Museum of the Bible: An Oasis in Downtown D.C.

The museum explores the Bible’s impact through different lenses, including history and pop culture.
Museum of the Bible: An Oasis in Downtown D.C.
Charles V (1500–1558) of the Holy Roman Empire owned this illuminated manuscript on vellum written in Latin, on display at Museum of the Bible. (Lynn Topel)
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The nation’s capital is a tourist haven for free museums, monuments, and memorials. As crowds flock to the more popular Smithsonian institutions and presidential monuments, some may want to venture to the Museum of the Bible for a more tranquil and reflective experience.

Two 40-foot bronze doors greet visitors to Museum of the Bible located in downtown D.C.<br/>(Copyright Museum of the Bible)
Two 40-foot bronze doors greet visitors to Museum of the Bible located in downtown D.C.
(Copyright Museum of the Bible)

‘In the Beginning Was the Word(John 1:1)

Located a few blocks from the Capitol Building, the Museum of the Bible touts itself as “one of D.C.’s biggest museums.” Built inside a 1919 red brick warehouse, the museum, with nearly six levels of exhibits throughout the 430,000 square feet of space, was founded in 2010 as a nonprofit organization. Construction did not begin until 2015 with a budget of nearly $500 million. A lot of time, money, and effort were put in to make the building unique, enticing, and modern in an area where they will have to compete with well-established, federally-funded museums.
The visitors’ first experience of the museum is to enter through the 40-foot bronze doors with the Genesis creation account of the Gutenberg Bible inscribed on it. It gives visitors the initial feeling that they are walking into the Bible pages and immersing themselves in its stories. With over 40,000 artifacts in its many exhibits, the immensity of the collection may be overwhelming; there are many things to see and do.

What to Expect

The invention of the Gutenberg press ushered in an era of mass communication, driving up literacy, innovation, and access to books like the Bible, which were previously limited to scholars. (Lynn Topel)
The invention of the Gutenberg press ushered in an era of mass communication, driving up literacy, innovation, and access to books like the Bible, which were previously limited to scholars. (Lynn Topel)

The expectation when visiting the museum is to see Bibles of all kinds. In order to appreciate the chronological evolution of the Bible (and its many manuscripts, editions, and translations), “The History of the Bible” exhibit on the fourth floor will give visitors an idea of its humble beginnings from the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found by a Bedouin shepherd. As you follow the timeline, you will see codex (Bible manuscripts) fragments on papyrus from circa A.D. 225, rare Bible manuscripts on Masoretic (traditional Jewish) texts, and illuminated psalters from the 1400s.

The Gutenberg Press is perhaps the most revolutionary invention to impact the written word, helping make the “Good Book” accessible to more people. The museum has a fragment of a Gutenberg Bible containing the complete epistle of Paul to the Romans (circa 1454) for visitors to appreciate.

As you continue to move along the timeline, you will come across a special section on the King James Bible, prayer books and hymns owned by European royalty, as well as a Latin Bible signed by Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation.

The Bible’s Impact on the World Around Us

The second floor of the museum showcases “The Impact of the Bible” on America and on the world. It follows how biblical themes and values played a role in the nation’s history: from the Puritans who came to the New World to escape religious persecution to the Age of Exploration and the establishment of missions in North America. The museum very creatively depicts the Founding Fathers’ views on religion through a series of actors on video screens.

The influence of Christian values is present, not just in history, but in all sectors of society. In education, the 1688 New England primer and the 1846 McGuffey spelling book used biblical stories and imagery for their text.

In music, one may listen to a Peter, Paul, and Mary version or a Bob Marley rendition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which was based on Isaiah 40:9. You may also go to the sound booth and listen as Elvis Presley, who considered himself to be “a devout Christian,” rock it out to “Hard-Headed Woman,” which is probably about the Garden-of-Eden Eve, who’s “been a thorn in the side of a man.”

And, of course, classic and contemporary literature abound with biblical themes as seen in plays by William Shakespeare, “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway, and in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” by J.K. Rowling, among others.

