The Museum of the Bible opened last week in a new home designed by Washington, D.C.–based SmithGroupJJR. The museum occupies a renovated 1922 former refrigerated warehouse that later served as Washington’s Design Center, and will comprise a large glass addition meant to evoke an ancient boat (or perhaps ark) floating above the city. In a prepared statement, the designers call it “a palimpsest: the built equivalent of a manuscript that bears traces of several versions of text added and erased over time.”
At the main entrance of the eight-level, 430,000-square-foot building, a tall, narrow opening originally used for trains has been restored and is flanked by two large bronze panels inspired by typesetting blocks from the original Gutenberg Bible. It refers to one of the main curatorial concepts of the museum: that the meaning and interpretation of the Bible are historically dependent on its means of production and dissemination.
The designers removed several floor slabs added during an earlier renovation to open up the industrial cargo area into a tall atrium that, the designers say, suggests the nave of a Gothic or Renaissance church. The circulation paths are arranged in a vertical hub-and-spoke model that allows visitors to choose their own adventure, rather than make their way along a fixed vertical path as is the case in many multi-level museums, especially those on tight urban sites. The hall now serves as both an orientation and gathering place, while also providing access to the adjacent museum shop and the cafe on a mezzanine above. The new construction sits atop the original industrial brick structure.
In the exhibition spaces, removable raised flooring gives curators flexibility, while “digital docents” will be available as either a priest or a rabbi. The museum also includes 12 theatres, a 475-seat performing arts venue, conference amenities, biblical garden, rare manuscript library, a 450-seat ballroom, spaces for scholarly research, and hotel rooms for visiting scholars.
The museum will be visible from the National Mall when looking down 4th Street, and it hovers above an existing Metro train line and also adds to an axis along 4th Street that includes the National Building Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Air & Space Museum.
The museum opened to the public last Friday, November 17.