Genesis in hyperreality: legitimizing disingenuous controversy at the creation museum.

Author:Kelly, Casey Ryan
Position::Essay
 
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For approaching visitors, relatively little distinguishes the entrance to the Creation Museum from mainstream nature and science museums. The 70,000 square-foot museum rests on 47 acres of farmland in Petersburg, Kentucky, within a 10 minute drive of the Cincinnati airport. The parking lot entrance is framed by metallic outlines of stegosauruses atop brown and white stone walls, and the museum's modern architecture is highlighted by a facade of cement columns framing floor-to-ceiling dark-tinted windows. On an average weekday, visitors can expect to see buses lined up to deliver groups of school children on field trips, retirees, and tourists who frequently pose before a copper-painted replica of a stegosaurus which greets visitors near the building's entrance. The lobby contains both a scale model of NASA's first planetarium projector as well as a Creation Museum press-a-penny machine. The main hall, an enormous 3-story room, features a fossil replica of a mastodon skeleton and an animatronic sauropod in a lush primeval forest. Graphic designer Rothstein (2008) observes that the scene "seems like the kind of exhibit on Paleolithic life you might find at a natural history museum" (p. 97). Though the building retains the aesthetic markers of a natural history museum, a second glance reveals that this is a very different kind of museum. Just below the sauropod, an animatronic display depicts two children wearing animal skin garments who appear to be frolicking with two small dinosaurs. As visitors move beyond the lobby, they are directed to take heed of a sign inscribed with the museum's slogan: "Prepare to Believe."

Founded by a $27 million grant from the Australian-based apologetics ministry, Answers in Genesis (AIG), the Creation Museum was established to counter the preponderance of scientific evidence for human evolution. Historically, apologetics is a strand of religious discourse which seeks to reconcile Christian faith with modernity by defending religious beliefs as scientific principles. AIG's uniquely sectarian uptake of apologetics leads them to posit that religious beliefs are, in fact, the only scientific principles. Identifying as Young Earth Creationists, AIG ministries believe in the "the insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about the development of all living kinds" and "a relatively recent inception of the earth" (La Follette as cited in Pennock, 2001b, p. 758-759). Therefore, Young Earth Creationists deem the Book of Genesis a literal scientific and historic account of the origins of life (Kitcher, 1983; Ruse, 2005). Young Earth Creationism is distinct from Intelligent Design (ID), or reformed creationism, which is premised on a more moderate and quasi-scientific belief system which accepts some features of evolutionary biology including natural selection and the common lineage of humans and apes (Pennock, 2001a; Sarkar, 2007). By and large, creationists have been unwilling to compromise with science and have sought to advance their beliefs in a variety of public forums, ranging from education to the press (Taylor, 1992; Taylor & Condit, 1988). With the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as a substantive legal barrier to teaching Christianity in public schools, creationists have sought out other venues in which they might establish themselves as legitimate stakeholders in a public controversy over scientific theory (Duncan, 2009; Haarscher, 2009; Numbers, 2006). Now, creationists have begun to utilize the form and style of science and natural history to pursue an alternative approach to legitimize their worldviews and contest evolution. Mark Looy, Vice President of Ministry Relations for AIG, explains that the museum is an "evangelistic center" designed to present "the evidence that supports Genesis and shows them [visitors] that they don't need to compromise with the evolutionists" (Looy as cited in Asma, 2007, para. 24, 27). According to Looy, the museum challenges visitors "with the question, why would an all-powerful, all-knowing God use something so cruel and wasteful as Darwinian evolution?" (as cited in Asma, 2007, para. 27).

