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Credibility, Profitability, and Irrefutability

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Credibility, Profitability, and Irrefutability: Why Creationists are Building Museums
Author(s): 
Julie Duncan
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
5
Year: 
2009
Date: 
September–October
Page(s): 
17–20
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

I was a junior in high school when I first read that Answers in Genesis was planning to build a $27-million–dollar creationist museum just minutes from my home. The creationism/evolution "debate" had long been an interest of mine, and when my like-minded father left a clipped newspaper article about the museum on my desk with the words "uh oh!" scrawled across the top, I was dismayed to read that my town would soon be embroiled in evangelical fervor.

The museum seemed to mark a new direction for the creationist movement — and, I worried, seemed poised to bring creationist thought into the mainstream. When the museum opened in 2007, I was immediately struck by its technological and aesthetic sophistication. I had known, of course, that there were going to be animatronic dinosaurs, but I was blown away by what I saw. Everything — the displays, the labels, the movies, even the landscaping — was even more impressive than I had imagined.

Timothy Heaton (2007) and Daniel Phelps (2008) have already provided detailed descriptions of the museum's interior, so I will refer readers to those accounts of the facility. However, what I saw that day — and what over 714 000 others had seen by June of 2009 (Leichman 2009) — convinced me that there was something more to this museum than just a scientific façade. Creationists had been appropriating scientific language since at least the 1960s; that was nothing new. What was new was the museum itself. Why, I wondered, had creationists suddenly decided to build this museum instead of, say, a new megachurch or a Bible school? What is it about a museum that makes it particularly well suited to creationists' purposes?

Three for the Road

It is this question that I have worked to answer over the past year and a half. To do so, I investigated not only the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum but also three other creationist museums in other parts of the country. I analyzed their displays, interviewed their founders and employees, made note of the items for sale in their gift shops, and tried to determine just what each museum's purpose was.

The first of these was the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas, founded in 1984 by Carl Baugh — perhaps best known as host of Trinity Broadcasting Network's "Creationism in the 21st Century". The museum has three main attractions: Baugh's Creation in Symphony video, a Bible-based reconstruction of the phases through which the earth has passed or will pass "from Genesis to Revelation"; a 20-meter–long "hyperbaric biosphere," inside which Baugh claims to have simulated the conditions of the pre-Flood world in "controlled, scientific experiment[s]" (Baugh 1997); and a number of fossilized footprints he insists were made by humans. These footprints are Baugh's most treasured pieces of evidence, as he believes they prove that dinosaurs and humans lived contemporaneously — and therefore that the evolutionary time scale is flawed. Accordingly, Baugh built his museum along the road leaving Dinosaur Valley State Park — a place famous for its well-preserved dinosaur footprints — in the hope that it "would cause people to question the state park's version of prehistory" (Henry 1996).

My second visit was to Pensacola's Dinosaur Adventure Land (DAL), billed as the place "where dinosaurs and the Bible meet" (Hovind nd-a). DAL was founded by and constructed in the backyard of Kent Hovind. In 1989, Hovind had founded Creation Science Evangelism (CSE), a creationist ministry, and it was under the auspices of this organization — located on the same property — that DAL was built (DAL staff nd). According to Hovind, CSE's mission is to demonstrate "the perfect harmony of the Biblical record with factual science and history" as well as "the fallacies and deceptions of modern evolutionary thinking" (Hovind nd-b). With numerous outdoor, hands-on activities — each with "a science lesson to make you smarter, a physical challenge to make you tired, and a Bible lesson to bring you closer to the Lord" — Dinosaur Adventure Land's message is clearly directed toward children. As Hovind explains on his Ideas for Starting a Creation Ministry CD (2006), this dinosaur theme is a particularly valuable tool "to draw the kids in, to be able to talk to them."

