From the website: The Pope John Paul II Cultural Foundation is dedicated to promoting the living legacy of Pope John Paul II. Established by Cardinal Adam Maida in 1989, the Foundation has been located at the 130,000-square foot Cultural Center since that building’s dedication in March 2001. The building is on a 12-acre site at 3900 Harewood Road, NE, adjacent to The Catholic University of America.
When I set out to visit the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, I expected to feel uncomfortable. Every time I visit a religious museum or historic site, my level of discomfort is proportionate to my sense (valid or otherwise) that the people at the site assume I practice their religion, or that they would try to convert me if they knew that I don’t.
I was pleasantly surprised by this museum. I did not feel unwelcome as a non-Catholic and non-Christian. In the quiet, spacious building not far from Catholic University, I was tentative with the security officer at the desk (I’d like to visit. Can I take pictures? Do I need to pay?) who seemed amused by my lack of presumption. The main level has a Christmas tree and a bust of Pope John Paul II in the lobby, display cases full of creches and other objects, an exhibit on the Pope’s life, and a small chapel.
After exploring the first floor, I walked downstairs by way of a long ramp decorated with “Hands of Peace” along the sides. Each plaque shows a bronze cast of a hand and a quote about peace. The variety of quotes included some more (“You must love people and teach them how to love each other”) and less (“If you miss a prayer one day, you let go of His hand and you’ve got to find Him again”) resonant to me, but all shared the lofty spirit of harmony and goodwill.
Downstairs, I felt welcome in terms of the content of the exhibits but not the state the exhibits were in. Lights were dim, fountains were dry, and ubiquitous computers and other technology were turned off. Was this part of the museum closed to the public on that day? I had not crossed any signs or stanchions, another visitor was also in the exhibit space, and a couple of employees saw me and did not ask me to leave. Since I really wanted to see the exhibits, I stayed, with every intention of leaving if an employee asked me to (which no one ever did).
One gallery discusses scientific and spiritual understandings of the universe, without positing the two at odds with each other. Another exhibit presents Pope John Paul II’s efforts in interfaith dialogue, with information about world religions and where they converge and differ. It was these spaces that seemed especially welcoming to visitors, regardless of their faith. I felt validated as a person who had given lots of thought to big questions that have always intrigued humans, and for which humans have not always arrived at the same answers. And I felt lofty and hopeful upon reading about ethical values that are shared by many people, regardless of how they think the universe got here.
The intent of many of the computers was to give visitors a chance to share their own reflections; I very much wished they were functioning. A lower-tech forum gave me a chance to see visitor responses: a big white paper banner on the wall, written all over in marker. From the looks of it, a group of pro-life teenagers from Pittsburgh had done the vast majority of the writing. (One pretty representative quote: “Peace. Love. Eternity.! 😀 Babies! haha! XD! 😀 Say no to abortion! Keep babies alive! I love yewh! XD! 😀 haha! :D” Other quotes made references to their being from Pittsburgh.) On another banner, visitors were invited to write a prayer for Pope John Paul II, and I had to smile at one response: “You sound like a nice guy.”
My roles as museum visitor, museum educator, and museum visitor services representative make me love to read visitor feedback. I can read pages of guest books at a time when I visit museums, and at my own workplace, I can often be found perusing visitor comments. Though I was glad to visit Pope John Paul II Cultural Center at a time when I could see Nativity scenes and other Christmas decorations, I would have also liked to take full advantage of the interactivity and potential for visitor response that someone had so thoughtfully put into the exhibit space.
Since my visit, I have read on the website that the ownership of the museum is changing, and that the first floor (and, by implication, not the lower floor whose exhibits I was exploring) is currently open to the public. The museum may take a different direction in the future. I hope it continues to be welcoming and thought-provoking.