Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
D.C.’s new Museum of the Bible blends history and insight with spectacle.
From the glowing orb in the King James gallery on the fourth floor of the Museum of the Bible, at least four different voices can be heard speaking. One of them, naturally, is Morgan Freeman.
Freeman reads from scripture. Verses materialize on the floor in light and then evanesce. Vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding flutes quaver, here and everywhere else. Sultry voices add ancient languages to the chorus. Even the sonorous host of The Story of God struggles to be heard over the din. Images swirl on the orb, a sphere-shaped projector that reveals a changing globe. The map tracks the Bible as it conquers the land—or something?
If you see a spherical projector in a museum, it’s usually a tell that the cart’s come off the rails. Almost no one makes films for screens shaped like basketballs, so a video globe in an exhibit will soon gather dust after being installed. But a minor red flag is nothing for a museum that built its own Red Sea.
The Museum of the Bible, which opened earlier this month to both fanfare and trepidation in Washington, D.C., is so far from a traditional museum that it can hardly carry the title. The 430,000-square-foot building, which cost $500 million, is closer to an indoor religious amusement park, complete with an immersive walk-through of the Old Testament and a recreation of daily life in ancient Nazareth. There are also fragile fragments and noodley illuminations galore—hundreds of tablets, texts, and treasures, in fact, that deserve close inspection. The rewards for the patient, focused viewer are many, especially in what the museum has to say about faith and patriotism. But even the most diligent historical exhibits contribute to an experience that is at best loosely biblically themed. And at its worst, lifted from a hip-hop video.
In the months before its opening, D.C.’s cultural warriors worried that the Museum of the Bible might serve as an unofficial embassy for Christianity, a forward-operating base fighting to tear down the bulwark between church and state. American evangelicals, including the museum’s Hobby Lobby owner and founder, were conspiring to essentially plant a monument to the Ten Commandments near the National Mall. Those critics can breathe easy: This museum isn’t the U.S. Department of Creationism. The only domain where the Museum of the Bible is likely to have any great influence is Instagram. It’s first and foremost devoted to spectacle, not spiritualism.
At a recent media briefing, Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and chair of the board for the Museum of the Bible, explained the motivations behind the project. “If I put a Bible under a glass case in a language I don’t even read, it only holds my attention for so long,” he said. “This book has an incredible story to be told, and we wanted to be able to tell it in a very engaging, creative way.”
In the beginning of the Museum of the Bible, there is video. The vault ceiling that soars over the main entrance hall is lined with a 140-foot-long LED screen of alternating views of cathedral frescoes, stained glass, and other ecclesiastical visuals. It works like a sort of home screen, setting the stage for a museum that boasts 12 different movie theaters and umpteen days’ worth of video content.
Moments of serenity are hard to come by in the Museum of the Bible. It’s not just the omnipresent screens and interactives—such attractions are hallmarks of any new museum design these days. Several blocks away, on the National Mall, busy exhibits plague recent projects, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Sant Ocean Hall, and the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. The Museum of the Bible goes way further than these museums, however, with exhibitions that feel like they’re being streamed from the Premium Cable Channel of the Lord Our God.
For example, much of the fourth-floor permanent exhibit on the history of the Bible centers around a program called “Drive Thru History with Dave Stotts,” a History Channel-type show from a small production outfit in Ohio. One typical episode follows Stotts, the show’s action-hero host, as he stunts around the historical site of Jericho in a vintage Jeep. See? The Bible kicks ass! (For doubting Thomases, the Jeep itself is currently parked near the exhibit entrance.)
Scattered between loud documentary-ish video vignettes are silent artifacts (and facsimiles) that reflect real history as told by the Bible. If there’s a consistent thread of chronology or geography, though, it’s hard to follow over the cacophony of Jeep burn-outs, ambiguously accented voices, and moody Bible music piped into the building like conditioned air.
