Are you looking for one more quick get-away this summer? Why not take a women’s suffrage-themed trip to Washington D.C.?
Over at The New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler reviews exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery, Library of Congress, and National Archives. These exhibits, Schuessler argues, reveal the complexity of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States.
Here is a taste of her piece:
Together, these shows — all curated by women — make up one of the richest explorations of women’s history yet assembled in the capital, or anywhere else. But they also offer a lesson in the messiness, complexities and compromises involved in any movement for social change — and the fraught politics of historical memory itself.
For years, the drive for women’s suffrage was presented mainly as the story of middle-class white women and iconic national leaders like Anthony and Stanton. That story began with the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York in 1848 and ended with the triumphant adoption of the amendment on Aug. 26, 1920, which resulted in the single largest extension of democratic voting rights in American history.
But in recent decades scholars have taken a less top-down view, emphasizing the movement’s multiple starting points and patchwork progress through hundreds of state and local campaigns. They have also excavated the role of African-American women, who were largely excluded from the major, white-led suffrage organizations and marginalized in the early histories of the movement, if they were mentioned at all.
Read the entire piece here.
“Northerly Island, though, proved farther than the Hamilfans were willing to go.”
I guess the popularity of Alexander Hamilton and the musical named after him only goes so far.
Here is a taste of Chris Vire’s piece at Chicago Magazine:
Jeffrey Seller, the producer behind both the 35,000-square-foot attraction and the massively successful musical from which it spun off, said the exhibition would close August 25, two weeks before the initial end date of September 8. Tickets already sold for the final two weeks are being refunded. And plans to tour the exhibit to other cities have been scrapped, Seller told the Chicago Tribune.
In announcing the early close, producers cited traffic-snarling events that would “complicate access” to the exhibition, which is housed in a giant shed plopped in the middle of Northerly Island. Among those events: the North Coast Music Festival at Huntington Bank Pavilion on August 30 and 31 and a Bears preseason game at Soldier Field on August 29.
Neither of those events is exactly a surprise. North Coast’s move to Northerly Island from Union Park was announced in April, weeks before the Hamilton exhibition opened. And the Bears’ Thursday night matchup with the Titans isn’t even their first home game of the season; that would be next week, when they host the Panthers on August 8.
Read the entire piece here.
Read all about it at the Atlanta Black Star. Here is a taste of Tanasia Kenney’s report:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced this week that it’s donating $2 million to the International African-American Museum in Charleston, S.C., to create a Center for Family History aimed at helping Black Americans trace their genealogy.
The church made the announcement on Feb. 27 during the annual RootTech genealogy summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, local station KUTV reported.
More than half of the enslaved Africans brought to America came through Charleston and the majority of them disembarked at Gadsden’s Wharf, “taking their first steps into this country at the future site of the IAAM,” according to the museum.
“We want to support the museum and the Center for Family History because we both value the strength that comes from learning about our families,” said Elder David Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, who presented the donation.
“The museum will not only educate its patrons on the important contributions of Africans who came through Gadsden’s Wharf and Charleston,” he added, “it also will help all who visit to discover and connect with ancestors whose stories previously may not have been known.”
Read the rest here.
Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.” It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about Medieval history and a museum she visited as a child. Enjoy! –JF
A considerable portion of my childhood was spent inside the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, a three story establishment filled to the brim with free entertainment and learning tailored to our community. On the first floor there’s a planetarium and a weather exhibit. One half of the second floor is filled with interactive displays that teach physics principles, and the other half contains a life-size timeline of Kalamazoo’s history. The third floor, though, was my favorite–it housed a real Egyptian mummy and had a massive space that was renovated every few months for visiting displays. It was hard to predict what wonders the third floor would contain when we went on our regular visits.
One morning my mom made the 45-minute trek from my house to the museum with her three children in tow. We spent a while visiting our favorite spots; my brother Nate liked building rubber band cars, while my sister and I enjoyed seeing our silhouettes on the thermal camera. None of these compared, though, to the adventure that awaited us on the third floor.
