A bit of the Holy Land in Southwest

Little-known Holy Land Exhibit quietly nearing 50 years

STEVENS SQUARE — The big house on the hill in Loring Heights may be showing its age a bit, what with the weathered blue and white paint and leafy vines advancing up the exterior.

The three-story Victorian-era house seems unremarkable in a neighborhood of large, old homes. There is little to indicate from the outside that maybe 100,000 people have passed through the front door in the last half century, by one occupant’s estimate.

Those thousands have come over the years to visit the Holy Land Exhibit, a place that is at once a cultural curiosity and a testament to the deep faith of Christine Kirkegaard and Corrine Varian, the two women who have cared for its collection of Middle Eastern objects for nearly 50 years.

Despite its long history, the exhibit seems to operate anonymously these days. At a recent Stevens Square neighborhood meeting, only a few long-term residents were aware it existed.

It wasn’t always this way, Kirkegaard said, recalling the years when she might lead two or three groups a day through the exhibit’s four rooms, ending the tour with a lesson from the patented Eye-Ographic Bible Atlas system.

“Back in the ’60s, everybody told everybody and we didn’t have to do anything — they just came,” she recalled.

That isn’t to say business is slow, Kirkegaard was quick to add. The day a reporter visited, she said she’d fielded a call requesting a tour for 40 people.

For those in the know — mostly church groups and religious home-schooling families — the non-denominational Holy Land Exhibit remains a can’t-miss destination. Its mission is simple: to teach visitors about the culture, customs and geography of the Holy Land so they better understand the stories in the Bible.

“We’ve had people who came when they were children, and they grew up and they brought their children, and they grew up and they brought their children,” Kirkegaard said, and then chuckled. “We’ve been around a while, you know?”

A Biblical bazaar

Kirkegaard, who would only say that she and Varian are “70-plus” years old, remains feisty and energetic — a “senior-teenager” in her own words.

She recently answered the door in full-length white cotton garment with red embroidery. She wore two necklaces — one with large turquoise beads, the other strung with garnet- and silver-colored beads — and large rings on each hand.

The pieces of her costume were purchased on her many tours of Israel, Egypt and surrounding areas between 1954 and 1997, as were many of the items on display at the exhibit. She is cagey about some pieces’ provenance, but readily admits that most of them are modern, made for the tourist trade.

The idea is not to present museum-quality artifacts, but to evoke the setting of the Bible.

“Everything is background to understand the Bible better,” she explained.

As much as an individual piece might illuminate Biblical cultures or traditions, the mass of objects packed into the first floor of the house can be overwhelming. The dozens of olive wood crèche scenes, various Judaica, glass vases from Hebron, dioramas of pilgrimage sites and garments straight out of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” evoke nothing so much as the crowded roadside souvenir stands Kirkegaard fondly recalled from her travels.

In Kirkegaard’s hands, though, each piece tells part of a larger story. Telling that story has become her life’s work — a vocation she couldn’t have anticipated when she left Albert Lea as a young woman, traveling first to New York and then Los Angeles.

“I guess I left home wanting to seek fame and fortune somewhere else because I was from a small town,” she said.

Divine intervention

The curious story of how Kirkegaard and Varian ended up presiding over the Holy Land Exhibit begins with Antonio Frederick Futterer, whose portrait — Futterer seated, wearing a dark suit — watches benevolently over the exhibit’s largest room.

In 1916, the Australian immigrant patented his Eye-Ographic Bible Atlas, a system of detailed maps meant to inform Bible readings that Kirkegaard still teaches today. Nine years later, in 1925, he opened the original Holy Land Exhibit in Los Angeles.

A young Kirkegaard came across the exhibit in 1952 while living near Hollywood and soon was leading tours. Through her work she met Varian and another woman, Alyda Overgaard, who, by coincidence, was also from Albert Lea.

“That’s what made me feel comfortable about doing this … because [Overgaard] was from my hometown,” Kirkegaard said.

When Overgaard left for Minneapolis to open the only other outpost of the Holy Land Exhibit, Kirkegaard and Varian, a California native, soon followed. The Minneapolis exhibit moved to its current location in 1961.

Its two curators, who occupy the second floor, have lived there above it ever since.

“It’s become like a home to us, you know,” Kirkegaard said while seated on a couch surrounded by the vast collection. “If we have some friends over, well, this is our living room.”

Neither she nor Varian married, instead devoting their lives to the exhibit and their ministry work. For a while, they led tours to the Holy Land, but took their last group over in the early ’80s.

Now, they spend most of their time at the exhibit — their home — where Kirkegaard cares for Varian. (For health reasons, Varian was unable to participate in an interview.)

“The main source [of income] is donations from personal friends,” Kirkegaard said. “We don’t fundraise; we don’t ask for money.”

Betty Shepard, who runs the much larger Los Angeles exhibit, said people just keep showing up to wonder at Futterer’s amazing collection — much of it gathered from exhibits at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair (but that’s another story) — and to experience the Eye-Ographic Bible Atlas.

Shepard credited divine intervention, saying, “God does advertise for us.”

Kirkegaard offers a similar explanation for the Minneapolis Holy Land Exhibit’s nearly 50 years of endurance, and her own 70-plus years. Recalling the countless faces to walk through her door and her 11 trips abroad, she said she found the exciting life she was looking for when she left Albert Lea as a young woman.

She said of her work: “It’s an education, it’s an inspiration and it’s also really fun.”

Go see it

The Holy Land Exhibit is open by reservation only to groups of up to 15 people. To set up a time to visit, call exhibit director Christine Kirkegaard at 871-7444.