They had seen the ancient texts, the reproduction of the Gutenberg press, the Jesus of Nazareth immersive experience, and now the visitors to Washington’s new Museum of the Bible were entering another room full of cultural artifacts — not the type studied by religious scholars, but the kind prized by those with many a religious friend on their Christmas list.
"Oh, Betty," cried a woman beside a wall of Biblical-themed tree ornaments, "Have you seen these?"
Behold, dear faithful, the gift shop: Museum of the Bible hats, Museum of the Bible blinged-out keychains, Museum of the Bible frankincense and myrrh body wash.
There are bibles for sale, too, but it’s safe to assume that the crowd who pre-reserved tickets for the Museum’s opening weekend already have the Holy Book at home. Which is why there is another wall covered in books about the Holy Book. Amy Sauerwein couldn’t decide between “A Visual Guide to Bible Events” or “The Journey from Texts to Translations.”
“Do you think my mom will forgive me if I spend more than $100?” the 33-year-old asked. She was the youngest person on her Saturday morning tour bus coming from Montgomery County, Md., where she works as a school janitor. She decided to take both books off the shelf, then continued weaving through the racks of branded T-shirts, cuff links, fuzzy pens, winter coats, baby bibs — all opportunities to become a walking advertisement for the 430,000-square-foot nonprofit museum.
That’s, in part, the point of the gift shop: to send guests home with something that encourages them to remember and talk about their experience with other potential visitors (and donors). In privately funded museums such as this one, though, the success of the gift shop is even more crucial to an institution’s future, said Julie Steiner, board president of the Museum Store Association.
“While grants and endowments pay for specific projects or educational initiatives, retail revenue is the unglamorous component of a museum’s income,” Steiner said. “It pays the electric bills, the security force, the salaries of the museum staff.”
According to the association, the average museum gift shop brings in $637,000 in sales per year and is 1,000 square feet. The gift shop in the Museum of the Bible is more than three times that size. It is the first thing visitors see when they enter and the last thing they pass before they leave. The museum itself is the brainchild of retail juggernaut Steve Green, of the Hobby Lobby empire. But museum executive director Tony Zeiss said the gift shop’s dark wood shelving and glass walls were inspired by another retail establishment: Abercrombie & Fitch, where museum president Cary Summers used to be an executive.
“But I don’t want to get him into copyright trouble,” Zeiss said.
Now the dark wood shelves are filled with opportunities to fund those electric bills, all handpicked by a woman who used to run retail operations for Universal Studios, Nickelodeon and Six Flags. Finding more than 2,000 biblically themed items for this much holier gift shop was a similar task, buyer Eileen Strotz said. She had to figure out what customers wanted to buy (cross-shaped anything), where the items would come from (everything from Israel has a higher sticker price), and how not to offend anyone (the museum has already been criticized for "not enough Jesus.")
She stocked a $1,250 leather foot stool in the shape of a rhinoceros because it goes with the Noah’s Ark theme. She stocked a $125,000 ruby-encrusted pomegranate made from something called “Jerusalem stone,” and ensured it was kept in a locked glass box. She stocked four shelves of custom-made sculptures and Waterford crystal crosses, which is what one visitor was looking at when she loudly gasped.
“It’s just like my vision!” Tawana Moore, a Baptist minister from the District exclaimed. She had recently seen in her mind a glass cross just like the one on the shelf, with the words “Pursuing intimacy with God” floating beside it.
She picked up the cross and looked for the price: $59. So, she wouldn’t be buying her vision today.
Each time a visitor found something they liked, a search would ensue to find the small sticker listing its price. One woman said a $5,000 necklace “made for a fantastic Christmas gift.” Another guest whispered to his wife, “$25 for a T-shirt?”
“Look!” a woman named Patsy Perge said as she showed her friend a $15 coffee tumbler covered in glitter and the first lines of the Book of Genesis. The 27-year-old wanted something to remind her of this museum, where she had walked through an exhibit on the Old Testament and thought about how forgiving and patient God can be.
“I fall short all the time,” Perge said. “I’m constantly sinning and trying to be my own God, when I know that really, it’s God who is in control.”
Maybe it will help if she sips coffee from this mug on her way to her job as a nanny in Bowie, Md. Either way, she really loves glitter, she said.
All the items with Bible quotes were crowd-pleasers, as were the overtly Christian items, like a necklace made of nails in the shape of a cross, meant to symbolize the nails of Jesus’ crucifixion. A shelf of menorahs prompted more than one visitor to ask: “What’s this?”
A Bible in which all the verses and parables were drawn like comic strips was nearly out of stock by the afternoon of opening day. Strotz would add it to her list of which items she would need more of for all the visitors to come — the school buses, the church groups, the people who would keep the bills paid and the lights on and ensure that of all the museums in Washington, there would be one dedicated to “the greatest story ever told.”
A piece of that story was what attracted Lance and Katie Bauslaugh, Baptists from Dallas, to open a box containing a large decorative scroll printed with one of their favorite parts of the Bible, the Book of Esther. Esther, they explained, was a queen who risked her life to stand up for her religion and save her people.
They pored over the words, which they knew by heart, and Katie rolled up the scroll to return it to the shelf. She didn’t check the price. Were they not interested in buying it?
“We’re not really ‘things’ people,” she said.