Ken McKenzie: Museum Lets the Bible Speak for Itself

Source: Alan Karchmer

Ken McKenzie is the CEO of the Museum of the Bible. He joined the museum in November 2018, and directs all functions related to the museum’s mission to invite all people to engage with the Bible. Prior to joining Museum of the Bible, McKenzie spent 37 years in the aviation field, most recently as the executive vice president for Airbus Americas.

We caught up with McKenzie to discuss the first anniversary of the museum, and how it has helped guests learn about the Bible and its historical and cultural significance.

[Conversation edited for space and clarity.]

Congratulations on the first anniversary of the museum (celebrated in November 2018). What are some of your thoughts after the first year?

It’s been a busy first year, without a doubt. It’s been amazing to see the response of people who have chosen to come and engage with the Bible from literally all walks of life and all over the world. We’ve been encouraged by that. I think the opportunity to invite people to come in and engage with the Bible has turned out to be even bigger than we could have possibly anticipated way back in the beginning.

So, did you hit your one millionth visitor? I know you were really, really close back in November.

Yeah, we were working really hard on that. So, what I tell people is that two days after our one-year anniversary we surprised two guests as they walked in the door. And that poor husband and wife were really shocked. We’ve got video of them coming in the door and all of us throwing confetti. The joke that I make is that we hit a million guests two days after our one-year anniversary, but since we were closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas, we can say that in 365 days we actually hit a million.

It was really fun. They were a really nice couple. They were just kind of shocked at all the attention that they got. Our COO Chris Lyons walked up to them and the look on the husband’s face was one of those I don’t think I know you, and I’m not sure what you want. It was really fun.

So, what do you feel sets the Museum of the Bible apart from the other museums on the National Mall?

It’s really interesting, because in D.C. you’re in the center of the museum world, and although each of the museums serves a really unique purpose, what we find special about ours is that it appeals to everyone. I enjoy going down and walking the floor to see who comes through the doors. A lot of folks are surprised that the Museum of the Bible is here, which is something that we see as a challenge in 2019—to really let people know that the Museum of the Bible is here and is appealing to everyone.

What also sets it apart from a purely tangible perspective is that when the vision was set to create the Museum of the Bible, one of the goals was to be the most technologically-advanced museum in the world. We discovered there actually isn’t a prize for that, so we’ll just take credit for it and say that we are. [Laughs] It really is quite … mind-expanding, I think is the word I’m looking for, as you come in and see all the technology and how it’s used to help people experience the exhibits which go through the history of the Bible, the narration the Bible and the impact of the Bible. It’s very interactive. It’s very much something you can see is relevant to your own life.

It’s fun to watch crowds come through, the groups and the families, because everyone in that little cluster of people finds something they like. I’m a big fan of museums, so I spend a lot of time going and comparing other museums to ours, and it’s not very often that you see that. People tend to go to a museum that has a more narrow view of this is what we want to show you, and some folks get it, while some folks get a tired quickly. We’re really pleased with how the design turned out—the facility and the exhibits themselves—how they’re helping people to engage, and really capturing their imagination and their attention.

What would you say is your favorite exhibit?

Oh, everybody asks me that question, and I try really hard not to offend anybody with my answer. My real vanilla answer has always been the Drive Thru History Jeep, then I’m not offending any of our Old Testament scholars or our New Testament scholars. But if I could give you a couple examples, one is to give credit to the Slave Bible exhibit. Our curators have done such a wonderful job of creating a space—it only has one exhibit! This is a Bible that was created in 1807, and it just gives you an opportunity to go back in time and imagine how God’s Word could be used for something that, really, we’re all quite ashamed of. Off the top of my head, the Bible’s composed of 1,198 chapters, and in the Slave Bible there are only 292. All the wonderful verses that talk about the freedom that comes with the knowledge of Christ are gone. All the chapters that talk about slaves obey your masters, those are still there and highlighted. Even the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt was removed.

So it’s a somber moment. It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of—that the museum’s willing to stand up and say that although we represent the Bible as being good, and truly an inspirational document, and most of us believe, the inspired Word of God, man’s use of it has left a lot to be questioned over time. You look at when it’s used for our own purposes how damaging it can be.

