded for questionable acquisition practices: in March of 2020, an internal investigation at the museum found that all of the textual fragments in the museum’s “Dead Sea Scroll” collection were forgeries. Given that so much of the material within the museum appears to be either inauthentic or obtained using shady practices, it’s also interesting that the Museum of the Bible has also restricted scholars from accessing and studying its materials in the past; the museum has reserved that privilege for individuals selected by the Green Scholars Initiative. On the whole, the Museum of the Bible seems like a holy mess.