When visitors walk into the Creation Museum, they see a place organized like a museum and, in turn, act accordingly. Visitors wait in line (over 1.8 million as of June 2013), purchase extra options in addition to their general admission fee ($29.95)—such as a film at the on-site planetarium (over 1 million tickets purchased)—and walk through exhibits (capacity at 4,800) in a museum of over 70,000 square feet and counting.[1] The Creation Museum, built in 2007 by Answers in Genesis (AiG) in Kentucky, offers a unique opportunity to examine how the boundaries of scientific authority are negotiated—and to understand where these contestations occur. Examining how creationists secure cultural authority for creation science underscores the continued role of place (physical sites) for social movements seeking to engage the public over issues bound up with science such as evolution.

The Young Earth Creation (YEC) movement draws on both a literal interpretation of the Bible and inductive scientific methods.[2] It may be the best known challenger to the cultural authority of science within the US and internationally. Other science-oriented social movements question the structure of federal government funding for research, the regulation of our bodies, food, and environment, or expansion of medical treatment options available, but generally they leave untouched the authority of science itself. Creationists have different ambitions as they challenge core theories, such as the evolutionary basis of human origins and the monopoly of secular, scientific practitioners over similar issues. While religion and science may not be permanently or inherently at odds with one another, at least since the late nineteenth century in the United States, the boundaries between the two have been fiercely contested. Characterizing broader society as hostile to religion, contemporary YEC mobilizes this perceived conflict to foster its self-conception of being embattled on all sides.

Creationists and a Museum

Creationists marshal all available tools (including creation science, religious teachings, social and moral issues) to show that their claims are pushed outside of the cultural mainstream and de-legitimated as valid knowledge. Here at the Creation Museum, they take these claims and focus them on visitor-centered experiences and interactive technology. After walking through the entrance and ticketing area to enter the Main Hall, the first sight that greets you is a fossil cast replica of a sizeable Mastodon discovered in 1989. It is one of the largest items, in terms of scale, located within the museum. While standing in the Main Hall, you can explore the additional rooms such as the Planetarium if you purchase a ticket for “Created Cosmos.” This show is strikingly similar technologically to many shows at planetariums nationwide, evident in its ability to impress ardent critics like the author of the National Center for Science Education’s museum review, who states, “Overall, the special effects were better than one would expect for such a small planetarium…Other than religious statements and odd references to ‘secular scientists’ most of this could have passed for a good planetarium show”.[3]

The Creation Museum
The Creation Museum

Another prominent example of how creationists portray their claims as relegated to the margins is evident in the “Lucy” exhibit. Lucy is a famous Australopithecus specimen that is often used in displays on human origins in secular museums. In the Creation Museum exhibit the focus is on the traditional depiction and interpretation of Lucy in order to discredit the perspective of evolutionary scientists and paleo-artists. Resident creation scientist Dr. David Menton, a retired Professor of Anatomy with a PhD in Cell Biology from Brown University, describes how the fossil record suggests a knuckle-walking ape rather than an intermediate humanoid biped. To support his objections to dominant interpretations, the exhibit uses cutting-edge hologram technology to overlay known fossils associated with Lucy onto an ape-like figure, visually demonstrating the plausibility of Menton’s arguments.

 

The Creation Museum, however, places front and center what marked the earliest natural history museums: the Bible.

 

In these types of exhibits, YEC targets a longstanding mouthpiece of the scientific establishment—the natural history museum—as the place where the public engages both scientific institutions (and their symbols) along with scientific facts and theories. AiG’s adoption of the natural history museum-form positions their museum in a space long associated with authoritative scientific worldviews. By moving the young earth perspective out of the church and into a museum, creationist advocates expose in a physical, public site the tensions between these two sources of legitimation and belief—but not explicitly so. The Creation Museum cannot look like a church: its visual code must be read as a “museum” rather than as a sacred space. AiG preserves the authority of the museum-form itself and embeds in that place artifacts and interpretations which resist mainstream evolutionary scientific worldviews.

But still, why challenge the natural history museum-form? What’s at stake?

Scientific Sites of Knowledge Production and Controversy: Natural History Museums

Since we tie cultural authority (the likelihood that a claim will be accepted as true) and epistemic credibility to the institution of science, the boundary-work between science and other ways of knowing is extremely important.[4] The “symbols of science,” (i.e. natural history museums) are often front and center at this intersection between science and the public. As anthropologist Christopher Toumey expressed it, “The connection between the substantive meaning of science and the popular symbols of science was so weak [in the nineteenth and twentieth century] that the symbols could easily be borrowed, co-opted, or stolen for the benefit of ideologies, policies, and commodities that did not necessarily have anything to do with the substance of science”.[5] In other words, my goal is not to evaluate the validity of creationist claims in and of themselves, but to analyze how the museum-form is extended as a “symbol of science” deployed to secure cultural authority for those claims.