That’s a pretty heavy answer to your question. Let me give you two lighter ones. One of my other favorite artifacts that used to be right beside the Slave Bible is called the Lincoln Bible. It’s a Bible that a group of freed slaves in the 1860s put together $500 to buy and have covered as a gift for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. On the cover there’s a golden embossment that you can clearly make out is Abraham Lincoln breaking the chains of a slave. Just imagine the hands that touched that book and how it was read and how it was studied, and it’s found a home now among so many other amazing biblical icons.

And the last example—because I’m a science fiction guy—I just enjoy reading more and more about this one particular artifact. It’s the Lunar Bible. When Apollo 14 went to the moon the Apollo Prayer League, a group of believers in the Apollo program, petitioned NASA to allow them to put a Bible on the lunar module so it could be the first Bible to be on the moon. And I think NASA’s wise answer was we’d rather have rocket fuel. [Laughs] So, being the scientists that they were, they rose to the challenge and they created a Bible made up of 100 microfiche. They’re one inch square, and the entire Bible is inscribed. A gentleman by the name of Edgar Mitchell, a lunar module pilot, carried those on the surface of the Moon. When they came back, the U.S. government cut a number of them up and gave them to heads of state and dignitaries and such. Today, of the 100, there are only 12 left that are intact. We’re pleased that two of them are in our collection. And we’re pleased to have one of them on the Bible Impact bar so that when people talk about how the Bible has impacted science this is one example that’s quite interesting.

There’s all kinds of cool stuff. It’s a hard question to give an answer to, because there are just so many really interesting things.

So there are eight floors in the museum, correct?

Yes, that’s correct. We have eight floors, just under 2,000 artifacts in the museum. The overall collection that we actually maintain in Oklahoma City is over 100,000 artifacts. And it’s just a rich, diverse example of all the amazing facets of biblical translation, biblical history and how the Bible has influenced mankind throughout the years.

We just had an opportunity yesterday. One of the temporary exhibits is called the Wiedmann Bible, a pictorial Bible a German artist named Willy Wiedmann created. He spent 16 years doing it, and when he was done there were 3,333 pieces of art. He then connected them all together and formed the longest Bible, if not the longest book, in the world—it’s a mile long. And the art is stunning. It’s absolutely stunning.

Well, yesterday his son Martin and his family were here, and they’ve taken up Willy’s mission—sadly Willy passed away and is no longer with us. Willy believed that all people should have access to the Bible, and his exact quote is that with over a billion people who can’t even read today, how can they understand the Bible unless they can actually have the pictures to relate to. And the art is beautiful. The art is absolutely beautiful! I had heard about this before I came, and then I just wasn’t prepared for what it actually is. It’s so much more than what I thought it would be.

To pivot a little here, what role do you think the museum is playing in educating people of all walks of life on the Bible and its historical significance?

As an educational institution, one of our primary missions is to educate folks on the Bible and the impact that it’s had. There’s a number of different ways we do that. One of those ways is through the museum itself. We have Scholars Initiative which allows scholars in the academic community to come to the museum, research and debate various aspects of the Bible. And as we work through our collection, taking those artifacts and putting them online, it gives academics a chance to gain access to items they may not have been able to actually study in the past.

Those are two items, and the third is we actually have a curriculum that’s designed for high school students that’s come out of the Museum of the Bible. It’s being used in Israel today. We have opportunities to put it into six countries in Latin America. We have interest in Rwanda. The U.K. has expressed a lot of interest. Basically, they’ve said, “If you can get the book here, we’ll start teaching it.” The intent of the curriculum is to take the Bible and teach the history of it, and its importance as a relevant piece of civilization.

It’s really difficult to understand your place in civilization, especially English-speaking civilization, if you don’t understand Shakespeare. Well, I would argue that if you don’t understand or at least have a cursory knowledge of the Bible, it’s really hard to understand a lot of music, many of the movies that we see today, the vast majority of books, and even expressions that we use. Day-to-day expressions like “an eye for an eye”—we have a whole display of all these interesting expressions—they’re all biblical in nature.

It’s the richness of what the Bible brings to civilization that we believe draws people in, and the purpose of the museum is to then let the Bible speak for itself. Our moment here on this earth is quite small. We believe God’s Word has been here for a lot longer, and it’s done a heck of a lot better job than we could ever imagine to do on our own. So why not present it and all that it has to offer—we’ve chosen the three areas of history, narrative and impact for guests who come into the museum—and then let it speak for itself one-on-one with the people who come to experience what the museum has to offer.

