Museum of the Bible
400 4th St., S.W.
The team behind the new Museum of the Bible, which opened last weekend in Washington, said all along they wouldn’t “mention homosexuality, abortion or any other political commentary” and they’ve stayed true to their word.
The controversial museum — housed in a massive, 430,000-square-foot building three blocks from the U.S. Capitol in Southwest Washington — was established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2010. In 2012, museum personnel purchased the former Washington Design Center for $50 million and spent years having it converted into an eight-story structure with two basement levels and two new floors added to the existing rooftop at a total cost of more than $500 million.
All the effort and expense shows. This is no amateur endeavor despite the bumps in the road the billionaires behind it — it’s been largely funded by the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby — have encountered along the way.
During a media preview last week, a few finishing touches were still being applied. Ladders and cans of paint were seen in several corridors much like they were during media previews for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture that opened last year. The museum’s communications team didn’t hesitate in including the Blade. The Blade has also learned of at least one openly LGBT person on staff at the museum.
Steve Green is president of Hobby Lobby and chair of the Museum of the Bible board. He told media at the museum on Nov. 15 that the purpose of the museum was “not about us espousing our faith.”
“The example I primarily use is in the Bible, it says, ‘In the beginning God created …,’ so we tell that story on the narrative floor but it’s not our position to tell you when God created, so we don’t take a position on whether that’s true or not. We just say, ‘Here’s the Bible story,’ and then you can decide what you do with it.”
Another recurring theme from staff is that the museum is “non-sectarian” and they’ve gone to great lengths to take an ecumenical approach. One exhibit features items on loan from the Vatican and the museum boasts what it claims is the world’s largest private collection of retired Torah scrolls and the second-largest private collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, the earliest-surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.
“Obviously we’re trying to be inclusive,” Green said. “We have the Israel Antiquity Authority, we have the Vatican having space in here, so it’s not about a faith tradition. We have a love for the Bible and we want to include everyone. We want atheists to feel comfortable coming in here because they’ll know, in essence, we’re not pushing our agenda. We’re just trying to educate them on a book. If you wanna believe this book is a novel, fine. Just be educated on what you believe and that’s what we wanna do.”
The scope alone is impressive. Museum personnel claim to read every placard, see every artifact and experience every activity in the museum, it would take nine days at eight hours per day.
And while some have expressed relief that the museum has taken a vastly more academic approach than, say, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., which presents the Genesis account of creation as literally true, the Museum of the Bible is still wildly controversial.
The museum has come under intense criticism — the Washington Post’s coverage has been especially tough — for several issues. Among them are:
• what some consider the Green family’s baggage from their 2014 fight against mandatory employer-provided birth control that resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that struck down the contraceptive mandate part of the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to cover certain contraceptives for female employees. The Greens have paid for newspaper ads espousing the “real meaning” of Christmas and have donated $70 million to Oral Roberts University and other evangelical institutions that lean toward the fundamentalist end of the religious spectrum according to Vox and other outlets.
• a $3 million fine imposed by the Department of Justice in a civil action suit that said the Greens, who started collecting in 2009, had obtained thousands of Iraqi artifacts they obtained without the necessary clearances in 2010 and 2011. The Greens said the seized artifacts were never part of the museum collection and said they’ve “engaged the leading experts in abiding the highest standards of museum guidelines (from the Association of Art Museum Directors) and other organizations. Those are the policies that we will adhere to here at the museum,” Green said last week.
• accusations that Hobby Lobby owners neglected to do their due diligence in acquiring the artifacts that got them in trouble. At the time, they said, “the company was new to the world of acquiring these items and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes. The company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.” According to museum tax records cited by the Washington Post, Hobby Lobby donated about $201 million in artifacts to the museum, about 2,800 of the Greens’ 40,000-piece collection.
• a sense that the museum’s mission has shifted from inception to fruition. Perhaps, some would argue, for the better, yet it casts doubts on the owners’ intentions. According to Vox, in 2011, the museum’s nonprofit tax filings stated its purpose 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.” By 2013, the wording said simply that “we exist to invite all people to engage with the Bible.” “It felt in the last few years like they were moving from running in the primary to running in the general election,” says Matthew Vines, a prominent gay evangelical writer. “Now you’re going to focus on reaching the center and not just activating the base anymore. Now it feels more like a normal, general-election campaign.”
• the role of the National Christian Foundation, a Georgia-based organization with a mission to “advance God’s kingdom,” that has given millions of dollars annually to churches and civic groups, many of which, according to the Washington Post, are “engaged in court fights against same-sex marriage, abortion rights and other social policies.” The foundation directed about $163 million to the museum between 2013-2015 according to the Post, which cited tax returns for its information. While the museum touts that 50,000 donors have given money to the museum, which does not charge admission and is registered as a public charity, 89 percent of 2016 donations came from the National Christian Foundation; it was 96 percent in 2015, Museum President Cary Summers confirmed to the Post.