Some of the museum’s most prized ancient artifacts, like alleged fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been challenged as fake. Other noteworthy collection items—such as a 1631 misprint of the King James Bible known as the “Wicked Bible” for one crucial textual omission (“Thou shalt commit adultery”)—are easy to miss in the melee. Fascinating cuneiform artifacts and precious biblical texts that recount centuries of Asian and European transmission make up the greater part of the historical collection. They’re all in place, and overwhelming in places. They’re also not always of great use to a viewer who isn’t wearing sound-cancelling headphones. At the Museum of the Bible, exhibit noise may be an even bigger problem than provenance (more on that later).
Many viewers might skip the history stuff for the section devoted to the stories of the Bible. This floor comprises a series of exhibits (or, if we call them what they are, rides) that depict or realize fan-favorite tales from the Old and New Testaments. For earnest home-schoolers and snarky stoners alike, these narratives may be worth the price of admission (free, or with a suggested donation of $15 for adults and $10 for children). Innovation is this museum’s best value proposition, according to its founder.
Here the New Testament is recounted through a computer-animated film that looks like a CGI cutscene from a Legend of Zelda video game. The movie focuses on the apostles and other recurring characters (like Mary Magdalene), who also each feature in their own trendy minimalist posters in the theater lobby. In one scene, the screen casts a blinding white light at the moment when Saul converts on the road to Damascus. Ouch! Down the hall, the effects get worse, especially in a playscape (designed by the production company Jonathan Martin Creative) that explores what it might have been like to live in a biblical village (had it been bathed in creepy supersaturated reds and purples).
The standout exhibit is the Old Testament experience, designed by BRC Imagination Arts. It’s a rival to the Rain Room, the Museum of Ice Cream, or any other branded spectacle mounted by a museum for the social shares. Part cinematic short, part gallery installation, the Hebrew Bible experience tracks a bit like the “Mr. DNA” ride in Jurassic Park: Viewers watch computer-animated videos that tell the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah, David, and others, while they are prompted to walk through live-action scenes of the Old Testament. Hold on to your butts!
As in previous effects-laden adaptations of the Old Testament, the parting of the Red Sea seals the deal. The aquatic light-and-thread installation could easily serve as a summer folly at the National Building Museum or a splashy show at the Renwick Gallery—two D.C. examples of the sometimes-sensational, often-superficial tendency so ascendant in museums today. Truly, Exodus delivers the apotheosis of museum stunt-art. A hyssop bush that bursts into flames will give Museum of the Bible viewers a jolt before they walk through a door (literally marked “PASSOVER”) into the next thrill.
At the heart of the Museum of the Bible is a secular conviction that stuffy museums filled with old documents are a snooze. Nowhere is this belief more strongly felt than in the installation of Exodus. One of the atmospheric scenes was modeled, it seems, after Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video. (Which itself borrows its all-over color-changing motif from James Turrell’s immersive art environments.) This gallery is supposed to say something about God’s covenant with Abraham: Namely, that it is cool and not boring.
If the Museum of the Bible is scattershot, it’s hardly the fault of Smithgroup JJR, the lead architect and engineer of the remarkable museum building. The museum is housed inside a former refrigerated warehouse, built in 1922, that more recently served as a design showroom. David Greenbaum, the project’s lead designer, describes the museum as a “palimpsest,” the term for the evidence of textual secrets beneath the surface of a manuscript. In this case, the hidden history would be the building’s industrial roots, which still show through the modern vibe of the place.
At the far end of the main entrance hall is light-filled atrium with a grand staircase. This vertical space serves as a hub that connects to the museum’s multiple spoke levels. SmithGroup knocked down an in-fill office building to build the atrium, cladding its exterior in handsome Danish brick for a sense of dignity and antiquity.
Most of the museum falls in the adjacent landmarked flat-iron building, which the architects renovated and capped off with a two-story glass-and-steel signature canopy. The entrance hall, lined by 12 columns made from Jerusalem stone, testifies to the building’s history (as a place for unloading train cargo) while suggesting the nave of a cathedral.
