'A Bible nation from the beginning': A preview of Washington's controversial $500M Museum of the Bible

Washington's new Museum of the Bible is a privately funded cultural institution with a prominent place on the National Mall and is raising eyebrows for its proximity to the corridors of political power and its connection to a controversial evangelical family.

Museum backed by fundamentalist Hobby Lobby CEO promises its goal is education, not indoctrination

A walk-through exhibit in the Museum of the Bible invites visitors to wander through Jesus's Nazareth village. When the museum opens, actors wearing ancient Israeli garb will interact with patrons. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

In Jesus' interactive Nazareth village, audio engineers were sound-checking a chorus of bleating sheep. Downstairs, plush lions from Noah's Ark were being unboxed for display in the gift shop. On the outdoor Biblical Garden, an ersatz Tree of Life swayed languidly in the breeze outside Manna, the Israeli-inspired restaurant.

The new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., opens Friday. And when the first visitors flock through its 12-metre-tall bronze Gutenberg Gates bearing the words of Genesis in Latin, organizers hope not just to enlighten crowds; they aim to silence doubts about the cultural venue's existential purpose.

The $500-million US exhibition space is billed as a 430,000-square-foot repository of artifacts with a modest goal: To help the public understand an ancient text and nothing more.

An exterior view of the Museum of the Bible at the intersection of 4th Street Southwest and D Street Southwest in Washington, D.C. (Museum of the Bible)

"We're not trying to convert anyone," assures Steve Bickley, the museum's vice-president of marketing. "The Museum of the Bible exists to invite all people to engage with the best-selling book of all time."

Coaxing cynics to accept that in good faith will be the challenge. Museum agnostics have misgivings about its founder and major bankroller Steve Green, CEO of the Christianity-infused Hobby Lobby empire, a chain of craft stores that won a 2014 Supreme Court case to deny workers contraception coverage over religious objections.

Plush animals that are part of a Noah's Ark set await unpacking and display in the Museum of the Bible gift shop. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

'We don't get into theology'

Last summer, federal authorities slapped Hobby Lobby with a $3-million fine and ordered the company to forfeit over 5,500 smuggled Iraqi antiquities that were believed to have been destined for the new museum. Putting that scandal aside, the museum's development in D.C. has also troubled people wary of its proximity to the corridors of political power and its promise not to be preachy.

To the naysayers, museum officials say: Judge not — at least until you visit.

"People often wonder, 'Will the museum be presenting a literal interpretation? Or a different interpretation of Genesis?'" Bickley said. "We don't enter into that; we don't get into theology or points of view. We just tell the story that's actually in the Bible."

The entrance to a Nazareth village mock-up in the Museum of the Bible includes olive trees with handmade leaves. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Organizers favour an academic approach. The museum dropped its mission statement which, according to 2010 Internal Revenue Service nonprofit filings, was "to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible."

As drills growled in the background, a guide giving a preview tour to CBC News last month described the revisions as "an evolution."

When the museum opens, visitors will be able to wander a reimagined Nazareth village and interact with roaming actors wearing ancient Israeli garb. They'll be able to sip on handcrafted coffees at the Milk and Honey Cafe. Children in the Courageous Pages zone can stand between the pillars like Samson and push them apart.

The Museum of the Bible also boasts having the world's longest digital ceiling, stretching 43-metres long, in its grand hall. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Theatre-lovers can also catch a live show of Amazing Grace, the Christian-themed Broadway musical about former slave trader John Newton, the Anglican clergyman and eventual abolitionist who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.

Bickley noted that respected international collections experts were brought in, including Canadian experts from Trinity Western University, to advise on acquisitions and displays.

Blockbuster turnout is expected

Even so, the Hobby Lobby connection unsettles Diana Steinhauser, who works nearby and has been watching the construction proceed. She wonders if tourists might make presumptions about its location near the edge of the National Mall, nestled among its politics-free Smithsonian neighbours and rising so close to an area often referred to as "America's Front Yard."

A crew member working on the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., arranges the letters on a marquee for a History section of the $500-million, eight-storey museum. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Tourists coming in might have trouble understanding the difference," she said. "We get tourists all the time that come in, asking how to get to the Mall, asking directions, and they often affiliate all museums with the Smithsonian."

