Monday, October 6, 2014

The day I went to the Creation Museum (and found ontology and had a lesbian moment, but actually not very much about Jesus).

Please note that this blog post is image heavy (at the bottom). 

...or I spent time at the Creation Museum in Kentucky and I had revelations (not to be confused with Revelations). 

Some folks might be aware that I am currently completing a major research project that has included four years of visiting more than 400 national and nationally-significant museums around the world.  I was funded by the Australian Research Council and some of this material has already been published with a whole of project summary to be found in the book I'm completing for publication (hopefully) next year.

Along the way I visited some remarkable museums. The project examines their capacity to represent and engage First Peoples in their museum space. It was focused on the museums rather than the communities, because as more than one community member told me before I started the research, "communities already know what works, it's the museums that don't get it", I was told again and again that focusing on communities and their expectations would fail to identify the deficit engagement. Actually the project focuses not on deficits but on what these sometimes very fraught places do well.

But along the way I came across a conundrum in the form of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.   I'm still not sure if I'm going to write it up in the book I'm working on right now, it doesn't really meet the brief,  but I found out some important things about how museums talk about ontology by examining this space.

So, I don't aim to make this blog entry a cheap shot at the Creation Museum, it's too crucial at the moment in the space of winning hearts and minds and in the impact it has on other museums for that to accurately reflect my feelings after I visited.   Let me put up some photos and tell you about my experience and what I did learn, cos while it might not be terribly illuminating, it got me thinking in a different way about successful positioning of ontological views to a wider audience - and yes, this bit I am writing up right now and some is included below - though I've personalised it a wee bit.

In 2011 I visited the Creation Museum for the first time.  I know some of you may be wondering why or trying to draw a link between the major national museums and the Keeping Places of the Potawatomi, Northern Cherokee, Mashantucket Pequot, or Saginaw Chippewa Nations. I went there because I had heard an informal damning criticism from a mainstream academic on the representation of community ontologies as a central, universal truth.   They were talking about creation stories displayed in the NMAI, in large mainstream institutions and in First Peoples' museums.   And they were arguing to me that by presenting these ontologies they were creating fantasies about the past that would make their experiences harder for mainstream audiences to connect with.

I was intrigued by the criticism, cos my experience (and at that stage I had only reviewed about 30 museums of an eventual 400+ when the comment was made) had been that First Peoples' museums often presented their own ontological view with a very clear idea that it was what they believed rather than as a 'universal' truth, and in fact not one single First Peoples' museum that I would end up visiting, would present their ontology as a worldwide all-peoples experience.  The same scientist told me that if we presented Christianity in the encyclopedic museum in the same way, it would undermine the message.

So... this started to inform some of my thoughts... at best it made it's way into the back of my mind. I had heard about the formation of the Creation Museum and had heard some criticisms.  They had focused on the idea that it was presenting a singular view that was challenging and that did not accommodate 'truth'.   Which of course I found fascinating, given that I was viewing a lot of museums that presented a world views that may prove challenging to scientists. Well, obviously a lot of scientists are not challenged by alternative world views, and I don't mean to suggest it, but by examining the Creation Museum I got a kernel of information that helped me better understand some of the underlying issues that were expressed to me.

First a warning, or a comment or something... full disclosure, I guess.  I don't think it's clever or interesting to attack Christians or people who hold onto beliefs that differ from mine.   But as we go further down through the photos, there is a criticism that this space is neither Christian nor does it follow ideas of ontological alternatives presented in First Nations' or First Peoples' museums, and that is intriguing.   Interestingly I have some similar concerns about Natural History museums in their reaction to this phenomenon... and I'll try to articulate these here.

Over the range of the museums that were developed by First Nations and First Peoples, I've found the thing they share is one of aspiration, hope and a focus on the present and the future.  As with most social history museums they also focus, at least in some part, on the past - often providing a context for their present.   It was with some knowledge of this that I found my way to Kentucky to visit the Creation Museum.

And if, as these photos begin, you're screaming what has this got to do with being a lesbian (or an Indigenous person for that matter), I'm hoping I address it a bit further down.  Again this isn't some kind of easy joking around about Creationism or Christianity. If I were doing that about First Peoples, not a soul reading this wouldn't be on me, and rightly so.  The criticism, it will emerge, is about how and why this museum operates in a fundamentally different way to the First Peoples museums that I've visited and why I think they could learn a thing or two from how we do it.

Going to the Creation Museum
I arrived at the museum on a weekday in October 2011,  some family groups including some home-schoolers were milling around;  it was very busy.  On checking the time-stamp on my photos and my notes, I realise that it was not over a school vacation period, and the place was packed.   Having now visited so many museums, I have to say that this is very unusual for museums where there is no entry fee, but for a museum that has a relatively high fee, this was a surprise.

I got there mid-morning, and had all of that day and the next to investigate the museum, go through each exhibit and at one point I even (unofficially) talked to a museum visitor engagement officer, to which I politely and accurately described it as a remarkable museum.  Indeed, four years later, I'm finding myself thinking and remembering it a great deal - remarkable is right.

I should explain that with all museums I visited, I attempted to not learn too much about the museum before I visited it for the first time.  If I was to talk to the museum staff (this happened with about 100 of the museums I visited), I would ensure that I reviewed the work of the museum, the museum itself and any online materials after I visited it and before I spoke to them.   As a visit that I thought was about settling concerns, I saw this as one that I simply needed to experience and then do background during the time between the first day and the second, and there was no official discussion with staff at the Museum.

