What a birthday present! Way back in August my wife reserved 2 tickets for opening day on November 18, 2017 to the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington DC. Two and only two tickets, which of course means the kids were not coming with us (thanks to the grandparents for watching them all day). So my beautiful bride and I got an all-day date at a museum for the first time since we began having kids. We’ve been to several museums, including a few Smithsonian ones, with the kids. But no parent can actually enjoy the museum experience as a curious adult-child when the kids are in tow. When families visit museums, the parents can’t help acting like tour guides for their kids. That’s fun, but not an experience full of learning and wonder (at least not for the grownups). So it was a special treat to visit the MOTM on the first day open to the public. Most people, even those in the DC area, didn’t hear much about the museum until the week (and sometimes the day) before it opened its doors. But I’ve been following the news for about a year. Based on what I read, heard, and saw, it looked like MOTB could be a game-changer in terms of world-class museums. And boy, it didn’t disappoint! What should you expect when you visit the MOTB?
We reserved the earliest tickets available to us for timed-entry. Official open time was 10:00am, but we passed through security at 8:45am before the crowds arrived. Everything about the lobby and ground level whispers high-class, quality, and elegance. MOTM’s first impression has the feel of a five-star hotel, with all the accoutrements such as hospitality, cleanliness, spaciousness, and sophisticated architecture. My mind wandered to that scene in Jurassic Park when theme park visionary John Hammond aimed to impress his guess on the VIP tour—“We spared no expense!” But unlike Jurassic Park, MOTB delivers on its vision to invite people to engage with the Bible in a meaningful and even spiritual way. (The “Museum Guide” and “Experience the Book that shapes history” brochures are pictured below. Click on an image to view a larger pic.)
MOTB is an expansive seven-story building just 2 blocks off the DC mall—just a short walk from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. And like all Smithsonian institutions, MOTB has free admission (donations welcome, and some exhibits/attractions charge a small fee). Four floors (basement, first, fifth, and sixth) host space for temporary exhibits which will typically display collections from other organizations across the world. We headed to the basement level first. On display was a David and Goliath room which we skipped (paid admission only), a room dedicated to the history of John Newton‘s iconic hymn “Amazing Grace,” and a meditative walk through the fourteen Stations of the Cross aided by the artwork of famed sculptor Gib Singleton.
Back on the ground level we checked out the young children’ playroom where tots can spend some energy and parents can take a breather. Also on this level were treasures on loan from the Vatican Museums and Vatican Library, exhibits illustrating Incarnation/Christmas art and Jewish books from Amsterdam. Canopying the entire first floor is a 140-foot-long digital screen that cycles through images of nature, frescoes, and religious art. The effect is as if a stained glass ceiling hovers over a modern cathedral below. The fifth floor housed art galleries called “The Living Dead: Ecclesiastes Through Art” (by various arts from the renaissance to the modern period) and “The Art of the Gospels” by Makoto Fujimura. Also on display was a collection from the Israel Antiquities Authority, which had Babylonian arrowheads from the Jerusalem Siege of 586 B.C. Wow! Rounding out the theme of arts is the World Stage Theater where audiences can enjoy a play. Right now Amazing Grace the Musical is on the bill. On the sixth floor is the Manna Restaurant, the biblical garden, and the catwalk with cityscape views. Cuisine is affordable and keyed to the biblical theme of the MOTB, but unfortunately the food staff was not ready for the opening day lunch rush. With their food line server format, they need to take a cue from fast casual joints like Chipotle to keep the crowds moving through the line.
But all of these are the supporting cast for the main attractions on floors 2, 3, and 4 where the permanent museum collections and exhibits are displayed. These are where the MOTB really shines. Floor 2 is dedicated to showing the Bible’s influence, first in America, and second throughout the world. Floor 3 is the biblical narrative floor with 3 distinct walking tours: Old Testament stories, New Testament stories, and a first century recreation of Nazareth where Jesus grew up. The fourth floor is the main attraction for Bible artifacts. While the collection is thin with items older than about AD 600 (including quite a few NT manuscript
forgeries “facsimiles” from the first 4 centuries AD), the quality and quantity of those created since the beginning of the Middle Ages is startling. The sheer volume of one-of-a-kind items is almost overwhelming. A visitor could easily spend an entire day exploring the fourth floor collection.
