by Katherine Blouin (Part 1) and Rachel Mairs (Part 2)
Part 1: A New Museum of the Bible is coming
There is a new Museum of the Bible (MOTB) coming. This time, it will be not in the USA’s, but in Ghana’s capital, Accra. Yet the project, which was launched by the country’s President himself, shares something crucial with its American counterpart: The support, and involvement, of the Green family.
Here is the available timeline so far:
On Ghana’s 60th Independence Day (March 6, 2017), the President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, cut sod for the construction of the National Cathedral of Ghana (NCG), whose building was one of his electoral promises. Ten days later, a 13-member Cathedral Trustee board made of the heads of several church groups was appointed. In October of that same year, Dr Opoku-Mensah was appointed Overseer and Executive Director of the NCG. Prior to being appointed at the head of the NCG project, Dr Opoku-Mensah worked as Executive Director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics. His work focuses on Literacy and Bible Translation.
Exactly a year after the sod for the cathedral was cut (that is on Ghana’s 2018 Independence Day), President Akufo-Addo unveiled the future NCG design. The complex will be built by celebrated Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. Adjaye has notably led the design team for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. A statement issued on March 6, 2018 on the website of Adjaye Associates reads:
“In a ceremony marking Ghana’s 61st year as an independent nation, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo today unveiled plans for a new National Cathedral of Ghana designed by Adjaye Associates, the architecture firm led by British- Ghanaian architect Sir David Adjaye, OBE.
Conceived as a physical embodiment of unity, harmony and spirituality, the National Cathedral of Ghana will be the nation’s ceremonial landmark where all faiths will be welcomed to gather, worship, and celebrate in spiritual accord. The Cathedral will be situated within 14 acres of newly landscaped gardens adjacent to Osu Cemetary and will house a series of impressive chapels, a baptistery, a 5000-seat two-level auditorium, a grand central hall, music school, choir rehearsal, art gallery, shop and multi-use spaces. It will also be home to Africa’s first Bible Museum and Documentation Centre, dedicated to Christianity and nation-building in Ghana.”
Very little is known of the Museum so far beyond what is quoted above, and the fact that according to Dr Opoku- Mensah, the cathedral complex will start being built in March 2020. Whether it will have a director and curatorial team of its own, or whether these responsibilities fall under the mandate of its executive director and of its board, is not clear. What transpires from available online documents regarding the project launch and its funding campaign, however, are the close links between the Ghanaian leaders of the project and the Hobby Lobby-funded, American Museum of the Bible (thereby MOTB), including its co-founder and Chairman of the Board, Steve Green.
According to the news timeline provided on the NCG website, several officials and overseers of the NCG came to the MOTB in early 2018. The first documented visit took place in February 15, 2018 and included Dr Adjei-Barwuah, Ghana’s Ambassador to the US, as well as NCG Executive Director Dr Opoku-Mensah. In late (23-25) April 2018, NCG Executive Director Opoku-Mensah visited the MOTB again, this time with NCG Trustee Dr Mensa Otabil and Ghana’s Finance Minister, Ken Ofori-Atta. Some of the pictures provided on the NCG website also suggest that some of these officials met with MOTB founder and Chairman of the Board Steve Green, as well as with Cary Summers, who was then President of the museum (according to March 2018 profile of Summers, he “lives Faith in the Marketplace. He is part missionary, entrepreneur, and CEO. Cary meets regularly with leaders of countries, antiquities dealers, faith leaders and venture capitalists.”
On November 15, 2018, the Finance Minister of Ghana, Ken Ofori-Atta, announced that the country was launching a global fundraising campaign for the National Cathedral on December 28th of that same year. The announcement took place during the delivering of the 2019 budget in front of the Parliament. A March 2019 article published by Business Ghana provides some details regarding the government’s funding plans, as they were communicated by the NCG Executive Director :
“Dr Opoku-Mensah said accounts had been created at the GCB, ADB and Fidelity banks into which some monies were being paid by private entities as part of the fundraising. He added that measures were being put in place in the United States for money to be raised for the construction.”
On February 8, 2019, the first fundraiser for the cathedral complex took place in the United States. The event was hosted by the MOTB in Southwest, D.C. (for pictures featuring some of the guests and hosts in attendance, including Steve and Jackie Green, see notably this link, the fundraiser is not currently featured on the MOTB website). On that occasion, Ghanaian President Akufo-Addo, who was in attendance and gave a speech, told the crowd:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I need your help to do so. The cathedral will not just be another national monument adorning the skyline of Accra, it will be the rallying point for the Christian community to come together to pray, worship and promote the national conversations on the role of faith in building Ghana. It will house a Bible museum… and it will be an iconic infrastructure for national, regional and international pilgrimage and tourism”.
Steve Green also spoke. According to the Ghanaian American Journal:
“Mr. Steven Green, the Founder and Chairman of the Museum of the Bible gave a rendition of how his rich experience and knowledge were solicited during the initial planning of the building of the Cathedral and couldn’t be more grateful. He stressed on the importance of such an edifice and the need for a rallying support of the President’s vision.”
While local voices and scholars have been increasingly covering the cathedral project and questioning its financial, religious, and political underpinnings (see notably this piece), no attention has been dedicated to the Museum of the Bible that will accompany it so far.
