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In depth

Museum of the Bible, putting faith in technology

Is the new Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington DC in November 2017, the most technologically advanced museum in the world?

Incorporating sophisticated AR and a unique indoor navigation and geofencing technique, the Museum of the Bible allows visitors to devise a personalised experience, utilising cutting-edge tech to educate rather than evangelise.

While the museum’s opening was shadowed by some controversy around artefact provenance, visitor numbers are exceeding projected figures. With one of the largest collections of biblical artefacts and texts in the world, the huge 430,000 sq ft institution is impressing on a global scale.

Profile photo of Cary Summers
Cary Summers

President and CEO Cary Summers, former CEO of the Herschend Family Entertainment group, spoke with Blooloop about the ambitious enterprise, while Kurt Martin, Museum of the Bible Director of Software Development, outlined the technology.

Summers studied math, physics, aerospace and analytical engineering at the University of Texas. He then moved first into retail, where he was president of Abercrombie and Fitch, and then the theme park world. For him, this is something of a passion project. On retiring 21 years ago, he formed the Nemeniah Group. He told Blooloop: “It allowed me to focus on the concept of building ‘attractions’, or special travelling exhibits. And that would attract people who had never set foot in a church.

That is what has led me for the last 20 years to be heavily involved in the Bible world, and with antiquities and artefacts.”

Bringing the Museum of Bible to life

Exterior photo of the Museum of the Bible

Describing the Museum of the Bible’s inception, he explains: “There are hundreds of Bible museums around the world. However, there has never been one of such a large scope and a global nature. There have been discussions over a period of time about building a Bible museum of a scope that would attract a lot of attention. One of the families that was inspired with that concept was the Green family out of Oklahoma City. They have a rich and wonderful history of supporting projects that involve the Bible, so that is how this came about.”

The Green family, owners of Oklahoma City-based craft retailer Hobby Lobby and Christian education and supply company Mardel, has amassed one of the world’s largest private collections of rare biblical texts and artefacts.

The museum has three main exhibit floors, lecture and meeting spaces, as well as restaurants. It also has a rooftop garden, a ballroom and a 472-seat theatre with wraparound projection walls. It has drawn some media criticism for a perceived unwillingness to engage with contradictory narratives, or to exhibit critical thinking. Summers says: “We are not trying to split hairs on some of these very controversial topics; there are other people that do that very well, and more power to them.”

Photo of the theater at the Museum of the Bible

On encouraging meaningful investigation

Entrance to the Museum of the Bible with biblical texts on both sides
Gutenberg Gates at the Museum of the Bible

“We are simply trying to encourage people to investigate the book. We are not trying to push one version over another, or Protestantism over Catholicism, for example. And I think because of that we gain the trust of the various faith traditions. One group told us that we are honest brokers of the Bible.”

The process of building the museum took several years. “First we tested the concept, travelling the United States with mobile exhibits; then we hired a company to identify the best city, which is how we ended up in Washington DC. It took several months to find a location. Then, last year, in November, we opened the Museum of the Bible.”

Its reception, Summers says, was interesting: “We had a tremendous amount of press before we opened. Most of it inaccurate, because there was no way to compare what we were doing. Even though we had detailed renderings and delivered it exactly how we showed it, there was a lot of speculation. Then there was also a perception that it would not be a serious scholastic effort, and that was totally wrong.

However, he continues: “Once the media was able to come in, we had over 4000 articles written, filmed, and broadcast about the museum, reaching 8 billion people. Most of them then started getting it right.

So it’s been a very interesting launch.”

An unexpected demographic and a museum for all faiths

Over the months since opening, visitor numbers have far exceeded expectations. Children formed an unexpectedly large proportion of the demographic, due to the institution’s sophisticated technology.

Summers says: “We have had over a hundred different nationalities come through. There were representatives of the various faith traditions, and we had a wonderful recognition from the international community through their embassies here in Washington DC, who have held functions here.

The mix is about 65% female, which we had predicted, based on our travelling exhibits. However, the surprise has been the number of children. Some days we’re just overwhelmed with the number of young people in the museum.”

Child visitor standing in front of exhibition with Hebrew texts

Technologically interactive

He adds: “We are the most technologically advanced museum in the world. That will change, but right now, we are it. And the young people love the interactions: we have over 54 video vignettes, 12 theatres, and handheld devices. They can key in how much time they want to spend, the topics they want to see, and the device tracks them. It also gives them a map they can follow, correcting them if they are getting off course.

museum of the bible logoThat is a big motivator for everybody. Most certainly for an age group that lives and breathes within an electronic world.”

The museum is non-evangelical, presenting the Bible as an important cultural document, exploring its history and influence. “We took a position when we opened the museum that it would be non-sectarian. We are not trying to promote any particular denomination, and we are not trying to sell you anything. The museum has been described by many people who would say they are of no faith as a ‘safe haven’. They feel comfortable coming in; they can learn and investigate, so we have really accomplished what we set out to do.

We think the Bible can stand on its own two feet.”

