Le nouveau musée de la Bible à Washington D. C. / The New Museum of the Bible in Washington D. C.

The New Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

The Museum of the Bible opened its doors on November 17, 2017, in Washington D.C.  It is just three blocks from the United States Capitol. The fact sheet promises that the museum aims to be the “most technologically advanced museum in the world” with its more than 600 biblical texts and artifacts displayed on six floors in 430,000 square feet.  (The three main floors are on the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible).  The bold promise about technology is certainly fulfilled.  But, I will et to that later.  I suspect that readers of this magazine will want to learn first about the books.

Book lovers should begin their visit on the fourth floor devoted to the History of the Bible. In an airy, open floor plan, there are displayed the majority of historic artifacts of the Bible, beginning with original fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, surely the most important archaeological find of modern times that brought to light partial or complete copies of nearly every book of the Hebrew Bible and date from before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. The informative display mixes precious fragments that are among the permanent holdings of the Museum of the Bible with facsimiles of some of the largest remnants housed today in the Shrine of the Book in Israel.  The Museum pays special attention to early forms of the Bible, such as the remarkable Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a palimpsest manuscript with multiple layers of text including a sixth-century Aramaic translation of the Gospels. There are also many splendid examples of later copies of the Bible and its numerous translations and commentaries.  These include the first-ever purchase by Steve Green, Founder and Chairman of the Board of the Museum of the Bible, the Roseberry Rolle, a manuscript of an early pre-Wycliffite English translation of the Psalms and Canticles from the fourteenth century. Recently acquired, the majestic Codex Valmadonna of 1189, the earliest surviving Hebrew manuscript copied in England, is another of the numerous dazzling codices on view.  Deservedly occupying a place of honor, the sumptuously illuminated medieval manuscript, the Hours and Psalter of Elizabeth of Bohun, Countess of Northampton, c. 1330, belonging to an ancestor of the royal family, gleams brightly in its case.

These early artifacts are followed by the history of the Bible in print.  Although the Museum does not possess a Gutenberg Bible – the first book ever printed c. 1455 in Mainz – they do own a “Noble Fragment,” the description commonly given to leaves taken apart by Gabriel Wells from an incomplete copy in 1921.  There is also (but on the second floor) an authentic replica of a Gutenberg Press attended by a foreman in period dress, who explains to interested visitors what the innovation of moveable type meant at the same time as he inks a plate and prints off a page from the Book of Samuel.  Ample space, which centers on one of only two known copies of a 1611 edition of the King James New Testament, illustrates the story behind the English Bible, the most influential and widely read Bible for more than 350 years.  A display of 200 Torah scrolls set into niches in the wall and a live demonstration of a Jewish scribe working to copy a complete Torah by hand are impressive.

Up until now, this overview of the “History” floor makes the Museum of the Bible sound like any other museum in which artifacts of the book are exhibited, a kind of history of the book, or in this case of one book.  However, it is much more than that.  Returning to my initial point – that it aims to be the “most technologically advanced museum in the world” – the display is replete with additional means of engaging with the material.  “Immersive,” “experiential,” and “interactive” are some of the words used to evoke the experience a visit offers.  At key junctures during the walk-through there are audio-visual snippets on enormous screens from “Drive Thru History” (now a TV series, and also available on YouTube), in which the highly entertaining host David Stotts speeds around driving a succession of spiffy cars – a Jeep, a yellow convertible, and a Mini – through sites in the Middle East, then Italy, and then England that have a historical significance for the writing of the Bible.  At the same time, an audio component includes ambient voices of people reading from the Bible, first men, then Women, in different languages.  Sounds too much like a theme park in Disneyland Paris?  Well, it doesn’t really feel that way when you experience it in person.

On my visit to the fourth floor I was accompanied by a “digital docent.”  This truly remarkable gadget is a hand-held tablet – the most up-to-date book in the Museum of the Bible – fitted with GPS and textual and audio components on many of the works on display.  As you approach a case, the device vibrates and allows you to access either a written or spoken short description of the object displayed in it. The information is clearly presented, concise, and well-composed.  When the full capabilities of the tablet are activated (it was still in a trial phase when I was there), the visitor will be able to program his or her visit not only according to special interests, but also based on the amount of time they have available, say, a two-hour visit, or only an hour, and so forth.  Want to see the museum with a friend?  My colleague and I used split earphones and a single tablet for our visit.  Returning for another look at the museum?  The tablet you pick up at the door will remember where you went last time and what you liked.  Lingering for an exceptionally long time in front of the Bohun Psalter?  The tablet will intervene to suggest further videos, pod-casts, even books in the museum store than are focused on that object and that you can purchase simply with a click and pick up on your way out.  Incredible?!  Imagine the utility not only for museum-goers but also for curators, directors, and administrators, who will henceforth be able to plot with more accuracy the effectiveness of their displays.  This is really the future of museums.

