Construction DIVE | In the beginning: A first look at DC’s Museum of the Bible

When Clark Construction was deep in the process of building the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, it decided to take on another — and far different — museum challenge: The Museum of the Bible.

The $400 million museum is funded by the family of evangelical Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, whose personal collection will fill the 430,000-square-foot building. Green is also serving as museum chairman.

While the artifacts on display are largely historical, the technology used to take visitors through the space looks toward the future. Cary Summers, the museum’s president, said the goal is to create “the most technologically advanced museum in the world.”

At a media event on Nov. 17, the construction team shared how it tackled the renovation of a 93-year-old structure on an accelerated schedule, and how project stakeholders collaborated to make technology a centerpiece of the museum.

Museum of the Bible interior
Media stand in what will be a visitor passageway
Credit: Nan Copeland

A fast-tracked schedule

The museum was established as 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2010. In 2012, museum officials purchased the Washington Design Center near the National Mall in Southwest Washington for $50 million. The building originally housed the Terminal Refrigerating and Warehousing Co., and was designated a historic landmark by Washington’s Historic Preservation Review Board in 2014. In 1983, the building was renovated and converted into the Washington Design Center to showcase high-end furniture.

Clark Construction's Brian Flegel at DC Museum of the Bible
Brian Flegel

Clark came on board in the fall of 2013, after beating out four other contractors who also submitted bids, according to Brian Flegel, senior vice president with Clark.

From there, the builders hit the ground running with a $250 million CM-at-risk guaranteed maximum price contract requiring the project team to go from initial work to delivery in just three years. Flegel noted that the accelerated timeframe was less than half the typical schedule for a museum project.

Renovating a historical building brings its own challenges, among them updating the space to meet the needs of modern technology. The SmithGroupJJR design required the removal of every other level from the existing structure to accommodate the height of the exhibits. The team also renovated a warehouse on site, added an infill extension and completed a rooftop addition. The eight-story building will feature five floors of exhibits, including a rooftop garden.

Garden on DC Museum of the Bible roof
A rendering of the garden on the museum’s roof

Crews started the interior demolition process and lowered the ground floor in December 2014 — before Washington Design Center tenants vacated the building. Major construction kicked off in February 2015, once the structure was vacated, with more than 500 workers on site during peak hours.

Incorporating technology for a modern museum

To achieve their tech-driven goals, the owners have invested $42 million in hardware and software for the visitor experience, including a handheld digital device — the size of a small tablet — that will serve as a personal tour guide for every visitor. Summers said the museum is focusing on technology “to make it fun and encourage engagement.”

Museum officials and their technology partners, such as Lenovo and Technomedia Solutions, have filed a patent for the Mobile Device to Touch Table Recognition System, which allows visitors to use their handheld device to create personalized tours of the space and be recognized by and interact with touch screen tables throughout the exhibits.

As they walk through the museum, visitors can also use their handheld devices to listen to a running commentary offered in a choice of 10 languages. More than 100 scholars and religious experts contributed to the museum’s development and exhibits.

The devices use indoor navigation technology to track visitors throughout the building to let them know what they’re looking at. They also offer augmented reality capabilities that, for example, allow visitors to hold the device over the pages of a book or other exhibits throughout the museum and see moving images — such as short videos — that offer a deeper look into the subject matter.