The Museum of the Bible is no apocalypse

A few blocks from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a new Bible-themed museum has kicked a hornet’s nest of irrational outrage. The aptly-named Museum of the Bible (MOTB), funded by an almost $500 million endowment from evangelical Christian billionaire Steve Green (founder of the Hobby Lobby crafts retailer) and the National Christian Foundation, presents itself as a non-sectarian nonprofit institution dedicated to educating visitors about the Bible. Its extensive collections of biblical manuscripts, however, including the world’s largest private collection of Torah scrolls and 13 Dead Sea Scrolls donated by Green himself, have come under fire for promoting a Protestant viewpoint, allegedly pursuing a political agenda and procuring artifacts under shady conditions. These criticisms, though, are largely weak attacks on an institution that, while potentially failing to provide a serious educational experience, harms no one and exists at no cost to society or the economy.

Critics of the museum argue that it disregards historically critical and non-Protestant viewpoints and promotes a disproportionately favorable view of Christian scripture. While these concerns are valid with regards to the intellectual value of the museum, it is unclear that the bias of the museum negatively affects anyone. As a museum funded by an evangelical billionaire, let alone the key actor in the 2014 Hobby Lobby controversy regarding employer provision of birth control, it should come as no surprise that the Museum pushes an evangelical Christian agenda. Anyone expecting a true scholarly narrative would be better served visiting a historical museum.

Similar criticism arose in 2007 around the opening of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Operated by Answers in Genesis (AiG), a Christian apologetics group headed by prominent evangelical Ken Ham, the Creation Museum attempts to present a natural history of the universe based on a literalist view of the Biblical creation account. In this case too, criticism of the museum surrounded its propagation of erroneous beliefs as fact. Here also, the outrage was unnecessary. It is unsurprising that people with deeply held religious beliefs and a surplus of capital will devote efforts to fulfill their faith’s proselytizing purpose. It follows that the fruit of these efforts will reflect these intents, rather than offering a scientific view of the world. Any person with a serious interest in history or science would benefit more from visiting a legitimate educational institution instead of wasting their time and money on pseudoscientific missionarization.

A second criticism levelled at MOTB is that it serves a political purpose. These allegations are supported by the presence of Eric Trump, his wife Lara and education secretary Betsy DeVos at a dedication event held at the Trump International Hotel shortly after the opening of the museum. Ostensibly, the presence of these figures signals collusion or cooperation between the museum’s Christian backers and America’s conservative elite. And yet, these claims fail to justify a significant reaction against MOTB. Wealthy evangelicals and prominent conservatives rub shoulders. Who would have guessed? If Trump and DeVos wish to spend their own time attending such events, that is their right. Their presence is much less proof of sinister political collusion than it is an indication of a desire for publicity in the eyes of their supporters. Any tacit endorsement of the museum’s bias or viewpoints is old news and should not come as a surprise to anyone aware of political events.

Perhaps the only valid criticism MOTB has received is about the questionable provenance of many of the articles in its collection. Some 5,500 artifacts purchased by Hobby Lobby and intended for the museum were confiscated by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authorities because of their origin in museums and sites looted during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In many cases, Iraqi museum and site employees tasked with overseeing artifacts fled the oncoming violence, allowing looters to take artifacts and resell them to collectors abroad. Several of these artifacts made their way into the collections intended for MOTB, resulting in the imposition of hefty fines and confiscations by CBP officials.

While the possession of looted items is deeply troubling, the museum has made considerable efforts to return these items and screen their other collections for potentially stolen items. By appointing experts to evaluate the ethical soundness of their collections, the museum has demonstrated a commitment to fair practices that are expected of any institution, regardless of religious affiliation or scientific legitimacy.

It is undeniable that these issues truly exist. The vehemency of these criticisms, however, is unwarranted and wasteful. MOTB is funded entirely by private funds, and doesn’t waste taxpayer money in promoting its agenda. Ultimately, the decision to visit the museum or not is a personal one. If one wants to view extensive collections of scripture and simultaneously be inundated by evangelical proselytizing, the Museum of the Bible is a perfect venue to do so. Despite its lack of  educational value, however, the museum is a private venture that harms no one. Let it be.

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