The museum conceived by the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby and set to open next month has attracted skepticism over its ideological mission
It is a museum of biblical proportions – and it is stirring controversies to match.
Opening next month in Washington, the Museum of the Bible cost half a billion dollars to build, spans 430,000 sq ft over eight floors and claims to be the most hi-tech museum in the world. Reading every placard, seeing every artifact and experiencing every activity would take an estimated 72 hours.
But while it is not the monument to creationism that some liberals feared, the sprawling museum has attracted scepticism over both its ideological mission and the provenance of its collection. It is the brainchild of evangelical Christian Steve Green, the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain that won a supreme court case allowing companies with religious objections to opt out of contraceptive coverage under Barack Obama’s healthcare law.
Green, who since 2009 has amassed a vast collection of biblical texts and artifacts, is making a big statement with the museum’s location: two blocks south of the National Mall, home to the US Capitol and Smithsonian Institution museums – including the National Museum of Natural History, which has exhibits on dinosaurs and human evolution – and could hardly be closer to the centre of power.
Gaining a sneak preview this week amid workers in hard hats, the Guardian passed through giant bronze “Gutenberg Gates” that framed the entrance with hand-carved letters spelling out a Latin quotation from Genesis (the gates even have their own Twitter account). Inside the main atrium there is the obligatory gift shop, where cuddly animals are already on the shelves – presumably a reference to Noah’s Ark – and a “children’s experience” room where young Samsons can push columns and make them collapse.
Visitors – admission is free, though a donation of $15 is suggested – will each be given a digital guide on which new information is triggered each time they approach a gallery or artifact. High above them in the bright, airy atrium of what used to be a refrigerating warehouse and design centre is a 140ft “digital ceiling” showing biblical images, including church frescos.
Upstairs, there is a floor devoted to the historical and cultural impact of the Bible, including on America, bound to be closely scrutinised for any hints of political bias. Among the Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic, a display panel says, were “many English dissenters seeking religious freedom. Each group brought its own version of the Bible, and some professed intentions to convert Native Americans to Christian beliefs”.
There is a scale remake of the Liberty Bell, which is inscribed with scripture, and an account that many colonists seeking independence from Britain drew inspiration from the Bible, especially Moses, “who led his people out of bondage to a land of liberty”.
With independence and the presidency of George Washington, the tradition of swearing the oath of office on a Bible began. A surge of evangelical arrivals in the late 18th century helped renew devotion to the Bible and ignite a campaign to abolish slavery, the narrative continues. “Southern slaveholders, however – some of them also involved in the revivals – interpreted the Bible as affirming slavery.” Each side in the civil war “embraced the Bible to justify its cause”.
Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are quoted and Charles Darwin gets a mention. “In 1925, John Scopes, a high school teacher in Tennessee, was charged with violating a state law that prohibited teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution,” an exhibit states, in a reference to the infamous “Monkey Trial”, which, it says, “placed the Bible in the center of an intense national debate between traditional and more progressive interpretations of the Bible and modern science”.
More unexpectedly, a display on the Bible’s influence around the world makes claims for links between science and the Bible and contains statues of Galileo Galilei, whose claim that the earth revolved around the sun was challenged by the church, Isaac Newton, a devoted student of the Bible, and George Washington Carver, who rose from slavery to become a scientist, botanist and inventor and regarded the Bible as a guide to the natural world.
A full-size jail cell allows visitors to reflect on the biblical roots of the western concept of justice. A pile of blackened and charred Bibles illustrates how the book has been burned, for example in China’s Cultural Revolution. Various multimedia displays show the influence of the Bible on fashion, films, literature and the visual arts. A room with a giant wraparound screen called “Bible Now” promises “a spectacular live-feed of global data”.
Upstairs, the floorspace is divided roughly proportionately between Old and New Testament. Only the latter was available to view this week, and most striking was “The World of Jesus of Nazareth” – an unapologetically Disney-style walk-through recreation of Nazareth two millennia ago, complete with stone walls, trees (each leaf made by hand), dwellings with period cuisine on dining tables, piles of grapes and baskets full of olives and even a temple. Three actors in period costume will interact with visitors.
