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American Bible Society’s Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is opening across the street from Independence Mall

The $60 million, 40,000-square-foot center seeks to infuse nation's history with stories of Biblical faith. About a quarter million visitors are projected annually.

Executive director Patrick Murdock talks about an exhibit during a preview tour of the new Faith and Liberty Discovery Center next to Independence Mall.
Executive director Patrick Murdock talks about an exhibit during a preview tour of the new Faith and Liberty Discovery Center next to Independence Mall.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The first thing you need to know about the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, which opens Saturday on the ground floor of the Wells Fargo Building at Fifth and Market Streets, is that it is not a museum.

The center, which is run by the American Bible Society, bills itself as an “attraction.” It has some artifacts on display, William Penn’s Bible, for instance, but not many. High tech is where the action is for this facility, located across the street from Independence Mall and the National Museum of American Jewish History.

So what is it?

“What we’ve attempted to do is bring to light the influence of faith and the Bible on the American story, particularly looking through the stories of people — we call them change-makers — people that were inspired, influenced, somehow, by the Scriptures, by their faith, to do something with their lives to help bring this American story to life,” said Pat Murdock, the center’s executive director, during a recent preview tour.

Alan Crippen, chief of exhibits, programming, and public engagement, said the key question asked by the center is “what is the centrality of faith in the American narrative?”

And the basic premise, he added, is that “faith guides liberty towards justice.” About a quarter million people are projected to visit the center annually to take in the story.

“Liberty is an instrument of good,” Crippen said. “Liberty sort of isolated can lead into some pretty awful things.” He cited the French Revolution as emblematic of the awful.

The $60 million, 40,000-square-foot facility, which transformed what used to be the banking floor of the Wells Fargo Building, sits several floors below the headquarters of the Bible Society.

Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for visitors ages 7 to 17, and free for children 6 and under. The center will be open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and on Mondays.

The idea for some sort of Independence Mall-related attraction came with the Bible Society’s move from New York City to Philadelphia in 2015. ABS executives started to ponder what they could add to the cluster of historical sites in the neighborhood.

“We ended up doing a value study on what the values are found in the Declaration, the Constitution, [William Penn’s] Charter of Privileges, and the Bible,” said Murdock. “There’s commonality. We found six values, there are many, but six surface: faith, liberty, justice, hope, unity, and love. Those actually became the themes of each of our galleries.”

When you enter the center, you’ll receive a digital baton, what the center refers to as “a lamp,” which doesn’t so much guide you as gather data about your visit. Touch it on any display’s digital hot spot, “one that’s important to you, that resonates,” said Murdock — and whoosh! — the data from the display is instantly uploaded into the lamp for later downloading at a “maker space” kiosk.

With data from the lamp, visitors to the maker space can design personalized collectibles like posters, mugs, and totes that will be custom-produced off site by a third-party vendor and shipped to their homes.

“A lot of museums are 90% artifacts and 10% media, and we’re just the opposite,” Murdock said. “We’ve attempted to create a highly interactive and immersive experience. That’s 90% media, 10% artifacts. We have about 65 artifacts. They’re awesome. We have William Penn’s Bible. We have Helen Keller’s Bible. We’ve got kind of a purchase invoice for the Liberty Bell. We’ve got some really cool artifacts, but artifacts aren’t really winning the day with today’s culture. They want media. They want story.”

And technology is how the story and experience are delivered at the Discovery Center.

“We’ve created a massive digital platform, disguised as a museum,” said Murdock. “It feels like a museum — we’ve got artifacts and all that, but really it’s a digital platform that is ripe for the way people are learning today. They want to learn from media. They want to learn from story. And they also want to collect things, and they want to create. That’s why we created the maker space.”

Characters in the stories told here include the giants of American history seen through the lens of expressions of Christian faith. This is most pointedly done in a large gallery devoted to the center’s selected change-makers, those Americans who made a difference and shaped the nation’s story.

Not surprisingly we encounter a potpourri of famous figures — George Washington, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth. There are video stations that pull out quotes that highlight a particular change-maker’s faith or belief in God.

Radical pacifist and founder of the Catholic Worker Dorothy Day is presented saying that “we cannot love God unless we love each other.”

Retail entrepreneur James Cash Penney makes an appearance reminiscing on the genesis of his department store chain. “I knew I must learn, specifically, to give myself over to God’s plan for me.... I had been given both talents and experience as part of a plan.”

Other galleries are given over to specific examples of the fundamental values highlighted by the ABS values study of founding documents.

“Here we explore issues of personal, community, and national justice,” said Murdock, noting that there are displays, artifacts, and data collection points throughout the gallery.

“There are three video monitors that set up three stories from the Bible,” he said. “The Exodus narrative is one, the Good Samaritan is another, and City on the Hill is another. And what it’s asking you to think about is if you, if you hear these historic figures, weaving this story into their speech … What does the Exodus narrative mean to you? What does the story of the Good Samaritan mean to you?

“Then what we have are conversation booths around the corner, where visitors are able to go inside and film themselves expressing, in two minutes, what this story means to them and it becomes part of the center’s archives.”

Murdock said the center does not retain any personalized data that visitors may gather during a visit. He characterized the data as “depersonalized” and used only in exhibition planning and in the retail transactions involving the creation of posters, personalized totes, and other collectibles and mementos at the maker space and gift shop.

“We’re actually able to walk through portals of history, using your lamp, and some other fun things along the way, and then right there is where you come out to the retail store,” he said at the end of the tour. “We’ve actually established what we think is the first in the industry of a maker space. So the things that you’ve been collecting you’ll be able to dock your lamp onto one of those kiosks.

“Your information, whether it’s content or imagery or whatever, will appear on a desktop [computer screen], then you’ll be able to [design] your own mug, poster, wall art, tote, that kind of thing. And it’ll be printed or produced and shipped directly to your home.”

As far as actual history is concerned, nonsectarian scholars are skeptical of the center’s approach. Several have noted that many of the nation’s founders were deists who did not believe in Jesus Christ.

“It’s not that [the Bible’s] history isn’t relevant,” noted Marci Hamilton, a professor and constitutional scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. But “the Bible did not play the outsize role that they are trying to give it.”

Although the Bible Society has taken a decidedly evangelical turn in recent years, and although museum employees are required to sign an affirmation of Biblical faith (which includes affirmation that marriage is between a man and a woman), Murdock said the center does not engage in proselytization.

“We’re bringing to light the influence of the Scriptures and faith on our nation from its founding through to today, looking into the lives of people … but also historic moments in the history of our country,” he said. “That’s the dimension of the American story that we’re highlighting. It’s just a contribution. There’s so many dimensions of the American story and we’re just contributing one.”