The third flight of stairs opened up to a massive recreation of a Medieval castle and village, complete with costumes and props. It seemed as if half of the kids in Kalamazoo were at the museum that day, immersed in an elaborate game of pretend. Some kids put on heavy aprons and imagined they were blacksmiths, others hoisted swords and served as knights, while still more set tables in the miniature great hall with plastic plates and play food. I can’t say we learned anything about Medieval England that day (most of us were too young to read the plaques) but we were given the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a culture that was foreign to us, and had a little fun along the way.
It’s easy for me to forget that the Medieval time period existed outside the walls of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum or popular fairy tales. Perhaps it’s because many of the books I read and movies I watched as a child were fantasy stories saturated with images of brave knights and fair maidens, but for the longest time this unique period in history just didn’t seem real to me.
A few weeks ago, however, I started taking a class called “Knights, Peasants, and Bandits: A Social History of Medieval England” here at Messiah College. Since then I’ve begun to learn that knights, lords, and ladies were real people who stayed in real castles and faced real hardships. They existed outside of fairy tales, and had lives of their own. The class is helping me come to terms with the strangeness of the past too–I mean, how else would you describe a time period during which nobles hunted with falcons and people built siege engines? However, I’m finding familiarity in my studies as well; I’m discovering the little ways I’m similar to men and women who lived in Medieval England, despite the fact that they walked the earth hundreds of years ago. It’s the job of the historian to reside in this tension between familiarity and strangeness–seeing past fairy tales, empathizing with real people, and accepting the past for what it really was.
Congratulations! Hartig is the first woman to hold the post in the museum’s 54-year history. She comes to Washington D.C. with a Ph.D in history from the University of California-Riverside and experience at the California Historical Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. From 2000-2005 she taught history at La Sierra University, a Christian (Seventh-Day Adventist) school in Riverside.
Graham Bowley has the story covered at The New York Times:
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a new director, who will be the first woman to hold the position in its 54-year history: Anthea M. Hartig, currently the executive director and chief executive of the California Historical Society.
Ms. Hartig begins her new role in Washington, overseeing 262 employees and a budget of nearly $50 million, on Feb. 18. She will be the first woman to be director since the museum opened in 1964, the Smithsonian said. In her new role, in 2019 and 2020, she will open three exhibitions that are part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, #BecauseOfHerStory. She will also complete the revitalization of the museum’s 120,000-square-foot west wing.
Read the rest here.
Here is a taste of a recent piece at Smithsonian.Com:
Visiting Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) without timed-entry passes, or tickets, just got easier. The recently-announced 2019 guidelines mark a significant change for the museum, which has seen almost 5 million visitors since its historic 2016 opening. NMAAHC is open from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. every day of the year except for Christmas Day, December 25. The museum is free, but entry is governed by a system of timed-entry passes, or tickets. The new 2019 policies expand the hours visitors can walk in without timed-entry passes. Here’s how walk-up entry and the passes will work in 2019 and over the holiday season this month:
Read the rest here.
Here is a taste of Bell’s post:
The museum’s announcement says:
On display in the Museum’s largest gallery, the exhibition will immerse visitors in New York City in the late 18th century, when the Sons of Liberty first began to make a name for themselves as an organized group who opposed British rule through violent resistance prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution.
The exhibition will take visitors through a timeline that chronicles key players and stories behind some of the most dramatic events that ignited the spark of revolution in the 13 colonies, from the staging of New York’s very own “tea party,” to tarring and feathering Loyalists.
The New York Tea Party took place on 22 Apr 1774, four months after the famous Boston Tea Party and one month after the less famous second Boston Tea Party. But I can see why this site wants to highlight the New York event, and I’ll say more about it tomorrow.
As for “tarring and feathering Loyalists,” New Yorkers actually carried out that public punishment on Customs employees or informers before Bostonians did, though folks in some of the smaller ports along Massachusetts’s north shore had established the tradition even earlier.
