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The Museum of the Bible Connects Faith and Science: Interview with Dr. Jeff Kloha and Anthony Schmidt

Modern museums serve as preservers of heritage, custodians of history and culture, and hubs of education and research. Museums are a medium with storage for digitized information, connecting peoples from various times, cultures, societies, and countries. Museums used to stay within their walls, now they reach across the world. While most modern museums invite guests to transform the way we engage with art, history, culture, and one another, faith-themed museums offer something unique. Through dialogues and listening to the insights of faith traditions, these museums invite guests to reflect on who we are as humans and how to preserve the essence of our existence.

The Museum of the Bible (the Museum) 1 in Washington, D.C. is one of the world’s leading Bible-themed museums. Following the recent success of the special exhibit: Scripture and Science: Our Universe, Ourselves, Our Place, the Museum will host a two-day workshop, on July 25-26 2, featuring speakers from faith and science communities, including Dr. Mark Graves, a Research Fellow and Director at AI & Faith and a Research Associate Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. This workshop will examine the rapidly evolving field of AI and its implications for Bible translation and interpretation. In this article, the Museum’s two scholar-curatorial leaders: Dr. Jeff Kloha, Chief Curatorial Officer, and Dr. Anthony Schmidt, Director of Collections and Curatorial, share their insights about the Museum serving as a connector of human experience through the Bible, the evolution of museology through digitalization, and the work ahead in museology at the intersection of AI and faith.

The Museum, a connector of human experience through the Bible

The Museum offers an immersive experience of exploring the history, impact, and timeless narratives of the Bible, woven into human existence spanning 4,000 years. Dr. Jeff Kloha, a bible scholar with expertise in the textual and canonical history of the early Christian writings, hermeneutics, and the Pauline Epistles 3 says, “…the Bible is a cultural object and the history of the manuscript tradition. Most people have a connection to the Bible, whether it is a faith connection, or they are interested in ancient culture or a connection to the narratives from the Bible.” Their exhibitions and programs are not aimed at a specific perspective or faith tradition or theological understanding. Through partnership with the Israel Antiquities Authority 4, the Museum has the largest exhibition of the archaeology of Israel outside Israel. Similarly, the Museum is an outpost of the biblical manuscript collections of the Vatican Museum and the Vatican Library. The Museum displays the timeless broad impact of the Bible globally and the historical co-existence and conflicts between religions and between Christianity and states. Dr. Kloha describes a few examples showcased at the Museum: an exhibition on the return to its rightful owners of Manuscript 18, a copy of the four canonical Gospels in Greek on parchment produced in the 1100s; and the exhibition of the people who lived and worshiped the Christian God in Nagorno-Karabakh 5; and the Samaritans: A Biblical People, an exhibition in collaboration with the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, which assembled paintings, manuscripts, ritual objects and significant archaeological discoveries from a biblical and rabbinic community that still exists today in the modern world 6. Dr. Kloha observes that other exhibitions propel visitors to reflect on what their faith means and motivate them to learn more. For example, the special exhibition about the Shroud of Turin, believed by millions of Christians to be the burial cloth of Jesus 7, helped visitors to explore the Catholic tradition and what the Shroud means to people across the centuries. Located in the capital of the United States, the Museum also traces the role of the Bible in American society, history, from colonial times to the present day. The Bible continues to play a key role in social and political movements, public discourse, literature, moral traditions and values, connecting peoples from various times, cultures, societies, and countries beyond their walls. The Museum connects their experience through the Bible.

The evolution of museology through digitalization

Driven by its mission to be one of the most technologically advanced and engaging museums, the Museum broke the norm of keeping artifacts out of reach. Its interactive exhibits allow visitors to touch a replica of a 14th-century illuminated manuscript in a 3D reproduction and enable visually impaired visitors to maximize their opportunities for information gathering, orientation, mobility, engagement, and empowerment. The Museum pivoted to digital content during the pandemic, expanding to include those who might be geographically or socio-economically disadvantaged. Digitalization addresses language barriers, too. Dr. Kloha adds: “We are still in the early phases of digitalization. Overall impetus is simply the way people are accessing information now. They are accessing content on their phones, not even on computers anymore.”

Digitalization is revolutionizing the museum landscape, ranging from collection management, immersive experiences for visitors, knowledge exchange, research collaboration, and community engagement. In addition to the traditional physical and online exhibitions, the Museum is pioneering in the development of online learning space and community dialogues for deeper engagement with visitors. This is due in part to their commitment to bring their exhibitions to where visitors are and address equity issues. The Museum proactively engages with partners and peoples representing the cultural knowledge and narratives behind the collections and has successfully mitigated many challenges. Digitization of museum collections also presents ethical challenges about intellectual property rights such as copyright, ownership, and licensing. Collection management, particularly authentication of collections, can be optimized through digitization. Implementing digital solutions means more work. It requires coordinated resource management of technical infrastructures, skilled professionals, data security, and agile development and management of interoperable systems. Currently, the Museum holds approximately 55,000 objects. This creates unique challenges for digitalization efforts at the Museum.

The work ahead at the intersection of AI and faith

AI technologies can enhance visitor interactions such as AI-generated chatbots, automatic translations, and visitor analytics. However, integration of AI into the realm of museology is still in its early phases, requiring a fine balance between innovation and preservation. AI-generated holograms of biblical figures for interactive exhibitions and chatbots that provide museum guests with an immersive experience may be examples of innovation. Dr. Schmidt, a scholar of American religion focused on the cultural construction of orthodoxy in 19th and 20th century Christianity, adds, “there is something special about talking with a curator who has been studying an object for years and knows that object like the back of his or her hand. There is something big in that knowledge. I have seen it on the floor, in our galleries. There is a place for AI to be incorporated, but there are limits.” AI brings immense opportunities and potential challenges to provider and guest experiences for museums. It is timely to reflect on what human relationships, knowledge, and experiences have brought to museology, particularly at faith-themed museums.

The Museum has been at the forefront of enriching dialogues between science and faith and their respective communities. For the exhibition: Scripture and Science: Our Universe, Ourselves, Our Place, in partnership with the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) 8, an international community and fellowship of Christians engaged in the interface of faith and science, the Museum delved into the historical relationship between science and religion, and conveyed the message that biblical theology played a significant role in the development of science and our understanding of the world around us. The Museum is well-positioned to bring together both technical and biblical experts to generate wisdom on AI and the Bible as a technological and cultural phenomenon.

Yuriko Ryan

is a bioethicist-gerontologist with over 20 years of international experience in healthcare ethics and policy research. Based in Vancouver, Canada, she holds a Doctorate in Bioethics from Loyola University of Chicago and is a certified Healthcare Ethics Consultant (HEC-C). She is a contributing writer/member of the AI and Faith Editorial Board. She writes on AI Ethics, Public Health Ethics, Business Ethics, and Healthcare Ethics.

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