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This eight-story, 430,000-square-foot museum is about the same mammoth size as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. Like that museum, the Bible Museum’s size indicates the epic nature of its subject—in this case, 3,500 years of history related to the Bible, and the Bible’s impact on the world. There’s a lot to see: Some 3,150 artifacts are on display, ranging from a fragment of an ancient Dead Sea Scroll to an illuminated manuscript from the 14th century to a copy of Elvis’s personal Bible. And there’s a lot to do: The center layers the traditional touring experience with immersive activities that have you walking through a re-creation of 1st-century Nazareth, complete with costumed villagers à la Williamsburg, or watching a film that flies you over the city of Washington, pointing out biblical inscriptions at capital landmarks as you go. Although the museum holds eight floors, the primary exhibits lie on floor 2 (The Impact of the Bible on the World), floor 3 (The Stories of the Bible, in entertainment form), and floor 4 (The History of the Bible). Visit levels B1, 1, and 5 to tour special exhibits and level 6 to enjoy good eats at Manna and take in an outstanding view of the capital. The museum is just a couple of blocks south of the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Mall.
I recommend my usual strategy for tackling a visit to an overwhelming museum: Start with a general guided tour, then ask your guide what exhibit or artifact is most meaningful to her. Or, if you have a particular interest, say, in what life was like in ancient Israel, head there first. In fact, a number of themed guided tours focus on one area or subject, such as “Translating the Bible into English,” each lasting an hour and costing an additional $8. I signed up for the highlights tour, whose designated top hits include Julia Ward Howe’s original draft of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, written in 1861; and a fragment of a first edition of the Gutenberg Bible, circa 1455. My guide's personal recommendation was the "Impact of the Bible" section on criminal justice in America, specifically its collection of personal anecdotes, including that of a man in jail for life who nevertheless has found peace within himself through his newfound understanding of the Bible, and the tale of a jury that relied on Bible verses to find a man guilty of murder and deserving of the death sentence. Provocative.
The Bible Museum is Smithsonian in size and scope, but a different animal altogether. This is a privately funded facility, whose founders and primary funders are the evangelical billionaire Green family, owners of the chain of Hobby Lobby arts and crafts stores.