Read the rest here.
If you are interested in the relationship between American religious history, museums, historical sites, and public history, I highly recommend that you get a copy (or ask your library to order a copy) of Gretchen Buggeln’s and Barbara Franco’s new book Interpreting Religion and Museums and Historic Sites.
The book includes essays on interpreting religion at religious sites, historic sties, and museums. These sites include Arch Street Meeting House (Philadelphia), California Missions Trail, Ephrata Cloister, Joseph Smith Family Farm. U.S. Capitol, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Yorktown, Arab American National Museum, Jewish Museum of Maryland, Minnesota History Center, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of American History, and Winterthur Museum.
Buggeln, the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University, offers essays on “Scholarly Approaches for Religion in History Museums” and “Religion in Museum Spaces and Places.” Franco, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the founding director of the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, offers two essays: “Issues in Historical Interpretation: Why Interpreting Religion is So Difficult” and “Strategies and Techniques for Interpreting Religion.” Buggeln and Franco team-up for another essay: “Interpreting Religion at Museums and Historic Sites: The Work Ahead.”
This is a wonderful collection and I was honored that Buggeln and Franco asked me to write a blurb:
I have been waiting for a book like this for a long time. Gretchen Buggeln and Barbara Franco have gathered an impressive collection of essays by museum professionals and public historians who have thought deeply about the place of religion in some of our most important cultural institutions. This is a landmark volume. (John Fea, Chair and Professor of History, Messiah College, author of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).
This book should be in the library of every public historian, museum and historical site educator, and American religious historian.
A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., invites Americans to recognize another world war—one that has been traditionally envisioned as a quaint and simple confrontation between a ragtag army of rebellious colonists and a king’s mighty military force of red-coated Brits. “The American Revolution: A World War” demonstrates with new scholarship how the 18th-century fight for independence fit into a larger, international conflict that involved Great Britain, France, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Jamaica, Gibraltar and even India. “If it had not become that broader conflict, the outcome might very well have been different,” says David K. Allison, project director, curator of the show and co-author of a new forthcoming book on the subject. “As the war became bigger and involved other allies for American and other conflicts around the world, that led Britain to make the kind of strategic decisions it did, to ultimately grant the colonies independence and use their military resources elsewhere in the world.”
The roots of this war lay in the global Seven Years War, known in the United States as the French and Indian War. In that conflict, Britain was able to consolidate its strength, while France and Spain experienced significant losses. At the time of the American Revolution, other European powers were seeking to restrain Great Britain, the greatest world power and owner of the planet’s most threatening navy.
“We became a sideshow,” says Allison. Both France and Spain, to undermine British power, provided both arms and troops to the rambunctious rebels. The Dutch Republic, too, traded weapons and other goods to the American colonists. Ultimately, after struggling to retain its 13 feisty colonies, British leaders chose to abandon the battlefields of North America and turn their attention to their other colonial outposts, like India.
Read the rest here.
Two years ago, on the 225th anniversary of that Bill of Rights, the National Archives curated an exhibit that explores how those first 10 amendments were composed. “Amending America: The Bill of Rights” then went on a cross-country tour of America that arrives in Lancaster later this week.
When “Amending America” opens at LancasterHistory.org Saturday, it will be the 11th stop on a tour that’s taken the exhibit to the presidential libraries of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, the home of Founding Father George Mason, a museum in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, and, most recently, to the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore.
Using reproduction documents and petitions, political cartoons and interactive stations, the exhibit also will have a feature none of the other stops on the tour has had.
Local curators have assembled a complementary exhibit on President Jame
s Buchanan and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Both immensely powerful mid-19th-century politicians and both Lancastrians, Stevens and Buchanan held radically different ideas about what powers were permitted and prohibited by the Constitution.
Robin Sarratt, vice president of LancasterHistory.org, says the timing of the exhibit’s arrival here “is fortuitous.”