The “History of the Bible” title is styled in an Indiana Jones typeface and is expected to house wide-ranging objects including Torah scrolls and 14th-century illuminated manuscripts – but not the Qur’an or Book of Mormon. The museum has a long-term alliance with the Israel Antiquities Authority.
This week’s preview tour also included a ballroom and 472-seat theatre (about to host the musical Amazing Grace), two restaurants named Manna and Milk and Honey, a glass-enclosed top floor with views of the Mall and a rooftop garden devoted to biblical plants. Another attraction will be the amusement park-style “Washington Revelations” ride, which purportedly tricks a person’s mind into thinking they are flying over sites bearing scripture such as the US Capitol, Lincoln Memorial and supreme court.
But preparations have been far from smooth. In July this year, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3m fine and forfeit thousands of smuggled ancient Iraqi artifacts that the US government alleged were intentionally mislabeled. The artifacts – including up to 300 small clay tablets, bearing inscriptions in the cuneiform script – were reportedly destined for the museum. Green admitted that Hobby Lobby “should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled”.
Organisers contend that the museum is non-partisan, non-sectarian and educational rather than evangelical, appealing to people of all faiths or no faith. Cary Summers, its president, said: “We want this museum to be enriching and engaging to all people. To that end, we have tapped many of the world’s leading scholars with expertise across many subjects and faith traditions, including those with Jewish, Protestant and Catholic proficiency and perspectives, to help us craft the storylines and narrative themes of this museum.”
But that is not how it began. According to media reports, its first nonprofit filing in 2010 declared that its mission was “to bring to life the living word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation, and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible”.
By 2013, this had been watered down to: “We exist to invite all people to engage with the Bible. We invite Biblical exploration through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits.”
Green, the Washington Post reported, has promoted a public school curriculum based on the Bible as a factual historical text, while Summers consulted for the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which teaches creationism as fact, with exhibits showing dinosaurs and humans living side by side on a 6,000-year-old Earth.
Hobby Lobby calls itself a “biblically founded business” and is closed on Sundays. The Green family has been criticised for objecting to having to provide employees with contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare. In 2014 it was granted an exemption to the mandatory contraceptives by the supreme court, a landmark ruling that extended religious rights to some corporations.
Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University in Washington, said Green “has a view of the role of religion in public life. Maybe people should know that before stepping in. The museum has to be very clear about its objectives. I think there’s a lot of misdirection and even duplicity regarding its goals and theological assumptions. There is something at the core of this museum that has to enshrine what evangelical Christians do.”
Berlinerblau, author of The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously, put the museum’s location in the context of the rise of the conservative Christian movement over the past four decades; Vice-President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, has been invited to the opening ceremony on 17 November. Nine in 10 members of Congress describe themselves as Christians, compared with seven in 10 American adults who say the same, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of congressional data compiled by CQ Roll Call.
“If you are building a $500bn museum close to the most powerful deliberative body in the world, you have to understand the optics. This edifice could represent the coming out, again, of evangelical America. I can assure you the museum is going to become a convening platform for conservative Christian activism.”
Atheists, he added, would find the museum “laughable and deplorable”.
Nick Fish, national programme director of American Atheists, an activist group that promotes the separation of religion from government, said: “With many of these religious ‘museums’, the tendency is to dress up evangelism and dogma with a veneer of academia to lend an undeserved cloak of neutrality.
“I don’t want to prematurely pass judgment on the museum without having seen it, but based on previous statements by the Green family, it seems clear that there will be at least some editorialising in favour of the backers’ religious views, rather than a serious look at the historic accuracy (and lack thereof) of the Bible.”
Casey Brescia, a spokesman for the Secular Coalition for America, added: “Steve Green absolutely has the right to open a Bible museum. That’s of no concern to us. What we would be worried about, as we’ve seen with the Creation Museum in Kentucky, is that he’ll try to get taxpayer money to pay for it.
“By claiming that the museum is intended to ‘educate’ rather than evangelise, it’s possible that Green is hoping the museum will become a field trip destination for public schools. That would be unconstitutional. Green was already fined $3m after he was caught illegally smuggling artifacts into the country for this museum. Hopefully, he learned his lesson.”
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