WASHINGTON — Three blocks from Smithsonian exhibits depicting the Big Bang and evolution, Washington’s newest museum will tell a different story of the creation of the universe.
The Museum of the Bible will showcase the impact of the Old and New Testaments using ancient artifacts and examples of ways the holy book has influenced the modern world.
The museum welcomes everyone from atheists to true believers to explore its eight-story, high-tech museum that uses modern technology to present ancient parables.
“No other book has had such a great impact on society, particularly Western culture,” said museum executive director Tony Zeiss. “It’s had an impact on literature, on art, on fashion, on politics. You name it.”
Opening in November, the nonprofit museum is the brain child of Steve Green, the evangelical president of Hobby Lobby who has been at the crux of two church-and-state controversies. One involves his efforts to bring biblical teachings into public schools through a series of four secondary school courses. The other was Hobby Lobby’s win in a landmark case in 2009 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that companies owned by deeply religious families can use faith-based objections to sidestep the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate.
Around the same time, the Green family began acquiring biblical artifacts a few at a time until members had amassed tens of thousands, which they displayed in traveling exhibits. Some of the acquisitions caught the attention of federal prosecutors who charged that the antiquities may have been looted from modern-day Iraq. The case ended in a $3 million settlement and the forfeiture of 5,000 artifacts.
None of those artifacts were headed to the Museum of the Bible, Zeiss said.
There will be plenty else in the enormous museum. At 430,000 square feet, it’s bigger than the Smithsonian Museum of African American History. And although it’s dedicated to one solitary book, the museum occupies one-fifth the space of the Library of Congress, which has a world record 164 million holdings.
Among the museum’s relics are first editions of the King James Bible, fragments of the Dead Sea Scroll, the first Bible to travel to the moon, the largest collection of Torah scrolls and Bibles that belonged to celebrities including Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley. Some items will be on loan from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Rome State Archive and the Vatican.
Some religious scholars are concerned more about what isn’t in the museum than what is.
“They seem to be excluding a great deal of diversity that makes early history much more interesting than the mythologized version of history,” said Jeffrey Robbins, department chairman and professor of religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. “It traffics in myth rather than history, and perpetrates the chasm that has opened up in American intellectual and religious life between faith and knowledge.”
The museum has a blind spot because its board of directors is chock full of fundamental evangelicals to the exclusion of contemporary biblical scholars with more diverse views, Robbins said. He worries that the museum’s leaders will present the book as a fixed book with a settled history.
The $509 million museum’s opulence and its proximity to the Capitol — three blocks away — highlights the dangerous intersection of public policy and moneyed interests that can “trump the sometimes unsettling truths that come from the rigors of science and academic inquiry,” Robbins said.
To Green, the Bible is a reliable historical document that isn’t getting enough attention in the world today, but he also views it as a guide to life.
“When we, as man, live according to the precepts that are given, it is good for us,” he said in a 2015 speech describing the museum’s mission to the National Bible Association. “It tells us how we should live, and if we can encourage a skeptical world to reconsider a book that can change our world, that’s an exciting journey that we’re on.”
Other museum leaders say they welcome scientific inquiry and that they seek to present the Bible as a historical document, not to interpret it.
“We treat the Bible as a book that has influenced people for generations and generations. It’s proven to be the most engaging and intriguing book in the history of mankind, so we try to present it as factually and accurately as possible. People can draw their own conclusions,” Zeiss said.
He noted that the proximity of the museum gives non-believers the opportunity to consider biblical teachings about the origins of the universe along with the explanations provided at the nearby Smithsonian museums.
“Hopefully they would be as objective as possible, look at the exhibits we have, and try to get engaged mentally if not emotionally,” Zeiss said. “I would encourage them to get engaged in all sorts of things that relate to the Bible including different theories about the development of the Earth and mankind. That’s fine. They have something to compare it to.”
Robbins says that “false equivalency” troubles him.
“I don’t think they operate on the same plane of truth. The Bible tells stories that reflect a kind of pre-science world view. I don’t think that makes it untrue, but we have to recognize that the truth it reveals is not of the same order as contemporary scientific truth,” he said.
The Museum of the Bible includes three main exhibition floors, each with a theme: history, narrative and influence. It also includes a children’s gallery, a restaurant called “Manna,” a coffee shop called “Milk and Honey,” and a rooftop garden featuring plants referenced in the Bible.
The history floor will include artifacts and a laboratory for continued scholarship “because even today we’re learning new things about the Bible,” said museum spokesman Jeremy Burton.
On the narrative floor, visitors can interact with character actors in period costume in an immersive environment meant to look like the Nazareth that Jesus Christ would have known. It’s here where visitors will learn about the parables in a model temple amid 14,000 hand-sculpted stones, while gazing upon a mural of the Sea of Galilee, or standing beneath fabricated trees shaped from impressions of the bark of trees in the Garden of Gethsemane.
And on the impact floor, guests will see the ways the Bible has affected history and culture. The first artifact installed in the museum is here. That is a replica of the Liberty Bell brought in because of the verse from Leviticus that circles the top: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
The museum also features a high-tech theater that will feature performances including — first up — a Broadway touring company’s production of the musical “Amazing Grace.” A dynamic digital mural surrounds the seating area, connecting the audience to the scenery.
Technology abounds in this museum of the ancients. It begins with digital tablets given to guests as they enter. Visitors can select the topics they’re most interested in and the length of time they want to visit. The digital guide will steer them to the most relevant places in the museum. As visitors approach an artifact, the digital guide will sense where they are and will offer relevant interactive features such as videos or opportunities to digitally read full texts of documents encased behind protective glass.
And there’s plenty to keep children entertained, too, including an interactive area where they can play Bible-themed games and explore “Courageous Pages,” a storytelling exhibit about biblical characters who made good decisions despite opposition.
There’s also a flight simulator that will take visitors on a virtual ride over Washington, D.C., to see biblical inscriptions at Union Station, the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.
“It’s not going to be a boring or a stiff museum. It’s very interactive so it’s entertaining as well as educational,” Zeiss said. “It’s not a one-and-done museum. People will want to make pilgrimages every year to come back to see it.”