Every museum has its controversies, but few topics are more filled with potential pitfalls than the Bible and its history. The Museum of the Bible, which opened to the public Nov. 18, embraces those controversies, creating a multimedia space that explores the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in all of their many confounding aspects.
Located two blocks behind the popular Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the Museum of the Bible was driven and largely financed by the Green family, owners of the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby. Not one to shy away from controversy, Hobby Lobby President Steve Green is a devout evangelical Protestant who wrote several books on faith — most recently This Dangerous Book: How the Bible Has Shaped Our World and Why It Still Matters Today, with Jackie Green and Bill High — and challenged the Affordable Care Act’s abortifacient mandate all the way to the Supreme Court.
Work on acquiring biblical artifacts began in 2009, and construction started in 2015, in a refrigerated warehouse built in 1923. Turning this into 430,000 square feet of usable, high-tech exhibit space and filling it with carefully designed exhibits and artifacts has cost more than $500 million, much of it from the Green family’s personal fortune.
The effort shows from the moment one enters the 40-foot-tall Gutenberg Gates, comprised of 118-inch-thick brass panels bearing the first 80 lines of Genesis in Latin as printed in the Gutenberg Bible.
Inside, past elaborate security scanners, a huge arcade video ceiling stretches 140 feet through the center of the building, displaying a constantly shifting series of images, from the clear skies above to masterpieces of art.
In the minds of many, this places Green firmly in the camp of Christian cultural conservatives, creating an air of suspicion about his new museum and its intention. Various controversies dogged the project, and as things took shape, it became obvious that the museum would stand or fall on the approach it took to the material.
That approach is resolutely neutral. As the museum’s Steve Bickley, vice president of marketing, finance and administration, said, “There are many traditions that call the Bible their own. We are respectful and invite them all,” with the museum’s president, Cary Summers, adding: “People of any faith and no faith can come here and engage the Bible.”
Part of making that happen involved hiring some of the leading scholars and groups in the world to check the work at every turn. It had to be crafted so the idea of the museum as an “evangelical Disneyland” or an opportunity for proselytizing was laid to rest. It had to be denominationally neutral, but also more than merely a series of books and manuscripts under glass.
“It was a world-class idea,” said Green, the acting chairman of the board, “but world-class ideas can still fail in the execution. You have to do it well. If I put a Bible in a glass case in a language I can’t even read, it only holds my attention for so long. This book has an incredible story to tell, and we wanted to tell it in an engaging, creative way. It also needed to be done at a high level of accuracy, which is why we engaged leading scholars.”
One of the authorities involved is professor Lawrence Schiffman, the respected authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and professor of Hebrew and Jewish studies at New York University.
“The overarching narrative is the impact of the Bible,” said Schiffman, “its own internal history of how it came together, spread and was passed on. It exudes one of the best things about art culture in this country. Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Ethiopic, Orthodox — all of them are here. There’s a message of shared culture and respect that the museum exudes. Everyone who comes here is going to go out with that message.”
The Story of the Book
The museum has eight floors, with special exhibits on the lower level and a restaurant, long glass gallery with views of the city, and rooftop garden on the top. In between are the three major exhibit floors, each with a particular approach.
The second floor charts the “Impact of the Bible,” beginning with the influence of the Bible on America.
From diverse beliefs in the New World through the growth of government, religious awakening, slavery, civil rights to today, it follows a course not always smooth. Displays show not only how the Bible inspired abolitionists and the civil-rights movement, but also how it was used to justify slavery.
Presenting how both sides used the Bible is central to the museum’s approach, even if that means including material such as the pro-slavery book A Brief Examination of Scriptural Testimony on the Institution of Slavery. Further on, the space examines the “Bible Now” and how it influences activism, art and culture.
The third floor focuses on “Stories of the Bible” and features three unique areas. The Hebrew Bible space guides people through 15 galleries over 30 minutes. Each tells a portion of the biblical story, from creation to the rise of David, with light, sound, music and imagery.
The “World of Jesus of Nazareth” is a themed environment with recreations of village life in the time of Jesus. One of the most striking features is a recreation of a typical village synagogue. A theater showing biblical films — such as a retelling of the story of John the Baptist featuring actor John Rhys-Davies as Herod — completes the floor.
The fourth floor is where the main historical exhibits are gathered, displaying the fruits of the museum’s painstaking search for manuscripts, books and artifacts. It’s here that visitors see the difficult balance the designers and consultants had to strike when presenting these materials.
The story begins with a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh and a series of displays that set the Bible in its historical and regional context. It continues through early Hebrew texts and manuscripts, illuminated medieval volumes, Torah scrolls, prayer books and first editions.
There are first-century fragments, the beautifully illustrated Hours of Elizabeth de Bohun (c. 1330), a reproduction of Gutenberg’s press, a first edition of the King James Bible, and more than 600 other artifacts showing the evolution of the Bible from its earliest forms to the present day.
Getting It Right
Any one of these items may be fraught with challenges. For example, does acknowledging the similarity of the flood story of Gilgamesh and that of Genesis undermine the uniqueness and authority of Scripture? The museum could have avoided the issue or taken a side, but, instead, it simply leaves the interpretation open.