“Amending America,” Sarratt says, encourages the process of asking questions, of thinking about what citizenship means, about what the words in the Constitution and Bill of Rights meant in that era — and what they mean today.”
Read the entire article here.
Philadelphia has a new window into its past as a bustling and important location during the during the Revolutionary War era. This weekend the Museum of the American Revolution’s (MoAR) new discovery center, Revolution Place, will open a lens to Old City during the 1700s — where the American Revolution took root.
Revolution Place features four key recreated historical environments for younger visitors from 5-12 years old — a military encampment, a tavern, a home and an 18th-century meeting house.
Visitors can partake in the space’s experiential elements, interactive touchscreens, reproduction objects, and special programming set against colorful murals that evoke scenes from 18th-century Philadelphia, including a marketplace and a residential alley.
“Revolution Place extends the immersive, hands-on experience of the Museum’s core exhibition to our younger visitors. The new center encourages playful discovery through a range of self-directed and facilitated experiences, all set within the historic spaces and places of the Museum’s own neighborhood,” said Dr. Elizabeth Grant, director of education at the museum.
Read the entire article here.
My friend Tim Grove spent the first part of his career working for the Smithsonian. He recently left his post at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. and started a history consulting business. This will also give him more time to write.
Clearly, a part of the past can include baggage. Historian John Fea writes that the past can shame us. “The story of human history is filled with accounts of slavery, violence, scientific backwardness, injustice, genocide, racism, and other dark episodes that might make us embarrassed to be part of the human race. If our fellow human beings can engage in such sad, wrong, or disgraceful acts, then what is stopping us from doing the same?” As part of our job, public historians need to help the public navigate the complex reactions that come with telling and processing truth. Fea writes of a certain humility that comes with studying the past. History done well helps people to be empathetic with people from the past, an attempt to step into their shoes and try to look at the world as they did. According to historian John Lewis Gaddis, “Getting into other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perceptions of the world and where they fit within it.”
As we attempt to understand another person’s world, we gain empathy for them. Empathy, of course, is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is feeling compassion or sadness for someone’s hardship. Empathy is an understanding of a person’s motivations for a decision or action—not necessarily an agreement with their motivations. It is striving to understand their point of view.
Thanks for the plug, Tim! Read the entire article here.
My forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump devotes several pages to Trump’s use of the phrase “America First.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust” was not yet open when I was writing these pages, but if it had been open I am sure a quick trip to Washington D.C. would have inspired some of my writing on this topic.
Over at The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen reviews the new exhibit. Here is a taste:
This might all be an occasion for mere brooding about the past, were there not some jarring echoes for today. The isolationist organization America First gets its share of attention here, and deservedly so. Launched in September 1940, it soon built up a membership of over 800,000. Led by the retired general and business executive Robert Wood, its most charismatic spokesman was the heroic aviator Charles Lindbergh, a strange but inflammatory hero for the isolationists, who was not beyond the occasional Jew-baiting himself. America First opposed the Atlantic Charter issued by Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941 after their meeting off Newfoundland, presumably including clauses like the pledge to respect the right to self-government. It captured the imaginations of some privileged young men, to include a couple of future presidents and assorted intellectual luminaries. It vanished into thin air after Pearl Harbor, and many of the young men who supported it, like John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, changed their views in later years.
America First is, because of its discreditable history, a disreputable slogan, which has not prevented President Trump from embracing it and subordinates who know better from defending it. In so doing, they unwittingly undermine their other slogan, “Make America Great Again,” because the America of the 1930s was not all that great. There were—as we have been reminded by the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—the pitiless murders of African Americans by lynch mobs. There were scores of such killings in the 1930s. There was casual and open bigotry and discrimination against Jews and other religious and ethnic groups. If Roosevelt proclaimed the Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union address—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—the great objectives of the struggle that impended, it was not because America was contentedly enjoying them and wished to share in their bounty, but because he knew that they had to be fought for, at home and abroad simultaneously.
