Leaders and Scholars at Museum of the Bible Answer the Critics
Did the Green family “smuggle” artifacts? Is Jesus an “afterthought”? Museum co-founder Jackie Green, president Cary Summers and other leaders set the record straight.
On Friday, the public gets its first look at Museum of the Bible — the latest addition to the worldwide capital of high-end museums, Washington, D.C.
Media outlets from the Washington Post to PBS have noted the new museum’s impressive size and scope. Across eight floors, Museum of the Bible displays thousands of ancient artifacts and offers interactive experiences. It’s been brought to life at a cost of over 500 million dollars.
The visionaries behind the museum are Steve and Jackie Green, owners of arts and crafts retail chain Hobby Lobby Stores. To implement the vision, the board of directors hired Cary Summers in 2010 as chief operations officer, soon promoted to president. Summers had previously headed up two major gated attractions: Nazareth Village in northern Israel and Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.
It’s not hard to see biblical parallels as Summers races to finish this complex project. “For 30 years, I’ve used Nehemiah as a role model,” he says. “He was sort of the king’s chief of staff as cupbearer. He took on this massive building project of the walls around Jerusalem. He faced opposition, and had to rely on God to get it done with team cooperation and effort.”
Museum of the Bible is massive — and has already faced great opposition.
Museum Aims to Fascinate and Educate Visitors
Encountering media bias has been par for the course, as leaders expected. Yet some recent friendly fire has surprised them.
From its first announcement in 2010, critics charged that the founders would seek to use the museum to proselytize their evangelical views. Yet Steve Green’s efforts to clarify their mission have slowly satisfied most detractors.
“The intent has always been to build a nonsectarian museum,” he told the Washington Post in 2014. “The evolution has been my understanding of what exactly that means. … It’s not as important what I think when it comes to the Bible.”
Encountering media bias has been par for the course, as leaders expected. Yet some friendly fire has surprised them lately, as one headline claimed Jesus is an “afterthought” in the museum.
“The person who wrote that really never looked around the museum,” says Summers. “The Greek text known as the New Testament revolves around the story of Jesus. We’re filled with it in the museum from a historical point of view. Christ is highly represented within what we’re doing and showing.”
The museum president claims such critics don’t understand their mission. “The question that’s being asked without it being said is, Why isn’t there proselytizing? Why aren’t there tracts to get to salvation? But we have no agenda other than to help our visitors appreciate the role that this unique book has played in history,” he says.
Summers points to his experience heading up the “real” Nazareth Village. Located in Israel 20 miles inland from the coast, the open-air experience stands on 15 acres. The village recreates cultural customs from the time of Christ. It includes a winepress, a carpentry shop and an ancient synagogue. It draws over 70,000 visitors every year, a fraction of the million plus expected at Museum of the Bible.
“Nazareth is in an 80 percent Muslim town, but the village thrives there. Because all we do there is just present the Bible,” he says. “That’s all this museum does too. We present the Bible, and allow you as an individual to make up your mind about it.”
Many aspects have been recreated in the museum’s own version of Nazareth — though not all. Will the museum ever feature sheep or other livestock as seen at Israel’s Nazareth Village? “It will never have live animals, I can assure you of that one,” he says with a laugh.
When Transparency Silences Media Critics
Some religious critics and humanist groups continue the drumbeat against the museum. A now-resolved incident often gets recounted, involving artifacts found to be from Iraq.
Federal authorities recently notified Steve and Jackie Green that certain items in their personal collection were likely stolen from sacred sites in Iraq or Syria. (To this day, unrest persists in these nations.) Third-party antiquities brokers then sold the ancient tablets to the family, providing documents now shown to be false. In July, the family paid a fine and surrendered the items to proper authorities.
Mainstream media has had a field day with the case. An extensive museum feature story in The Guardian gave the Secular Coalition for America its last word. “Green was already fined $3 million after he was caught illegally smuggling artifacts into the country for this museum. Hopefully, he learned his lesson,” stated their spokesman.
The atheist group and reporter were apparently unaware of museum policies on acquisitions. A team of scholars documents the background of artifacts, openly addressing any questions. Prof. Gordon Campbell, a resident historian at the museum affiliated with the University of Leicester in England, explains in an interview.
“We observe standards that are wholly consistent with the Association of American Museums and the usual professional bodies,” says Campbell. “As with all amateur collections that have become professional, we’re still dealing with what happened at the beginning when someone didn’t know the right questions to ask. Honesty and transparency are the watchwords when it comes to all of this.”
Indeed, a team of museum scholars recently found that some of their collection’s Dead Sea Scrolls fragments might not be authentic. They publicly released their findings and have updated museum signage for the artifacts affected.
Campbell thinks it can be an educational tool for visitors. “The signs we’re putting up say in essence: This fragment is very interesting, but there’s some evidence that it’s a forgery. What do you think? When you do that in a museum, everybody flocks to it,” he says.
Excellence Speaks for Itself
As secular design teams studied for the job, Jackie Green says, “they became engaged with it. In meetings, they would say stuff to us like, ‘We never knew the Bible was so powerful.’”
As the museum has moved from concept to construction in recent years, the team has gotten used to hard questions. “The three big design firms we engaged for the history, impact and stories floors are all secular,” says Campbell.
He worked with New York City design firm C&G Partners on aspects of the impact floor and BRC Imagination Arts in Hollywood on parts of the stories floor. In his lead role on the history floor, Campbell has partnered with The PRD Group. The Virginia firm previously worked on several Smithsonian museums.
“They come with an extraordinarily professional knowledge of how to tell stories and how to display things,” observes Campbell. “Their knowledge of the Bible is modest, but they learn it.”
Museum co-founder Jackie Green also had positive experiences with the design groups. “They are very creative, very talented — the best of the best,” she says. “As they did their research and read the Bible in order to create what needed to be on each floor, they became engaged with it. In meetings, they would say stuff to us like, ‘We never knew the Bible was so powerful.’”
“Though I never had a personal experience of sharing my faith with them, they were touched by being a part of the project,” notes Green, who recently co-authored This Dangerous Book about the museum’s creation. “That’s on point for the mission of the Museum of the Bible, for all people to be engaged with this significant book.”
On Friday, November 17, Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., opens to the public. Watch for further stories on the museum later this week.