$500 Million Museum of the Bible, Set to Open Next Month in D.C., Stirs Controversy Over Mission

The main lobby of the Museum of The Bible. (Photograph: Zach Gibson for the Guardian)

The main lobby of the Museum of The Bible. (Photograph: Zach Gibson for the Guardian)

The museum conceived by the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby and set to open next month has attracted scepticism over its ideological mission

It is a museum of biblical proportions – and it is stirring controversies to match.

Opening next month in Washington, the Museum of the Bible cost half a billion dollars to build, spans 430,000 sq ft over eight floors and claims to be the most hi-tech museum in the world. Reading every placard, seeing every artifact and experiencing every activity would take an estimated 72 hours.

But while it is not the monument to creationism that some liberals feared, the sprawling museum has attracted scepticism over both its ideological mission and the provenance of its collection. It is the brainchild of evangelical Christian Steve Green, the billionaire president of Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain that won a supreme court caseallowing companies with religious objections to opt out of contraceptive coverage under Barack Obama’s healthcare law.

Green, who since 2009 has amassed a vast collection of biblical texts and artifacts, is making a big statement with the museum’s location: two blocks south of the National Mall, home to the US Capitol and Smithsonian Institution museums – including the National Museum of Natural History, which has exhibits on dinosaurs and human evolution – and could hardly be closer to the centre of power.

Gaining a sneak preview this week amid workers in hard hats, the Guardian passed through giant bronze “Gutenberg Gates” that framed the entrance with hand-carved letters spelling out a Latin quotation from Genesis (the gates even have their own Twitter account). Inside the main atrium there is the obligatory gift shop, where cuddly animals are already on the shelves – presumably a reference to Noah’s Ark – and a “children’s experience” room where young Samsons can push columns and make them collapse.

Visitors – admission is free, though a donation of $15 is suggested – will each be given a digital guide on which new information is triggered each time they approach a gallery or artifact. High above them in the bright, airy atrium of what used to be a refrigerating warehouse and design centre is a 140ft “digital ceiling” showing biblical images, including church frescos.

Upstairs, there is a floor devoted to the historical and cultural impact of the Bible, including on America, bound to be closely scrutinised for any hints of political bias. Among the Europeans who sailed across the Atlantic, a display panel says, were “many English dissenters seeking religious freedom. Each group brought its own version of the Bible, and some professed intentions to convert Native Americans to Christian beliefs”.

There is a scale remake of the Liberty Bell, which is inscribed with scripture, and an account that many colonists seeking independence from Britain drew inspiration from the Bible, especially Moses, “who led his people out of bondage to a land of liberty”.

With independence and the presidency of George Washington, the tradition of swearing the oath of office on a Bible began. A surge of evangelical arrivals in the late 18th century helped renew devotion to the Bible and ignite a campaign to abolish slavery, the narrative continues. “Southern slaveholders, however – some of them also involved in the revivals – interpreted the Bible as affirming slavery.” Each side in the civil war “embraced the Bible to justify its cause”.

Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt are quoted and Charles Darwin gets a mention. “In 1925, John Scopes, a high school teacher in Tennessee, was charged with violating a state law that prohibited teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution,” an exhibit states, in a reference to the infamous “Monkey Trial”, which, it says, “placed the Bible in the center of an intense national debate between traditional and more progressive interpretations of the Bible and modern science”.

More unexpectedly, a display on the Bible’s influence around the world makes claims for links between science and the Bible and contains statues of Galileo Galilei, whose claim that the earth revolved around the sun was challenged by the church, Isaac Newton, a devoted student of the Bible, and George Washington Carver, who rose from slavery to become a scientist, botanist and inventor and regarded the Bible as a guide to the natural world.

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The Guardian