One floor down, the story of the Bible begins on the third or “Narrative” floor.  Here there are practically no artifacts.  An auditorium-like setting introduces the Old Testament.  But, just when you think you are about to watch a movie on a screen in a traditional amphitheater, you are surrounded by images and lights, bombarded by sounds and smells – all the senses are activated in a remarkable display that begins with the creation story from the book of Genesis. A series of rooms with similar sensory effects guide visitors through the story of King David.  When I exited the space, I asked a little girl if she was scared, so powerful is the presentation.  Her response: “a little, especially at the beginning, but you know I’m already seven years old, so I’m not scared anymore.”  Next comes a recreation of Nazareth in the time of Jesus.  We paused for an actor in period dress to explain the sites on a map of the sea of Galilee. There is also a carpenter in his workshop, a typical house, and even a replica of a synagogue where visitors can sit while a rabbi talks and reads from a scroll.  An open, outdoor feel with trees, birds, and sounds enhances the hands-on experience, as you walk through the simulated village and countryside.  I engaged one of the “inhabitants” in conversation to learn a little about his “back story.”  He told me that he is an amateur actor with a degree in theology, thrilled to be able to combine his interests by working in this section of the museum.  The Narrative floor finishes with another theatrical experience of the New Testament, this time starting with Saint John writing his Gospels on Patmos.  Scored with original music and accompanied by stunning graphics, this section is as impressive as the immersive experience of the Old Testament at the beginning of the “Narrative” floor.

Walking down the grand staircase (there are also elevators) to ground level, the second or “Impact” floor attempts to convey the impact of the Bible:  around the world, as well as in different aspects of society and culture – art, music, science, fashion, popular culture, and so forth.  A section on the Bible in America includes many books, Bibles and books inspired by the Bible (such as sermons), as well as videos of historic figures who come to life on the screens in speeches that one way or another reflect the influence the Bible had on their life and thought.  There are opportunities for an interactive experience here too, as touch screens animate musical performances based on the Bible (“Amazing Grace,” among others). This floor is designed at least partly with the aim of engaging young museum-goers.

An article on the Museum of the Bible would be incomplete without reference to the amazing “Flyboard Ride” or “Washington Revelations.” In a small thirty-six-person theater, visitors stand up and lean forward on pads for a simulated flight through the capital that reveals up close biblical texts and imagery on the landmarks throughout Washington.  The strong sensation of flying comes from the video, sound, and movement that magnify the effect.  In fact, a warning before the presentation begins suggests that those who suffer from motion sickness or fear of heights forego the experience!  It is the only such theater in Washington, and I know of no such theater in France.

There is much else.  A theater staging original performances, a ballroom, a biblical garden with plants from the Holy Land, a full-service restaurant called “Manna” that serves food from the biblical lands, a museum store (obligatory now in all museums).  The entranceway itself is imposing.  Two enormous bronze panels (forty feet high, weighing sixteen tons) are a colossal recreation of the first page of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible. The 140-foot long grand lobby is outfitted with a ceiling composed of LED panels that change, showing medieval architecture, Hebrew calligraphy, biblical paintings, in a seemingly never-ending display. The luxurious marble flooring shifts barely perceptively from dark to light as the visitor approaches the central staircase through the lobby.  Is there a faith-based message apart from education about the Bible?  Is the museum proselytizing?  If there is one, the dark-to-light flooring suggests just how subtle and unobtrusive that message is.

The Museum of the Bible is a not-for-profit institution that is privately funded primarily by the Green family but also supported by other donors (there is a “Million Name Wall”).  Steve Green serves as its Chairman of the Board and is the visionary leader responsible for its establishment.  Perhaps much better known in the United States than in France, the billionaire Steve Green is also President of Hobby Lobby, the world’s largest privately-owned arts and crafts retailer, with more than 800 stores located throughout the United States that employ more than 32,000 people company wide.  Hobby Lobby was founded by David Green, Steve Green’s father, in 1972, starting with a $600 loan and operating out of his house – a classic American entrepreneurial success story. The Green Family Collection of rare biblical artifacts is what forms the core of the museum.

So, how did the Museum of the Bible come into being? That story itself is remarkable especially because it dates over only eight years – from the purchase of the first artifact in 2009 to the opening of the museum in 2017.  With his wife Jackie, Steve Green was inspired, primarily through his religious faith and his commitment to the Bible as central to his life as a Christian, to purchase the Richard Rolle Psalter in 2009.  Other purchases, often of whole collections in bulk, rapidly followed this acquisition, with the idea of founding a museum of the Bible omnipresent in the family’s thought from the very beginning.  Steve Green likes to say, “We aren’t collectors, we’re storytellers,” a statement that is crucial to understanding how, and why, he went about collecting.  After an in-depth study of which locations might be most suitable, the Greens bought in 2012 – just three years after their initial acquisition of the Rolle Psalter – the Washington Design Center, a historical landmark, to transform it into the Museum of the Bible.  Five years and nearly a billion dollars later, with virtually no expense spared and an international team of consultants, architects, and designers, the Museum opened right on schedule.  The rest is history, as they say.


Sandra Hindman is professor emerita of art history at Northwestern University and founder and president of the international firm Les Enluminures which operates in Paris, Chicago, New York, and London. She has written more than a dozen books, as well as numerous articles, on medieval manuscripts and early printing.

A portion of her own collection is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago:  The Medieval World at Our Fingertips:  Manuscript Illuminations from the Collection of Sandra Hindman (book published by Harvey Miller, London).

Further Reading :

• Steve and Jackie Green, The Dangerous Book:  How the Bible Has Shaped Our World and Why It Still Matters Today, 2017.

• Cary Summers, Lifting up the Bible:  The Story Behind Museum of the Bible, 2017.

• Sandra Hindman, “We Are Storytellers First” – Fine Books and Collections, Autumn 2013, pp. 32-37 [on Steve Green and the formation of the Green Family Collection].






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