Biblical history nestled in neon buzz

Ancient history competes with Broadway glamor in New York's Times Square.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Visitors approach the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at Discovery Times Square in New York. The exhibit opened Oct. 28 and will run through April 15, 2012.

Ancient scrolls might seem to have a hard time competing with Broadway glamour for tourist dollars. But that's just what Discovery Times Square is trying to do.

In the two years since it opened, the for-profit exhibition space in New York City's theater district has drawn more than 1.5 million visitors to exhibitions on subjects ranging from Harry Potter to King Tut, Leonardo da Vinci to Pompeii, making it the fourth most attended museum in New York, home to some of the world's finest museums.

Discovery's next exhibition is likely to feature China's life-size Terra Cotta Warriors, which date back to the 3rd century BC.

"We are trying to find that sweet spot between educational, intellectual, entertaining, and emotionally engaging exhibits," says James Sanna, the chief executive of Discovery Times Square.

Partnering with governments and nonprofit organizations, as well as cable TV's Discovery Channel, Discovery Times Square seeks out exhibitions that are academically rigorous and educational but at the same time deeply compelling.

For "Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Biblical Times," Mr. Sanna says he assembled "an all-star team" of scholars: Risa Levitt Kohn, a professor of Hebrew Bible and Judaism at San Diego State University, and Debora Ben Ami, a curator at the Israel Antiquities Authority, served as co-curators. Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Judaic studies at Yeshiva University in Israel, also consulted.

While Discovery often hosts exhibitions already seen elsewhere, "Dead Sea Scrolls" was its own undertaking, as was its previous exhibition, "A Day in Pompeii," which is now at Boston's Museum of Science.

Discovery's exhibition space, which once housed the printing presses of The New York Times, sits cheek by jowl with several Broadway theaters. The Times Square area draws more than 35 million tourists each year, according to an estimate by Forbes magazine.

Discovery isn't profitable yet, says Sanna, who himself comes from the world of entertainment. He was executive producer at Radio City Entertainment.

While Discovery exhibitions employ the latest in high-tech gadgetry (such as six wall-to-ceiling video screens for "Dead Sea Scrolls") to help tell a compelling story, scientific and historical accuracy is always primary, he says. "The bells and whistles are nice, but if [the exhibition's] not factually based and historically correct, those are meaningless."

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