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New museum aims to get visitors thinking about the Bible

The new $500 million Museum of the Bible is filled with thousands of texts and artifacts, immersive exhibitions of bible stories, even an amusement park-like area for children. According to those behind the new private institution, the focus is not on proselytizing or presenting religious doctrine, but to raise public awareness of the centrality of bible in history and culture. Jeffrey Brown takes a look.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A new private museum opens today in Washington, D.C., not far from the public Smithsonian institution. The massive Museum of the Bible is devoted to an enduring subject of debate.

    And the museum has found itself at times the subject of scrutiny prior to the opening.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It’s a museum dedicated to a book, but not just any book. The new $500 million Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., is grand in scale, filled with some 3,000 biblical texts and artifacts, immersive walk-through exhibitions of biblical stories, a variety of hands-on and other displays.

    There’s an exhibition called Washington Revelations that simulates a ride taking visitors to government sites bearing biblical scripture. The elevators envelope the visitors in heavenly scenes, and the restaurant here is called Manna.

    A lot to take in, but according to people involved, a simple and clear focus – not to proselytize or present religious doctrine, but to raise public awareness of the centrality of the Bible.

  • Steve Green:

    Here’s a book that had an impact on our world, foundational to our government, so the question is, why has there not been a museum to the Bible? We just think that people ought to know it better.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     The museum was the vision of Steve Green, who serves as its chairman. He’s also the billionaire owner and president of Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts retailer that successfully challenged on religious grounds the government mandate for businesses to provide contraception services to employees under Obamacare.

    His involvement, and that of other prominent evangelicals, raised questions and concerns about the museum’s mission, especially set, as it is, just several blocks from the Capitol.

    To place a Museum of the Bible here, is that not a political statement in any way?

  • Steve Green:

    It’s not intended to be, but it also doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t be interested in our congressmen coming and congresswomen to come here and learn more about the Bible.

    So, while that wasn’t the primary purpose — the primary purpose was, where would this museum be most attended? The idea was always to have a nonsectarian museum, which means that it’s not about a faith tradition, a church, or denomination. It’s simply about a book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One floor tracks how the Bible was transmitted through time and translations into many languages.

    Videos feature actors as leading historical figures, such as Martin Luther, and a young guide taking viewers around the globe.

    Another floor presents stories of the Bible, and includes a recreation of Nazareth with scenes of everyday life and a vista of the Sea of Galilee Jesus might have taken in.

    A third floor is dedicated to the impact of the Bible, with an emphasis on American history, leading political and other figures, the Bible cited by both slaveholders and abolitionists, its power in the civil rights movement, even its presence in popular culture, including hip-hop recordings and fashion.

    But perhaps just as interesting as what’s here is what you don’t see.

  • Gordon Campbell:

    We don’t talk about the Bible being holy, or we don’t talk about it being inspired.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Gordon Campbell of the University of Leicester is an adviser to the museum.

  • Gordon Campbell:

    We tell the stories that are in the Bible, but they have no theological spin. So, Christians, for example, believe that the Garden of Eden is a story of original sin, but one of our Jewish advisers said, the Garden of Eden was hardly perfect. It had a snake in it.

    So, we say nothing about original sin. We don’t read it theologically. What people will be seeing is a correct, but neutral view.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I think a lot of people would question, I mean, is it even possible to present the Bible neutrally?

  • Gordon Campbell:

    Ah, we have just done it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Also notable, the museum studiously avoids hot-button political issues such as abortion.

    Seth Pollinger, director of museum content, says the intent is to get the Bible — quote — “in the middle of the conversation.” He cited the nearby science pavilion.

  • Seth Pollinger:

    We really haven’t gotten into the issue of evolution, partly because, as a museum, we’re not looking to take a position on, you now, how was the world created.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You’re not?

  • Seth Pollinger:

    Yes. We would rather just raise actually a different issue, which is, what’s the relationship between the Bible and science? Are they at odds or are there some compatibilities?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But some outside scholars, including Jill Hicks-Keeton of the University of Oklahoma, see a clear message in the artifacts and layout of the museum.

  • Jill Hicks-keeton:

    And the story that I see being told is one that sees the Protestant Bible as the end goal. And so there is a recognition of diversity here, with multiple canons used by different faith traditions or religious traditions, but the Protestant Bible stands front and center under the illuminated Book of Books.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Hicks-Keeton doesn’t believe a neutral presentation of the Bible is possible, and that the one here presents a preordained, positive march from Judaism to Catholicism to an ascendant Protestantism.

    Do you have to be a scholar to see it?

  • Jill Hicks-keeton:

    I don’t know if you have to be a scholar, but you definitely need to be made aware of how museums function, and to made aware that the Bible can’t speak for itself, that it’s always being interpreted.

    I don’t think anyone would deny a faith community the opportunity to present their faith claims about the Bible. But biblical scholars want them to be candid about the faith perspective that’s informing their organization of the material.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In addition to the museum’s mission, its holdings have also been subject to widespread scrutiny.

    In a new book called “This Dangerous Book,” Steve Green describes how he set about in 2009 to acquire biblical artifacts, a collection that grew to more than 40,000.

    This past summer, Hobby Lobby paid a $3 million fine and forfeited thousands of artifacts after the Justice Department said items had been intentionally mislabeled and smuggled out of Iraq.

    Deborah Lehr heads the Antiquities Coalition, which works to stop looting and trafficking.

  • Deborah Lehr:

    Well, it’s put a very bright spotlight on the museum. There’s no question about it. And so, in that sense, there are lot of archaeologists and governments around the world now focused on the Bible Museum in ways that they were not before.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They’re watching carefully.

  • Deborah Lehr:

    They’re watching very carefully.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The Museum of the Bible has some 300 pieces from the Green collection, with the rest of its holdings acquired in recent years or on loan from institutions and private collectors.

    Gordon Campbell says the staff is working hard to check the ownership history, or provenance, of every item.

  • Gordon Campbell:

    There’s a normal transition between an amateur collection and a professional museum. Amateurs begin as just that. They sometimes take bad advice, and they make mistakes. And we made mistakes.

    But, as we became a museum, we professionalized. But, that said, we have a backlog of things that were acquired early on that we’re working very hard to establish the credentials of. The aspiration is to be totally transparent about it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One example we saw, a label asking if these Dead Sea Scroll fragments are real.

    Deborah Lehr has met with museum officials and believes they’re taking the issue very seriously, but days before the opening, she added.

  • Deborah Lehr:

    What we’re going to be looking for is how they have labeled these items and which ones they have on display. There are certain items that we are aware of that have come into question because we have been approached by some of the Middle Eastern governments raising concerns.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, you would rather see them not display it right now?

  • Deborah Lehr:

    That’s right. We would rather see them not display any item that is under question.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    As the new museum opens, there is much excitement and many questions.

    I asked Steve Green what he hopes visitors will take from their experience here.

  • Steve Green:

    We would hope that they would be inspired, once they leave, to engage with it, because our mission is hopefully to inspire all people to engage with the Bible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And it’s not hard to look around the world today, in this country and the world, and see a lot of problems, right? Do you think that the museum opening will have an impact?

  • Steve Green:

    I think that the timing, I leave to God. We think that, 10 years ago, we wouldn’t imagine that we would be on this journey.

    And we think that this book helps answer some of the problems that mankind faces. Hopefully, it will bring some unity and peace and hope for people, if they would consider this book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown at the Museum of the Bible in Washington.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

     The 430,000 square-foot nonprofit museum suggests, but doesn’t require a $15 entry donation.

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