Read the entire review here.
Sarah Anne Carter is Curator & Director of Research at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee. Over at The Los Angeles Review of Books she explains what the cartoon Scooby Doo can teach us about museums.
Here is a taste of her piece “Scooby Doo in the Museum”:
When I watch the show, I see the possibilities of object-based research everywhere. At first, the focus on clues just seemed like typical detective fare. There were small moments that tipped me off that something else was going on. How did Velma learn to distinguish between Chinese and Tibetan objects? Does the plot really turn on her ability to read Native American pictograms or to identify a forged painting or ancient coin? Why are we in the basement of the Smithsonian, the home of a Civil War memorabilia collector, or a creepy wax museum? Apart from Velma’s impressive connoisseurial abilities, the whole gang frequently displays an unexpected ethical focus on cultural patrimony, keeping things in the places where the come from, like archaeological sites in Turkey or Mexico or museums in Puerto Rico and Venice where they may be properly understood. Could they be thinking about the important 1970 UNESCO convention on looted cultural property? They seem to care about special historic objects and frequent places that are full of them. Unlike the gang, the curators and professors they encounter—the supposed experts—use their knowledge for personal gain and crime as often as they do to care for collections.
Read the entire piece here.
Congrats to Douglas Bradburn on his promotion to President and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon! Doug takes the position after four years as Founding Director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
Here is the press release:
MOUNT VERNON, VA—The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association today announced the selection of its current library director, Dr. Doug Bradburn, to serve as the new president and chief executive officer of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He will begin his tenure on January 1, 2018, as only the eleventh person to hold this esteemed position since 1858, when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the estate from the Washington family.
An accomplished leader and noted American history scholar, Bradburn currently serves as Founding Director for Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. With his appointment as president, Bradburn will expand his responsibilities to oversee the multifaceted daily operations of America’s most visited historic home and its research library. At the same time, he will partner closely with the board to shape the organization’s strategic priorities surrounding preservation, education, and visitor engagement. His selection follows an extensive national search, which began earlier this year after Mount Vernon’s tenth president, Curtis G. Viebranz, announced his plans to step down in late 2017.
“While searching for our next president, the board gave careful thought to Mount Vernon’s immediate needs and to the Association’s long-standing pledge to preserve and protect not only Mount Vernon but the life and legacy of American’s first president, George Washington. Doug brings the right balance of management expertise, intellectual rigor, and passion for George Washington’s legacy to lead us in these times,” said Sarah Miller Coulson, Regent. “We have seen Doug’s energetic and effective leadership in action in the four transformational years that he has served as our library’s founding director, and we are confident that he will apply tremendous enthusiasm and commitment to this position.”
Bradburn was named the Library’s founding director in 2013, mere weeks before the facility opened. In his four years in this role, Bradburn oversaw the selection of more than 60 research fellows and developed and executed dozens of lectures and symposia. He pioneered the launch of the George Washington Leadership Institute, which provides leadership development to government, corporate, and military officials. He also championed the restructuring of Mount Vernon’s teacher outreach programs and the guided the creation of a residential fellowship program for talented college juniors. He secured significant acquisitions of documents and manuscripts for the Library’s collections and spearheaded significant enhancements to the Library’s digital platforms.
“Doug takes the helm at an important time in Mount Vernon’s history,” Coulson continued. “We are confident that he will help us build on our successes in historic preservation, educational outreach, and visitor engagement as we work in new ways and with new audiences to preserve Mount Vernon for generations to come.”
“I am humbled and honored that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has entrusted me with the responsibility to lead this beloved institution,” said Bradburn. “My years at the Library have confirmed what I have long believed: that George Washington’s impact on the history and character of our country are far greater than that of any other individual. It is critical that we share these important stories of his life with our guests here at Mount Vernon and with people around the world. I look forward to my new role and to being part of an incredible team.”