And that’s really the only beef with the museum (even though it’s not a negative at all!). The MOTB is simply too massive to digest in one visit. Many times my wife and I found ourselves glancing at the time of day, reminding ourselves that we needed to keep moving if our scouting expedition was going to be anything resembling comprehensive. After all, we had family and friends who expected a report. “What’s it like? Was it worth it? Is it a do-again museum?” Our answers: it’s amazing, yes, and yes. Let me try to explain with just a couple illustrations.
MOTB has something for literally everyone. For kids, for history buffs, for skeptics, for the curious, for the open-minded, for the devoutly religious, for Jews and Christians, for Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, and for the Washington DC tourist. For the reader, there is more than enough commentary to keep you occupied for days. For the visual learner, movie screens and seating are tucked away here and there throughout the museum featuring documentaries from the hit TV show Drive Thru History (Gospels and Holy Land). For the active learner, the MOTB offers interactive media, touch screens, and opportunities to vote your opinion on various questions about the Bible with results tallied and displayed electronically. For the auditory learner, tablets and headphones are available on loan for self-guided tours. And for those who learn best by thinking out loud, there is even a booth where you can video record your story of how the Bible has impacted you. For those who want an entertaining theme-park experience, there is a virtual reality ride that transports you across Washington’s highs and lows to view places where Bible verses are printed or carved around the city. And filed under “coming attractions” is a virtual reality room in which folks may don VR goggles for some sort of Bible-themed game/tour. Details forthcoming.
My other story is about the gift shop. I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to Christianity and the Bible addressed in public venues. For example, the “Christian” shelf at your local secular bookstore is always a mixed bag, and usually a disappointment. Critical scholars and their publishers tend to get the lion’s share of space in such places. So I didn’t expect much different at the MOTB. But the books they sell are what I call evangelical “equal time.” Let’s just say the professors in the Religion Department at the Ivy League colleges are not pleased, because their “history of religion” perspective is ignored. And such people aren’t used to being dissed. In a word, the reading selection in the MOTB gift shop can be described as respectful. If the Bible says it, the book on the shelf is going to pay it respect and not doubt. And that is refreshing. Higher-critics will cry foul and claim the MOTB is unscholarly, evangelical, and even naively fundamentalist. But that’s not my impression at all. First, there is such a thing as conservative evangelical scholarship (see Zondervan’s OT Introduction and NT Introduction for fine examples) that powerfully challenges the enlightenment assumptions that dominate mainstream scholarship. But the mainstream does not interact with it, choosing instead to ignore or caricature conservative arguments and theology. They would prefer theology not belong to the Church and believers. The MOTB doesn’t care to give equal time to such unbelief. Instead, those responsible for the gift shop reading selection probably see themselves as evangelical equal time. After all, where else are you going to visit a high-profile public access museum for the world that displays even a minority of books on the Bible that assume God is real and has revealed himself in the Bible? That’s why their gift shop is special. It’s carefully stocked with only books that are respectful of the Bible and the faithful. Nothing that implicitly or explicitly attempts to systematically dismantle a belief in the Bible as true. Instead of focusing on, say, “source,” “form,” or “redaction” criticism, the scholarly books for sale approach the Bible from a perspective of literary criticism. They actually had The Bible Project coffee table book of prints on the shelf. Way cool!
We enjoyed the MOTB so much that we plan to go back several times. With family members during Christmas break, with our kids, and maybe even with church members on a field trip. Here’s the thing. A trip to the Museum of the Bible doesn’t just have to be another day at the museum. This one rises to the level of pilgrimage. And if you let down your guard, even a little, the experience will certainly change you. Why do I say that? Because there is nothing like engaging with the Bible. And when a person does so, often God’s Spirit shows up with power to change.
Photo Tour of the MOTB
U.S. Congressional Recognition and Commendation of the MOTB
Years in the Making, Bible Museum Opens in Washington. By Emily Cochrane
Leaders and Scholars at Museum of the Bible Answer the Critics. By Josh Shepherd
This Dangerous Book: How the Bible Has Shaped Our World and Why It Still Matters Today. By Steve & Jackie Green (MOTM founders)
Can the Museum of the Bible overcome the sins of the past? By Lizzie Wade
The Museum of the Bible and the Roy Moore Embarrassment. By George Weigel @ National Review
Sampling of books from the MOTB gift shop
MOTB Extended Fly-Through:
Bible Journey: Immerse, Explore, Discover the Bible Digital Curriculum
Curbed Washington DC (negative)
Gospel Coalition (positive)
Newsweek (very negative as in “hit piece”)
Washington Times (positive)