• several claims of dubious action made by Candida R. Moss, a theology professor at the University of Birmingham, and Joel S. Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, in their new book “Bible Nation: the United States of Hobby Lobby” in which, according to the Post, they claim the Greens have “exploited tax-exempt rules to financially benefit from their acquisitions” and “have probably purchased forgeries, items of questionable provenance and possibly even looted antiquities.” The book also claims the Green Scholars Initiative has hired a disproportionate number of scholars with similar evangelical backgrounds and that while they maintain the Greens are well-intentioned, they accuse them of dumbing down on biblical scholarship. That they “believe it is possible to tell the story of the Bible without interpretation betrays not only their Protestant roots and bias,” the authors write, “but also their fundamentally anti-intellectual orientation.”
It’s a concern echoed by some LGBT believers as well. Because the museum just opened and few have had a chance to experience it directly, some were hesitant to say much although concerns were expressed.
Fred Davie, vice president of Union Theological Seminary, said the Bible is not a simple book.
“The way these ancient texts have been put together and then blessed by various religious bodies is very, very complicated,” Davie, who’s gay, said. “We have to be careful because most believers’ understanding of scripture in my experience is pretty much at a very basic, almost Sunday school level. … The Bible as we know it has been used to do lots of bad things to God’s creation, both creatures and flora and fauna throughout history — everything from enslaving people to denigrating women and relegating them to a lesser roles to all forms of oppression against LGBT folks.”
Davie said he’s been encouraged by media accounts he’s read that state the museum staff has attempted to be non-partisan and ecumenical, but also said the whole concept of a museum such as this could be problematic.
“You want to try to give them credit for making scripture accessible to large numbers of people and to make it popular … but it is very complex and to attempt to present the museum as an amusement is fraught with pitfalls. If they have tried to be balanced, you know, God bless them, but what I worry about is that it will simply reinforce a Sunday school, simplistic notion of scripture.”
Davie says faulty and overly simplistic interpretations of scripture historically have been used to marginalize many such as African Americans, women and gays. To approach the museum as a vehicle for entertainment, he says, could backfire with similar consequences.
Despite the curators’ claims that they aren’t getting into controversial issues such as homosexuality and abortion, the museum doesn’t tiptoe around all controversy. The second floor is devoted to the “impact of the Bible” and the “Bible in America” and goes from the book’s role in the formation of the United States culminating with “Civil Rights and beyond: equality and religious freedom.”
So why did curators delve into the issue of the Civil Rights Movement but avoid LGBT rights? The museum has exhibits devoted to topics one might not expect such as the Bible in fashion, the Bible in pop culture and others.
Seth Pollinger, director of museum content, said deciding what to include and what to leave out is an ongoing challenge for any museum, especially a new one. His role is to work as a liaison between the designers and scholars and curators. He said the team worked hard to assemble content that is “authentic and sincere and on track with reliability and constructive to the overall message of how everything fits together.”
As for possible LGBT issues in the future, Pollinger said, “I think we’re working on it.”
“I think these are the kinds of discussions that we hope to have and areas we hope to grow in in the future,” he said.
Was there a sense that some topics such as LGBT rights and the Bible might be easier to avoid because they’re so divisive? Pollinger said yes and cites how the Bible historically was used both to justify and condemn slavery, though no pro-slavery items or exhibits are in the museum.
“That was one example where we had to weigh whether or not we could do that from a social standpoint and present those things without doing something that would be offensive,” he said.
He also said that even with eight floors and 430,000 square feet, space is always an issue.
“You want to make sure you’re able to cover a wide spectrum of views and in some cases we felt like we had a very small amount of real estate available,” Pollinger said. “In the future, as we start to feature a balance of views within a small space, we can have more dialogue on that. We just felt that for opening day, we just didn’t have that all solved yet.”
Matthew Solari of BRC Imagination Arts worked on two animated films shown at the museum, one on the Old Testament, another on the New. He’s worked on similar projects for other major museums such as the Kennedy Space Center, the Epcot pavilions and more.
“When we were deciding whether this was something we wanted to throw our energies and talents into, we had several escape hatches at various points along the way where we could have gone the other direction and left,” Solari said. “But we never did. We never felt pressured in any way to say or do something we felt was betraying the promises that were made to us as storytellers in the beginning and also what we thought were going to be stories that were going to be welcoming and kind to people as opposed to people that were going to be finger wagging and thou shalt not. We weren’t interested in doing any of that kind of stuff and we were given a very wide berth. They were an excellent client to work with.”
Vines, founder of the Reformation Project, an agency that works to advance LGBT inclusion in the church, who came to prominence with the 2014 publication of his book “God and the Gay Christian: the Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the Museum of the Bible.
He points to recent events in the evangelical world in which World Vision, a “sponsor-a-child” program, backtracked quickly when about 10,000 evangelicals threatened to pull their child sponsorships if the organization opened its doors to hiring gay staff, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a college campus ministry, which took a renewed and harder stance against LGBT-affirming staff last fall.
“Culturally these groups are very similarly situated in terms of their support bases and … I find it encouraging that the Museum of the Bible did not feel compelled to do something similar. I could easily see a number of donors wanting to put strings on their donations and say there had to be one part of the museum that said marriage was one man, one woman for life,” Vines said. “I don’t know the politics and dynamics of those conversations but clearly that didn’t end up happening and I just appreciate, not even knowing all the back story, that the museum is not taking an oppositional position. That is a kind of progress.”