I had a different perspective than most when I approached the new Museum of the Bible for a press preview in advance of Friday’s opening. For me, it was my old workplace—The Washington Design Center.
Beyond the original brick cladding of the structure, which was built as a refrigerated warehouse for the city’s grocery stores in 1922, nothing resembles the old place—which isn’t so much of a bad thing, since the center is in a much better location now with gleaming showrooms full of natural light—unlike the dark, cramped spaces that were in here.
But I digress! Much has been written about the content and exhibits of the museum, but I was really curious about the design itself. It did not disappoint.
You enter through the massive Gutenburg Gates, fabricated by DC artist Larry Kirkland, which depict the first two pages of Genesis, written in Latin, as they would have appeared on a Gutenburg press (so the words are backward).
The “Marginalia” to the side represents the popular custom in Gutenburg’s day of illuminating the margins of the bible with intricate artwork. This design was inspired by William Morris, the father of the Arts & Crafts movement. It was illustrated by Annapolis artist Rob Wood, and the pattern is repeated beautifully on the glass rails of the central stairs that reach up through the museum’s core.
The showstopper, however, is immediately after you walk through the door: lining the ceiling is a giant LED screen, made up of 555 panels that run 140 feet down the grand lobby.
I could have stood there all day, watching the screen change constantly, images morphing like a kaleidoscope from depictions of a papyrus, say, to stained glass, to the inside of a cathedral, to the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
For the meaning behind these elements and more, I toured the museum with its chief architect, David Greenbaum of SmithGroupJJR, which was also responsible for the National Museum of African American History and Culture; the White House Visitor’s Center; and the undulating glass ceiling above the courtyard at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
My friends in the design community well know that the original building once had a train trestle going right through it to unload produce and dry goods. You could see an outline in the brick exterior of the old design center from where the train entered on 4th Street. Greenbaum said his team exploited that opening, creating the long lobby along the tracks of where it would have come in, somewhere between the third and fourth floor.
In fact, he said, they decided to move the main entry to that old train opening to punctuate the 4th Street corridor, which acts as an axis between the National Building Museum and the Mall to the North, and Fort McNair to the South.
Steve Green, the museum’s chairman and head of the family that owns the building along with the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, told Greenbaum he wanted to incorporate the building’s previous iterations into the museum’s architecture. “We’re finding ways of taking the history of this building and embedding that into the history of this new building,” Greenbaum told me. So for those of us who know about the train, it’s nice to envision its past in the new lobby.
Nothing at all remains of the old configuration, of course—they gutted the building and took out every other design-center floor to give more height to each new exhibit floor—but they retained a single, low-ceilinged floor as it was in the design center (and the warehouse before it) for its Milk & Honey coffee shop, which looks out over the lobby.
The walls surrounding the coffee shop have 1930s WPA-style murals referencing the building’s history. Here’s the warehouse depiction:
And here’s the memorial to the design center, which incorporates actual photography from the showrooms along with the idealized depiction of the design trades:
Now, onto the Bible. The theme throughout this structure is dark to light, obscurity to clarity, just as we take our own moral path toward enlightenment. The bottom floors are clad with stone from Tunisia, Portugal and Jerusalem. As you rise up, the flooring turns to pale white oak, and the walls are punctuated with glass.
“I was not trying to be explicit in terms of the references,” Greenbaum said. But there is one interesting double entendre in the patchwork window walls that include both clear and frosted glass:
The frosted glass is both a reference to the old warehouse’s ice storage, in addition to the foggy beginning of our own journey to find clarity, which finds its form in the clear glass.
Another distinctive, rippled pattern repeats itself in many places here, which is a direct reference the “deckled edge” of the pages of ancient bibles. You can see it screening the top portions of the glass atrium:
You can also see the “deckled edge” pattern in the handmade bricks from Denmark that clad an outcropping of the museum’s exterior:
And they cover the acoustical panels outside the museum’s large theater:
“We were trying to find ways to make the architecture express the uniqueness of the mission,” Greenbaum said. If only all the museum’s visitors could hear him as they walk through this building, because none of this is overtly explained.
Other interesting references:
The World Stage theater approximates a tabernacle, which in the Old Testament is defined as a movable tent that was used for worship:
The museum’s restaurant, Manna (operated by Todd and Ellen Gray of the Equinox in DC): resembles a souk marketplace, where stalls are often sheltered with flowing canopies:
Are you tired of reading yet?? I could go on for a few more hours about the exhibits themselves, which include:
- An immersive, 40-minute walk through the Old Testament created by BRC, an Oscar-nominated Hollywood special effects firm;
- A “flying theater” created by Austrian firm Dynamic Motion Rides, where thanks to the wonders of CGI, you can “fly” through Washington to see the myriad places where biblical verses are inscribed;
- Galleries containing more than 500 Biblical texts and artifacts, including 200 Torah scrolls from the 17th through the 19th centuries;
- A biblical garden
You can read some great pieces in The Washington Post (here and here) and listen to this show on NPR’s 1A that delve deeply into the museum’s content and controversy, so I’m not going to attempt to replicate it here.
But if someone were to ask me if a Jewish person would feel comfortable walking through its doors, I would say yes. Jesus is most certainly not in your face like I imagined he would be, and I found many more Hebrew-related exhibits than I thought I would. And from a food perspective, the Grays who run Manna—which will feature foods represented in the Bible—are also authors of a cookbook called The New Jewish Table.
I thought the organizers did a nice job of separating the experiential exhibits: There is a lobby where you can choose to go through the door to the 12-minute movie about the New Testament, or you can avoid it. You can walk into the recreation of Nazareth in the time of Jesus—or not. A third door takes you into the Old Testament experience. You can also get a portable digital guide that takes you to the things you are interested in, so you can see what you want to see and avoid what you don’t.
Regardless of your religious world view, this place is so impressive from a design and architecture perspective, and for the casual (or non) church goer, you can’t help but learn more than you knew before about the most famous book in the world. So for that reason, go see it.
It’s free, though you need timed tickets. Click here to reserve—you can get tickets for as early as next week, but weekends are already booked through Dec. 23.