There’s a new reason to visit Washington, D.C. – one of biblical proportions. In November 2017, the Museum of the Bible opened its towering Gutenberg Gates to welcome a world of visitors. Visionaries converted a former refrigeration warehouse, circa 1922, into an architectural showcase that’s as impressive outside as in. Equally remarkable is its location – a top tourist area with a Metro stop – just two blocks from the National Mall and three from the U.S. Capitol.
The $500 million project is the largest museum in the world dedicated to exploring the Bible. Every inch of its 430,000 square feet focuses on the Bible’s narrative and history – with emphasis on its Jewish roots − as well as its global impact on art, literature, movies, music, and more. And though the mission is education, don’t think of it as a stuffy place to visit. “This is not your granny’s museum,” President Cary Summers says. It’s fun-filled and family-friendly, though with scholarly pursuits for those desiring a deeper dig. Whether you’re Christian or not, chances are you’ll feel comfortable and intrigued by it all. The Museum of the Bible is predicted to be this year’s must-see attraction, and after a pre-opening visit, I understand why.
First, $42 million of digital technology brings most every area of the museum to life, starting with your itinerary. Eight floors of galleries would take days to fully explore, so a digital guide eases the planning process. Want to locate the children’s area, reserve theater seats, or see specific collections? Input your family’s interests and allotted time, and the handheld device customizes a roadmap just for you. This mobile docent, which is complimentary and available in ten languages, narrates as it navigates. Digital technology also drives video vignettes and 3D interactive displays. Splashed throughout the museum, they immerse you in the Bible’s journey through time and culture. The New Testament Theater explores the growth of the Christian church through the eyes of those who knew Jesus, while an action film takes you on a driving adventure through lands depicted in the Bible. Elsewhere in the museum, you’ll need to hold on tight during The Washington Revelations fly-board experience. This panoramic virtual flight uncovers biblical references throughout the Capitol city, plus it delivers a few sensory surprises.
Courageous Pages, the children’s play-and-learn space, relies less on high-tech and more on high-touch. Carnival-style games, reminiscent of skee ball and beanbag toss, spotlight biblical heroes. David versus Goliath, Daniel of the lions’ den, and Queen Esther teach triumph through courage, backed by scripture. Some games use teamwork, others competition, so everyone – including parents and grandparents – can share the fun. A wall of open-the-door factoids recalls stories of children in the Bible. Kids can burn off extra energy playing on the indoor jungle gym or trying to keep up with the ever-moving marine life in the Walk on Water illusion. Steps away, a toddler’s nook has Noah’s Ark as its centerpiece. As little ones arrange mini animals in cubbies and match them in pairs, tweens can stay busy with an interactive scavenger hunt. Also in this area, keep the camera ready at Samson Pillars, where visitors of every age can show off their super-power strength.
In The World of Jesus exhibit, step back in time to village life some 2,000 years ago. Meander along the courtyard taking in olive trees, a winepress, and a village well. Across the way, join a Jewish wife as she prepares dinner, watch a carpenter make repairs on his home, or listen to a religious leader ponder politics and faith. All the villagers (docents in costume) chat about their work, home, and faith – and of course, they’re happy to pose for a photo or two.
For a more traditional museum experience, check out the fine art and rare artifact collections, including treasures from the Vatican Museums and Israel Antiquities Authority. In addition to Torah scrolls and Dead Sea Scroll fragments on display, there are personal Bibles that belonged to well-known Americans like Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Cash, Babe Ruth, and Elvis Presley. You can also see some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s original speeches. Continue to explore history as you examine America’s diverse beliefs, tolerance, and tyranny as they related to the Civil War, civil rights, and other historical issues that overlapped with faith through the centuries.
There’s so much to see and do, but be sure to find your way to the sixth floor before the sun sets. A 2-story atrium glass gallery provides breathtaking views of the Capitol and Washington Monument – the perfect backdrops for selfies.
After all the walking (wear comfortable shoes!), feed your appetite at the Manna restaurant. Fresh, seasonal fare reflects Chef Todd Gray’s spin on Middle Eastern cuisine. Salad-and-grain plates are made-to-order with deliciousness like tahini grits with cumin, mint-laced lamb meatballs, or pumpkin falafel with toasted sesame. A la carte items range from hearty soups and house-made pitas to savory flat breads and kosher options. Don’t worry: Chicken filets and manna mac-and-cheese are available for the kiddos and those less adventurous. The artisanal beverages are refreshing (especially the green apple and cucumber lemonade), and the desserts don’t disappoint. Chocolate halvah (sweet confection), sufganiyot (jelly- or chocolate-filled doughnut), and malabi (Israeli pudding) are all worth a try. Dine in, or dine out in the rooftop garden with water walls and biblical plants. If you prefer a grab-and-go snack with a latte, head to the Milk & Honey Café on the mezzanine.
Everyone needs a souvenir, and the gift shop delivers. More than half of the merchandise was designed exclusively for the Museum of the Bible. There’s a surprisingly large inventory of high-price-point collectibles, art, and jewelry, and of course, the traditional assortment of resource books, sweatshirts, toys, and logo trinkets. Popular board games also are rebranded with faith-based themes, like Bibleopoly. If you’re short on time and energy, just check out the museum’s online store once you get home.
Founder and Board Chair Steve Green, of Hobby Lobby fame, considered several sites for the Museum of the Bible, including Dallas and New York City. Fortunately for Richmonders, he chose a location close to home. Now you and yours can visit time and again.
If You Go
The Museum of the Bible is open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day), from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., closing at 6 p.m. on Sundays.
Visit museumofthebible.org for timed tickets, which are required for entry. Admission is free, but suggested donations of $15 per adult and $10 per child help support the nonprofit organization. Some theatres and events within the museum involve nominal fees and reservations.
Two-hour-early access is offered to groups, and special arrangements are available for visitors with visual, auditory, and mobility impairments.
Since there’s no dedicated parking (and I-95 is so unpredictable), consider taking Amtrak to Union Station. From there, take an Uber to 400 4th Street SW (intersection of 4th SW and D streets), or board the Metro to Federal Center SW (which is just steps from the museum).
Entry security is like airport security, so prepare younger children for the process.
One final, but important note: Save the children’s gallery until the end. Otherwise, you may never get to the rest of the museum!
photos: Alejandro Matos, Alan Karchmer, Museum of the Bible