I read about the Creation Museum in Kentucky a couple of years ago. It’s just across the state border from Cincinnati, and what with there being a chance of a business trip to Cincinnati in my line of work I promised myself that if I ever ended up in that part of the world, I would go see the museum. Then, when I booked my travel a couple of weeks ago, I kind of forgot about it and didn’t leave any flex in my schedule for a visit, and when I did remember I was gutted. So when a meeting finished early on Monday, I jumped at the chance, escaped from the office early, threw myself into a taxi and went. It was certainly an educational experience.
The first thing to note about the Creation Museum is that when I told people I was going there, I felt really self-conscious about it. In my mind, there are only two kinds of people likely to be interested in that sort of thing: the religious wingnuts, and the trolls. Now, frankly, I fall in the second category, but I didn’t particularly want to come out to people I work with as a troll. Nor, however, did I want to give the impression that I was a religious wingnut. So finding that fine line where you explain that no, you are not of the Christian faith, but you are interested in different points of view and look at this as a cultural experience is… interesting. I’m not convinced anyone believed me.
Here’s what I found out about the museum beforehand, from speaking to various local people. Apparently they fully own the building and the grounds. It took them a long time to get all the money together, but they were very particular about running it that way and not being in debt before they started the whole thing. The colleague who told me this seemed to think that that gave them more freedom in how they presented their point of view, as they didn’t have to bow to commercial pressure just to make money to pay off debt. Having said that, it didn’t look to me like they were struggling financially. But more on that later. The other thing I learned on my way there from the taxi driver is that when the museum first opened, there were protests outside and significant police presence. There are certainly large signs on the doors asking you to behave respectfully to staff and other visitors. Oh, and another tidbit from the website: Apparently the Creation Museum is within a day’s drive for two thirds of US population.
The building is hardly small, and as well as the main museum, it and the grounds house a planetarium, a petting zoo and reasonably extensive botanical gardens. You can easily spend a whole day there, and the website suggests you actually buy a two-day ticket so you can revisit some of your favourite exhibits on the second day. With only two hours, I barely made it through the main exhibition and a couple of the media shows.
I asked the lady who sold me my ticket if she had any recommendations for a first-timer with limited time. She suggested I saw the entire main exhibition and the multi-media show called “Men in White”. I asked her what that was and she explained that it was about a girl who struggles with the thought of being “only a randomly evolved animal” and then gets visited by two arch-angels – the men in white – who help her with her self-doubt. So I got my souvenir guide book and headed off to the special effects theatre to see “Men in White”.
The show was introduced by a chirpy young woman who explained that it was not quite like the rest of the shows in the museum – it was more of a satire or comedy, and that we might recognise some of the stereotypes we saw. Then we meet Wendy (an animatronic puppet) sitting by her camp fire at night, looking up at the stars and asking questions about the meaning of life. (So far, been there, done that. I became an atheist one night in a graveyard in the Austrian Alps.) She asks whether she really is the product of random collisions of atoms and molecules, and whether there really isn’t any deeper meaning to life. At which point the whole thing just becomes surreal: enter the Men in White, Mike and Gabe, the campest arch-angels you have ever met. As in white dungarees levels of camp. They are glorious, as well as remarkably obnoxious for arch-angels. Mike and Gabe do two things: firstly, they walk us through the biblical story of Genesis – taking a few liberties here and there – and secondly they arm Wendy, and by extension the audience, with a number of soundbites to use when defending creationism against the insidious forces of science. They attack science education as closed-minded, not open to being questioned or to new ideas. They frame believers in creation as discriminated against in the education system (“I don’t want people to think I’m dumb”, says Wendy at one point), as victims of the modern world. They especially have a go at Darwin. Yet at the same time Mike and Gabe can’t fully dismiss science which, according to them, has given us microwaves. It’s an interesting balancing act, assisted by special effects such as water being squirted at the audience to demonstrate what the flood felt like. (This made the kid in front of me cry.) Men in White finished and I went off to see the main exhibition.
If you know anything about creationism, you might know that there’s a fairly wide spectrum of beliefs that fall into that category. The Creation Museum subscribes to the particularly nutty flavour of fully literal young-earth creationism. The guide book says, “In the beginning – in six, 24-hour days – god made a perfect creation.” According to the museum, this happened around about 6,000 years ago. The amount of cognitive and intellectual contortion necessary to actually believe this becomes obvious pretty quickly. There are two key framing devices the museum uses to aid with said contortion.
Firstly, it introduces its own historical narrative and paradigm, the “Seven Cs of History”. They are creation, corruption, catastrophe, confusion, Christ, cross, consummation. The entire main exhibition is laid out according to this narrative, starting with creation and moving progressively through biblical history to the modern world, again taking a fair few liberties in the process.
The second device, which is introduced very early on, is the dichotomy between reason and God’s word or revealed truth. So we have lots of exhibits which present us with a physical observation about the universe and then two conflicting “interpretations”, one by human reason and another by God’s word. For instance and exhibit on fossil layers says “God’s word: Fossil layers were formed by Noah’s Flood (~4,350 years ago) and its aftermath. Human Reason: Fossil layers were formed by present processes over millions of years.” This is subversive in two ways: firstly, it attempts to set creationism on an equal footing with science, but claiming to simply apply a different kind of reasoning to the same facts, thus attaching to creationism the credibility of the scientific method; secondly, there is a very strong implication that because both interpretations of the same facts are reasonable and possibly valid (though of course the creationist version is the right one), scientists who reject the creationist interpretation are closed-minded and therefore automatically wrong. Given how much of the exhibition is aimed at families with children, I will let you judge quite how damaging this is.
