Bible museum stands as testament to homogeneous US

America Letter: Facility presents US tradition rooted solely in Judeo-Christian thinking

Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the dedication ceremony for the Museum of the Bible in Washington, which fits into a narrative of a homogenous Judeo-Christian idea of American  identity many Trump supporters believe is under threat.  Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the dedication ceremony for the Museum of the Bible in Washington, which fits into a narrative of a homogenous Judeo-Christian idea of American identity many Trump supporters believe is under threat. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

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Washington DC may be famous for the gleaming white monuments that line the National Mall, but it is also home to one of the largest museum complexes in the world.

The Smithsonian Institution, a collection of 19 federally funded national museums, attracts millions of tourists to the US capital each year, as busloads of school children and international tour groups teem into the city to visit such sights as the Air and Space Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In recent weeks, a new and controversial addition to the city’s museum network has opened – the Museum of the Bible. When the idea for the privately funded museum was first touted in 2012 it was met with incredulity and scepticism by many. But the founder, Steve Green, the billionaire founder of the Hobby Lobby crafts-supply chain, pressed ahead, and the $500 million (€420 million) building opened on November 17th.

The Oklahoma-based Green family are well-known evangelical philanthropists and activists. They rose to national prominence for their role in the supreme court case Burwell V Hobby Lobby in which they challenged the birth-control mandate of Obamacare on religious grounds.

Their biggest project to date, the Museum of the Bible, became embroiled in controversy earlier this year, after the Green company was fined $3 million by the US government for purchasing ancient artefacts illegally smuggled out of Iraq. The family have insisted that none of those artefacts are included in the museum’s collection.

Long queues

Located just a few minutes’ walk from the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, the 130,000sq m museum is one of the biggest in the city. On a bright mid-week morning this week, lines of people were queuing around the block patiently waiting to gain entry to Washington’s newest attraction.

Based over eight floors, the museum is impressive in scale and design. The top floor has a restaurant, theatre and “biblical garden”, with stunning views. Intricate designs and animated patterns link the sun-drenched staircases and light-filled floors of the labyrinth building.

The exhibition itself uses different formats to tell the story of the Bible, drawing on thousands of artefacts and manuscripts that have been purchased by the Green family, including Bibles from the 11th century and fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls.

The three main floors explore themes such as the impact of the Bible on society and the story of the Bible, with a strong emphasis on how the history of America has been bound up with the history of scripture. Other floors contain temporary exhibits, while one floor recreates the village of Nazareth complete with sound effects and painted New Testament scenes.

The inherent problems and biases of the museum are obvious. By recounting the history of America through the prism of the Bible, the Museum of the Bible posits a specific version of American national identity exclusively rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Strong links with Israel are evident throughout the museum. The exhibition emphasises the Jewish roots of the Old Testament as much as Christianity as it charts the history of the Bible, with many of the artefacts and manuscripts donated or on loan from Israeli collections.

Evolution of a hymn

But much of the museum is informative and thought-provoking. The “Amazing Grace” exhibition traces the evolution of a hymn that was composed by an English clergyman and former slaveship worker and became the rallying-cry for abolition and the civil rights movement.

The fifth-floor exhibition charting the history of the Bible, presents a scholarly and informative insight into how the world’s oldest book was presented and preserved through various mediums over thousands of years and across cultures, as well as the unique role it played in the establishment of the American state as Protestant pilgrim settlers arrived.

Whatever about the content and political messaging of the museum, the addition of a new museum to the Washington DC scene once again opens up questions about the role played by private money and philanthropy in America’s arts and cultural world. The artful design and state-of-the-art technology on show in the Museum of the Bible highlights the datedness of some of the older Smithsonian museums that are struggling under federal cuts and a lack of investment.

At a time when heightened debates about America’s cultural and racial identity are being brought to the surface by the Trump administration, the Museum of the Bible fits into a narrative of a homogenous Judeo-Christian idea of American national identity that many of Donald Trump’s supporters believe is under threat.

At least one visitor at the museum this week was proudly wearing a Trump T-shirt, while Eric Trump, the president’ son, attended the opening. The Museum of the Bible may hope to serve an educational purpose, but it is likely to appeal to those who are already converted.

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