Born in Wisconsin and raised in Virginia, Bradburn, 45, holds a B.A. in History and a B.S. in Economics from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He is the author and editor of three books and numerous articles and book chapters on the history of the American founding, leadership, and the history of American citizenship. Before coming to Mount Vernon, Bradburn served as a professor of history and director of graduate studies at the State University of New York- Binghamton University and departed as chair of the history faculty. He will reside on the estate with his wife, Nadene, and their two children, Charles, 14, and Samuel, 12.
Separately, critics have seized on a changing mission statement of the museum from its earliest days, when founders said they aimed to prove the authority of the Bible, to a new, more neutral goal of inviting people to learn more about the Bible. Museum president Cary Summers described the change as a natural progression as the project moved ahead.
But John Fea, a historian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, points to the family’s goal of helping people “engage with” the Bible as a telling indication about what the Greens hope to achieve. He said the “Bible engagement” concept was popularized by the American Bible Society in the 1990s amid concern that people who owned copies of the Scriptures weren’t necessarily reading them.
Fea said advocates for this strategy ultimately hope the Bible will inspire a desire to learn more and maybe accept Christ.
“There’s a public face to this Bible engagement rhetoric and then there’s a private aspect of what it really means,” Fea said. “It debunks the whole notion that this is just a history museum.”
Green’s response to such arguments: Visit the museum and decide for yourself.
Read the entire piece here.
Canadians are apparently interested in this week’s opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. I was happy to help Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Matt Kwong make some sense of this museum. Here is a taste of his piece at CBC News:
A museum attraction on the second-floor Impact collection called Washington Revelations is feeding evangelical scholar John Fea’s doubts. The multi-sensory “4D” ride takes visitors soaring over D.C. landmarks to highlight scripture inscribed on landmarks, such as the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Lincoln Memorial.
To Fea, who teaches history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, the idea mirrors evangelical activist David Barton’s WallBuilders movement, which promotes a view the United States was founded as a Christian nation. A signature program of the WallBuilders is to bring ministers and state politicians on tours of Washington to show them places bearing biblical verse.
“There’s a temptation there to send the message that America is a certain kind of nation, a Christian nation,” Fea said. “A nation where the Bible should be important and prominent in shaping public life. In other words, [suggesting] we were a Bible nation from the beginning.”
Though he admires the museum project in concept, he questions whether the building just three blocks from Congress will service a conservative vision of American Christian nationalism.
Read the entire piece here.
The front page of the website of the Museum of the Bible states: “Learn about the Museum being built and the other initiatives spurring worldwide Bible engagement.”
The Museum of the Bible also describes itself this way:
Museum of the Bible invites all people to engage with the Bible through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits, including artifact research, education initiatives and an international museum opening in late 2017 in Washington. The 430,000-square-foot, $400 million Museum of the Bible, dedicated to the impact, history and narrative of the Bible, will be located three blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
A page devoted to job openings at the Museum says: “Museum of the Bible is an innovative, global, education institution whose purpose is to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.”
In an introduction to a Christianity Today podcast interview with Glenn Paauw, the senior director of content at the Institute For Bible Reading, says:
A museum experience like this has the potential to widely open our eyes to the fact that the Bible is immersed in real, ancient history, but it’s very different than ours.” Christians should be encouraged by the museum putting the Scriptures in context, says Paauw. “The very first step to great Bible engagement is understanding the Bible in its own world and on its own terms,” he added.
In his recent review of the museum at Christianity Today, Martyn Wendell Jones writes:
But the most enduring questions surrounding the museum will undoubtedly concern its intent. As its leadership has walked back the apologetic messaging of its early days in favor of a more open-handed mission of “engaging” all people with the Bible, skeptics may smell a ruse while some Christians may wonder if the museum is holding back.