Laden as it is with digital and architectural spectacle, a brief tour of the Museum of the Bible is enough to make viewers dizzy. But if you go slow and tune out the various auditory distractions, you can find smart, surprising exhibits. The gallery focused on the Bible’s influence on the United States, for example, defies expectations. If observers feared that the museum would put the Bible to jingoistic service, this gallery would be the place to do it. Instead, and thanks to the discipline of Norman Conrad, curator of American and biblical imprints, it is the most sophisticated and rewarding part of the whole museum.
The U.S. gallery boasts key historical artifacts, including a first-edition copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and the original manuscript of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Julia Ward Howe. (Both were contributors to The Atlantic.) The Bible that Jonathan Edwards pounded for his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon is here. Early American translations, including Robert Aitken’s “Bible of the Revolution”—authorized by the Continental Congress in 1782 after the British cut off the flow of Good Books to the Colonies—offer genuine insights about America.
These might be trivial inclusions without any proper context, or worse, a tinny drumbeat for the march of the moral majority. Far from thumping the Bible like Roy Moore, the Museum of the Bible capably and convincingly illustrates how the U.S. has used the Bible to facilitate all its original sins: the genocide of the American Indian, chattel slavery of African Americans, the oppression of women, and the suppression of civil rights. And also how the country made great gains, through documents like Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1895 suffragette “Woman’s Bible”—or even the Civil War-era rifles known to anti-slavery Kansas fighters as “Beecher’s Bibles.”
But this revelatory pocket hugs a wall in a gallery otherwise occupied by cheese like a recreation of the Liberty Bell. The theme of insightfulness undercut by sensationalism extends to the organization of the museum itself, especially the arch-conservative politics and sordid collecting practices of Hobby Lobby. Museum officials stress that none of the museum’s 3,100 artifacts overlap with Green’s 40,000-item collection—which was slapped with a $3 million fine and multiple seizures this year. The museum has outlined protocols to ensure that its collection does not include Nazi loot or artifacts smuggled out of war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or elsewhere.
In one sense, the questions about the museum’s collection are absolutely no different from those regarding antiquities held by any university or museum. In a more limited sense, provenance doesn’t matter much practically at this museum, so lost are the cuneiform tablets and medieval illuminations in all the digital commotion.
The learning curve has been steep for the Museum of the Bible, which moved from concept to opening in just seven short years. Many opportunities were missed along the way, some by design: Neither the Mormon nor Muslim faiths earn more than a mention, although both are also Abrahamic religions. (Arguably. Like everything else related to the Bible, it’s a whole thing.) The museum is nonsectarian, or at least inclusive, in its presentation of artifacts and histories, representing Catholic, Jewish, Orthodox, Coptic, and other viewpoints. But everything else—the 210-degree panoramic cinema screen and 4K projectors, the behemoth 3,500-square-foot gift shop, the opening of the Broadway musical Amazing Grace—is pure, 100 percent, uncut megaplex evangelical white Protestantism. The Museum of the Bible is megachurch concentrate.
Even within this narrow cast, other oversights illustrate the futility of capturing the enormity of a Bible—a set of documents that inform millennia of human development and command billions of living followers—in a single building. How did initiates of the Persian god Mithras compete with the early Christian church over shared ideas? How was the cult of saints transmitted as medieval pop culture? How is the Song of Solomon sexier than even the song of D’Angelo? No museum of the Bible could have all the answers.
But this Museum of the Bible sets its sights too low. In fact, and possibly in an effort to ensure a nondenominational presentation, the museum downplays the elegance and audacity of its source document. A visitor might come away with the simplistic impression that the Bible is fundamentally a load of fun. The fact that the takeaway is so shallow is a museum problem, not a Bible problem, one rooted in high spectacle and low expectations. That might be another problem of design.
“Our intent with the museum is to engage people with the Bible,” Cary Summers, president of the Museum of the Bible, said. “We don’t have a plan B, by the way.”