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Museum of the Bible Opens Amid Controversy and Concern

The Museum of the Bible, a $500 million, eight-story, 430,000 square foot facility in the heart of Washington D.C. officially opened its doors in November. The privately-funded non-profit museum has been plagued with controversy and scandal, heavily criticized for shady business dealings, questionable claims, and a lack of academic integrity.

The mission of the museum is an honorable one: an invitation to “all people to engage with the history, narrative and impact of the Bible” in an immersive experience the likes of which has not been seen before. Will it be able to overcome the valid and serious concerns of its past and become an instrument for biblical engagement on a grand scale?


Inside the Museum of the Bible entrance is a digitally focused lobby and orientation area with nine ultra-bright, informational windows; an arcade ceiling with one of the largest horizontally mounted digital screens in the U.S.; and 3-D, digital museum maps. Guests are offered a digital guide—a key differentiator for Museum of the Bible—which lets them each create a personalized museum experience. Photo by: Alan Karchmer.

Established by the Green family, the owners of the Hobby Lobby empire, the museum made national headlines in July 2017 when the Department of Justice filed charges against Hobby Lobby for illegally importing artifacts. The artifacts — ancient near-Eastern cuneiform tablets — were labeled “tile samples” and shipped to Hobby Lobby stores in 2010 and 2011. The Greens were fined $3 million and ordered to return the 5,500 artifacts in question.

After the verdict was announced, the Greens issued a statement saying “The Company was new to the world of acquiring these items, and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes.”


The galley lobby skylight encloses prefunction lobby space for Museum of the Bible's World Stage Theater and gathering room. It descends from atop the sixth floor to create a curved wall on the north and west façades of the fifth and sixth floors. The two-story, aluminum-framed, glazed-curtain wall assembly with channel-glass infill is a compilation of more than 350 pieces of glass and more than 170 pieces of steel. Photo by: Alan Karchmer.

Critics say however, that the Greens, who had been under federal investigation for several years before charges were formally filed, were aware they had illegally acquired antiquities. When questioned by The Daily Beast in 2015 about the ongoing investigation, Steve Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby and founder of the Museum of the Bible, said, “Is it possible that we have some illicit [artifacts]? That’s possible.”

According to Forbes, the Green family is currently worth $7.1 billion, so the $3 million fine for illegally importing artifacts is little more than a slap on the wrist, say critics. “I am very surprised there is no criminal case here,” art law expert Nicholas M. O’Donnell told artnet News. “Falsely labeled goods and smuggling have very severe criminal penalties available to the government.”

Even those artifacts in the museum’s extensive collection that were not imported illegally have come under scrutiny by experts. As Vox reported in November,

much of the 40,000-object collection was acquired without doing the necessary work to ascertain the objects’ provenance: i.e., the chain of ownership.

 

When it comes to antiquities, particularly from the Middle East, provenance is particularly vital for ethical as well as scholarly reasons. Knowing the chain of ownership of an item is necessary to ensure that it has not been smuggled or looted — especially important given that the black market in antiquities is a huge source of funds for terrorists organizations like ISIS. It also helps protect against acquiring objects that may turn out to be forgeries, which is a common risk.”

Reuters reported in 2016 that Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria are making $200 million a year from illicit antiquities trade. The plundered antiquities often land on internet trading sites like eBay, where the Greens are suspected of purchasing some of their collection, though they deny the claim.

In a statement, Green said, “At no time did Hobby Lobby ever purchase items from dealers in Iraq or from anyone who indicated that they acquired items from that country. Hobby Lobby condemns such conduct and has always acted with the intent to protect ancient items of cultural and historical importance.”


The Museum of the Bible collection has 40,000 items, including these typical Iron Age II domestic vessels, Lachish, City of David, Arad. Iron Age II, 8th – 7th century BCE. Photo by: Meidad Suchowolski.

