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Virginian on national religious history museum quest

August 19, 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C.

For Chris Stevenson, faith isn’t just personal ― it’s national.

Stevenson, 41, first became interested in the intersection of faith and public life while studying civics in college.

A few decades later, he says, he had a revelation of sorts. “There was one great story that remains to be told by a professional museum: The indispensability of faith in America’s history.”

Thus the idea to found a National Museum of American Religion in Washington, DC, was born.

But Stevenson, a business manager for an air traffic organization in Northern Virginia, has found that turning his dream into reality is an unexpectedly complicated undertaking involving a number of logistical, professional and personal challenges.

For example, he was not the only one lobbying for a new national museum in Washington. Several other projects ― the National Museum of the American Latino, the National Women’s History Museum and the American Museum of American People ― have been proposed to Congress and the Smithsonian Institution in recent years.

“There are new museums proposed and created all the time, but it’s very hard to move from the paper stage to the practical, real stage,” said Kym Rice, director of the museum studies program at George Washington University.

Rice cited money, especially in the midst of the American economic downturn, as a chief stumbling block for museum proposals. “It’s hard to make these institutions financially secure. ... Even if they’re nonprofits they have to have some financial base. It’s a huge endeavor,” she said.

Indeed, most groups seeking to found a museum on the National Mall in Washington are backed by well-funded committees that boast big-name supporters and extensive websites. Stevenson’s efforts are modest at best: The project is still almost entirely run by Stevenson, with only occasional assistance from a two-person board of advisers.

“We’re just beginning the initial funding stage,” Stevenson said. “I’m mostly just cold-calling and cold-emailing people.”

Stevenson, a Mormon, also acknowledges some reservations about his project.

“They think I’m trying to do something in the background,” Stevenson said. “People think I have an agenda.”

Despite roadblocks, Stevenson remains committed.

“People often underestimate people who are passionate, committed, and even-handed,” said Robert Wilson-Black, a vice president of the evangelical Washington-based group Sojourners, who also serves as one of the museum’s advisory board members. “Lots of monuments and museums start with a person who is just dogged.”

And Stevenson is nothing if not dogged. Inspired by the success of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, he insists that a National Museum of American Religion is a viable idea.

“My first thought was to make it a Smithsonian museum.” Stevenson said. “We would like to have it around the Mall. Washington, DC, is our nation’s capital. ... (The museum) belongs in DC because it’s about American religion.”

Stevenson even has a list of exhibits he would like to house in the museum, including expositions on religion and immigration, religion in politics, religion in American architecture, and America’s effect on other world religions.

And Stevenson thinks big, dreaming of large-scale, hands-on exhibits like a room that could change into any worship space at the touch of a button or an interactive experience modeled after the participatory civil rights sit-ins held at the National Museum of American History earlier this year.

“I’d like to see a participatory Scopes Monkey Trial. … People could sit in as the jury or as the people watching.”

But Rice and others question how the museum would balance the need to please visitors while giving all religions fair treatment.

“It would be different in that it’s thematic and not based on an ethnicity. ... Museums are about the dissemination of knowledge and not about a particular view.”

Stevenson insists that the museum would maintain a balance by remaining true to three guiding principles: objectivity, refraining from declaring one tradition as “true,” and “presenting the information without judging whether a religion has been beneficial or detrimental to American history.”

Stevenson also hopes to avoid bias by getting religious players from throughout the theological spectrum involved in the project, an effort he says will create a more inclusive museum.

Stevenson’s fervor doesn’t make the experience any less difficult.

In addition to his day job and working on the museum, Stevenson also moonlights several hours a week as the head of America’s Quilt of Faith, a group that “champions the indispensability of faith to the American experiment in self-government.”

Still, Stevenson finds a balance. “I use vacation days sometimes, but I’m not obsessed to the point of neglecting (my family).”

Ultimately, Stevenson confesses that there is still much work to be done before construction on the museum can begin, but hopes to get it completed in “5 to 10 years.”

“I am convinced we can (build this museum) because we have a religious history.” Stevenson said. “It exists. There is truth out there. ... We’ll just do the best we can and get at that truth.”

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