Finally, I visited the Museum of Creation and Earth History (MCEH) in Santee, California. From 1992 to 2008, this museum belonged to the Institute for Creation Research, an organization that has been called "the intellectual center of the creationist movement" (Schudel 2006). During that time the museum offered free admission and received, according to then-curator Cindy Carlson, about 15 000 visitors per year (2008). The museum's displays closely mirror the contents of founder Henry Morris's book The Genesis Flood (Whitcomb and Morris 1961), and they serve much the same purpose: in Carlson's words, to help believers "integrate the creationist worldview with science" (2008). Indeed, much more than any of the other three museums I visited, the MCEH portrays creationism as a no-nonsense, intellectually tenable scientific theory. In 2008, after its move to Dallas, the ICR sold this museum to the Life and Light Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that plans to expand the museum's collections (LLF nd).

Why Build a Museum?

Scientific credibility

There are at least three significant and interrelated reasons for which creationists build these museums. First, museums have a long history as places of both scientific research and of public education. The modern museum's earliest ancestors are the wunderkammer, "cabinets of curiosity" that sprung up in the homes of the rich and the royal during the European Renaissance. Though these collections were generally unorganized and served mainly as entertainment and status symbols in polite culture, they did contribute to scientific studies, especially when lists and pictures of their contents were published (Olmi 1985: 6; Crane 2000: 65). In the 18th and early 19th centuries, as the works of Linnaeus and Buffon sparked interest in classification of the natural world, natural history museums — still private institutions — became more focused on expanding and ordering their collections so they might be useful for scientific studies, especially comparative anatomy (Farber 2000: 55). By the end of the 19th century, however, governments and corporations had begun actively supporting the construction of these "cathedrals of science" and making their collections available to the masses (Farber 2000: 88–90). The museums, still accompanied by large, behind-the-scenes research staffs and filled with exotic trophies of empire, enjoyed wide popularity. By the 20th century they had established a reputation as "centers of education and public enlightenment" (Alexander and Alexander 2008: 7), an image still quite popular today. By calling their institutions museums instead of "Bible centers" or "Faith parks," then, creationists automatically appropriate for their institutions this reputation for credibility and education.

It might seem ironic that creationists would be interested in building "cathedrals of science". They do, after all, reject a scientific theory supported by the vast majority of practicing scientists. However, creationists have shown themselves to be just as fond of science as other Americans; they simply believe that creationism is science. Both in these museums and in popular creationist literature, they argue that there is a purely scientific debate going on over evolution: a disagreement not between religious thinkers and scientists but between scientists who appear to be equally credentialed. As historian of science Steven Shapin notes, when experts disagree, the problem becomes "deciding who the scientific experts really are" (Shapin 2004: 46). At that point, Shapin argues, the layman is forced to perform a sort of "moral evaluation," favoring those experts "whom we can trust … to do good" (Shapin 2004: 48).

The creation museums exploit this idea, asking their visitors to make a similar moral evaluation when deciding whom to trust. Creationists, of course, are connected to God, the Bible, and the Christian way, encouraging visitors to trust in their morality as well as their scientific expertise. Then, by connecting evolutionists with things like racism, genocide, and communism, the museums' displays suggest that evolutionists are morally bankrupt, greatly diminishing their perceived authority.

Learning (and earning) while entertaining

The second crucial quality of museums is that they provide entertainment, unlike churches or Bible schools (in most cases). This is important for two reasons. First, it is a common belief that people of all ages, and especially children, learn better when they are having fun. Hooper-Greenhill (2007) reports that "teachers saw pleasurable experiences as central to effective learning" and that they saw a trip to the museum as "an opportunity to generate enjoyment" (Hooper-Greenhill 2007: 122). By teaching with a method that is "more 'fun' than using books" (Hooper-Greenhill 2007: 146), then, creation museums make it more likely that visitors will retain the message promoted therein. This is particularly true at Dinosaur Adventure Land, with its child-oriented focus on interactive learning, and at the Answers in Genesis museum, with its entertaining videos, impressive animatronic dinosaurs, and overall pleasant design. As Annalee Ward, a professor at Trinity Christian College, notes, these museums "are becoming major media venues that persuade as they delight" (Ward 2008: 164).