Dovetailing with that, what do you feel is the cultural significance of the museum?

Oh wow, I can’t imagine a better time and a better place to have the museum than today located in Washington, D.C., as we deal with some of the real, significant challenges we have both politically and socially in the country. The museum offers a beacon of hope. When we ask guests, “What is the Bible to you?” the No. 1 response we receive is “hope.” Others refer to it as a moral compass, the basis for how they live their lives and interact with their fellow human beings. From those perspectives, I think it has a lot to say.

We have a great deal of activity across a wide, diverse group of constituents. Last week, we had the global premiere of the movie Revival! which was a high-end Hollywood-produced depiction of the Gospel of John. It was screened here at the museum to a lot of critical acclaim, which we appreciated.

The mission statement of the museum—to invite all people to engage with the Bible—offers you the opportunity to bring together a lot of different faiths that all share the Bible as their core belief. So culturally, what I find quite exciting is to walk the halls and meet people of Jewish faith, folks who come from a Catholic background, mainline Christians, evangelical Christian families who come through. And they start to interact and share what they believe, and find out that some components of their faith backgrounds aren’t necessarily always that different from each other. Starting that conversation is a great place to start; then you find out that you actually have something in common. It’s been fun to watch people build upon that. And we hope that’s something that is leaving the walls of this building and finding its way both into the capital of our country and across the nation.

What are some exhibits or improvements you’re looking forward to in the coming year?

Good question. So this past year we had the pleasure of having 13 temporary exhibits throughout the museum. In the coming year we have eight temporary exhibits coming through, and they’ll be from a wide variety of backgrounds. We have art from the Vatican as well as from the Jewish community. We’re going to extend the Wiedmann Bible. The Billy Graham Exhibit is going to go out on tour, and people are going to see the amazing work that America’s preacher has done. We’re really proud of the display and the exhibit that represents such an amazing life.

In our theater—because the museum has a 470 seat theater as well—in March we’re bringing back Amazing Grace, which is a musical about William Wilberforce and the folks in England who helped end the slave trade. The musical was here when the museum opened, and it played for a short period of time. Due to overwhelming requests, we’ve had to bring it back, which is great.

Our speaker series has kicked off again, and we’re aiming to have a weekly event where we’ll bring in both scholars and known speakers to come and discuss the various aspects of the Bible and their interaction with it. For example, we had Tim Keller here last year, doing a book launch. We’ve had various musical acts come through. We’ve had a number, like Lauren Daigle, who all say they’re going to come back—as a fan of Lauren Daigle, I hope she comes back.

There’s no limit to the possibilities of what we can do, and fortunately, more and more people all tell us that this is the place they want to be. So I expect it to be a very, very rich agenda of activities and items and exhibits that go on. And we’re going to try and push outside the walls of the museum too. We at the Museum of the Bible want to be reaching out into our community more; be more involved with some of the amazing not-for-profit organizations that exist in Washington, and care for the needs of folks in the community. And, back to one of your previous questions, we’d like to ask ourselves how we can partner more with the Center for the Future of Museums and make us all better—which we certainly think we can do. I know we have a lot to learn from our friends at the Smithsonian, and we hope that they reciprocate and see some of the things that we’ve done and will introduce them in their collections as well.

Any final thoughts?

I think the biggest piece to all of this is after having a million people come through the door, we’re excited to welcome more. I believe that what the museum, and especially what God’s Word is speaking to people is so rich and powerful.

Back to your question on the museum’s cultural impact. For such a time as this, I can’t imagine a better time for the museum to be here, and I certainly can’t think of a more opportune time for folks who have been here in the past to come back. Things are always changing and are fresh. And for those who haven’t had that opportunity to come to the nation’s capital and take in all the amazing sights that are here, we hope that the museum itself might be the one thing that they say, yes, that’s what I want to go see. And then, while they’re here, we hope they join in the conversation about where our country is going and how the Museum of the Bible and its No. 1 artifact—there’s only one hero in this building and that’s the Bible—how it can impact the decisions that we’re making and the conversations that we’re having about the future of our great nation.

Read more stories from our State of the Bible coverage in the March/April 2019 issue of Outreach magazine and at OutreachMagazine.com/Bible.