Bible museum opens in Washington, DC
Two blocks from the National Mall in Washington, DC sits the much-anticipated Museum of the Bible. The mission of the museum, which opens November 17, 2017, is to invite “all people to engage with the Bible through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits.” The museum’s approach is nonsectarian; that is, according to Museum of the Bible vice president Steven Bickley, the museum is not affiliated with any religious denominations. Spanning 430,000 square feet over eight floors (two of which are below ground), the museum offers not only galleries that walk you through the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible, but also a Biblical garden, performing arts hall, restaurant, and more.
I began my tour of the museum’s exhibits on the fourth floor, the History of the Bible gallery.
Here, the museum presents over 600 artifacts, from Dead Sea Scroll fragments to a Samaritan Torah scroll from the 12th century C.E. to a first edition of the King James Bible New Testament from 1611—one of only two known to still be in existence.
The museum’s collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments has attracted the attention of scholars concerned with the manuscripts’ authenticity. In 2016, scholars Emanuel Tov, Kipp Davis, and Robert Duke edited a volume presenting the 13 Dead Sea Scroll fragments in the museum collection as part of the Museum of the Bible Scholars Initiative. Kipp Davis actually believes that several of these fragments are fake. So what has the museum done about these problematic fragments? Some have gone on display, but, as promised by Dead Sea Scroll expert Lawrence Schiffman in a press conference last month, “Objects will be displayed with an explanation of the problem.” Indeed, the exhibit cases include an informational placard titled “Are these fragments real? Research continues.”
Leaving the fourth floor filled with display cases protecting artifacts, I entered the third floor, the Narrative of the Bible gallery, and stepped into spaces meant to transport me into the ancient Holy Land. The floor is comprised of three different areas dedicated to the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the World of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Hebrew Bible section is a fascinating 40-minute immersive walk-through experience that takes you from the story of creation in Genesis through Noah’s Flood, the Patriarchs, the Israelite enslavement in Egypt, the Exodus, the Judges of Israel, the story of Ruth, and finally the kingdoms of David and Solomon. Sophisticated special effects and creative art installations enchanted the senses and truly brought the Hebrew Bible stories to life.
The World of Jesus of Nazareth is a 6,980-square-foot exhibit space recreating aspects of a first-century C.E. Jewish village and includes a village center, a house under constructions, a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath), a synagogue, and an olive mill. Ancient objects that would have been used in these contexts are displayed throughout these private and public spaces recreating daily life in the Holy Land.
My final stop at the Museum of the Bible was the second floor, the Impact of the Bible gallery. This sprawling floor presents the influence that the Bible has had throughout the world as well as throughout the history of the United States, from the arrival of the first settlers through the Civil War era and to the present day.
The enormity of the Museum of the Bible—it would take you nine eight-hour days to see every artifact, read every placard, experience every activity—means that one visit is not enough to take in even a fraction of the museum. In the shadow of the Museum of the Bible, however, lingers controversy behind the museum’s acquisition practices as well as promises by museum leaders to be more transparent about its collection (a website with comprehensive information on its artifacts, including their origins and history of custody, is said to be forthcoming).
In a way, the Museum of the Bible will open as a work in progress: while all of its exhibition spaces and interactive rooms will be ready for visitors, museum leaders give the impression that the museum’s approach to displaying artifacts—especially problematic ones—is subject to change. This does not detract from the spectacular experience the visitor is bound to have—especially the nearly overwhelming experience of the grand entrance and the appreciation of the efforts of faithful scholars who over the centuries tirelessly produced the Biblical manuscripts in the History of the Bible exhibition. But the Museum of the Bible has also inadvertently yanked the debate over the ownership of history and the dark underbelly of the antiquities black market into the public realm, which will hopefully inspire visitors to pause and reflect on how “Biblical” artifacts are properly acquired, researched, and displayed.
Biblical History at What Cost? by Roberta Mazza
Hobby Lobby, the Museum of the Bible and the antiquities market
Five Museum of the Bible Dead Sea Scrolls Are Fake by Robert Cargill
Sold to the Highest Bidder: Antiquities as Cash Cows
The case of the AIA-St. Louis Society and the Treasure of Harageh
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