Bible Society’s New Philadelphia Museum Tells American History with a Religious Lean
The first iteration of Independence Mall was such a dud that many blocks along the park went untapped for years and then ended up becoming sites for high-security government offices. But after the mall was renovated in the early 2000s with more greenery and a new visitor center, the three-block expanse became a popular destination for specialist museums keen to partner with the ideals. founders of the nation. Now everyone wants a place in the mall to tell their side of American history.
This summer, Faith and Freedom Discovery Center became the mall’s latest star-seeking attraction, joining the Jewish National Museum and the President’s House Memorial to Enslaved Africans. The center was created by the American Bible Society, the organization responsible for storing Bibles in nightstands in hotel rooms around the world. The Bible Society had long been headquartered in New York City, but decided to move its operations to Philadelphia in 2015 when offices overlooking the Fifth and Market mall became available. As part of the deal, the company also obtained the rights to the ground floor of the building.
The Bible Society immediately knew they wanted to expand their mission by opening an exhibition space around the corner. In addition to distributing thousands of Bibles in dozens of languages, the company had amassed an impressive collection of historical Bibles, including the one used by William Penn. What better place to present its history, the group thought, than the city where Penn established a colony based on religious tolerance and where the American Republic was born.
»READ MORE: American Bible Society’s Faith and Freedom Discovery Center opens across from Independence Mall
While the location was great, the space was a challenge. While Fifth and Market should be a welcoming gateway to the Old Town, the dismal 1970s office building has turned its back on the mall. The downstairs retail space, which once housed a bank, was hidden behind a dark archway and the views were blocked by an oversized SEPTA entrance. It didn’t help that the Jewish Museum, just across the street, was built in 2010 with an equally unappealing ground floor. This museum, designed by James Polshek, doesn’t even have a door to the mall and looks as fortified and austere as the US Mint, just up the street.
After a complete renovation of the ground floor, the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center began operating at full capacity on Independence Day. The Bible Society doesn’t want you to think of the center as a museum of Christianity or a museum of religion – or even a museum at all. The goal, according to director Pat Murdock, is to show how religious faith of all kinds has shaped America’s basic operating system and remains the bulwark of all our freedoms.
While this premise may appeal to some ardent believers, most mainstream historians would argue that this claim distorts and oversimplifies American history and is at odds with the founders’ efforts to keep religion out of the discussion. But because the Faith and Liberty Center preaches a message of tolerance – something that’s welcome in these polarized times – I couldn’t wait to see how it linked its exhibits to the mall’s evolving narrative and used them to activate this corner. dead.
With the help of architect David Searles of JacobsWyper Architects and Local projects, the exhibition designer responsible for the National September 11 Memorial, the company greatly enhanced the building’s street presence. The corner is still covered in SEPTA stairs, including one that has been inexplicably styled with AstroTurf. But now a sloping walkway leads from Market Street to a gleaming glass entrance pavilion on Fifth Street. The path is lined with benches which invite passers-by to relax. At the glass pavilion, a swirling white sculpture nicknamed Lighthouse emerges from the roof, helping to mark the place. At night, the sculpture, designed by Local Projects, becomes a real beacon. The corner almost feels alive for the first time.
Almost, but not quite. Like all of the other attractions that have taken root in the mall (with the exception of the open-air President’s House), the Faith and Liberty Center needs darkness to run its high-tech exhibits. As a result, two of the three bays in the building facing the shopping center on Fifth Street were covered with white panels. Searles arranged them in a curved shape to make the panels more interesting. But a white wall remains a white wall.
These boarded up windows say a lot about the entire company. Just as the centre’s facade isn’t as transparent as it should be, neither are its exhibits.
As soon as you arrive at the box office, you are given a digital wand and encouraged to anoint (er, type) your favorite texts and images, just like you would light a candle in a church. It is not just a sign of approval. By touching the wand on the text panels, you can download the information to your computer after leaving the museum. Just as the company places Bibles in hotel rooms, it now has the ability to place these exhibits directly into your personal digital space. Like Facebook and Google, the Bible Society is eager to collect your metadata.
