Religion in Museums

When museums and religion collide

It’s all political

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One of the more intriguing – and surely the most ambitious – of current religion museum projects is the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC. Scheduled to open in late 2017, it is being built just two blocks from the Mall. It will comprise 430,000 square feet on eight floors. Construction and property costs alone are $400m.

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‘The Museum of the Bible will be a museum like no other — welcoming you and your family to an immersive and personalized experience as you explore the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible. We’re using a scholarly approach combined with cutting-edge technology (and a lot of fun!) to present the greatest book ever written in the most unique, interesting, and engaging way.’

If the scale of the proposed museum is fairly staggering, the collection sounds genuinely extraordinary. Its 40,000 objects range (this is all from the museum’s website) a large cuneiform tablet that contains text from the Epic of Gilgamesh and the ‘second-largest private collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments’ to a copy of Wycliffe’s New Testament and the original manuscript of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Elvis Presley’s Bible is there too.

This is clearly a genuinely scholarly endeavour, as well as being aimed at a family audience and providing guests ‘with an immersive and personalized experience as they explore the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.’ (One of the three ‘content consultants and scholars’ is Gordon Campbell of Leicester University, who had such a big role in the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.)

Predictably, this being America, the project is the private enthusiasm of a millionaire. The driving force behind the project, and the man who built up the collection, is Steve Green, President of ‘Hobby Lobby’, ‘the world’s largest privately owned arts and crafts retailer’, based on Oklahoma.

One US-based commentator characterized Green in personal correspondence in the following way:

He is a far right-wing Evangelical who believes that America is properly THE Christian nation, driven by the Bible as its charter, and that a museum of the Bible will remind and teach Americans about this “fact.” Green is widely celebrated by right-wingers for his Supreme Court victory a couple years ago to exempt his business from supporting Obama’s Affordable Care requirements to provide health insurance for employees. Those on the Left lament the court’s decision.

 The museum’s original mission statement 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.” But by 2013 it had become “We exist to invite all people to engage with the Bible. We invite Biblical exploration through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits.”

The new Director David Trobisch’s views of scripture differ dramatically from those of the museum’s patrons. “Like many evangelicals, the Greens may feel that wherever the Bible goes, only good things happen,” he says. “But the European experience is quite different. When we think of Protestantism, we may think of the Thirty Years’ War or the Ireland conflict. Bloodshed and Christianity is really about the Bible. In the U.S., slavery is a controversial topic, as the Bible was used to argue for and against. We’ll have a Holocaust room in the museum. These messages are probably difficult to learn, for those of an evangelical background, but we try to show and not tell,” he says. “Then let the visitor decide. If we pick only one ‘true’ story, we’d lose our credibility.” (Washington Post, 5 September 2015).

The jury, though, is still out. ‘Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University, questioned the location of the museum, two blocks south of the Mall, where it might overlook periodic rallies opposing abortion or same-sex marriage, offering brick-and-mortar moral support to conservative causes.’

But the Washington Post concluded: ‘When the doors open in 2017, the Museum of the Bible may surprise the Greens as much as the general public — freeing visitors to choose their own interpretation of the Word.’

Crispin

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