The National Mall may be the nation’s front lawn, but even at holiday time the museums that line it are only lightly decorated with Christmas trees and lights and not with any religious displays.
But a new privately-owned museum is going up just a few blocks away – the Museum of the Bible – that only wants to celebrate Scripture. The $400 million project two blocks south of the National Air and Space Museum doesn’t have to worry about laws or rulings that keep religion and state separate.
I read the Bible every day during my presidency.
Former President George W. Bush
The museum is the brainchild of Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, the privately-owned Oklahoma City crafts chain that follows its owners’ evangelical beliefs, including closing its 600 stores on Sundays.
Hobby Lobby became known nationally in 2014 when it won a Supreme Court decision that it did not have to adhere to Affordable Care Act requirements on birth control coverage that conflicted with the owners’ beliefs.
Green has had a vision of a Bible museum for several years – originally intended for Dallas – as a way of making Scripture more accessible. Construction in Washington began in February on the site of a former refrigeration warehouse and design center. It will be one of the largest museum facilities in the city, with eight floors, 430,000 square feet and a Biblical garden on the roof.
“The Bible has had a huge impact on our world today – from culture and politics, to social and moral justice, to literature, art and music, and more,” Green told a group of civic leaders last year at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. “Our family has a passion for the Bible and we are excited to be part of a museum dedicated to sharing its impact, history and narrative with the world.”
Former President Bush also spoke at the event about his faith and what he said was the need for such a museum.
“The easiest time to be faithful is during a time of crisis,” said Bush, who is not affiliated with the museum, but is supportive of it. “The hardest time for faith is when all is well. Faith informed my principles and decisions, but not my tactics. The museum is a great idea. It’s very important that the Museum of the Bible invites and makes people of all faiths feel comfortable. It will be an important part of our capital.”
There are some cautionary voices amid the enthusiasm for the project. Duke University religious studies scholar Carol Meyers said in an interview, “The Bible is not a perfect source of information. There’s a lot of story-telling. It can’t be evaluated in a way that supports contemporary history.”
Meyers said that she did not want to sound too harsh while the museum is still taking shape. But she was concerned that “there may be a subtle slant” that supports an evangelical view and “whether all the artifacts are ones that are legal.”
Green appears to have backed off earlier comments that appeared to make the museum a place to proselytize his family’s evangelical Christian faith.
Museum spokesperson Amy Crouse said the new attraction will not be focused on the Bible’s “evangelical interpretation,” but will be a place that hopes to engage visitors through its exhibits and opportunities for scholarly work.
The museum announced in August that it had signed a long-term deal with the Israel Antiquities Authority to display a selection from the two million artifacts among the authority’s National Treasures, including pieces of the Dead Sea scrolls. The artifacts will be in a gallery on the top floor of the building that will be part of the museum opening scheduled for fall, 2017.
Baylor University scholar Byron Johnson, director of the Institute for Studies of Religion and an adviser to the museum, said the family has “consistently reiterated the same message: the Museum of the Bible is non-sectarian. The scholars and the design teams as well as the others that are involved come from vastly different religious (or no religious) background.”
The exhibits will be about the history of the Bible, its stories and impact, featuring some major attractions, such as first editions of the King James Bible, the English translation of the Bible dating to the early 1600s and fragments of the New Testament written on papyrus.
Green and his family have acquired over 40,000 artifacts from some of the largest private collections of biblical texts and artifacts in the world since he began actively collecting in 2009. But the speed and prices involved have drawn a federal government investigation as to whether they were legally being sold.
U.S. Customs agents seized a shipment of valuable tablets en route to Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma from Israel written in cuneiform, an ancient form of writing.
In a statement, the company said, “Hobby Lobby is cooperating with the investigation related to certain biblical artifacts. The Museum of the Bible is a separate not-for-profit entity made possible, in part, by the generous charitable contributions of the Green family.”