On November 17, to much fanfare and both praise and criticism, the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) opened a short walk away from the Smithsonian museums and Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Housed inside a converted 1923 warehouse, the 420,000 square foot building features six floors of exhibits whose purpose, say officials, isn’t to overtly evangelize.
Rather, says Cary Summers, president of Museum of the Bible, the goal is “to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.” Officials say they hope this will prompt people to open up God’s word.
Whether or not this will happen, only the Holy Spirit knows. What is certain, however, is that the Museum’s planners and patrons—starting with Hobby Lobby President Steve Green—have gone to extraordinary measures to ensure that their purpose is fulfilled.
Furthermore, PBS quoted Summers as saying the Bible is “the most controversial topic in the world. It’s the biggest-selling book; most banned, destroyed, influential book … We will irritate everybody.”
Even before entering the premises, visitors are confronted with a hint of what awaits them inside. This hint takes the form of two towering bronze faux doors representing pages from the Guttenberg Bible, which started the publishing revolution over 500 years ago.
Much attention has been given to the suspect provenance of some of the museum’s displays. As PBS reported, federal investigators discovered “Hobby Lobby had illegally imported thousands of ancient biblical artifacts, accusations that put more heat on the museum, but which the company chalked up to naiveté.”
For anyone willing to pay attention while touring the exhibits, however, signs indicate whether something is a facsimile of an artifact or if there is a question as to its provenance.
Moreover, MOTB spokesman Scott Knuteson told Catholic World Report, “To assist the public in understanding the challenges in the Museum’s collection, items with significant gaps in their provenance have been noted in the display cases or wall panels of the museum, with further information provided on the [museum’s] webpage.” As additional information becomes available, MOTB will add information to its site.
The only time any of this really comes to mind is in the exhibit where one can see what are reputed to be fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, so much—including nearly everything in the Vatican exhibit—is marked as “Facsimile,” what is an authentic relic and what is not gets lost in the process.
Visitors begin by passing through a state-of-the-art security checkpoint that is as colorful as it is assuring. Once past security, guests pick up their tickets in the entrance hall. While they wait, a series of breathtaking images pass overhead via digital screens on the ceiling.
Then it is on to the various exhibits, most of which are included in the $15-per-person ticket ($10 for children under 12). For instance in the lower galleries, one can walk the Stations of the Cross sculpted by artist Gib Singleton. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, his pastoral staff used by every pope from Paul VI through Benedict XVI would be instantly recognizable.
Right next door is an exhibit dedicated to the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It tells the story of its author, former slave trader turned Anglican priest Fr. John Newton. Additionally, it features original record sleeves of albums by artists who covered the song, including Elvis Presley, Janice Joplin, and Bob Dylan.
The basement also features one of two exhibits that incur an additional cost, “In the Valley of David and Goliath,” featuring artifacts from what is reputed to be the site of the battle between the giant and the future king of Judah. While the array of artifacts impresses, if one wanted to economize on their visit, it might prove worthwhile to forego this exhibit. If the visitor already knows the story behind the exhibit, it certainly adds nothing to it.
Parents and youngsters will enjoy the children’s zone where kids can interact with biblical episodes that many will likely remember for years to come.
On the second floor is an exhibit called “Bible Now.” Set inside a round room, its walls feature a 360˚ image of modern day Jerusalem, with every significant landmark identified, including some surprising ones. It also features video screens that flash factoids, such as “3rd Most Searched Keyword in the World: Offer.” In the room’s center is a booth where visitors can record a brief statement on what the Bible has meant to them.
One exhibit that incurs an additional cost and is worth every penny is the grin-inducing “Washington Revelations.” It affords visitors the sensation of actually flying like birds over the sites in the nation’s capital that feature words or scenes from Scripture.
Other displays demonstrate the far reaching impact of the Bible, including in fashion, advertising, entertainment, journalism, and every other aspect of culture. An entire exhibit is dedicated to showing how Scripture has influenced our nation from its beginning, while another shows the impact and history of the Bible in the world at large. On the fourth floor are exhibits that allow one to walk through the Old and New Testaments, including a replica of Nazareth as it would have appeared in Jesus’ time.
While built by Evangelicals, there is much at MOTB to appeal to a Catholic Christian sensibility.
For instance, if the visitor glances up while walking toward the exit, they will see the beautiful smile of St. Josephine Bakhita. (On the other side of this picture is a photo of the Servant of God Dorothy Day.) Space is given to explaining the importance of such modern martyrs as Bl. Jerzy Popiełuszko of Poland’s Solidarity movement and Bl. Óscar Romero, the role of Catholic religious in the formation of hospitals, and more.
And while Protestants consider books such as 1 Maccabees as “apocryphal,” one display discusses its influence on Christians’ reactions throughout the centuries to unjust political rule.
Another feature is titled, “Mary in the History of Art,” and it contains many images of Our Lady, with explanations of certain pieces, such as the icon at Częstochowa, Poland, the “Black Madonna.”
However there are things that could annoy the educated Catholic. First there is no discussion that this writer saw of how the Bible actually came together. There is scant reference to the Septuagint, the Jewish Council of Jamnia (ca. AD 90), the Councils of Carthage and Hippo that codified the Bible, or the pre-Reformation attempts at translating the Bible into vernacular tongues throughout Europe. (There is, however, a neat display of Bibles in various languages from around the globe.)
If one was not paying attention, one would think John Wycliffe and William Tyndale were solely responsible for early English translations. Scant mention is given to the contributions of earlier scholars such as St. Bede the Venerable and Richard Rolle, and none goes to, say, Abbot Ælfric. Indeed Tyndale gets several mentions throughout the museum, and a display claims “[the Church banned] English Bibles” and that copies of his work “were burned at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to combat the spread of Protestantism.”
What this ignores is that both Wycliffe’s and Tyndale’s translations were condemned not because they were in English but because both authors were heretics. Indeed Tyndale’s expressly made his changes to Scripture so as to undermine the Church’s theology. Worse, his commentaries, glosses, and notes in his translation were designed to sway the reader to Protestantism by bashing the Church at every opportunity.
None of this is likely to dissuade potential visitors to MOTB, nor should it. For while, as Summers noted previously, there may be things here to irritate just about anybody, there is also plenty to please them.
Indeed, says Knuteson, “We’ve heard very positive feedback from guests of all walks of life, many of whom have told us their visit to the museum dispelled certain negative assumptions they made before visiting.”
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