What will be the exact vocation of this museum? Where, from whom, and how will its collection be acquired? And with what funds?
These questions seem all the more legitimate given the seemingly close links between Ghanaian high officials, the NCG executive and the American MOTB. So far, the sequence of events reconstructed above on the basis of available reports, pictures and news indicates that:
- Steve Green was directly involved in the conception of the project from a very early stage
- Members of the NCG Executive, including its Executive Director, as well as Ghana’s Finance Minister came, for some on more than one occasion, to the MOTB in early 2018
- The first American fundraiser for the NCG, which included speeches from Ghana’s President and Steve Green, was hosted at the MOTB.
All of the above unfolded at the same time as scholars and legal investigations raised serious questions regarding the authenticity and, in the case of real pieces, provenance of a large number of objects acquired by Hobby Lobby, the company owned by the Christian Evangelical Green family (The family, which includes Steve Green, is also one of the main donors to the American MOTB).
For those who are unacquainted with these smuggling- and forgery- related stories, here is a summary:
- In July 5, 2017 the United States filed a “Civil Action To Forfeit Thousands Of Ancient Iraqi Artifacts Imported By Hobby Lobby” that led, in the spring of 2018, to Hobby Lobby paying 3 million dollars in fine and returning “3,800 illegally obtained ancient Near Eastern artifacts to Iraq“.
- In October 2018, the MOTB removed five Dead Sea scrolls from its collection, for they had proven to be forgeries. Doubts regarding their authenticity were first raised the year before, and sent to the German firm BAM in April 2017.
- More recently, the MOTB has announced that it will return (so far) 13 pieces – including 12 Bible(-related) Oxyrhynchus papyri fragments to the Egypt Exploration Society, from whom they were stolen. The fragments in question were sold to Hobby Lobby by Oxford Professor Dirk Obbink in 2010. According to a spokesperson for the MOTB cited by Candida Moss, “of these 13 items, only four are the property of the museum, with the remainder belonging to Hobby Lobby as part of the Green Collection”. Online, scholarly conversations regarding the relationships between some Christian papyri fragments from Oxyrhynchus, Obbink, and the Green collection go back to the spring 2018 (see notably Elijah Hixson‘s work and Brent Nongbri’s blog). For more details, see Roberta Mazza’s pioneering work, which goes back to 2014 and includes a riveting 2015 article, as well as Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s 2018 book Bible Nation.
Not only were the stories above unfolding when NCG officials visited the MOTB, but some of the visits as well as the fundraiser took place after the court order regarding the repatriation of Iraqi artefacts and the removal of the forged Dead Sea scrolls fragments. It is uncertain whether some of the practices that led Hobby Lobby to return smuggled or stolen artefacts would have met similar verdicts in Ghanaian courts. For Ghana’s 1969 National Museum Act, whose focus is on Ghana’s national heritage, archaeology, museums, and exports, does not include any section on the import of Antiquities. The same seems to apply to the 1972 Executive Instrument 42 and the 1973 Executive Instrument 29.
Seen in this broader context, the project of a Ghanaian MOTB raises further questions: What is the position of the NCG executive regarding the numerous, and ongoing (see Part 2 of this post below), ethical issues surrounding the Southwest, D.C. MOTB acquisition practices? What will the Ghanaian MOTB acquisition policy be and how will it relate to current legal frameworks pertaining to the illicit antiquities trade, both within Ghana and internationally? Lastly, is there any relationship between the Green collection and the collection of the future, Ghanaian MOTB? We look forward to these questions being answered.
Part 2: MOTB employs a third-party company to get expertise from scholars
by Rachel Mairs
On 21 May 2019, I received an email from a Matt Frawley, whose email signature stated that he is “VP of Content & Business Development” at a marketing company named Polymath. A little googling reveals that Polymath’s client list includes the Museum of the Bible and is predominantly composed of conservative Christian organisations (https://polymath.io/partners/). Frawley wrote: “My company was hired by a museum to verify a number of translations, one of which Nubian” and asked “I hope it’s not an intrusion or too much to ask if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at the attached PDF which has the translation of ‘Bible’ or ‘Holy Bible’ and providing any comments you think will help us here?” He did not mention anything about his professional background or associations, nor did he name the museum which had hired his company. The attached file contained only a single transcribed word, without an image of a document, or any information about its provenance or current location. He did not state whether or not the translation work would be compensated or credited, nor how any research provided would be used by Polymath or its client.
I replied “I can’t just give an academic opinion on something without knowing more about the provenance of the piece and its current institutional home. Would I be right in surmising that this is for the Museum of the Bible?” Frawley responded “Yes, that is correct. Is that ok or create a conflict for you? Completely understand if you wish not to help with this.” When I then wrote that I could not have anything to do with the Museum of the Bible, due to their appalling collecting practices – and recommended that he be up-front in the future in his approaches to academics – he answered simply “Completely understand and appreciate the advice.”
The Museum of the Bible is surely aware of their negative reputation among many scholars, and so this anonymous approach through a third-party company in my view amounts to an attempt to deceive. When asked directly the Polymath employee did disclose the name of his client, but the fact that this information was not volunteered in the original email indicates that the Museum of the Bible now knows better than to approach academics under its own name and expect a favourable response and is deliberately seeking to benefit from others’ research and expertise under false pretences.