Old City Bible museum readies for opening

The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center highlights 22 “changemakers” who were inspired by their belief in the Bible.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

In less than a week, Philadelphia’s newest museum, the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, will open at 5th and Market streets in Old City.

Tickets are on sale — at $10 a piece for adults — and Patrick Murdock, the center’s executive director, said groups have already booked trips.

The $60 million museum, an initiative of the American Bible Society, which is headquartered in the same building, had been in the works for six years, and its launch was delayed until May 1 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

FLDC’s high-tech halls, which feature more screens than artifacts, draw connections between the Bible and the nation’s founding principles and highlight the religiosity of prominent Americans.

“The thesis statement is that faith guides liberty toward justice,” said Alan Crippen, the center’s chief of exhibits.

Questions and concerns, over the museum’s content as well as the bible society’s hiring process, have persisted since the project was announced.

All FLDC and ABS staff are required to sign a “statement of faith” as part of the pre-employment process. The document includes a promise to avoid sex outside of a marriage, which it defines as a union between a man and a woman, according to Religion News Service and Inquirer reporting.

“It’s an individual decision, and it’s completely self-enforced,” Mary Gendron, an FLDC spokesperson, said.

Representatives from the center also stressed that the museum is not an attempt to convert visitors or misrepresent history

“We’re not about proselytizing,” Murdock said during a tour of the facility. “This is a real part of our story, of America, and you should probably know about it, even if you don’t believe in the Bible.”

He said a team of historians were enlisted to vet content and make suggestions. Sections of the museum cover how the Bible was used to justify slavery and denying women the right to vote.

Murdock emphasized that FLDC is simply adding another dimension of American history that fits alongside nearby institutions such as the Constitution Center, the National Museum of American Jewish History and the African American Museum.

“It’s a little bit of a hidden, maybe a lost dimension of the story, and that’s part of why we wanted to kind of bring it to life,” he said.

Patrick Murdock, executive director of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, holds up the “lamp,” an interactive tool visitors use inside the museum. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

The 40,000-square-foot museum is divided into six sections based on a value — faith, liberty, justice, hope, unity and love.

Visitors are given a baton, known as a “lamp,” which they can touch to content within the exhibits that resonates with them. Information from the lamp is used to create a personalized website and design souvenirs at the gift shop.

Murdock said the lamps can also interact with video boards. In the 360-degree theater, museum-goers use it to navigate a story that starts with William Penn being locked up inside the Tower of London.

Penn is a recurring character in the museum, which features a Bible he owned among its 65 artifacts. Other notable pieces include Helen Keller’s Bible, purchasing papers for the Liberty Bell and evangelist Billy Graham’s sermon notes.

However, the items, all of which are on loan, are not FLDC’s focus.

“A lot of museums are 90% artifact and 10% media, and we’re just the opposite,” Murdock said. “Artifacts aren’t really winning the day with today’s culture. They want media. They want story.”

The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is displaying a Bible owned by William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

One large exhibit highlights 22 “changemakers,” prominent Americans who were motivated by their faith. Martin Luther King Jr., Katherine Drexel and Richard Allen are a few of those who were selected.

A domed structure provides space for people to reflect, with a variety of piped-in music and Bible readings voiced by Johnny Cash.

Booths offer visitors the chance to record themselves weighing in with their thoughts to a specific prompt. Murdock said they will be asked to submit their two-minute clip to FLDC’s archives.

Small theatrical productions will be held on a stage that has been built in the outdoor walkway between the museum and the Mikev Israel synagogue.

Later this week, FLDC will debut a cellphone app with 13 trails connecting historic and religious sites in Old City and elsewhere.

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