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  • A short visit to the Museum of the Bible

    I'll go ahead and say it: My concerns as I walked into the new Museum of the Bible in Washington this week were threefold. First, I feared that it would offer a shallow view of Scripture. Second, that the historical elements would be weak in their presentation. Third, that the Catholic Church would be negatively portrayed if not largely ignored. How serious a place will this be, I wondered.

    To my great delight and amazement, I found a truly beautiful, richly textured, compelling, and powerful series of exhibits in this outstanding new museum. While not perfect and not everything I would prefer to see as a Catholic, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Museum of the Bible exceeded nearly every expectation I had. It certainly shows what is possible with a half-billion dollar investment, largely funded by the evangelical Protestant owners of the Hobby Lobby company.

    Located in a converted 1923 warehouse near the Air and Space Museum, two blocks off the National Mall and three blocks from the US Capitol, the Museum of the Bible offers six floors and 430,000 square feet of superbly designed exhibit spaces using cutting-edge technology and wonderful open spaces with plenty of natural light. I was able to spend not much more than two hours there on this first visit, which is ridiculous considering that it would take several days to take in everything the place has to offer. I can provide here only some general first impressions.

    One thing that struck me right away was that the very first area you see after leaving the ticket counter is the Vatican exhibit room. I certainly did not expect this in a museum conceived and funded largely by evangelical Protestants. It is a very small room, but a long-term arrangement with the Vatican Museums assures that it will have rotating exhibits from those collections for years to come. Right now, for example, you can see replicas of the Codex Vaticanus (one of the oldest and most important Greek texts of the New Testament), the Urbino Bible, and others. The placement of this Vatican exhibit room right at the start of the tour strikes me as a generous gesture on the part of the museum's directors and an acknowledgement of the importance of the Catholic Church in approaching the Bible.  Also on the lobby level is a children's area featuring hands-on activities that I'm sure my 5-year-old will enjoy, and a large gift shop which offers a Catholic study Bible, various types of images of the Blessed Mother, even rosaries.

    The basement galleries currently feature a marvelous temporary exhibit on the "Amazing Grace" hymn composed by John Newton, and a set of Stations of the Cross sculpted by the late Gib Singleton (who also created the rather iconic crosier carried by St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI). There is also a special exhibit featuring a replica of the site on which David fought Goliath, but it required a separate ticket ($8) and I did not have time to see it.

    The second floor features a series of exhibits dealing with the influence the Bible has had on nearly every aspect of human life through the centuries, with special emphasis on its impact here in America. This is a fascinating and engaging floor, marked throughout by interactive screens and compelling video testimonies from ordinary people. You can even record your own video testimony (5 minutes max) in a private booth called the Joshua Machine -- a great opportunity for Catholics to share what the Bible means to them. The presence of Catholic voices from across the centuries is strong throughout the museum, which also offers a strong and very positive view of Judaism. The second floor features as well an attraction allowing you to "fly" over Washington and see the presence of the Bible in its monuments, but again that required a separate ticket ($8), so I didn't see it this time.

    Floor 3 features Stories of the Bible and is one of the most family-friendly parts of the museum. It has three exhibits focused on the Hebrew Bible (which I didn't see), the New Testament, and the World of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament exhibit is a 12-minute CGI film shown on a curved screen, with somewhat jerky animation that is contemporary without being cartoonish; the film is narrated by St. John the Apostle, and I found it to be quite moving and kerygmatic. The World of Jesus exhibit offers life-size replicas of typical places of Jesus' time, such as a small synagogue.

    I found the fourth floor frankly overwhelming (in a good way), centered as it is on the history of the Bible itself and its journey through time, technology, and culture.  Ranging from ancient oral tradition to smart phones, these exhibits are divided into major historical periods and feature an astonishing number of original artifacts and video dramatizations to augment the display texts. The presentation of history is admirably thorough and balanced, and I was surprised to find throughout an open recognition that Protestantism is a very late arrival on the stage historically.  In these rooms you will find yourself immersed in the antiquity of the Bible and come away with a much richer appreciation for its truly global impact. It is not presented in a confessional way at all, which I thought would bother me but it really didn't.

    The fifth and sixth floors feature the
    World Stage Theater (the setting for various live shows and movies), a ballroom and gathering area, a lounge for museum members, a very nice glass-covered promenade offering skyline views of Washington DC, and the Manna Restaurant (Mediterranean food, rather pricey; there is also a cafe on the Mezzanine level).

    The creators of the Museum of the Bible have gone out of their way to avoid denominational/confessional disputes, and as a result Christians of various types will no doubt feel that certain points were glossed over or downplayed. It must have presented the designers with enormous challenges and many minefields, but they handle it all very well. The posture throughout the museum is positive and ecumenical, even interrreligious in its generous inclusion of Jewish contributions. Many Christian visitors will be exposed, perhaps for the first time, to the Jewish and Catholic roots of the Bible and to its rich history, including things like stained glass windows, the Divine Office, and more. It would be a great place to bring Protestant or skeptical friends, no doubt sparking many good conversations. It is an evangelizing museum in its use of video testimonials and opportunities to share one's own faith.

    Far from offering a shallow presentation, the Museum of the Bible is cultured, erudite, and remarkably diverse, a tremendous testament to the written Word of God. With strong and thoughtful follow-up and catechesis on the part of parishes and schools, the museum offers a first-rate, informative, and moving field trip for Confirmation and Catholic school groups, RCIA groups, Bible study groups, families and more. I look forward to my next visit and plan to bring my wife and daughter with me!

    Note: The museum currently requires timed-entry tickets booked in advance online. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged (suggested $15 for adults). Special exhibits require separate tickets and are not free. Parking is on-street if you can find it, or in one of the surrounding public garages; the museum does not have its own parking garage. Metro is recommended as the museum is very close to the Federal Center SW station.

    Knutsen is assistant director of the St. Thomas More Institute and coordinator for evangelization and adult faith formation. 

    © Arlington Catholic Herald 2021