Visitors exploring the exhibit with a bell located in the middle
The Bible in America Exhibit in the Museum of the Bible

So much more than religious texts

Summers lists the three aspects presented:

  • “The impact of the Bible: what is it doing throughout the world? How is the US founded upon the Bible? What role does the Bible play?
  • The history of the Bible in translation; how did it get translated? How did it get transmitted, distributed?
  • Then the stories of the Bible, which are primarily divided between the Hebrew texts which most refer to as the old Testament, and the New Testament.”

A number of education strategies engage the young: “We have a tablet-based AR ‘Bible Curriculum’. It is a material we have created around the impact of the narrative and history of the Bible. This will be customised per country. It’s being beta tested in Israel, and will be introduced into the United Kingdom later this year. It is also being translated into Spanish, and will be distributed in Spanish speaking countries. There is also a paper-based version.

Then we have the Scholar’s Initiative. We have about 60 universities around the world to which we send either artefacts or high-resolution pictures. They do research for us, then we help them publish their research. We have programs that help college-age kids with scholarships to investigate the Bible with time in Israel, or in Oxford, one of the key facilities, along with Cambridge, that we use every year.”

Visitors reading the information about the Translation exhibit at the Museum of the Bible

“There is also education within the museum.”

Summers continues: “Firstly, regular symposia or lectures. Next, a program to bring young people here on field trips. And thirdly, we have a college program which involves university students coming in for periods ranging from one to ninety day. They will be as interns, taking on research projects here in the museum itself.”

Current exhibitions at the museum include: ‘Sacred Drama: Performing the Bible in Renaissance Florence’; ‘Noblewomen and the Bible: Seven Stories from the House of Stolberg’, which explores the role of the Bible in the lives of seven noblewomen from one of Germany’s oldest dynasties; and ‘Jerusalem and Rome: Cultures in Context in the First Century CE’.

Visitors in Virtual Reality tour of "Crossing the Jordan River"

“We built this museum with the idea that we would have a constant array of exhibitions coming in, and can accommodate up to six at one time, allowing us to have different focuses.  We have a partnership with the Vatican Museum and Library; they have a long-term space here, as does the Israel Antiquity Authority.”

He adds: “Our next venture in the middle of August will be a virtual reality tour of Bible locations in Israel.”

Technology in the Museum of the Bible

Profile photo of Kurt Martin
Kurt Martin

Kurt Martin, Director of Software Development, started his own software business in 2000. He sold the business in 2006, staying on as president. Martin then worked as a contractor, doing “some really cool stuff for the air force”, before joining the Museum of the Bible in 2015.

He described the technology that is leading the field in terms of museum experiences, most notably a ground-breaking indoor navigation technology that is accurate to within 6 inches, guiding users to exact locations and which can be used to provide detailed information on the artefact under scrutiny.

Technology has been approached in terms of three ‘pillars’: personalisation, navigation and accessibility. He explains: “I have been involved from the get-go in the digital guide, which provides personalisation, navigation, and accessibility features. It is, if you will, a digital docent.

We have developed its very accurate indoor navigation using technology called Ultra WideBand. We are able to detect the position of everybody in the museum with one of these digital guides.”

Utilizing the DecaWave DW1000 UWB chip, the insurmountable issues of different location technologies  – GPS, for example, which can’t penetrate the thick museum walls – are avoided. The Museum of the Bible is the only provider of this technology at this point. Martin adds that: “There is special hardware on the device itself as well as a network inside the museum that tells us the location. It is a constant back-and-forth.

Personalisation and Accessibility

From a personalisation standpoint, visitors can choose what galleries that they want. They click a button, and navigate from spot to spot, learning some really cool, interesting side and back stories related to the artefacts in the museum. When they finish a gallery, they navigate to the next spot. The other part of that is, from the language perspective, we are in the process of translating all the content into ten different languages overall.

We have text panels related to artefacts throughout the museum, and if you don’t speak English, you can focus the digital guide on the text, press a button, and it will play that text on screen for you [in your own language], which is a very cool feature.”

Accessibility, the third ‘pillar’, is still in development. One unprecedented feature for the visually impaired will convert the map of the museum to a list. “If the visually impaired guest walks into an area, the device, using standard Google Talkback, will read off those items that are nearby. When the guest hears one that interests them, they talk back, and it will automatically play the information about the artefacts.”

Geofences have been drawn so that if people walk into a certain location, the device will be tuned to a channel. This channel will then play audio content in that area, stopping when they move out.

VR and AR experiences to look forward to in the future

Speaking of features to come, Martin says: “We are working with a company to provide some VR experiences. That should be opening up in the next month or two. We also have big plans for an entire VR-driven theatre that will probably happen next year. In terms of augmented reality /AR, we are working on developing AR experiences for adults. There is already a kids’ track, where we have gamified their tour. It’s a really nice implementation.”

There is, he adds, one further feature launching soon. This feature will enable visitors to personalise their journey so the experience becomes almost infinitely repeatable:

“We have seven large touch tables in the lobby. You will be able to put your device on the table, which will recognise you. An interface will appear, giving an insight into the galleries and floors of the museum. This will allow you, from the table, to personalise your tour, dragging the artefacts you want to see onto your device. Then you begin your tour.”

All images courtesy of DeMoss.

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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