Shaping Religious Experience at the Museum of the Bible

Today's guest post comes to us from Meredith Ross, a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University. Her research focuses upon religion and information, particularly mid-20th century church libraries. You can contact her at or on Twitter @Memo_Ross. An earlier version of this post appeared at the American Society of Church History's blog.

Meredith Ross

My first course in my Master’s program in Library and Information Science was taught by a specialist in museum studies. He’d worked extensively with curators to create online exhibits for various museums over the years, and he told us that, in his experience, museum curators dislike nothing so much as they dislike online exhibits. Curators, he explained, are constructors of narratives and experiences. The materiality of the museum allows them to reveal information, direct our attention, and lead us through exhibits in exactly the manner that supports the predetermined narrative. Online exhibits, in contrast, are chaos. Visitors can click links, hop around, double back, start from the end, or get bored and navigate to another site halfway through. The digital exhibit allows them to eschew the narrative of the curator for a narrative of their own; or they may experience no narrative at all. Curators, my professor explained, did not like to see narrative – or their ability to shape it – imperiled.

His insight has been on my mind recently as Steve Green, President of Hobby Lobby, breaks ground for his Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. Foremost in the mind of Green and his associates is reassuring the press and the public that the Museum will not exist as a tool of evangelism. Rather, they posit, it will present an educational opportunity that will be “highly engaging for people of all ages, all cultural backgrounds, all faiths, no faiths," according to the Museum’s President Carey Summers.  One of the means of creating and maintaining this engagement for people of “all faiths, no faiths,” is a sort of audio walking tour for the 21st century – a “virtual tour” conducted via handheld devices. The devices are programmable, this NPR story explains, with “five different religious viewpoints” from which visitors can choose.

A mock-up of the Museum’s planned “Impact” floor, an interactive space allowing patrons to consider the impact of the Bible upon themselves and the world at large (Photo credit: C&G Partners).
This raises more questions than it answers. Which five “viewpoints” will be represented, and how were they selected? Whose input is being sought in the creation of these tours, and are they insiders or outsiders of the traditions they are programming? What is revealed through the use of the word “viewpoints” rather than “beliefs” or “faiths”? While I contacted the Museum through their website with some of these questions, I have yet to hear back (expect a follow-up post if I do!).

The question that interests me most – as someone with feet in both the religious studies and information studies worlds – is one of narrative construction. Curators, as my professor argued, have always been constructors of grand narratives. But the curators at the Museum of the Bible are doing something more than simply constructing a narrative to guide patrons through their material presentation of Steve Green’s collection. Through religiously specific virtual tours, they offer a considerably more ambiguous type of narrative, one which renders the curator a direct mediator of religious experience: explaining what an individual believer should or should not make of the religious material they encounter as a specific type of individual believer. If the Museum of the Bible is truly a Protestant project, it is an odd one: an iPad telling me exactly how to encounter the Bible as a [insert one and only one of five religious viewpoints here] is hardly what one would call sola scriptura.

Scholars are thus far split on the intent and potential impact of the Museum of the Bible, and where it exists on the continuum between personal and scholarly project. It’s too early to tell how the Museum, slated to open in 2017, will serve various evangelistic, political, or scholarly purposes. But, if the planned virtual tours are any indication, the Museum will be far from the religiously “neutral” ideal Green seems bent on achieving (or at least presenting). Rather, the Museum will provide a highly specific commentary on religious identity – narrating for its patrons who they are and how that identity should shape their experiences. I hope to be in line opening week. I’d like to find out what the people behind the Museum think of me, and, more importantly, what they think I should think about the Bible.