Holy Lands in the USA: from the Garden Tomb to Noah’s Ark

by Crispin Paine

[part 1 of 2]

Replicas and re-imaginings of the Holy Land have been found throughout the Christian world for well over a thousand years. Today most are to be found in the US: some modest back-garden sites, some multi-million dollar visitor attractions. Last year, thanks to a generous PEF grant, I visited eleven of them.

Typical of the little sites is ‘The Garden of Hope’, a two-acre rather scruffy garden in a suburban back street of working-class Covington, across the river from downtown Cincinnati. In 1938 a Southern Baptist minister, Rev. Morris Coers, visited the Holy Land, and was so moved by the Garden Tomb that he determined to build a replica back home. His Garden opened in 1958; it is now maintained by a local church and used for occasional services and weddings, as well as for informal visits (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The ‘Tomb of Christ’ at ‘The Garden of Hope’ (photo by C. Paine).

Besides the replica tomb, the Garden contains a ‘Carpenter’s Shop’, with chairs for meetings or services, a mural of a 19th (?) century Palestinian carpenter, old carpentry tools given by Ben Gurion, and an Israeli flag. It contains alsoa small chapel used for weddings, with ‘a stone from the Horns of Hatton [sic]’ on which the couple stands while exchanging vows. Oddly, this building is vaguely based on a 1620 Spanish Mission church. Other Garden attractions include stones from the River Jordan, from Solomon’s Temple, and from the Good Samaritan Inn. The Garden offers a splendid view over downtown Cincinnati; beside the viewpoint sits a statue of Christ giving the Sermon on the Mount, and behind is (a label informs us) a ’30 feet cross put up by angels during the night.’

At the opposite end of the scale is the Museum of the Bible in Washington, opened in November. I was generously given a preview, plus interviews with the Director and senior staff. The museum was founded by Steve Green, a phenomenally wealthy businessman, and costed some $500m. Before the opening it had attracted some very bad publicity, because his company has been successfully prosecuted for illegally importing looted Iraqi antiquities. The museum tried desperately to distance itself, but Green remains chairman of its Board.

The museum’s focus is on the Bible as a book, and tries to engage with its history, its stories, and its impact; I was assured that it doesn’t promote any one religion or doctrine, but every faith community is given its own voice; as the director put it, they “hope for harmony, like a choir.” Certainly Catholicism receives a lot of emphasis, as does the role of the Hebrew Bible in Judaism and Jewish tradition, but it was less clear that its role in Islam is noticed.

There are six floors. The top two floors are devoted to restaurant, theatre, Biblical Garden, meeting rooms and so on, and the ground floor to reception and orientation, children’s gallery, shop and library. Between are three floors of displays. The lowest is the ‘Impact Floor’, focussed on ‘the impact of the Bible on Society, Government and Culture,’ the middle floor is the ‘Narrative Floor’, focussed on stories from the Bible. The highest is the ‘History Floor’, devoted to the history of the Bible as a book, and the most object-rich of the galleries. The Holy Land will appear in numerous places, most notably in the Hebrew Bible Walk-through, and in a substantial reconstruction, ‘The Nazareth Jesus Knew”, with volunteer actors (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Building Nazareth at ‘The Bible Museum’, Washington (photo by C. Paine).

Though there are many concerns, the museum – if only thanks to its size – is going to be a game-changer for religion museums. It aims to be the most technologically advanced museum in the world; the budget for technology alone is $42m.

Two attractions on an almost similar scale have been set up by the Creationist ‘Answers in Genesis’ organisation near Cincinnati. They present not the Holy Land exactly, but stories from the Bible. The Creation Museum attracts over half a million visitors a year. It was opened in 2007 as a major theme-park/museum, with the aim of persuading visitors of the truth of fundamentalist Christianity, and that the Earth was created about 6,000 years ago. The museum’s highlights are certainly the Bible Walkthrough, with its elaborate dioramas of the Garden of Eden and the famous figures of Adam and Eve, and of small children playing with baby dinosaurs (Fig. 3), but equally engaging are the animatronic figures of Noah and his family.

Fig. 3: Dinosaurs at “The Creation Museum” (photo by C. Paine).

The second of Answers in Genesis’s attractions opened in July 2016, and received 1.2m visitors in its opening year. There are plans for a pre-flood walled city, first-century village, Tower of Babel and a journey illustrating the parting of the Red Sea, but the main attraction at present is the wooden replica of Noah’s Ark, 510 feet long and 51 feet high. It really is astonishing. The dramatic exterior is matched by the Piranesi-like views up through the three decks, the timberwork created by Amish craftsmen (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Inside ‘Ark Encounter’ (photo by C. Paine).

The displays mix up conventional displays on aspects of the flood (and some more widely presenting Creationist theory) and reconstructions of animal cages and the living quarters of Noah’s family (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: One of Noah’s disaffected workers, at ‘Ark Encounter’ (photo by C. Paine).

 

 

 

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