The entertainment value of museums is significant for another reason: revenue. At least since the days of Barnum's American Museum (founded in 1841 by PT Barnum, of circus fame), it has been known that offering crowds a glimpse at the strange or exotic — even if it means blurring the line between fact and fiction — can mean big money. In much the same way, the material on display in creation museums attracts big crowds. In addition to the price of admission, there are concessions, parking, and gift-shop items. According to Ward, that clientele represents a significant potential for revenue: "evangelicals are the primary market for a more than $4-billion-a-year religious entertainment industry" (Ward 2008: 164).

The Creation Evidence Museum takes in relatively little money — in 2007 Baugh reported just a little over $400 000 in total revenue and paid himself a salary of just $71 730 (IRS 2007a: 5). This situation is probably due to the museum's relatively isolated location and rather rudimentary displays. For the most part, the Institute for Creation Research, too, seems to make good on its promise that no employee is in it for the money (Morris nd): in 2007, Institute President John Morris, one of only two paid members of the ten-member board of trustees, made just $89 049 (IRS 2007b: 22) — a modest salary for the president of a large organization living in expensive San Diego.

For Dinosaur Adventure Land and Answers in Genesis, however, the story is quite different. The IRS reported that Kent Hovind made bank deposits in excess of $1 million per year before being jailed for tax fraud, suggesting that Creation Science Evangelism and Dinosaur Adventure Land were performing well (AP 2004). Answers in Genesis reported over $20 million in assets in 2006 and was paying Ken Ham a salary of $188 655 (IRS 2006: 18). At least four other employees were earning more than $100 000 per year (IRS 2006: 18–20) — and this was in 2006, the year before the museum opened. It is unclear why Answers in Genesis's 2007 tax returns are still (as of May 2009) unavailable, but considering that the $27-million museum opened without a penny of debt, the $20 admission fee (plus $5 for the planetarium show and more from bookstore and online merchandise sales) multiplied over more than 714 000 visitors has surely resulted in substantial revenue since then.

Unchallenged assertions

The third probable motivation for building a museum — and the one I consider most revealing — is that museums appear to speak directly to "the people" without intervention on the part of mainstream scientists or government officials as would be encountered in legal battles. In other words, museums are a medium in which creationist claims can go unchallenged. This seems to be part of a larger movement by creationists away from high-profile court cases over the evolution issue and toward the goal of, as AiG put it, "get[ting] information to the people" and "influenc[ing] the culture" (Ham 2008) from the ground up. Historian of science Ronald Numbers points out that this trend appears to have begun in the late 1980s, after creationists suffered "a string of losses in state assemblies and a series of negative decisions in federal courts" (Numbers 2006: 354). It was then that they "shifted from headline-grabbing legislative battles to quiet persuasion among teachers and school-board members" (Numbers 2006: 354). It seems likely that these museums, especially in the wake of defeat in Kitzmiller v Dover (2005), are part of this broader shift from legislative battles — and, perhaps, attempts to impose creationist belief — to persuasion on a local or individual level.

Because museums occupy a unique position in our society as places of both education and entertainment, it may be most accurate to think of them as a kind of "middle path" between the truly popular doctrinal media — things like books, DVDs, and Christian music groups, which appeal to a wide variety of believers — and the more academic "intelligent design", which appeals to a subgroup of believers concerned with their religion's scientific legitimacy. By incorporating elements of both the popular and the scientific — not just animatronic dinosaurs and sing-along musicals, but numbers and graphs, too — museums achieve a much more universal appeal.

