Eight years ago, Hobby Lobby president Steve Green found a new way to express his Christian faith. His family's $4 billion arts and craft chain was already known for closing stores on Sundays, waging a Supreme Court fight over birth control and donating tens of millions of dollars to religious groups.
Now, Green would begin collecting biblical artifacts that he hoped could become the starting point for a museum.
On Friday, that vision was realized when the 430,000-square-foot Museum of the Bible opened three blocks from the U.S. Capitol in what marks the most prominent public display of the family's deep religious commitment.
The $500 million museum includes pieces from the family's collection from the Dead Sea Scrolls, towering bronze gates inscribed with text from the Gutenberg Bible and a soundscape of the 10 plagues, enhanced by smog and a glowing red light to symbolize the Nile turned to blood.
The massive museum has three main exhibit floors, lecture and meeting space, restaurants and a rooftop garden, a ballroom and a 472-seat theater with wraparound projection walls. Green says the museum is nonsectarian. Religious scholars and others will be combing the exhibits to see if that claim bears out.
Green says the institution he largely funded is meant to educate, not evangelize, though critics are dubious. Museum administrators have taken pains to hire a broad group of scholars as advisers. Lawrence Schiffman, a New York University Jewish studies professor and Dead Sea Scrolls expert, called the museum a "monument'' to interfaith cooperation. Exhibits are planned by the Vatican Museum and the Israel Antiquities Authority.
"There's just a basic need for people to read the book,'' said Green, sitting in a hotel-style suite inside the museum where visiting dignitaries can stay. "This book has had an impact on our world and we just think people ought to know it and hopefully they'll be inspired to engage with it after they come here."
The last major splash the Greens made in Washington was over their religious objections to birth control. In 2014, Hobby Lobby persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to exempt for-profit companies like theirs from the contraception coverage requirement in President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. That culture war victory has in part colored reactions to the museum even before it opens.
Still, the museum avoids debates over interpreting the Bible, and over contentious issues such as evolution and marriage.
Located near the National Mall, the building alone has been designed to inspire a sense of wonder. The Gutenberg gates flank the entrance. A 140-foot LED display runs the length of the entrance hall ceiling, bathing the lobby in a changing array of color. The floors are a mix of shimmering marble from Denmark and Tunisia, complemented by columns of Jerusalem stone. From two high stories, a glass atrium curves from ceiling to floor, echoing the shape of a scroll and providing a clear view of the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument.
Admission is free, although donations are requested. Here are some details about what to expect:
A first floor children's area highlights acts of courage depicted in the Bible and has a high-tech feature that projects a watery surface with marine life below. Children can walk across the image, creating the illusion of walking on water.
The theater will open with the show "Amazing Grace," a musical that played briefly on Broadway about John Newton, a slave trader and Anglican priest who wrote the Christian hymn of the show's title and denounced the slave trade.
An extensive exhibit aims to recreate what Nazareth looked like during the time of Jesus, including a mikveh, or ritual bath, and a courtyard depicting village life. People in period costume will guide visitors through the section.
The museum aims to highlight how the Bible has influenced people in ways they may not realize. On television screens, videos will play pop music songs with an explanation of the Bible verse that inspired the lyrics. Another section has high fashion inspired by Scripture.
FIND THE VERSE
A motion simulator called "Washington Revelations" creates the sensation of flying over the nation's capital to see Bible inscriptions and references in buildings and monuments throughout the city.
Along with a rooftop garden, a glass-walled atrium provides clear views of the Washington Monument and the Capitol.