Whether purchased through eBay or a reputable dealer, concerns have been raised over Steve Green’s uncertainty regarding how some of the featured artifacts in the Museum of the Bible’s extensive collection were acquired. When questioned on the provenance of the 13 Dead Sea Scrolls in the museum’s collection, Green said he didn’t know: “There's been different sources, but I don't know specifically where those came from.”

The authenticity of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments has been questioned by numerous scholars, including those employed by the Green family. Kipp Davis, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls at Trinity Western University in Canada, and Emanuel Tov, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who is considered the world's leading expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, were both hired by the Greens and both say they expressed concerns about the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls. While Davis believes them to be forgeries, Tov’s concern is centered not on authenticity, but rather on the lack of chain of origin for the Scrolls.

Jeremy Burton, the museum’s director of communications, told PBS NewsHour the museum will have plaques that accompany the Dead Sea Scrolls that will discuss issues with forgeries, describing it as “a point of education” for visitors.

This habit of amassing large quantities of antiquities without knowing who or where they came from has been the most frequent criticism directed at the Greens. Joel Baden, a professor at Yale Divinity School and co-author of Bible Nation, a book about the Green family, says “[The Greens] made it widely known that they were buying everything…Every antiquities seller knew the Greens were buying everything and not asking questions about anything.”

The Museum of the Bible’s website features a page titled “Provenance” that states the museum adopted an acquisition policy in 2016 and that:

Collections staff has undertaken a comprehensive review of all purchases and donations made prior to 2016 to determine whether each object meets the standards of this policy, whether some mediation is needed (such as listing on the Association of Art Museum Directors Object Registry…or contacting the possible country of origin), or whether the item requires further research before being displayed or published.”

The museum’s full acquisition policy can be viewed on its website here.

Michael Holmes, director of the museum’s Scholars Initiative and former chairman of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that he has done what he can to redeem the museum in the eyes of scholars. Holmes said “any questionable fragments will indeed be flagged…until issues of provenance and authenticity are resolved.” Even so, “he worries that because the smuggled items the collection probably contains still haven’t been identified — and may never be — ethical concerns will linger for years to come. ‘See how that puts a cloud over us?’” he asked the interviewer.

Though the adoption of an acquisitions policy and Holmes’ work to flag items that lack the appropriate provenance is commendable, some scholars feel the Green family’s early lack of concern regarding these issues speaks to a larger problem: that of promoting personal ideology over academic inquiry.

Steve Green has stated that he sought out scholars who would “present the evidence without being adversarial” and has been known to label secular scholars as “anti-Bible,” according to the authors of Bible Nation.


A completely immersive themed environment called The World of Jesus of Nazareth transports guests to a meticulous re-creation of a first-century village. Photo by: Alan Karchmer.

But what the Greens label adversarial, the academic world calls collaborative: “seeking to engage with texts and ideas (like, say, those of the Bible) precisely because they are a vital part of Western history,” says Tara Isabella Burton in an article for Vox.

Burton continues, saying that scholars ask appropriate questions about the materials: “How does this item and the way it has been constructed reflect its time and place? Who made it and why? What does it tell us about the needs of the community it is for?...Without these questions, you end up with a population without the tools to process information about the intersection of faith, religion, history, identity, culture, and practice.”

According to Burton, who toured the museum, “scholarship seems to come second to ideology.” She gives the following example:

In a room dedicated to the Exodus narrative (in which Moses led the Jews out of exile in Egypt), there is absolutely no mention of the fact that almost no reputable scholar believes such an exile, or exodus, ever occurred, even as other plaques with (authentic) historical information about Ancient Egypt serve to imply that the exhibit is therefore historical in nature. A casual viewer could easily come away with the impression that the Egyptian exile and exodus were, in fact, historical events.”


Floor Three, Stories of the Bible: The Hebrew Bible, an immersive walk-through experience based on the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, includes this "Exodus from Egypt" gallery, one of 15 such theatrical environments. Here, dramatic stretched-cable walls with water lighting effects envelop guests as they pass through the sea. Photo by: Alan Karchmer.