Despite the company’s biblical collection, books are not the main show. In fact, you can barely see them because the lighting has to be low for the interactive displays in the center. As you enter the main hall, you are greeted by a series of video interviews with ordinary people who tell their personal stories around the faith; it is the technological version of witnessing in a church. The exhibit ends in a circular theater where the exhibit’s designers recreated William Penn’s stormy journey across the Atlantic on the Welcome ship, with virtual rats scurrying under your feet.
The Bible Society has gone to great lengths to ensure that exhibits appear non-denominational and include non-Christian religions. Murdock told me he wanted people of all faiths to feel comfortable at the center. So you won’t find the name Jesus anywhere in the center. Quotes from Ben Franklin and James Madison – two skeptics of organized religion who called themselves deists – abound. In a section titled “Changemakers,” there are tributes to Catholic, Jewish and Black social justice activists including Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Sojourner Truth and Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia. Yet despite all the ecumenism and the struggle for inclusion, the framing and choice of words struck me, a non-Christian, as deeply Christian.
Much of the story told at the center revolves around Penn, a devout Quaker whose great contribution to American life has been his belief that people should be free to worship any faith they choose. By invoking Penn, the Bible Society attempts to equate faith with tolerance. Of course, we know that faith is just as often used to justify intolerance. The Bible Society itself has recently started requiring employees to adhere to a strict set of conservative evangelical mores, making it impossible for members of the LGBTQ community to work in it openly. Nonetheless, the exhibits assert that all the freedoms Americans hold dear today stem from freedom of religion. Without faith in a higher force, they claim, there would be no America.
It’s not exactly the standard story. “The story they tell is essentially a fairy tale,” said Jonathan zimmerman, professor of educational history at Penn.
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One might as well argue that America was born in response to the rationalist and humanistic ideas of the Enlightenment. Or that American tolerance is a product of our mercantile culture, as practiced by the Dutch in New Amsterdam. This is the thesis of the excellent history of New York by Russell Shorto, The island at the center of the world. In this proto-capitalist era, only the Benjamins counted. The French political philosopher Montesquieu also observed the strong link between trade and the desire for freedom.
Either way, America’s record on tolerating non-white, non-Protestant groups is quite poor. The Faith and Liberty Center could never have moved to Boston, Zimmerman noted, because the founding Puritans “were very intolerant” of all other religions.
To its credit, the center recognizes the many sins America has committed in the name of faith and the Bible, from the slaughter of Native Americans and slavery, to anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic bigotry. But the contrition of the center is woefully insufficient. From the examples presented, you might be forgiven for thinking that we gave up our intolerant habits at the end of the 19th century. Like everything else in the exhibit, the facts are generously handpicked to support the centre’s narrative. There is no mention of 20th century efforts to suppress Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists and members of the LGBTQ community, or current efforts in cities across the country. use zoning to prevent American Muslims from building mosques.
It may not be a museum of Christianity, but it is a museum of Judeo-Christianity. On the centre’s website, its exhibition manager, Alan Crippen, argues that “the Good Book has been an influential and positive spiritual source and cultural force for what is good in America.” Sadly, this leaves out a large number of Americans whose religions do not use the Bible as the basis of their teachings, let alone those who identify as atheists. Marci Hamilton, a constitutional law scholar who began her career as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, told the Inquirer earlier this year that “the Bible did not play the part. disproportionate that they are trying to give him ”.
By being located opposite the Jewish Museum, the Faith and Freedom Center tries to put the two attractions on the same level. There is a big difference, however. The Jewish Museum simply suggests that American democracy created the conditions that allowed immigrant Jews to flourish. The Faith and Freedom Center asserts that religious faith, mostly Christian in type, is what made our democracy possible in the first place.
For all of its flaws, America has come to be more tolerant than most nations and with a greater commitment to freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion. But if you want to understand why, you’d better walk to the other end of the mall and visit the National Constitution Center.