WASHINGTON - When the Museum of the Bible opens this weekend, it will set a new standard for how this country's museums fuse entertainment and education. The $500 million, privately funded project is as large as some of the Smithsonian's premier attractions, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is rich in content, stocked with historic treasures and carefully plotted to appeal to audiences of all ages.
It brings to museum design the sophisticated marketing intelligence of the Oklahoma City-based Green family, who have used a fortune made from the Hobby Lobby retail chain to promote evangelical Christian causes. Their latest venture is a museum that offers a one-stop-shopping cultural experience, with history, art, architecture, theater and music conveniently packaged under one roof.
What it does well, it does as well or better than any museum in the country, and its failings, which are significant, will be difficult to detect for anyone who isn't a scholar, or firmly committed secularist.
The new attraction is an up-to-date version of an old-fashioned museum, telling linear stories in a complex and detailed way. It doesn't foreground trendy ideas about multiculturalism, and it isn't "thematic," or focused on broad ideas at the expense of chronological clarity. It gives a straightforward account of American history, from the first colonists to the civil rights era and beyond, through the prism of the Bible, but in a way that many visitors will likely find more compelling and accessible than the dense cultural stew on view at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. When dealing with the complexities of the Bible's history, the curators don't scant the facts or lapse into the useless generalities of other, more populist museums.
The institution's leaders have stressed their desire for a professional and unbiased presentation. "We want it to be as accurate as possible, as fair as possible, and if you will, as nonsectarian as possible," said Tony Zeiss, the museum's executive director.
The museum nonetheless aroused serious skepticism even before it opened. Despite claims that it would be nonsectarian, the organization's original mission was explicitly evangelical, to "inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible," according to a 2010 federal nonprofit filing.
The Green family's role in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows for-profit corporations to assert religious freedom claims, including the right to deny contraception coverage to women, has made some people dubious about the larger purpose of the family's glamorous new project. And the museum's integrity was severely damaged by a $3 million federal court settlement against Hobby Lobby after the family-owned corporation smuggled more than 3,000 antiquities from Iraq in a way that suggested an intentional effort to bypass federal law. Independent experts say that the money paid for the objects probably fueled a black market for antiquities that is exploited by terrorist groups, among others.
Today, the museum seems intent on rebranding itself as architecturally transparent and evenhanded in its presentation.
Museum leaders made a prescient decision in 2012 to buy the 1923 Terminal Refrigerating and Warehousing Co. building in Washington, D.C., a site near the Mall and ripe for development as a tourist hub. By adding a glass atrium and two floors atop the old structure, and connecting the floors with a sun-drenched stairwell, the architects of SmithGroup turned the largely windowless structure into a successful museum space spread over seven public floors, with a rooftop restaurant and garden and multiple theaters and event spaces.
Two floors include exhibitions that traffic mainly in the substance of biblical history, while a third floor is devoted to immersive rooms with a stronger admixture of entertainment. There is a re-creation of a New Testament-era village with faux olive trees and a mikvah, or ceremonial bath, and a multimedia space with theaters that chronicle the early history of the Jewish people. But both the traditional and immersive exhibitions start with unstated assumptions: that the Bible is the most important book in the world, that there is concrete archaeological evidence to explain its origins, that it has been transmitted through the ages with remarkably accuracy, and that it is fundamentally a blessing to mankind.
Debates about the meaning of the Bible are confronted openly and without bias, so long as they don't undermine those assumptions. The "Impact of the Bible" floor acknowledges the use of the Bible to defend slavery, as well as the role it played in the abolitionist movement. A descriptive panel for a King James Bible edited for use by enslaved people notes that what has been excised - passages that might have inspired resistance to authority - makes the book "deeply manipulative."
The role of women and the use of the Bible to limit women's political and cultural status is acknowledged, but there is no obvious discussion of how the Bible has been used to oppress and marginalize gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Curators admit that the Bible has been misused, but they consistently come down on the side of its positive impact. In an exhibition on science and the Bible, they cite Johannes Kepler to justify not just the importance of the Bible to scientific inquiry, but also the alignment of biblical ideas and the rational order of the universe: "God wanted us to recognize [the laws of nature] by creating us after his own image so that we could share his own thoughts," said the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer, who might blanch to think how his words were being used today.
Even the case of Galileo, arrested and censored by the Inquisition for heresy after arguing that the Earth moves around the sun, is chalked up to intellectual infighting. He was, the museum claims, a victim of "the politics of the Italian academia, which generally adhered to Aristotelian ideas."
When it comes to the literal truth of the Bible, things can get slippery. Although there is little to no material evidence to support the narrative of the Jewish exile and escape from Egypt recounted in Exodus, the museum jumbles together biblical texts about Egypt with the uncontested fact that there was significant cultural exchange between Egypt and the various peoples who lived in the lands now associated with the Jewish people.
In several places, including an exhibition devoted to archaeological finds from the ancient city of Khirbet Quifaya, small claims based on material or scientific evidence are juxtaposed with larger claims about the truth of biblical narratives in a way that confuses fact and speculation.
In expertly made animated videos, Bible narratives are presumed true, and there is little or no discussion of their manifold contradictions. One film recounts tales from Genesis, projecting hypnotic images of the natural world on the front screen and the undulating walls of the main auditorium. The story of man's fall through Eve's treachery is told as well as the two Genesis narratives of creation, known as the Priestly and Yahwist accounts. Skeptics have argued that there are fundamental inconsistencies in these two versions, including how God made man and woman, but none of that is mentioned.
There also is a lot of slippage between claims that the Bible is enormously influential (which is indisputable) and that the stories it tells are fundamentally true (a claim disputed not just by atheists, agnostics, secular scholars and scientists, but also by billions of adherents of the world's other religions). Every resource of museum design and careful argumentation has been mustered to sweep up these unrelated ideas in one, big, overwhelming package.
This has implications for people in the museum business. The Bible museum has come to town, in all its technical splendor, bearing with it something that most historians and museum professionals may have thought was long discredited: the "master narrative" idea of history, that there is one sweeping human story that needs to be told, a story that is still unfolding and carrying us along with it. It tells this seductive story well, in many places with factual accuracy, and always with an eye to clarity and entertainment. It is an exciting idea, and an enormously powerful tool for making sense of the world.
Unless, of course, you don't believe it.