The vast Museum of the Bible is set to open near the National Mall one year from today, and it has set the ambitious goal of being the most technologically advanced museum in the world. From smart digital docents to immersive theater experiences, founders and designers hope that innovative new tech will set the museum apart.
The eight-story, one-block building at offers a gorgeous view of the District skyline from the Biblical garden on the roof and a glassed-in hall. If visitors read every placard and saw every artifact and experienced every activity in the museum, it would require nine days at eight hours per day, museum organizers say. Exhibitions will examine the impact, narratives and history of the ancient text; one display explores influence the Bible has had in the world, another features the role of the Bible throughout American history.
“There are a lot of myths out there, a lot of things have been printed over the hundreds of years, and so we’ve gone back to the original documents the best we could,” museum president Cary Summers said. “We’re not trying to correct anything, we’re just trying to say: here’s the balanced story of the role of the Bible. It’s like the good, the bad, the ugly. It wasn’t all great and glory, but the Bible survived and it had a role in American history. That’s what we want to show.”
Construction began on the museum in February of 2015 and it is slated to open in February of next year. The building (which formerly housed the Washington Design Center) integrates modern elements while preserving an old building, symbolic of what the museum is trying to achieve, according to lead architect David Greenbaum of Smith Group JJR. The firm’s past work includes the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The $400 million not-for-profit enterprise is funded by Steve Green, president of crafting outlet Hobby Lobby. Green is well known for supporting evangelical Christian causes and winning a contentious Supreme Court birth control case in 2014. However, organizers claim the museum, which is located three blocks from the U.S. Capitol at 409 3rd Street SW, will not be pushing a particular evangelical agenda.
The project has not been without controversy, however. Last year, U.S. Customs agents seized between 200 and 300 cuneiform-inscribed tablets heading to the museum en route from modern day Iraq and Syria. The clay tablets were thousands of years old—and undervalued at $300. Federal investigators say the artifacts may have been illegally imported.
According to a lengthy Atlantic story, the Green family has amassed more than 40,000 objects in just a few years, noting that “the sudden appearance in private collections of significant numbers of previously unknown artifacts raises red flags for those who follow the antiquities trade. Over the past 25 years, there has been deep concern regarding the flow of illegally acquired antiquities out of the Middle East.” The same story also details a secretive “parallel academic universe” that Green has funded to study the manuscripts.
The museum’s stated purpose is to invite all people to engage with the Bible and is using innovative technology to provide an “immersive experience” as a major draw in the saturated museum scene in the District. This includes a massive high-definition digital arcade ceiling in the museum entrance and dramatic 360-degree projection mapping in the 472-seat performing arts hall.
Arguably the most interesting, however, is a museum guide that essentially serves as a customizable indoor GPS. Visitors receive a digital docent about the size of a cell phone. They can place the device a reactive touchscreen table, skim through museum menus, and customize the tour. The device will then guide visitors around to the exhibits they chose, automatically pulling up an audio guide when they are near the corresponding artifact.
Jeff Schneider, vice president of information and interactive systems, said, “We feel like technology is really a way to engage people and communicate the language that people are so used to. I mean, you can’t hardly find someone without a cellphone in their hands today so we wanted to be very relevant.”
The museum will start by debuting 3,100 devices. Schneider says he expects this technology to be widely adopted by other museums in the future.
The museum also features innovative removable magnetic flooring that allows for exhibits to be moved and rewired easily, something that is normally very costly and labor-intensive, Summers said. Visitors can also check out choir competitions, live Bible readings, and religious-themed productions in the performing arts hall.