In an article in the magazine Science, journalist Lizzie Wade voices similar concerns. She toured the museum shortly before its grand opening and brought along Christopher Rollston, who studies ancient Near Eastern religions and cultures at The George Washington University, and is an expert on cuneiform tablets and other ancient texts. Wade described the museum as “tiptoe[ing] around subjects that challenge them,” and gave the following example:

The Gilgamesh dream tablet…is meant to show ‘how biblical traditions are rooted in the shared culture of the region,’ according to a wall text visible during our tour. Left unmentioned is the fact that the Epic of Gilgamesh predates the Hebrew Bible by at least 500 years, which suggests that the Bible may have incorporated older legends. To learn that, visitors must go around a corner and read deep into a smaller, less prominent text. It notes that the Bible’s account of a cataclysmic flood was ‘written centuries later’ than a similar account in Gilgamesh.

 

Learning about such earlier influences ‘might be problematic for some of the people coming here,’ Rollston says, because many evangelicals are taught that the Bible is the direct word of God, unmediated by human influence. The lack of prominence of contrary viewpoints makes it possible for visitors to avoid a challenge to their beliefs. ‘People are going to see that which they want to see in these exhibits, Rollston says.”

Director of Collections, David Trobisch, who instituted the above-mentioned acquisitions policy, spoke with Wade and framed the museum’s mission in this light: “If we could provide a safe classroom, a safe space, for everyone interested in [the] Bible, then we’ve achieved whatever we want to achieve.”


The 472-seat World Stage Theater on floor five, featuring cutting-edge, 360-degree projection mapping. The system leverages 17 state-of-the-art 4K projectors to turn the entire venue into a stunning and dynamic digital canvas. Photo by: Alan Karchmer.

PBS NewsHour producer Elizabeth Flock noted that at times the museum feels “heavier on experience than it does on details,” adding:

There is not much discussion on the debate over how the Bible was written and transmitted, for example, a major branch of biblical scholarship. ‘To us that was a topic we just didn’t really want to step into with limited square footage,’ [Seth] Pollinger [the museum’s director of content] said.”

This may be counter-intuitive to the rigors of academia, but is in line with the Green family’s personal evangelical mission. And though the museum has its critics among scholars, it has unsurprisingly found its champions among those in the Jewish and Christian faiths, including Seventh-day Adventists.

Longtime Senate Chaplain Barry Black, who is an Adventist, was one of 10 speakers at the museum’s private dedication ceremony. Black was joined by other notable speakers including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, who relayed a message from Pope Francis, and Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America.


Barry Black, Senate Chaplain and Seventh-day Adventist, speaks at the Museum of the Bible's dedication ceremony.

At the recent General Conference Annual Council meetings in October, Dr. Michael Hasel, director of Southern Adventist University’s Institute of Archaeology, sung the museum’s praises during one of his morning worship messages. According to Hasel, “[The Museum of the Bible] will be a landmark institution in the capital of the United States where millions of visitors can benefit from its holdings.” Hasel, of course, has an invested interest in the museum’s success. His archaeological research is currently on display there as a temporary exhibit titled “In the Valley of David and Goliath.”

Philip Kennicott, Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic for The Washington Post offers a hopeful outlook on the museum. While he doesn’t shy away from discussing the concerns that have damaged the museum’s integrity, he speaks to the conscious effort the museum has made to rebrand itself as “architecturally transparent and evenhanded in its presentation.”

Kennicott describes the museum as “rich in content, stocked with historic treasures and carefully plotted to appeal to audiences of all ages…[It] offers a one-stop-shopping cultural experience, with history, art, architecture, theater and music conveniently packaged under one roof.”

Only time will tell whether the serious mistakes the Greens have made will affect the popularity of the Museum of the Bible. It seems unlikely, though. The vast majority of visitors will undoubtedly be Christians who are looking to celebrate the Bible and its rich history, not dwell on questions of provenance or academic integrity.

 

Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

Photos courtesy of the Museum of the Bible's multimedia collection.



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