In August 2017, the American Bible Society asked its patrons to pray for the Museum of the Bible. The ABS describes it as a “museum inviting all people to engage with the Bible.” Here is a taste of that plea:
There’s a need for increased Bible awareness and increased Bible reading in America. “Over 90 percent of the homes in this country have a Bible. But I think we’re probably less familiar with it today than ever, because we don’t teach it as we once did,” says Steve Green, chairman of the board of Museum of the Bible. “This book claims it’s for all people. So [Museum of the Bible is] an invitation for all people to come and learn about and engage with it, and hopefully they will leave with a curiosity to want to know more.”
In Mark 4:20, Jesus describes his Parable of the Sower. He says, “The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and welcome the message. They produce thirty or sixty or even a hundred times as much as was planted” (CEV).
Museum of the Bible is like the farmer planting seed by sharing God’s Word with others. We have an opportunity to pray for the seed to fall on good soil—to cause hearts to respond to God’s invitation for a relationship with him.
Last week in Politico Magazine, Candida Moss and Joel Baden, the authors of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, asked “Just What Is the Museum of the Bible Trying to Do?” The answer to this question is simple. As seen from the quotes above, the Museum of the Bible wants people to engage with the Bible. But what does this mean?
If you want to understand what the Museum of the Bible means by “Bible engagement” (or “scripture engagement”) you need to know something about the history of the American Bible Society. As I argued in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, the American Bible Society invented the phrase. The three paragraphs from the ABS website that I posted above offer a good definition. The Mark 4:20 reference says it all.
The mission of the American Bible Society states:
We strive to the landscape of the Bible engagement in this country by partnering with church leaders in major U.S. cities, advocating for the Bible in American culture, and equipping ministry leaders with customized Bible resources. In the next 10 years, we aim to see 100 million people engaged with God’s word in the U.S.
It is worth noting that the American Bible Society began talking about “Bible engagement” and “scripture engagement” as part of a significant change to the mission of the 200-year old organization. During the mid-1990s, the Society took a turn away from mainline Protestantism and toward evangelical Protestantism. It also shifted from an organization devoted to distributing the Bible around the world, to a Christian ministry devoted to getting as many people as possible to engage with the Bible as the word of God.
I discuss this transition at length in The Bible Cause. Here is a taste:
Under [CEO Roy] Peterson’s leadership, the American Bible Society continues its historic commitment to meeting the spiritual needs of people around the world and building a Christian civilization at home and abroad through scripture engagement. If he has learned one thing from the history of the ABS, it is how to get people excited about the Bible Cause through grand vision statements. By 2025, Peterson wants to see 100 million Americans engaged with the Bible, scriptures available in every world language, and the expansion of the ABS endowment to $1 billion. It’s an ambitious goal, and that is why he has Executive Vice President of Ministry Mobilization Geof Morin, who has been at the ABS since 2007, to help him. Morin represents the future of the Bible Cause. He has worked in global advertising, sung at the Metropolitan Opera, and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia. He oversees ABS marketing, communications, and Bible technology, and runs Missions U.S. Global, the title given to the Society’s domestic and international ministries. He is passionate about scripture engagement and the role it can play in the universal Christian church–Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.
In its 2025 “Strategic Vision” statement the ABS defines scripture engagement as “encountering God through the Bible to become faithful followers of Jesus Christ.” Through the help of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, the ABS has developed a theoretical and theological framework for how such engagement with scripture should take place. At the core of this idea of scriptural engagement is the belief that people can encounter–and have encountered–the claims of the Bible in diverse ways and by multiple means, including public hearings, performances, reading, worship, art, and music, to name a few. Such encounters involve the full range of human faculties: emotions, the intellect, the imagination, and the soul. Inherent within this view of scripture engagement is the belief that God, by entering into human culture through the person of Jesus Christ, has invested this world with meaning and has created human beings for community. To put it simply, the Bible has the potential, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to transform lives when it is experienced with other people and through various forms of culture….