There is no doubt as to the influence of biblical themes on pop culture throughout the decades, as depicted in these ads, magazine covers, film and theater posters, and comic strips. (Lynn Topel)
There is no doubt as to the influence of biblical themes on pop culture throughout the decades, as depicted in these ads, magazine covers, film and theater posters, and comic strips. (Lynn Topel)
Oath-takings are part of the rituals of becoming a president. This Bible was used by President Donald Trump during his inauguration in 2017. (Lynn Topel)
Oath-takings are part of the rituals of becoming a president. This Bible was used by President Donald Trump during his inauguration in 2017. (Lynn Topel)

‘Let the Little Children Come to Me’ (Matthew 19:14)

"The World of Jesus of Nazareth" exhibit on the third floor of Museum of the Bible. (Copyright Museum of the Bible)
"The World of Jesus of Nazareth" exhibit on the third floor of Museum of the Bible. (Copyright Museum of the Bible)

If visiting with children, start with the third floor’s “The Stories of the Bible.” Divided into three areas—The Hebrew Bible, The New Testament, and The World of Jesus of Nazareth—the first two offer visitors a true sight-and-sound experience as they move from one biblical story to another while watching animated screen projections, heightened by special lighting and sound effects, and accompanied by voice narration. It is a nice change, as it combines age-old stories with new technology. The latter recreates what Jesus’s village would have looked like during his time. Visit a typical home and see how a family table is laid out, and learn about the crops grown in that area.

On the ground floor of the museum, the younger visitors may want to spend some time in the Children’s Experience area, where they may pretend to be Samson and push on the columns or play Bible-themed arcade-style games and activities.

On the ground floor, the Children’s Experience area allows children to be like Samson and show off their skills in arcade-style games. (Lynn Topel)
On the ground floor, the Children’s Experience area allows children to be like Samson and show off their skills in arcade-style games. (Lynn Topel)

A Lot to Explore

As you wander through the many floors and galleries, you will discover pockets of mini-exhibits and interactive learning throughout the museum. There is a small section on presidential bibles, a wall of biblical names (and touch screens to find out what they mean), video testimonies of the importance of prison ministries, and special exhibits on real people who gave up everything to do missionary work. Archaeological findings can be found on the fifth floor, while temporary exhibits can be found in the basement level of the museum with the current one called “Scripture and Science: Our Universe, Ourselves, Our Place,” which runs until January 2024.
The Science & Scriptures exhibit. (Copyright Museum of the Bible)
The Science & Scriptures exhibit. (Copyright Museum of the Bible)
For the price of admission, visitors get to relive the stories from the Bible, as well as be humbled by the lasting impact of God’s words in its many forms. It is an experience that may be appreciated by those fervent in their faith, by those who value old books and manuscripts, or by those who want to learn the place of sacred scripture in secular history. The museum is a testament to why the Bible is perennially a bestseller.

A Bit of Advice

Though traveling downtown is not a walk in the park, there are ways to make the trip less stressful.

The museum is a short walk from the Federal Center SW Metro station on the Orange, Silver, and Blue lines. But for those driving in to the city, street parking is free on Sundays (and the traffic is much lighter), and it is best to arrive at the museum just before it opens for the premium parking spots.

Visitors can easily spend five to six hours at the museum, so be prepared to eat lunch at the Manna Restaurant on Level 6 or grab a quick bite at the Milk+Honey Café on the Mezzanine. The former offers restaurant-style menus, while the café has coffee and handheld food items.

Manna Restaurant on the sixth floor serves generously-portioned lunch meals, which may also be enjoyed in the Biblical Garden, the museum’s outdoor rooftop eating area. (Lynn Topel)
Manna Restaurant on the sixth floor serves generously-portioned lunch meals, which may also be enjoyed in the Biblical Garden, the museum’s outdoor rooftop eating area. (Lynn Topel)
Views of Washington, D.C., from the sixth floor of the museum. (Copyright Museum of the Bible)
Views of Washington, D.C., from the sixth floor of the museum. (Copyright Museum of the Bible)

For the budget-conscious, third-party coupon websites offer discounted tickets, while children under 5 years old get free admission. The gift shop has a dollar-deal display, where you can purchase ornaments and magnets for this very affordable price.

For more information, visit MuseumoftheBible.org
Lynn Topel is a freelance writer and editor based in Maryland. When not busy homeschooling her sons, she enjoys reading, traveling, and trying out new places to eat.
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