WASHINGTON (RNS) — In the new Museum of the Bible is a room full of Bibles, color-coded to show the more than 2,000 languages into which the holy book has been at least partially translated — and the similar number for which translation has “not yet begun.”
That exhibit is just one example of how the 430,000-square-foot building with a view of the U.S. Capitol is meant to fascinate, educate and — depending on your perspective — evangelize.
“You could certainly interpret it that way,” said Museum of the Bible President Cary Summers of the language-related exhibit in an interview shortly before the museum’s Friday opening.
Some may see the exhibit as a visual depiction of the Bible’s growing influence over time, and others as a demonstration of the potential for spreading its message further. “We’ve never viewed it as evangelical outreach at all. It’s just part of the history of the Bible. And we’re showing it in this great way.”
Since the nonprofit behind the museum was established in 2010, officials have shifted from their original mission “to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible” to one that’s become “nonsectarian” and aimed at welcoming people of all faiths and none.
Strategically placed near the National Mall, a collection of monuments and museums dedicated to the country’s civic ideals, this museum is focused on religious ideals. Its success will, perhaps more than that of other museums, depend on the eye of the beholder. Visitors who swipe its high-tech screens or eat in its Manna restaurant will judge its contents from their own perspectives — religious, Christian or evangelical, or none of the above.
The museum opens amid controversy around its message and its primary funders, Steve Green and his evangelical family, which also run the Hobby Lobby craft store business that three years ago won a much-debated court case giving it an exemption from the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby recently reached a legal settlement over some of its acquisition of artifacts.
Separately, museum officials say they have responded to critics about the museum’s planned contents and language, adding nuance to signage and switching out artifacts to include a wider representation of cultures drawn to the Bible.
The museum’s front entrance features a gateway with two 40-foot brass replicas of the Book of Genesis as it appeared in the Gutenberg Bible, the version that first brought the holy book to the masses in the 1400s. Just beyond these panels is a glass vestibule featuring an artistic rendering of Psalm 19 (“The heavens declare the glory of God”), inspired by the Bodmer Papyri fragment that is one of the oldest artifacts in the museum’s collection.
The spacious lobby — its wall etched with “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” — features a 140-foot-long digital ceiling with revolving images of landscapes, stained glass and items from the permanent collection.
Museum staffers will offer visitors heading to the three floors of central exhibits tabletlike digital guides to help them plan their trek based on their personal interests and the amount of time they have to spend in the museum that took three years and $500 million to build. Though the Green family contributed the bulk of the funding, smaller financial gifts have come from schoolchildren sending in a dollar a month as well as Catholics, Jews and atheists, Summers said.
Admission is free but donations are suggested. The museum is offering timed-entry passes but visitors can also attempt to enter without them.
Just above the lobby, the “Impact of the Bible” floor highlights how Scriptures have influenced cultures across the globe — from education and literature to art and architecture. A Bible owned by Elvis Presley is just steps away from mannequins adorned with dresses by fashion designers such as Dolce and Gabbana, who have featured icons of Mary in their luxury brand.