Hobby Lobby to plant Bible museum in capital

07/18/2014 7:00 AM

07/18/2014 11:07 AM

The evangelical Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby, the chain of craft stores, made history just a few weeks ago when the Supreme Court overturned the Obama administration’s mandate that family-owned companies must provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.

Now the family looks to build a permanent presence on the District of Columbia landscape by establishing a sprawling museum dedicated to the Bible two blocks south of the National Mall.

Scheduled to open in 2017, the yet-to-be-named museum would welcome people of all faiths and include rare Torahs, Bibles and even some Dead Sea scrolls.

Some of the collection can be seen in a traveling exhibit now in Springfield, Mo., until January.

The museum has long been the dream of the Oklahoma-based Green family, which has built Hobby Lobby into a $3 billion company in which its Christian beliefs infuse many aspects of the business, from the music played in its stores to being closed on Sundays.

But on the heels of the company’s legal victory, the project is raising concern in some quarters that the Greens’ museum could blur the line between educating and evangelizing. Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and the son of its founder, has referred to the Bible as “a reliable historical document,” and, as part of the museum project, he is developing a curriculum to “reintroduce this book to this nation.”

“This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught,” Green said in a speech last year in New York.

“There are lessons from the past that we can learn from, the dangers of ignorance of this book. We need to know it. If we don’t know it, our future is going to be very scary.” Green declined to be interviewed for this story.

Such sentiments have stirred fears about the museum among groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes separation of church and state.

“I think they are a great threat,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-president of the group, which is based in Madison, Wis. “My instincts would tell me that they are choosing Washington, D.C., because they intend to influence Congress.”

After surveying cities, including Dallas and New York, for more than a year, the Museum of the Bible, the Green family’s nonprofit organization that is overseeing the project, chose Washington for its tourists, robust museum culture and national profile.

The museum will sit in the shadow of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It will replace the Washington Design Center, a hulking, eight-story brick-and-stone structure that was once a refrigerating warehouse. The half-block site was acquired in 2012 for $50 million.

The value of the museum’s more than 40,000 planned artifacts, the real estate and the cost of renovations is $800 million. The Green family has been the primary financial backer to date, but a national fundraising drive soon will be underway.

Plans indicate the building’s facade will be restored and a two-story glass addition will be put on the roof. Renderings echo the transformation of London’s Bankside Power Station, which was remade into the Tate Modern museum.

The proposal still needs final approval from the city because the building, an example of Renaissance Revival architecture, is being designated a historic landmark.

The genesis of a nonprofit Bible museum came five years ago when Green, a Protestant, took some of the money he made from Hobby Lobby and started scouring the world for ancient manuscripts, Torahs, papyri and Bibles.

He spent more than $30 million during his initial buying spree, but Scott Carroll, an archaeologist and historian who advised Green on his purchases, estimated that the collection was now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“You’re talking about landmark acquisitions,” Carroll said, referring to items such as a nearly complete book of Psalms on papyrus and the earliest recordings of the New Testament in Jesus’ household language of Palestinian Aramaic. “These are huge things that any museum, to have a portion of them, would be honored to have.”

Thus far, Washington officials and residents have embraced the museum, which would rehabilitate the building and create a new public space.

Yvette Alexander, a member of the Washington City Council, said if the Greens were to turn to the city for money, their position on contraception would be an obstacle.

Green laid out a sweeping vision for the space during his speech in New York last year to the National Bible Association that described his hopes of “telling the story of a book that is like none other.” He expects millions of people to pass through the museum every year.

Specifics of the exhibits have not been released, but the traveling show of Green’s collection offers some clues. It included theatrical experiences such as hologram re-creations of biblical scenes, re-enactments of fourth-century monks transcribing the Bible by candlelight in St. Jerome’s Cave and a multimedia “Noah’s ark experience.”

“We have approximately 400 of the top-tier items in the Green Collection,” said John Peterson, spokesman at the Springfield location at Sunshine and U.S. 65. The show appeals to those historically minded as well as religious, he said. “We feel the Bible is for everyone.”

Whether evolutionary explanations of history will be included in Washington, along with those of other faiths, remains to be seen, but Green has made his personal views on the matter clear.

“Discovery after discovery supports the accuracy of this book,” he said. “The book we have is a reliable historical document.”

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Washington-based Center for the Future of Museums, said keeping a clear distinction between science and religion was the most important challenge the Bible museum faced in differentiating itself from so-called creation museums. One in Petersburg, Ky., for instance tries to make the case that dinosaurs died in a biblical flood.

Steve Carroll, formerly a professor at Baylor University, decided in 2012 to part ways with the project. While he believes in the scholarly roots and historical significance of the collection, he is concerned that the Greens face a difficult challenge in balancing its passion for ministry with the objective mission of a museum.

Walking that narrow path in a political hotbed such as Washington will be especially hard, but with questions of religious freedom continuing to crop up, proximity to those debates was part of the location’s appeal.

“Not far from their thinking was that Washington represents the heartbeat of who we are as Americans and wanting to influence things from that vantage point,” Carroll said. “It’s a pulpit of sorts.”

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