From Prayer Books to Play Area, Bible Museum Opens New Views into Ancient Text
Museum of the Bible co-founder Jackie Green, scholars and designers tout innovative ways to engage with the best-selling book of all time.
Thousands of guests are expected when Museum of the Bible opens its doors this weekend, only two blocks from the National Mall. Upon entering past the 40-foot bronze Gutenberg Gates, two things strike most visitors.
One is the digital ceiling with rotating images of stained glass windows and natural landscapes. Measuring 140 by 15 feet and created with 555 LED panels, it often showcases iconic religious art such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The other first-floor draw for many guests is the children’s experience. With pinball-style games, a “walking on water” illusion, bean-bag toss and other high-touch activities, it resembles a less frenetic version of Chuck-E-Cheese. As parents and now grandparents, museum co-founders Steve and Jackie Green were among the first to see how it played with kids.
“A few days ago, we had 32 of our family members here for a sort of first look at the museum before it opens,” says Jackie Green in an interview with The Stream. “Our four grandchildren were here, as were all our children — we have one son and five daughters. They all interacted with it in different ways.”
“Some got on a digital board and they’re doing a quiz about what they know of the Bible,” she recounts. “In the children’s area, my eleven-year-old was Samson and she’s pushing the pillars over. My little grandsons are throwing those balls into the lions’ mouths. It’s just very interactive.”
Making the Bible Clear By All Means
Even museum scholars share Green’s enthusiasm for the kid-centric spaces. “If families have young ones, they will likely most enjoy the children’s area,” says Brian Hyland, an expert on medieval manuscripts. “I had my grandkids here on Saturday and they loved it.”
He joined the museum team last year as an associate curator. Hyland has taught medieval history at the University of Maryland and several academic subjects at a Catholic school in his home state of New York.
This ecumenical approach enhances every aspect of the museum, leaders say.
Media coverage he’s seen of the museum differs with his experience, Hyland notes. “These media reports in advance — so much has been innuendo, putting things together without context, and the like,” he says. “Being on the inside, it’s been kind of fun to see how wrong they’ve gotten what this museum really is about.”
He offered a recent Washington Post story as an example. It gave the museum high marks but only after recounting controversies, he says. “The museum, which will be among the largest in a city chock-full of museums, presents … the Bible through cutting-edge technology and immersive experiences,” stated the Post.
Hyland divides his time between the history floor — where he ensures the accurate display of medieval materials — and exhibit areas like the Vatican Library art gallery. “I taught for a long time,” he says. “Over the years, it became clear that kids have less and less real knowledge of what’s in the Bible.”
A Prayer Book Even Protestants Should See
With a teacher’s zeal, Brian Hyland shares about one item among thousands featured at the museum. “One of my favorite manuscripts is up on the fourth floor,” he says. “It’s the prayer book of Charles V, made for him when he was about 16 years old. He later became Holy Roman Emperor and Luther’s opponent at the time of the Reformation.”
One of the first manuscripts featuring northern Renaissance elements, the prayer book is acclaimed for its use of icons. Having taught at both the high school and university level, Hyland explains how it gives a window into world history. Young Charles assumed a rule over Spain when still in his teen years, he notes.
“What I love about it is it’s a prayer book for a young boy,” he continues. “It’s written in a hand that is very simple, elegant and easy to read. The imagery is very Catholic, dealing with sacrifice, preparing young Charles to assume the role of Holy Roman Emperor.”
Religious leaders worldwide recently marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The stand Martin Luther took in 1517 against certain practices continues to reverberate today.
Charles V played an infamous role in those events. Museum visitors may be surprised to find voices offering diverse perspectives on this pivotal era.
“Luther was trying to reform and improve the Catholic Church, to get rid of some of the abuses,” states Hyland, a devout Catholic. “That’s his starting point and we see that in his 95 Theses. So we represent all sides of the Reformation here.”
Welcoming People of All Faiths — Or None
This ecumenical approach enhances every aspect of the museum, leaders say.
Professor Gordon Campbell, historian at the museum, gives one example. “If you look at the Bible in art, there’s an exhibit on the Madonna and Child,” he says. “That’s of no interest to Protestants, but it’s dear to the heart of Catholics and Orthodox.”
Another highlight for families will be the Stories of the Bible floor, which retells key events from Scripture. “The way we tell stories recognizes the Jewish angle, which is educational for everyone,” says Campbell. “Christians would otherwise not understand it.”
The floor is divided into three distinct areas. These include a 40-minute narrative journey through foundational stories and a 12-minute film introducing the New Testament. In addition, Nazareth Village recreates eight scenes of everyday life in first-century Israel.
“We don’t refer to the Old Testament, we speak of the Hebrew Bible,” he says, noting input from Jewish scholars. “We’re eager that anyone come to this museum and feel welcome, whatever their religious identity is — or none.”
The Synergy of Accuracy and Imagination
The museum team brought on creative agency BRC Imagination Arts to produce the lion’s share of the stories floor. The firm has created films and experiences across the nation, notably at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando.
Taking up nearly half the stories floor, The Hebrew Bible begins with a fast-paced animated film on the origins of the world. An accurate portrayal of Genesis, it includes a bright flash of light to signify the supernatural act of creation.
“The purpose is for every person to engage with the Bible and become more familiar with it.”
“It’s actually not a strobe, it’s just a bright light,” says Matthew Solari, creative director at BRC Imagination Arts. “Young kids have all remarked that is their favorite part. It pulls them into the story!” He notes their tests reveal it is below the threshold to be unsafe for most people. Guests are also notified in queue.
The Hebrew Bible experience further reveals key events in the lives of Abraham, Moses, Ruth and David. The five films are all produced in distinct animation styles and projected in unexpected ways. Visitors walk through immersive environments before and after each video, with sounds, sculptures, light effects and water used to tell the stories.
Narratives unfold fluidly, fusing various media. In one film scene, a woven basket floats on the Nile. Moments later, a bush blazing with bright colors lights up a dark area of the theater. Museum guests venture past it into the next chapter.
Responding to Doubters — and the Faithful
Skeptics of the museum abound, as media gives outsized coverage to an artifacts incident resolved earlier this year. Yet the Bible may prove to be a continual source of scandal, perhaps even for families.
“We set out to be authentic to the Hebrew text,” says Solari, asked about brief nudity in a Garden of Eden scene. “You can’t do this without getting a response from somebody somewhere. Through a lot of work with scholars and the museum, we found a style and approach that works for the broadest audience possible.”
Manuscripts expert Brian Hyland hopes the curious take time to visit. “If people come and see what the museum is about, it’s what we’re saying it is,” he states. “The purpose is for every person to engage with the Bible and become more familiar with it.”
Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., opens to the public this weekend. Watch for further articles in this series.