Biblical Archaeology | The Museum of the Bible in the Spotlight

A new museum dedicated to the best-selling book of all time will open next month in Washington, D.C.—just three blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The Museum of the Bible is large and impressive. With a total square footage of 430,000, the museum boasts six floors, including part of a recreated first-century C.E. Jewish village, a ballroom, a performing arts hall, a rooftop garden with Biblical plants, and a 140-foot-long LED screen on the ceiling of the museum’s lobby. It would take a visitor 72 hours to see every artifact, read every placard, and participate in all of the museum’s activities.

The Museum of the Bible’s primary objective is to “invite all people to engage with the Bible.” The museum aims to present the Bible factually, broadly, and creatively and—by making the Bible open and accessible—to allow all people to participate in a dialogue about this significant text. Yet it is amid criticism and praise alike that the Museum of the Bible will open its doors to the public on November 17, 2017.

Chances are you’ve heard some of the controversy surrounding the Museum of the Bible in the months leading up to its opening. Rather than hide or pretend such issues don’t exist, the museum chose to address them directly. On October 17—one month before its opening day—the Museum of the Bible held a press conference featuring a panel of the museum’s leaders and academic consultants to “outline the rigorous process used to create content displayed throughout the museum and answer questions about the museum’s collection practices, some of which have been challenged.” In the first half of the press conference, the panel members addressed a variety of topics on the museum’s approach and exhibit content.

“We are not associated with any denomination,” explained Museum of the Bible vice president Steven Bickley with regard to the museum’s nonsectarian objective. “We embrace different faith traditions.”

“We invite people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible,” said museum president Cary Summers.

To that end, the museum’s main exhibit space is comprised of three floors, each dedicated to the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible. 2,840 artifacts round out the museum’s collection; of these, 2,100 are Torah scrolls, said Summers.

When the panel took questions from the media, one word dominated the conversation: provenance. An artifact’s provenance is its record of ownership. Such a record can provide information on its place of origin and corroborate its authenticity.

In July, the Hobby Lobby corporation—owned by the Green family, who led the effort to create the Museum of the Bible—had agreed to pay a $3 million fine to settle a Department of Justice civil complaint for the purchase of thousands of artifacts believed to have been smuggled out of Iraq. The antiquities dealers working with Hobby Lobby falsified the objects’ provenances in order to import the objects legally into the U.S. Since then, Museum of the Bible leaders and consultants have had to field questions concerning the museum’s acquisition policy and the nature of the artifacts in its collection, as a core of the objects are from the Green family.

David Trobisch, director of museum collections, said that the museum’s acquisition policy has become “very strict” since he joined the leadership team in 2014. He reported that half of the museum’s collection came from the Green family, and about 30 objects that had been planned to be displayed in the museum had to be removed following the civil complaint.

Museum leaders said that in the future, they hope to establish a section introducing visitors to the topic of provenance and to make available an online catalog providing comprehensive information on the museum’s collection. These will not, however, be ready by the museum’s opening day.

Gordon Campbell, a fellow in renaissance studies at the University of Leicester who contributed to the museum’s history and impact galleries, said that the museum’s online catalog will aspire to be like that of the National Gallery in London.

“Every item in the collection will expose everything known,” including its provenance, said Campbell. “The information will be in the public domain.”

But what about the artifacts whose authenticity are currently under scrutiny, including several Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the museum collection that paleographer Kipp Davis, a research fellow at Trinity Western University, believes are fake?

“Any items that we have with gaps [in their provenance] we will discuss,” promised Summers.

“Objects will be displayed with an explanation of the problem,” added Lawrence Schiffman, Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and the Director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University. Schiffman lent his expertise to the history and narrative galleries of the museum.

The press conference made it clear that the museum has consulted numerous scholars about its content and—when necessary—adjusted its content based on those scholars’ feedback. It seems likely that the museum’s narrative will continue to change and diversify in the future. The conference also affirmed that the Museum of the Bible invites all—even its skeptics—to come, learn about the Bible, and take part in this dialogue.

Read more at The Museum of the Bible in the Spotlight.