By John Boy. The Bijbels Museum, a museum dedicated to the Bible founded in 1852, is located along the Herengracht in the center of Amsterdam. Finding myself with a few free hours one afternoon during a recent stay in the Dutch capital, I decided to tour the museum, notebook in hand. Wikipedia encumbered me with the knowledge that the museum’s public funding was subject to debate several years ago because “it has not done enough to attract a more diverse (i.e., non-denominational) audience”—and by non-denominational, this Wikipedia author evidently means people with no denominational affiliation. How does the museum present the Bible in a city known for its museums, especially its splendid art museums? And, more importantly, how does it cater to an audience that may not hold the Bible in special esteem?
The answer apparently is to display lots of flowers, or at least it was at the time of my visit. The main exhibit on display in the Bijbels Museum was “Belief in Nature: Flowers with a Message.” We are in the land of tulips and hothouses, after all. So while the publisher of the postwar British publication The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature broadened the appeal of the Bible by presenting it as beautifully typeset literature, the Bijbels Museum seeks to do so by presenting the Bible as floral pattern. That’s a very unfair characterization, but a worthwhile comparison. As Talal Asad writes, “the way people engage with such complex and multifaceted texts [such as the Bible], translating their sense and relevance, is a complicated business involving disciplines and traditions of reading, personal habit, and temperament, as well as the perceived demands of particular social situations.” In the case of “the Bible as literature,” that complicated business had to do with the emergence of literature qua imaginative writing in the long eighteenth century. What complicated business is going on in the Bijbels Museum? How does it manage to translate the “sense and relevance” of the Bible in the pluralistic, secular-liberal setting of Holland?