Visitors to the nation’s capital will soon have a new museum to consider for their list of attractions. The $500 million Museum of the Bible opens November 17, just south of the National Mall. The 430,000 square foot museum contains eight floors, and a wide range of exhibits. For example, visitors will find ancient manuscripts and other relics, a David & Goliath depiction, and displays on how the Bible has influenced culture, politics, art, and more.
The museum’s stated mission is to help guests “engage with the history, narrative and impact” of the Bible, though some critics have questioned whether the mission is in fact that broad. They’ve also noted that the Hobby Lobby retail chain, headed by the museum’s founder Steve Green, agreed in July to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of cuneiform tablets and other items in the Green family collection of antiquities. Federal authorities said they were illegally imported from Iraq.
A well-known Charlottean is heading up the museum’s daily operations. Tony Zeiss, the former longtime president of Central Piedmont Community College, became the museum’s executive director in January of this year. He spoke with WFAE’s Mark Rumsey by phone from Washington.
Mark Rumsey: Back when museum backers first revealed the plans for this facility around 2010, I believe, the mission included some other language about inspiring confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible. Why the change to a softer tone?
Tony Zeiss: Well, keep in mind I only got here January the 3rd of this year so I wasn’t involved in that. I don’t know how that happened. I mean, I’ve read it. I read it in some of the critical articles that we get. But I can tell you, and assure you and your listeners, that this museum has been put together by over 100 scholars – international scholars – and they’re of all stripes. Hebrew scholars, Catholic scholars, Protestant scholars, atheist scholars. And our whole goal was to make this a nonsectarian museum.
Now of course, the Greens are evangelicals, we all know that. And of course I have my own beliefs and other people have their own beliefs. But we don’t try to put our beliefs on anyone else. We just want people to come in and get engaged with this amazing book that’s had such an impact on civilization down through the generations.
Rumsey: And, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green is founder and chairman of the board for this new museum. Given the recent settlements of that federal probe into imported artifacts, is it likely that any of the items in the museum are also of suspect origins?
Zeiss: There are no antiquities that we have in our collection that were ever under, suspect, or under investigation. And to be doubly sure of that, we’ve hired the Cultural Heritage Group here in Washington D.C. to also look at our antiquities to make sure the provenance – that is the history of the article – is as clean as we can possibly get it. If anything is questionable, and we don’t believe anything is, but if anything is it won’t see the light of day in this museum.
Rumsey: Dr. Zeiss, after your retirement from CPCC, what attracted you to this position with the Museum of the Bible?
Zeiss: I’m a believer – everybody knows that in Charlotte – and I prayed about it and said, ‘Awhatever you want my wife and I to do next, let us know,’ and he did. I mean, I got a phone call right away from a search consultant and I will tell you, it’s the most exciting job that I think that I’ve ever had. I love Central Piedmont with all my heart and soul. But opening this museum – there’s never been a world class museum to the Bible. So that’s all very exciting to me.
Rumsey: And what do you personally hope that visitors will take away from spending time in the Museum of the Bible?
Zeiss: Two things. One, we want them to leave saying ‘that was the most extraordinary museum experience I’ve ever had.’ And then hopefully they’ll say,, you know maybe I should take another look at this amazing book called the Bible. It’s still the all-time best seller of all books. It’s also, my wife’s a librarian, and she says it’s also the most stolen book in the libraries. But we figure, you know, probably whoever stole them needed them.