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Grand Narrative

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


SmithGroup, David Greenbaum, Lead Designer  
Photography by Alan Karchmer and Alex Fradkin  
Museum of the Bible
by Camille LeFevre

The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., designed by SmithGroup’s offices in our nation’s capital and in Detroit, has been lauded for establishing a new model for museum design in the United States. Located just off the National Mall, where an array of iconic Smithsonian and National museums offer destination-worthy adventures in art, science and history, the Museum of the Bible (MOTB) is equally impressive, as it projects a presence of, well, biblical proportions that suits its subject matter. 

The eight-level, 430,000-square-foot, brick-and-glass building, which SmithGroup created within the footprint of a former refrigerated warehouse that later served as Washington’s Design Center, is dedicated to the history, impact and narratives of the Bible. Each aspect receives its own floor of exhibits put forth via traditional approaches, as well as through technological and digital innovations that create engaging, immersive educational experiences. 

MOTB also includes a vast atrium lobby, 12 theaters, three exhibition halls, a rare-manuscript library, a conference facility with simultaneous-translation capabilities, a broadcast studio, hotel rooms for visiting scholars, a restaurant and a coffee shop, and a grand ballroom. MOTB has galleries that accommodate displays from visiting institutions such as the Vatican Library and the Israeli Antiquities Authority, thus creating, in effect, a “museum of museums.” MOTB, as The Washington Post stated, is “rich in content, stocked with historic treasures and carefully plotted to appeal to audiences of all ages.” 

The business behind MOTB, however, has raised some eyebrows. It was funded by and has utilized, continued the Post, “the sophisticated marketing intelligence of the Oklahoma City-based Green family, who have used a fortune made from the Hobby Lobby retail chain to promote evangelical Christian causes.” As Curbed D.C. noted, the “Museum of the Bible has opened its doors to the public, and there is so much to look forward to (and maybe be cautious about). The museum, headed by Hobby Lobby President Steve Green, has gained much notice from the public as well as many criticisms and questions.” 

What can’t be disputed are the methods through which MOTB tells its stories, due in large part to SmithGroup’s grasp on the ways in which material, color and lighting technologies can create compelling narratives. “In our museum work, we always craft a strong visitor experience that’s sequential, beginning with the moment you arrive at the front door,” says David Greenbaum, Lead Designer, SmithGroup. 

The design team created the imposing main entrance from a tall opening (filled in during previous renovations) originally used as a train portal. Colossally scaled, milled-brass panels inspired by typesetting blocks from the original Gutenberg printing of the Bible frame the entrance, which is punctuated by a stained-glass window depicting a portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll. Programmable LED lighting at the entrance illuminates and animates the stained glass. At the top of the building, a curvilinear, two-story, glass-and-metal rooftop addition, with a dramatic prow projecting over the entry façade, evokes an ark floating above the city. 

Inside the main entrance (a former train loading bay) is a luminous marble atrium. Embedded in the 40-foot-high, 140-foot-long ceiling is a LED display, which can be programmed to change color or intensity, depending on the time of day or ambience desired. Footlights in Jerusalem columns generate a visual rhythm leading to the airy vertical circulation core. Etched patterns on glass railings in the circulation space, abstracted from the marginalia in illustrated manuscripts, evoke biblical places and stories. 

On the second floor, exhibitions concentrate on “The Impact of the Bible.” Displays trace the history of the Bible in America, from the first colonial settlers to the 21st century, while exploring the impact of the book on culture in the United States and the Bible’s global influence. This section also includes a room animated with a live, digital feed of data and news about the Bible around the world, and a “flying” tour of biblical references in and around Washington, D.C. 

The third floor is dedicated to “The Stories of the Bible.” Here, guests walk through a digitally enhanced “tunnel” in which they encounter stories from the Hebrew Bible, including Noah’s ark and Passover. Another space recreates first-century Nazareth, replete with trees and stone homes in which every detail was hand-painted by the exhibit designer. The New Testament Theater offers a 270-degree theater experience that introduces visitors to the story of how the followers of Jesus grew into a thriving community. 

The fourth floor investigates “The History of the Bible” as a historical object, from early stone tablets and teachings on papyrus, to the hand-written bibles created by monks, to the printing press, through the book’s translations into many languages and its availability on mobile devices. On this level, exhibitions include an automobile “drive” through the places and events of the Bible; a reading room in which guests can listen to stories; and a showcase in which translations are illuminated through light, sound and the written word. 

On the fifth and sixth floors, the addition’s glass-enclosed promenade provides visitors with stunning views of Washington, D.C. Guests can browse a long-term exhibition from the Israeli Antiquities Authority featuring archaeological discoveries. The grand gathering space and ballroom are lit with chandeliers designed and fabricated in Prague. In the 472-seat World Theater, says Greenbaum, “Our concept was a tabernacle tent in the desert. Using programmable LEDs and a variety of house and stage lights, visitors can experience the sun rising and setting between the creases of the ‘tent fabric’.” 

SmithGroup also reimagined traditional museum amenities to reinforce a broader cultural experience. The design of the restaurant, Manna, on the sixth floor, was inspired by Middle Eastern street food. “The idea was to evoke a Souk marketplace,” Greenbaum explains, “so we incorporated a sky-lit scrim system similar to what you’d see in an outdoor market with sunlight piercing through the fabric.” The restaurant also relates to the Biblical Garden on the rooftop terrace. Designed by Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, the garden serves as a green respite in the city, while exploring biblical themes through horticultural and aquatic elements. 

In the Milk + Honey Café, located on the mezzanine, SmithGroup placed panels with images and text interpreting the building’s former use, and installed LED filament bulbs to bring back the feeling of the old warehouse. “The lighting and décor came out of discussions with the historic-preservation review board during renovations as a way to ensure the spirit of the building lives on,” Greenbaum says. 

The architects worked closely with the exhibition content team to insert the necessary infrastructure for the advanced lighting and technological features, along with a low-profile raised-flooring system that facilitates the rapid changeover of exhibitions. Careful coordination was also required to ensure that fire and life-safety components were integrated into long-term exhibition galleries, without compromising the immersive atmosphere of each experience. 

The structure and envelope of the highly sculptural rooftop addition, whose bold asymmetry plays off the subtler asymmetry of the existing structure, required several innovative design solutions. The curtain wall lining the transparent, northern portion of the addition was engineered to support the floor between the addition’s two levels. Exposed steel elements were coated in 3/4-inch-thick intumescent paint in order to meet fire codes while maintaining relatively slender structural ribs. The opaque southern side of the addition, which houses large-volume black-box spaces, is surrounded by a double-shell, metal-clad roof designed to optimize thermal performance and reduce maintenance needs over the long term. 

The design team accomplished these feats on a tight urban site, largely within the confines of an existing building. Dedicated to one of the world’s oldest texts, the new museum is resolutely modern, incorporating striking architectural forms and cutting-edge technologies. The building avoids the easy, literal symbolism that is often associated with biblical representation, in favor of rich but subtle allusions that live in such thoughtful details as: a hand-formed brick wall that references the Wailing Wall; the theme of ascension that guides visitors into areas of increasing illumination as they move upward in the building; and decorative fittings in the acoustic panels that mimic book edges. 

The finished project, which has been winning awards for design and lighting, is a palimpsest—the built equivalent of a manuscript that bears traces of several versions of text added and erased over time. “Our goal was to provide a resonant experience in an uplifting setting that conveys messages through architecture, lighting and a variety of immersive experiences,” Greenbaum says. “While MOTB may not appeal to everyone, we’ve found that those who visit are surprised and have revelatory, memorable experiences. For us, that’s a sign of success.”

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