Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Creation Museum: Is It a Museum or a Church?

---In response to Leah Arroyo’s “Science on Faith at the Creation Museum, Museum News, Nov./Dec. 2007 and Edward Rothstein’s “Adam and Eve in the Land of the Dinosaurs,” New York Times, 24 May 2007.

Should institutions like the recently opened Creation Museum exist at all? Is it a museum or a church?

The debate over whether such a “museum” should exist reminds me of many debates from the past that continue to survive among some. One debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century was rooted in the idea of science becoming an integral part of public education. Arnold, a headmaster himself and noted poet, believed that life’s mysteries would be lost with the adoption of science to school curriculum. The knowledge that such mysteries about life existed were to him more valuable than nurturing the ability to explain all that lay before us through science.

It was the romantic William Wordsworth who authored that famous line: “We murder to dissect,” which, in essence, became a jeremiad for intellectuals like Arnold who believed that modern science would succeed at devaluing life itself through the act of “dissecting” it and thoroughly discovering how it worked. Huxley was one of the first evolutionists and his explanation of the beginning of life was a great challenge to Arnold and other like thinkers who believed the answers to these questions about man’s past had already been answered and that religious faith alone was its only test of accuracy. Contemporaries of Arnold like John Henry Cardinal Newman went so far as to belief that the fossils that evolutionists like Huxley held up as tangible evidence of their theories had been placed in the ground as a test of individual faith by God.

Here we are some one hundred and fifty years later with a Creation Museum in our American backyard, but interestingly enough the old argument that required us to choose between one explanation or another, as resulted from the earlier debates, has instead been given an irritating twist. It seems that faith alone is good enough for selling whatever version of the beginning that official creationist dogma deems the truth in Cincinnati’s suburbs. In fact, with the idea that dinosaurs once roamed the Earth more mainstream than ever, and seemingly unchallengeable to ever greater numbers, some creationists have found it convenient to adopt the prehistoric as part of their official genesis story regardless of the fact that these thunder lizards are never mentioned specifically in the Bible. Such textual ambiguities and lack of references in the Bible have served those wishing to push particular agendas in the past so why not now. Some have explained that God’s six day work week for the creation project may not have been 24 hour long days as we recognize them to be today. It may have been some longer period of time. If such accommodations are accepted, why not also explain that these days of undefined length may have begun with dinosaurs in a distant past and ended with more recent occurrences, like, for example, 20,000 years ago, when the beginning of man’s residency on Earth has often been marked.

Given the long establishment of secularized education and a mainstream acceptance of scientific authority, some creationists are using this new strategy of inclusion to win over converts. They mix and match science with their own interpretations of scripture-based “truth” about man’s beginning. What better means of delivery of their interpretation cum creationist view “adapted for modern readers” than through the apparatus of a modern-day museum.

I find this especially troubling because these creationists have turned the whole notion of the secularized museum on its ear. They have done what the most heinous of propagandists of the past have done and adopted new mediums to repackage their message for an audience susceptible to the lure of flash and spectacle as a reliable source of truth. Many may argue that this is no different than religious murals of the past but shouldn’t greater literacy in the modern era made this type of propaganda obsolete? The child-like vision of the beginning as realized three-dimensionally at the Creation Museum, may be an indicator of just who is being won over to this “truth” of the beginning.

In a recent article, one visitor is quoted as saying that” You can’t leave here without knowing the truth (Arroyo 2007).” Whose truth? In a nation that is often defined as evenly divided politically it is safe to bet that what is considered “truth” is, at least, bipolar not only politically but between those who give credence to evolutionary theory and those who don’t. Given this possibility, it is necessary that an equally strong presentation of the established opposing scientific view of “creation” be available to the public currently served by this new “museum.” The democratic conception of education itself necessitates that alternative truths be given a platform by which citizens can make informed decisions. With only a Creation Museum proximate to a portion of the population, this singular “truth” goes unchallenged.

The fact that promoters of “intelligent design” dismiss the possibility of offering “hypotheses subject to change in light of new data” ignores one of the basic premises of modern education, the adoption of the scientific method for processing knowledge itself, so, indeed, the Creation Museum is not a museum as the concept of museums has come to be popularly defined in this or many other countries. The “museum” serves as a respected institution for disseminating religious propaganda and dogma, and because of this it is more accurately a reconstituted church.

Because the Creation Museum makes use of the concept of “museum” as part of its identity, we should be alarmed. It is why it is the job of ICOM, AAM, and other museum organizations to educate people everywhere, including the Cincinnati area, that this is not a museum like other museums. After all, Ken Ham, AIG’s president and co-founder, admits himself that this museum is the work of “scriptwriters and designers.” Scriptwriters are responsible for fictions as well as “true stories,” but unlike them the curators of natural history museums are held up to a standard by which they act as facilitators of tangible evidence and more universally held theories rather than scripting the authorized and indisputable “truths” of a minority of church leaders.

This “museum” should receive nonprofit status as a church, and forgo the claim of being a museum and any of the funding that legitimate museums are deserving of. The success of this “museum” would undoubtedly initiate others to follow its model, but I have faith that such museums will only succeed at selling their ideas when they go unchallenged. Legitimate natural history museums offer what the Creation Museum doesn’t, and that is a necessary openness to new discoveries and a willingness to revise their theories rather than to promote unchallengeable absolutes.