Steinhauser said she'll boycott the museum to deny it strong attendance numbers, but blockbuster turnout is expected. Admission is free, with a suggested $15 donation.

Inside, a 43-metre digital ceiling tested patterns of the Sistine Chapel and sharks in water. Crews touched up murals of ancient Israel, removed sheaves of wheat from plastic wrap, inspected the clang of a replica Liberty Bell and planted "lilies of the field" on a sixth-floor garden overlooking the U.S. Capitol.

Family friends the Millers and the Gustafsons, visiting from Colorado, scored a VIP preview tour of the new Museum of the Bible a month before its opening. Leslie Gustafson, far right, said she believes the museum will bring the Bible 'alive' to patrons. Her husband, Doug called the exhibits 'outstanding.' (Matt Kwong/CBC)

That it occupies such prime D.C. real estate troubles religious scholar Jacques Berlinerblau, who fears the museum will become ground zero for evangelical political crusaders in the capital.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the convening power and the strategic tactical and strategic centrality of that space was foremost in their thinking," said Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University.

"This could be used as a rallying point for conservative Christian activism, a way of getting people on the buses."

A view inside the Washington Revelations multi-sensory ride shows a projection of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. The '4D' ride is a paid attraction in the Museum of the Bible and takes visitors on a flyover experience of U.S. landmarks bearing Bible scripture, including the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

A museum attraction on the second-floor Impact collection called Washington Revelations is feeding evangelical scholar John Fea's doubts. The multi-sensory "4D" ride takes visitors soaring over D.C. landmarks to highlight scripture inscribed on landmarks, such as the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Lincoln Memorial.

To Fea, who teaches history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, the idea mirrors evangelical activist David Barton's WallBuilders movement, which promotes a view the United States was founded as a Christian nation. A signature program of the WallBuilders is to bring ministers and state politicians on tours of Washington to show them places bearing biblical verse.

"There's a temptation there to send the message that America is a certain kind of nation, a Christian nation," Fea said. "A nation where the Bible should be important and prominent in shaping public life. In other words, [suggesting] we were a Bible nation from the beginning."

A rendering of the 472-seat World Stage Theater that's housed in the Museum of the Bible shows how the walls can also be used to display moving images. The first live show will be for the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, described as 'an unforgettable musical saga that captures the spirit of history’s sweetest and most powerful sound: freedom.' (Museum of the Bible)

Though he admires the museum project in concept, he questions whether the building just three blocks from Congress will service a conservative vision of American Christian nationalism.

Not that any of that concerned a group of Colorado visitors on a recent sneak-peek tour of the facility.

"Incredible. Outstanding," said Doug Gustafson, who scored a VIP tour through a family friend.

Lee Sheridan, a NASA employee who works at the aerospace agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters about a block from the Museum of the Bible, has already reserved a ticket to see the cultural facility when it opens. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"It's going to have incredible impact on people and bring the Bible alive and make it way more meaningful," added his wife, Leslie. "People are going to get it. They'll have opportunity to get it. And from so many vantage points."

On his lunch break from NASA headquarters, which shares the same block as the museum, Lee Sheridan said he and two co-workers at an agency known for advancing our understanding of the Big Bang Theory have already reserved their tickets.

Sheridan, a Protestant, considers a visit less of a pilgrimage than as an "academic pursuit" to better understand how canonization — the collection of the original biblical texts — came to pass.

A photo illustration shows a daytime view of the exterior of the new Museum of the Bible. (Museum of the Bible)

The computing systems administrator doesn't expect to be bombarded with messages attesting to Creationism, but reasons a scholarly take on the history of the Bible should include varying interpretations. Where it might cross a line for him is if exhibits have the appearance of validating a position. Sheridan is reserving judgment.

"For me," he said, "the devil's in the details."

Museum of the Bible debuted $42 million US in technology, including a digital guide — a powerful technology ecosystem for which a customized mobile device serves as a guest's primary interface, part of an investment in a visitor experience unrivalled in the industry. (Museum of the Bible)


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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