Getting the Hebrew Scriptures right was central to making the project, so the museum partnered with leading Jewish scholars, the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Bible Lands Museum of Jerusalem, and others to make sure they were sensitive to the Jewish experience of the Bible.
“We view the Bible as our shared common heritage,” explained Amanda Weiss, director of the Bible Lands Museum. “We look at the historicity of the Bible. For us, it was a chance to reach out to the Christian world to show the Jewish roots of Christianity. One of the challenges was coming up with historical accuracy, checking it, and keeping a narrative that was respectful to the Christian, Jewish and nonreligious audience. It is a very universal institution.”
“Our job is to nitpick,” added Schiffman. “Anything that has to do with the Jews and the Holocaust I’ve checked. This presents the history of the Bible as a thing itself. You can experience the story of the Bible on the second floor, but when you get to the rest of it, it’s about how it came together and how it was transmitted. The story is about the book itself.”
The Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit neatly illustrates one problem. Amid interactive video tables that show how to identify scroll fragments and reproductions of scroll jars is a large semi-circular display meant to highlight several scroll fragments acquired by the museum. As the museum got closer to opening, however, some doubt was cast on whether or not these were genuine fragments or forgeries. Pulling the fragments would have left a large hole in the exhibit, so the museum decided to acknowledge the question by adding text to each display. Whether or not the fragments turn out to be real or fake, the issue of forgery and the problems of the antiquities market is also part of the story.
It’s a part where the Green family found itself on the wrong side of the law. In 2010, they purchased 5,548 artifacts for $1.6 million from various dealers, who shipped them from Israel through the United Arab Emirates. Israel is the only country in the region to license antiquities dealers, which simultaneously creates confidence in items bought through these dealers and allows unscrupulous dealers to become a conduit for looted artifacts. There was ample evidence that the artifacts were problematic and possibly looted from Iraq, but the museum proceeded with the purchase. The items, including cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals, were labeled as Turkish ceramics for shipping, and the dealers were paid into multiple accounts, which raised the suspicions of the U.S. Justice Department.
Following a lengthy investigation, five Israeli dealers were arrested and Hobby Lobby forfeited all the artifacts and paid a $3-million fine.
In their statement on the case, Hobby Lobby said it was “new to the world of acquiring these items and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes.”
The incident cast a shadow over the museum at a critical time, leading to increased vigilance as the process for acquiring exhibit items and determining their provenance and authenticity was improved. Green admitted: “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”
The Catholic Angle
A crucial part of developing the museum was shedding sectarian biases, and part of that involved bringing Catholic scholars into the fold. In 2012, the museum brought its traveling Verbum Domini exhibit to the Vatican, which helped forge relationships with the Vatican Museums and Vatican Library. A similar exhibit was mounted in Philadelphia during the visit of Pope Francis, continuing the museum’s process of courting Catholic leaders and press.
The result is a permanent space on the first floor of the museum for rotating exhibits from the Vatican, including the giant illuminated Urbino Bible (15th century) and a number of reproduction frescoes illustrating Church councils. New items will be brought from Rome every six months. In addition, one of the special exhibits for the opening is a series of Stations of the Cross sculptures.
Catholicism permeates the art and exhibits. A section of paintings and sculpture shows how artists depicted the Virgin Mary throughout history. Dorothy Day and St. Josephine Bakhita highlight an exhibit on social justice. There’s the prayer book of Emperor Charles V, who condemned Luther as an outlaw, and various versions of the Vulgate and Douai-Rheims Bibles, among other Catholic versions. Pre-Reformation books and illuminated manuscripts, displays of Catholic architecture and art, the role of monks and nuns, and discussions of Catholic saints and scholars are all in the mix. A trio of sculptures highlighting the intersection of science and faith features Galileo, Newton and George Washington Carver. The Galileo conflict is handled fairly. Issues of the Reformation will always have varying interpretations, but they’re handled as well as could be expected.
Catholics have tweaked exhibits for accuracy, tone and sensitivity, among them Brian Hyland, associate curator of medieval manuscripts. “I was consulted how to frame Catholic teaching about what indulgences were in the 16th century,” he said, “and trying to explain where the mindset and the theology were at the time. I’d look at the texts and suggest how to tweak it to make it more accurate. If you go out to the world saying you’re nonsectarian, and you want the Bible to express what it says for the different faith traditions, then you have to be open to hear what the different traditions are saying. I’ve personally found that anything I brought up has been accepted.”
The Museum of the Bible is telling the story of the holy book in all of its complexity. One display details all the various canons of Scripture, from Jewish to Ethiopic, what books they include, how they came to be in that form, and how they’re used. A wonderful visual touch is a translation display that uses books with different-colored bindings to show all the languages of the world and which are fully, partly or not translated. On screens at the center of the exhibit, people from all over the globe may read Scripture in their own languages.
But why this museum, and why in Washington D.C.?
“We need to be reminded we were all created in the image and likeness of God,” observed Schiffman. “There are certain American values, and we didn’t get them from the Greek part of our civilization, but from the Judeo-Christian part of our civilization. These are great values, and they were transmitted in a certain way, and you see how they affected our culture in the past. And there’s not one word about how they should affect our culture. That’s left up to the person to decide.”