Although it is likely that a majority of visitors share the museum's religious perspective, the choice of the museum setting as the platform for advocating creationist beliefs is nonetheless noteworthy. Since the late 19th century, the public museum has become an important sign of cultural authority. Over the course of the last century, nature and science museums have become central sites for public awareness and understanding of evolution. According to Asma (2007), the "rhetorical mission" of flagship U.S. museums such as Chicago's Field Museum, New York's American Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of Natural History "was to help average citizens to appreciate the general evolutionary history of the fossils, skeletons, and taxidermy on display" (para. 35). Conn (1998) suggests that the spectacular displays of dinosaur skeletons propelled the early growth of natural history museums. By one estimate, there were 300 nature and science museums in the United States by 2000 with approximately 115 million visitors per year (Franklin Institute, 1999). Over the past century, these museums have increasingly designed displays with schoolchildren in mind as their primary audience (Conn, 2010). Although only 32% of Americans believe that evolution is a valid scientific explanation for life as it exists today (Pew, 2009), public elementary education has increasingly turned to the museum to introduce students to the concept. By adopting the formal structure of the nature and science museum, including the display of dinosaur fossils, the Creation Museum provides a site where Young Earth Creationists can take their children to "see the dinosaurs" without compromising their beliefs. Moreover, the museum announces to visitors that creationists believe that there is still an ongoing and genuine debate among scientists about evolution in spite of prevailing scientific consensus.

Alternatively, the choice of the museum platform poses some challenges for advocates of creationism. Traditionally, a museum's identity has rested upon its display of objects presented as material evidence of the natural and human history of our planet (Pearce, 1992). Although the Creation Museum is advertised as a tourist attraction on the basis of its museum status, it does not house an accessioned collection, a central criterion for being recognized as a museum by the American Association of Museums (American Association of Museums, 2000). As a matter of rhetorical strategy, the very act of naming the site a museum, rather than a religious center, frames AIG's project within the technical sphere of natural history and draws its credibility from accepted practices of collection and display. As a matter of practicality, perhaps it is obvious that the imperative of drawing upon a collection cannot be fulfilled at the Creation Museum because physical remnants are not available as evidence for events described in the Book of Genesis such as the creation of Adam or the Great Flood. Consequently, the Creation Museum demonstrates the materiality of creationist thinking through its display of objects that are, by and large, created for the museum or manufactured recently. Although the Creation Museum adopts the aesthetics and stylization of nature and science museums, it rejects the foundational premises underlying scientific argument that human beings can understand the natural world through careful observation and reasoning (Pearce, 1992). By extension, the museum disregards the modernist assumptions upon which most nature and science museum displays rest. The Creation Museum has thus faced criticism from the academic community for presenting religious explanations for human origins as scientifically valid (Asma, 2007; Byassee, 2008; Kahle, 2008; Krause, 2007; Shermer, 2009; Williams, 2008).

Despite criticisms, its revenues and high volume of visitors indicate that the museum has been fairly successful. The museum receives approximately 400,000 visitors annually, recording its one millionth on April 26, 2010 (Answers in Genesis, 2010). Between its 350 annual seminars, 50,000 magazine subscribers, 9,000 charter members donations, and tax-exempt status, the institution remains debt-free (Duncan, 2009; Rothstein, 2007). In addition to ticket sales, MG generates $5.6 million in gross annual revenue in merchandise sales from the museum gift shop. The success of the museum has also spurred a for-profit venture between AIG and Ark Encounter LLC to build a Noah's Ark themed amusement park just miles from the museum. The $172 million cost will be defrayed by $43.1 million in tax rebates under Kentucky's Tourist Development Act (Meador, 2011). AIG has garnered political, financial, and cultural capital by successfully tapping into the mass appeal of museums and profitability of a $4 billion religious entertainment industry comprised of evangelical Christian consumers (Ward, 2008).

The Creation Museum's popularity rests at least partially on visitors' knowledge of established museum conventions as both a source of credibility and its point of departure. Put differently, the stylistic appropriation of the natural history museum is designed to function as an authoritative sign of creationism's scientific veracity without providing visitors with evidence that creationism could withstand scientific scrutiny. The museum provides an unhindered and culturally authoritative space in which creationists can visually craft the appearance that there is an ongoing scientific controversy over matters long settled in the scientific community. In this essay, we analyze the displays and layout of the Creation Museum as argumentative texts to explain how the museum negotiates its own purported status as a museum with its ideological mission to promulgate support for a biblical...

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