This is not an easy challenge to overcome—and it’s common to all curators. At the Israel Museum, for example, “most of the people who come to the [Shrine of the Book] are non-Jews,” said Roitman. “They are looking for Jesus. They are looking for John the Baptist. They want very much to make the linkage between these artifacts and the characters [in the New Testament].” While all curation involves some sort of interpretation, he said, “I’m very careful not to say what they expect from me to say.”
Museums constantly have to grapple with the question of who they’re for—and in the case of Bible-related museums, whether they have a pluralistic or particular interpretation of what the Bible is. “We do not teach religion,” said Amanda Weiss, who oversees the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. “We are a universal institution for people of all faiths. We take that extremely seriously, because the Bible is a history book that has been written by many different hands over generations.” The idea that a museum could present the Bible through the lens of multiple cultures is relatively new in the world of museums, Weiss said: When she first started, “to talk about the Jewish roots of Christianity, people would look at you like you were a little bit crazy.”
The Museum of the Bible is a strong signal that alliances between certain communities of Jews and American Christians are becoming more common, in that it emphasizes a shared Jewish-Christian history of the book. And the museum’s leaders claim to take a universal approach to the Bible, similar to Weiss’s. “We want to make sure we’re inclusive … to not over-represent some groups over others,” said Seth Pollinger, the director of content at the museum. “We’re not focusing on proving or demonstrating the truth of what’s in the Bible or advocating its historical accuracy.”
It has had to overcome significant suspicions in the process, though. When Weiss first considered a partnership with the Museum of the Bible, she was wary of proselytization. Eventually, she agreed to a joint exhibit in Jerusalem. After “some bumps on the road,” including a misunderstanding over displaying a depiction of the crucifixion in a museum heavily trafficked by observant Jews, “the learning curve of the Museum of the Bible team was phenomenal,” she said. Weiss keeps a picture of herself, Steve Green, the Museum of the Bible’s president Cary Summers, and Benjamin Netanyahu on the wall of her office.
The memento is an appropriate symbol of the Museum of the Bible, which was brought to life by powerful backers. During the opening ceremony, the gospel giant CeCe Winans sang “Amazing Grace” and her song “Let Them Fall in Love,” asking God to bless those who don’t follow him. Eric and Lara Trump, the president’s son and daughter-in-law, were among the attendees at the museum’s opening gala. Earlier this year, museum leaders hosted a luncheon that included Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and several cabinet-secretary spouses, according to Johnnie Moore, who runs a Christian public-relations firm. He estimated that “easily … half” of America’s most influential and affluent evangelical families took part in the museum’s opening festivities.
While the museum may disappoint those who hope or fear “to walk in the door and … be hit over the head with Christianity every step of the way,” as Weiss put it, it is still a remarkable assertion of American religious identity in the nation’s capital. Those who visit now have “this other point of reference,” Wuerl said. “A political point of reference, and a spiritual one.”