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Holy Bible comes alive at museum



Published: Sun, February 24, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Volunteers built the displays, and there are so many that you could stay all day.

Every year more than 50,000 people take a walk of faith through Diamond Hill Cathedral, a country church that's just down the road from the old Ohio State Reformatory.

Most of them aren't members.

Many of them aren't Americans.

Some of them aren't even Christians, but they still have a special reason for coming.

Diamond Hill is the home of the Living Bible Museum, a complex that houses ever-evolving displays of Jewish and Christian life through the centuries. This season the displays will be "Miracles of the Old Testament," "Museum of Christian Martyrs," "Life of Christ," and "Museum of Christian History."

Art display: There is also a permanent display of Christian folk art and woodcarving, another of antique and specialty Bibles, and another of animated scenes donated by the American Bible Society. A theater at the cathedral presents Christian plays. There is also a snack bar and gift shop.

The Living Bible Museum is a labor of love for the 600 parishioners, who began the museum in 1987 at the urging of their pastor and his wife, Richard and Alwilda Diamond.

"We're just ordinary people who have a desire to do something for the Lord," says museum director Julia Hardin, who has been part of the project from the beginning. "God did this," she says, waving a hand to take in the museum complex. "The Holy Spirit led us, and this is what we've accomplished through Him."

According to Hardin, her congregation started out in a small church in downtown Mansfield, then moved to the already-named Diamond Hill in 1980. "We took on the mortgage of the congregation that built the cathedral, $345,000, and paid it off in 27 months. Now you know that's God's work."

The Rev. and Mrs. Diamond had wanted to build a Bible museum since the 1970s, and they saw an opportunity in Diamond Hill's 20-acre campus. By 1983, the congregation had assembled its first life-size scene, "The Last Supper," with figures donated from a closed Bible Walk near Pittsburgh.

"Jesus and the Children" and "The Woman at the Well" soon followed. The scenes were taken on tour to county fairs and the Ohio State Fair, and grew in popularity. Tourists began to seek out the church, and it became clear, Hardin says, that the Lord was working through the Diamond Hill members. By 1985, the congregation had broken ground for a separate museum building.

Volunteers: Except for cement work on the footers and floors, all the work was done by volunteers. Businessmen, laid-off factory workers, housewives and secretaries donated thousands of hours to construct the buildings and build each individual Bible scene. All the artwork, set dressing, clothing for the figures -- even the recorded voiceovers that accompany each scene -- were made by amateurs as a labor of love.

For the "Miracles of the Old Testament" display, visitors walk through dim hallways with black walls and ceilings. The group pauses at large open windows that light one by one to show the different scenes. "The Creation" is the first scene, of course, followed by "Adam and Eve," complete with a glowering serpent.

"Abraham and Issac," "David in the Valley," "King Solomon and the Baby," "Job and his Wife," and "Moses in the Bulrushes" are among the scenes. It's very obvious that the work has been done by amateurs, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been done well. Each scene and each costume is meticulously researched before it is constructed, Hardin says, and care shows in every stitch and every nail.

Favorite scene: My favorite scene is "David in the Valley." The lights come up like a sunrise on David, seated at the edge of a stream. A few animals graze nearby, and hills appear in the distance. A calm, contemplative voice recites the 23rd Psalm, and the lights go down again in a gentle sunset.

There are dozens of scenes, and each takes several minutes to play out. "Jonah and the Whale" was a favorite with the children in our group, as was "Noah's Ark."

Benches are available at each scene for those who need them.

The "Miracles" tour ends in a chapel, where visitors are invited to pray or meditate.

Showpiece: The showpiece of the permanent display area is a collection amassed by Robert Ryan of early 20th-century votive folk art. The largest such collection in the United States, it includes tabletop Bible scenes built of clay, gold dust, horsehair and jewelry. Votive folk art was popular from 1910 to 1940, Hardin says, but has died out and is almost unknown today. A set of woodcarvings by John Burns is also on display.

It's possible to spend an entire day at the museum complex. You should allow at least two hours to see even part of the displays. Christians will be especially interested, but people of other faiths can find inspiration in the displays also, especially "Miracles of the Old Testament."

Last year there were 51,000 visitors from 48 states and 20 foreign countries. Everyone who comes, Hardin says, finds something different.

"We've had people born again here, and we've had people healed here. We've had people find peace here. We can't do that. None of it would have happened without God."




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