Repercussions for Science

What makes all of this important are the repercussions these museums are likely to have for science. First, the museums drastically and independently change the definition of science. According to their view of science, appealing to the supernatural to explain observed phenomena is perfectly acceptable and even desirable. The "presupposition" that the Bible is true is just as legitimate as an a priori commitment to naturalism. As historian of science Peter Bowler notes, however, this is not so much a redefinition of science as "an excuse for stopping science in its tracks" (Bowler 2007: 213). In this view, a divine being could be invoked to account for any unexplained natural phenomena, rendering experimental support unnecessary. Furthermore, science as creationists define it would be teleological. That is, the ultimate results of any investigation would be predetermined, as they would have to conform to the Bible. The openness of mainstream science, a discipline whose practitioners have long boasted of its inability to "prove" anything (being capable only of disproving a hypothesis) would be eliminated.

Just as important, by setting up a rigid dichotomy between evolution and creationism, these museums suggest that "[e]vidence against one position is support for the other position" (Riddle 2004). Thus, any time scientists disagree or when part of a theory remains unresolved (for example, Does the Oort Cloud really exist? How exactly did life begin?), museum visitors are taught not that these are interesting questions deserving of further study but that they are "fallacies" whose very existence is further evidence for creationism.

Mainstream natural history museums, those "cathedrals of science", are being affected, too. In 2005, The New York Times reported that museum docents across the country were struggling to deal with "creationists eager to challenge the museum exhibitions on evolution" (Dean 2005). Answers in Genesis now sells museum, zoo, and aquarium guides that creationists can take with them and use for alternative, biblically correct interpretations of the displays. With those guides in hand, it is probable that creationists will feel even more confident in their questioning.

What is more, companies such as BC Tours — "where we are BC [biblically correct] and not PC" (Jack and Carter 2008) — have begun offering their own tours through mainstream museums on which visitors may learn "biblically correct" science (Rooney and Patria 2009). The Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, is just one of many American museums forced to provide its workers with additional training in evolution in response to an influx of questioning creationists (Dean 2005). Though this influx is not due entirely to the effect creation museums are having on their visitors, it certainly cannot hurt that creationists now have their own impressive museums to contradict the ideas put forward in those of the mainstream.

Significance for Creationist Movement

With knowledge of these four creation museums, their methods, and their purposes, two important conclusions may be drawn about the state and direction of the modern American creationist movement. First, these museums are just one part of a larger shift in the creationist movement away from high-profile, "top-down" attempts to win recognition and classroom time for creationism. Like books, documentaries, and the internet — all of which have been utilized extensively by the creationist movement — creation museums have the ability to go "straight to the people." While court cases require that both sides receive an equal hearing, the museums can and do provide a one-sided view of the creation–evolution "debate", circumventing any rebuttals from scientific authorities.

Second, creation museums are part of the creationist reaction to the "conflict model" (Russell 1935; White 1876; Draper 1881) so entrenched in Western conceptualizations of the relationship between religion and science, which suggests not only that science and religion are "at war" but also that science has generally prevailed. By insisting that creationism is science, however, creation museums have collapsed the distinction between religion and science, fundamentally changing the space for debate; for how can creationism — which is itself a science — be against science? The dichotomy they have created is not a battle between religion and science but between two sciences, one moral and one immoral.

If one may judge by the remarkable success of the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky, the largest and most recently constructed of the four, creation museums are no passing trend. Millions of Americans agree with their messages, and hundreds of thousands patronize them each year. It seems very probable that the years to come will see the construction of more museums, most likely in the high-tech style of the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, which has proven quite lucrative.

References

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About the Author(s): 

Julie Duncan
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
ncseoffice@ncse.com

Julie Duncan is a native of Burlington, Kentucky, and a 2009 graduate of Harvard College, where she majored in history and science. This article is adapted from her senior thesis, "Faith Displayed as Science: The Role of the 'Creation Museum' in the Modern American Creationist Movement", which was awarded Harvard's Thomas T Hoopes Prize. She recently began her first year at Yale Law School, where she plans to study constitutional law