Experts Tout New Bible Museum’s Diversity of Scholarly Input, Rigorous Formative Process
This week, one month before it opens to the public, Museum of the Bible hosted a scholarly panel discussion that outlined the rigorous process used to create content displayed throughout the museum and answered questions about the museum's collection practices, some of which have been challenged.
The panel of diverse, independent scholars who were involved in the development or review of museum content, and museum leaders addressed compelling questions, including:
- How have exhibit content plans for Museum of the Bible evolved over the past three years?
- Is the museum nonsectarian in its approach?
- How did Museum of the Bible determine what to include in its exhibits?
- How is the museum ensuring all of its exhibits adhere to the highest ethical standards, especially regarding provenance?
Highlights from the discussion include:
"We only have one mission: that's to invite all people to engage in the history, narrative and impact of the Bible," said Cary Summers, president of Museum of the Bible. "It's a nonsectarian approach, and you draw your own conclusions after visiting here."
"We are committed to building a world-class museum," said Steven Bickley, vice president for Museum of the Bible. "We recognized that scrutiny, debate and criticism would come; we've not only embraced that, we welcome it. We applied a nonpartisan, nonsectarian approach to our content development, and the museum expresses many faith traditions that embrace the Bible as their own, traditions that have different canons and different interpretations of the Bible."
"The Bible is a cultural item that really should be brought back to the public sphere in a manner that it's open and accessible to everyone," said David Trobisch, Th.D., who oversees the thousands of rare biblical texts and artifacts that today comprise the Museum of the Bible Collections, and serves as the collections' director advising on new acquisitions and the collections' international traveling exhibits, as well as lecturing and writing. "I really feel that serving the public is an integral part of being a biblical scholar. The mission statement of Museum of the Bible, 'to engage all people with the Bible,'—that's me; that's what I want to do."
"The board and senior leadership at the museum embraced the idea of expanding the team [of advisors and scholars]," said Seth Pollinger, Ph.D., director of museum content for Museum of the Bible. "Dozens of additional scholars joined us and were invited to bring their unique expertise and perspectives into the process, and make a case for solutions they saw, and work together as a group to reach consensus."
"I've taken tremendous satisfaction from the kind of work that's being done here by people of all religions and all beliefs," said Lawrence H. Schiffman, Ph.D., who is the Judge Abraham Lieberman professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies and director of the Global Network for Advanced Research in Jewish studies at New York University, and contributed to the museum's History and Narrative floors.
"The history that we're presenting has a real academic rigor behind it," said Gordon Campbell, D.Phil., D.Litt, who serves at University of Leicester as fellow in renaissance studies, and contributed to the museum's History floor and Impact floor. "I am confident that it's going to be a success and that it will be judged a success once people have seen the exhibits."
As for questions of provenance?
"On provenance, I'm eager, as are my colleagues, that everything be open and available," Campbell said. "It's in our interest, and it’s certainly in the interest of scholars to make as much information as possible available in the public domain. So that's where we're headed."
Campbell added that the focus now is on the physical museum and artifacts while further efforts toward transparency—such as making provenance information available online—are in the works.
"Why do I do it? I do it for the next generation," said Barbara Lucas, Ed.D, D.Min., who recently retired as professor of religious education and urban ministry at the New York campus of Nyack College and Alliance Theological Seminary, and contributed to the Impact floor of the museum. "I believe that the Museum of the Bible can be one of those educative institutions in the midst of our community that can challenge us.
"As we entered into the project, we began to ask, 'How do we allow the African-American experience to come alive in the museum?'," Lucas added, concerning her work on the Impact floor of the museum, which includes highlights of how the most recognizable figures of the civil rights movement relied heavily on the Bible.
"I have been consistently impressed with the openness, the intellectual diversity, the intellectual dynamism of the people with whom I've worked on this project. I've never been told that any of my criticisms couldn't be heard. Everything I've said has been received with great seriousness, and there's been a consistent effort to refine as well as diversify the museum's content based on my scholarly input," said Timothy Shah, who earned a Ph.D. from Harvard, is research professor of government at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, is senior director with the Religious Freedom Institute; is director for international research at Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Research Project, and contributed to the creation of the museum's Impact floor. "I've tried to urge that there be more exhibits, more coverage of a broader cultural and ecclesial diversity of examples of the Bible's impact, and as I've advocated that, I've been consistently encouraged that that's what the museum wants.
"I think there's an assumption that this museum is an unthinking celebration that the Bible has a wonderful impact on everything. Anyone who looks at the exhibits will see that that's not the case." Examples of this, Shah said, include:
- "People who read the Bible opposed slavery, but also read the Bible to support slavery.
- "There is attention in the museum to the way the Bible has been used to legitimate and undergird political authority, but there is also a great deal of attention to the ways in which the Bible has been used to challenge political authority, challenge injustice," including by highlighting major figures like Desmond Tutu and Dorothy Day.
"Engaging the expertise of these world-class scholars while developing the museum's content has helped us present a balance of respected positions while not advocating for any of them," Summers said. "To safeguard our academic rigor and stay true to our mission, dozens of archaeologists, professors, theologians and other scholars have lent their formidable talents and expertise to ensure Museum of the Bible exhibits are of the highest quality."
The 430,000-square-foot museum is located three blocks from the U.S. Capitol and will be dedicated on Nov. 17. Information regarding timed-entry tickets can be found at museumoftheBible.org/tickets.