A mastodon skeleton
A mastodon skeleton

Physical characteristics of museums, such as the architectural design of the building, flow and organization of the exhibits, and the technology used to display content, all affect perceived credibility. The content and theories undergirding an exhibit often shaped the physical layout of the museum. Prior to the twentieth century, not only was the content of museums often regarded by patrons and scientists as a display of God’s work, but the very form and structure of the museum physically reflected an intertwining of religion and science. One prominent example of this can be seen in the natural history museum in Oxford. In 1859, Henry Acland, a physician and proponent of natural science, inserted a portal sculpture where he erected an arch pointing toward God.[6] However, by the late nineteenth century, Darwin’s theory began to influence the design of natural history museums. With this also came the now familiar linear routes, which moved visitors sequentially from one room to the next. The museum visit became an organized walk through evolutionary time.[7]By the early twentieth century, the form and content of a reputable natural history museum was firmly established.

 

The Scopes Trial is portrayed as the beginning of a cultural crisis in America, one which led to a range of societal ills such as abortion, divorce, and even racism.

 

Historians and sociologists who are interested in museums have usually examined them as places where the cultural authority of mainstream science is reproduced—not as places where the cultural legitimacy of science is challenged. I am not suggesting that these scholars regard museums as uncontested institutions; volumes of scholarship demonstrate otherwise. But challenges are more focused on social history, not explicitly on science and its impacts. Exhibits such as the Enola Gay (an aircraft used during WWII to drop an atomic bomb) at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, are well-known and subject to much scholarly and public attention, but these types of controversies are not as closely related to what is often presented and debated within natural history museums .[8] Largely, science-oriented museums have sought to avoid confrontation.

The Creation Museum as a Symbol of Science

Ultimately, how does one make sense of the Creation Museum and its relationship to science by way of natural history museums? I argue the Creation Museum evokes many of the “symbols of science” associated with the natural history museum-form: façade style, surrounding grounds, large main hall, numerous exhibits with objects and plaques offering fact-oriented descriptions and interpretations. Yet its advocacy for dual sources of authority (science and religion) and its evangelical mission is front and center. The current relevance of the Bible’s Old Testament and historical challenges to biblical authority in the classroom (notably materialized in the 1925 Scopes Trial) are covered in detail within one exhibit. The Scopes Trial is portrayed as the beginning of a cultural crisis in America, one which led to a range of societal ills such as abortion, divorce, and even racism. By coupling the presentation of fossil casts with technical videos covering the feasibility of a global flood and scripture, AiG is unabashedly displaying an alternative explanation of human and natural history.

This is not to suggest that the Creation Museum is an outdated exemplar of the past, attempting to adopt just enough of the look and feel of contemporary natural history museums standards to evoke its own “museumness.” The Kentucky-based museum does indeed conform to many visitors’ expectations about what constitutes a museum, but, importantly for AiG, there are also features that evoke more explicit religious references as well. The argument that a built structure engenders multiple references is hardly novel. The Creation Museum, however, places front and center what marked the earliest natural history museums: the Bible. Ultimately, AiG built the Creation Museum as a means to challenge evolutionary science’s monopoly over the natural history museum-form. AiG offers a place, rather than a rhetorical theology or scientific debate, for adherents and curious visitors to engage their “side” of the perceived debate over cultural authority. In doing so, they move the public sphere of negotiations between science and religion onto a new terrain. These creationists draw credibility for their beliefs by housing them in a structure—a natural history museum—that carries its own legitimizing authority as a trustworthy repository of artifacts.


Kathleen C. Oberlin is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Grinnell College. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled Mobilizing Epistemic Conflict: The Creation Museum and the Creationist Social Movement. This research was funded by multiple sources including the National Science Foundation.

 

[1] http://alarryross.com/newsroom/creation-museum/general-information

[2] The focus is on Young Earth Creationists i.e., close interpretation of the Bible, belief that the earth is 6,000 years old, life started in 4004 BC, and not Old Earth Creationism (OEC) i.e., many variations in terms of explanation for the age of the earth, but often it is in accordance with mainstream geologic accounts in terms of billions of years old. Intelligent Design is often associated with OEC, which asserts that a creator/designer was involved in the origins of human life et cetera.

[3] Daniel Phelps, “The Anti-Museum: An Overview and Review of the Answers in Genesis Creation ‘Museum,’” in National Center for Science Education Bulletin (Oakland, CA: National Center for Science Education, 2008).

[4] Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, Volume 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 212; Thomas F. Gieryn, “Boundary Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists,” American Sociological Review 6 (1983).

[5] Christopher P. Toumey, God’s Own Scientists: Creationists in a Secular World (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 20.

[6] Carla Yanni, Nature’s Museums: Victorian Science and the Architecture of Display (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999).

[7] Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[8] Gieryn, Thomas F. 1983. “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Science from Non-Science: Strains and Interests in Professional Ideologies of Scientists” American Sociological Review 48 (6): 781-795.

All images courtesy of author.

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