The ABS has entrusted this work of measuring the success of scripture engagement to the Barna Group, a Christian research organization known for its work in observing the state of American Christianity and offering “spiritual indicators” about where the United States is moving on matters of faith and culture. With the help of Barna-created surveys specifically designed for this purpose, Peterson is convinced that by 2025 the ABS will have “defensible numbers” to show that 100 million people in the United States are actively using the scriptures. The ABS also relies upon Barna for its annual State of the Bible Survey. Morin, who spearheads this project, likes to call it a “Bible thermometer.” The State of the Bible report is more than just a fun way for the ABS to let the country know who it is and what it does. Rather, the success of Peterson’s 2025 vision is directly related to its findings. The ABS is just getting to the point where it has enough date to be able to see some trends about what American think about the Bible. The evidence suggests that there is still a lot of work to do. At the moment, the ABS and Barna estimate that roughly 47 million Americans are actively engaging with the Bible. This number will need to be more than doubled in the next decade in order to meet Peterson’s projections.
I don’t have the time or the space to add more to this post, so let me wrap things up with a few points:
- The American Bible Society hopes to get more people engaged with the Bible through the creation of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center at 101 North Independence Mall East. Museums like this are one of many ways the “Bible engagement” or “scripture engagement” can be accomplished.
- The relationship between the American Bible Society and the Green family is a close one. The Greens give a lot of money to the American Bible Society and have shared some of the intellectual property it has gathered in the building of the Museum of the Bible. Both groups use DeMoss for their public relations needs.
- The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. must be understood in the context of the history of “Bible engagement” or “scripture engagement” as first introduced by the American Bible Society. This makes the Museum of the Bible a Christian ministry disguised as a first-class museum.
In the past week I have done a few interviews with reporters about the Museum of the Bible, a Washington D.C. museum scheduled to open next month. I have written about the Museum before and with the opening less than one month away, I expect to write about it again. A few days after the official opening I will be at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) to speak on a panel devoted to Joel Baden and Candida Moss’s new book Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby.
A recent Washington Post piece on the museum is revealing. Evangelical historians Mark Noll and Grant Wacker both weigh-in on their experiences with the museum. So does Steven Friesen, an officer at the SBL.
Here is a taste:
Mark Noll, one of the country’s most prominent experts on American Christian history, served as an adviser. He compared the Museum of the Bible to the Newseum, another huge private museum.
“Obviously the museum is there to make people think better or think kindly about the effects of Scripture in U.S. history,” he said. “But I did think they were trying to be as nonpartisan as they could.”
Some remain skeptical that the museum’s viewpoint will be neutral. Steven Friesen, an officer at the Society of Biblical Literature, the largest association of biblical scholars, said there is debate in the academic community about whether to do research involving the Greens’ collection. He would advise fellow scholars to steer clear.
Friesen hasn’t seen the museum, but he believes from reading the website that its materials subtly promote a singular version of Scripture; indeed, the museum mostly omits discussion about how the Bible was compiled and which religious traditions believe which disputed books belong in the Bible. Museum staffers say the place for discussing issues such as sexuality and abortion, which aren’t mentioned in the exhibits, might be at events hosted at the museum; Friesen thinks those events are meant to draw in influential people to hear the Greens’ opinions on the culture wars.
“My guess is that they’ve worked very hard at covering what they would like to do, trying to hide the agenda that is behind the museum,” he said, defining that agenda as the promotion of their deep faith in the literal truth of the Bible.
The Bible has shaped cultures from Africa to Asia, Muslim to Mormon. But the 20-member leadership of the museum is almost entirely white, male and evangelical.
Grant Wacker, an expert on Christian history, said that he declined an invitation to join the leadership team because he was asked to sign a statement of faith. Wacker said he considers himself an evangelical Christian but that the statement went too far for him.
“It stressed, shall we say, factual accuracy [of the Bible] more than I could endorse,” he said.
Instead, he agreed to be one of the many scholars from diverse religious traditions to weigh in on drafts of some of the museum displays. The leadership team sought input repeatedly during the three-year construction process from experts from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and secular backgrounds.
Read the entire piece here.