Now, in many ways it is absolutely pointless to do a point-by-point rebuttal of every single thing that is wrong, misleading or nutty in the exhibition. It would be playing the game by the wingnuts’ rules, and that’s not something I’m prepared to do. However, here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the especially striking cognitive contortions, mostly for amusement value.
You remember the bit from the guide book, about how God created the universe in 6 24-hour days? I wouldn’t have spotted this one, if it hadn’t been for the camp arch-angels, but they kindly mentioned Genesis 1:14 (Gods, I never thought I’d have use for a hotel Bible.), which says “Then Gods said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night’ and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years.'” Which incidentally happened on the fourth day. So up until the fourth day, we have no way of really measuring days or hours. How, therefore, do we know that those first six days in which God created everything were exactly 24 hours long, when hours aren’t even defined yet? This is of course the danger of trying to sound scientific when talking about creationism.
There is the usual hilarity of presenting images of humans walking alongside dinosaurs. At the exit there is even the opportunity to take a photo of your child riding a saddled triceratops. There is also a special exhibit/feature (which I didn’t have time to look into at all) about dragons and dinosaurs. The most amusing part is the series of descriptions of the effects of original sin, which include gems like “According to the Bible, animals and humans have “life” (…), but plants do not. So humans and animals were created to eat plants, and in the original world before sin, humans and animals would never die.” So apparently it was only once original sin had been committed that we started to have carnivores.
Incidentally, the museum very squarely puts original sin on Adam’s shoulders, consistently calling it Adam’s sin. I must admit I’m not 100% sure which version of original sin I prefer: the one that blames women for everything for the rest of eternity, or the one that patronisingly takes responsibility away from Eve, making Adam responsibe for her actions. I’m willing to listen to arguments either way.
Another fun bit is where the exhibition has a go not only at science but also at the wrong kind of Christianity, i.e. Catholicism. Apparently Catholicism is wrong in much the same way as human reason is wrong, in that it relies on human structures and institutions, as well as human interpretation of the truth revealed through the word of God. Apparently this is a big no-no, and one should be taking one’s scripture as the only source of truth, quite literally.
Of course one of the biggest problems young-earth creationism has is the abundant scientific evidence that the universe is rather older than 6,000 years, and so the museum spends a lot effort trying to discredit this, starting with Mike and Gabe and going right through this exhibition. The phrase “millions and millions of years” is repeated in a tone of utter contempt until your little brain can’t think of it any other way.
An entire room of the museum is dedicated to what I would describe as wonders of the universe: beautiful pictures of plants, animals, galaxies, red blood cells, you name it. Even a video explaining how awesome carbon is, and another explaining how the earth is in just the right place in the solar system to support life. The little captions in the corners of the pictures tell you how God created all this, especially for us. The fun bit here is that every time an exhibit claimed that something was too good to have arisen by chance, the only scientific counter argument was the anthropic principle; and I must admit I’m really not a fan of the anthropic principle – it’s cop-out. Than again, I think God’s a rather bigger cop-out. But that room certainly gave me an insight into why some people may want to choose to believe in God as opposed to the anthropic principle.
The exhibition ends with another video show – The Last Adam – which takes us through the final three Cs of history (Christ, Cross, Consummation) by telling the story of the crucifixion and how Christ will save us all. One of the few images I remember from this is that of a very cute lamb which didn’t have to be sacrificed anymore because God had sent his only begotten son, etc. etc. At the end of this, a member of staff encourages us to pick some of the free literature and go out to tell others the good news.
Of course no museum is complete without a gift shop, and the gift shop in the Creation Museum is hardly small. One whole wall is covered in textbooks aimed at homeschooling parents. It is one of the scariest things I have seen in my life. Another scary thing is that the back cover of the guide book is taken up by an advert for a “Christ-centred liberal arts college dedicated to presenting a Biblical worldview in all [their] academic majors”. They “embrace a literal, 6 day, 24 hour creation account”. The associated picture is of scientists in lab coats with lab equipment.
From what I can tell, the museum is making pretty good money which, as I understand it, it funnels into the “Answers in Genesis” ministry. My financial contribution to all this, beyond the entrance fee and my guide book, was a t-shirt with a picture of a dinosaur and the words “Prepare to believe” printed on it. I am looking for suggestions on how to deface it. Suggestions I’ve had so far are “Prepare to believe – in science!” from Paul (where I’m tempted to also add “after carefully examining the evidence”) and “Holy crap!” from @_njd_ over on Titter. I would love some more suggestions on this please.
Overall my trip to the Creation Museum was a highly interesting and education cultural experience. Although I must admit the only reason I’m not running away screaming is that I made a conscious choice to look at the whole thing in a detached way. There are some deeply worrying messages and ideas in the whole thing, and the fact that people believe them – even people I work with – is truly scary.
You can find possibly slightly blurry photos of a lot of the exhibits in the Creation Museum here.