Creation Museum, Kentucky

Not sure why - but I was a bit surprised to see dinosaurs as the main CM marker.
I started exploring some of the exhibits... I was confused why there were dragons in the main hall as you enter the exhibits area (though this would be explained later), but moved on through the exhibits which were neither chronological,  not entirely of The Book.  This was probably the first most intriguing thing.  I assumed before I got there that Creationism would focus mostly on the Bible.  So far I had dinosaurs, dragons and archaeologists.

In the main hall at the entrance of the museum - the Dragon Hall bookstore.

Archaeology and/or paleontology, the beginnings of a debate.

On entry there is a diorama with two scientists (above, called either paleontologists or archaeologists at different points, something that typically irks a first year student of either one) digging up fossils. One of them will explain how, after a lifetime of scientific 'proof' that the earth was billions of years old, he now believes it's only 6,000 years old.  The other is his colleague who disagrees with him and explains in detail that the earth is billions of years old and that they'll always disagree on this.   It's, sadly, the last time in the Museum that there will be any sense of a debate. 

As you enter the exhibits area, you can follow a path (that will take you on a kind of chronology) but there is an optional bit of material that sits opposite one another.  The first (below) to the left is a dinosaur with a small child playing next to it.  This is the first real indication that in spite of the dinosaurs, this isn't a typical Natural History museum.  Then on the other side is a slew of offerings that talk about the path that we'll follow in the Museum that show a very particular ontology and one that is not reflected in the Bible: the 7 Cs in God's Eternal Plan (at this point, I should apologise for my terrible photography, I hope you understand I take them as research reference, not usually intending to show them).  The Seven Cs are: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross and Consummation - in that order.  

This is where I learned two important things about the Museum that would be played out across my visit.  The first is that it would challenge my views (dinosaurs, kids, together), the second was that it would focus mostly on fear and destruction.  The Seven Cs were very clearly a call for reading the Museum, and for a museum that nearly never mentions Christ or Creation, the other five Cs were heavily represented.  It was also the first of some just appalling grammatical errors... in this case an errant apostrophe on 'C's' consistent throughout their materials.  And this speaks to some other concerns at the bottom of this blog entry.

 Animatronic Child (aka tasty morsel) + Dinosuar

7 Cs in God's Eternal Plan. Grammatical error noted.

Jesus is almost absent from the museum, as is Creation.  This is a surprise, in part because although it's called the Creation Museum it focuses mostly on ideas that challenge though mimic Evolution, and stories from the Old Testament, with then a general leap to the 20th CenturyBy my reckoning there was more information on the Creationist archaeologist than there was on Jesus Christ.  I haven't read this as a specific criticism of the Creation Museum, sadly it so often focuses on the space being over the top, that it forgets that in some ways it also fails to meet its brief of Christian.

This concern started to become prominent after I reflected on the images of the day, and the experience of going through the museum for the first time and here's why.  In my experience, museums that present an alternate ontological view of the creation of the world, spend no time positioning alternative views as wrong.  It would be a reasonable thesis to suggest that the Creation Museum was more of an Anti-Evolution Museum than a museum that described acts or ideas around Creation.  In fact beyond the Old Testament representations it focused nearly exclusively on destruction, rather than creation.

An alternative to evolution.  But with the constant mentions of Evolution.

Adam naming the animals.   There's a kangaroo there somewhere.

Dead bodies, childbirth, natural disasters, drug use.

Sadly one of the Museum's few non-White figures. Again, poverty, animals eating other animals, human destruction.

An alternative to evolution.

An argument against diversity, I guess. Yet another alternative to evolution. 'Over time' is a phrase used a great deal at the Museum, and challenged by others because of it's vagueness.

Before Original Sin was removed: animal sacrifice.

The way that Creationism was framed in these dioramas and exhibits focused very specifically on fear, retribution and a vengeful and unhappy God.  But that Jesus was nearly absent from the discussion is unclear.  With almost no mentions or included material from the New Testament, the display seems to skip from some of the bigger and negative stories in the Old Testament to a much later period in time... first Martin Luther posting up his theses, then the Scopes Trial, then Nietsche's God is Dead, then it moves into the territory of the horrors of the world  (above).

Martin Luther posting up his theses at Wittenberg.
The Scopes (or Monkey) Trial.  As an example of where the world has gone wrong.

Nietzsche's God is Dead

Isolation, destruction, anger, death... it's hard to know what all of these images meant as there wasn't a lot of instruction of how they represented hope.  

Scary inner-city living.  Scary graffiti.  A lot of fear here.

Scary inner-city living.  Scary graffiti.  A lot of fear here.

This was really tricky.  Two things happened at this point, and they made me reflect on my own journey through the space.

This is a diorama of two teenagers. One of them is a boy and one is a girl.  And that was where I made two crucial errors and also had a revelation of a kind.  Apologies that this shifts into a personal phenomenology, but that's the way it is sometimes with viewing a museum.  If you've never met me before, this is what I looked like at the museum.

I know what you're thinking.  Me too.  When I walked in there, I did think... heavens, this is a very conservative, fundamentalist Christian space and I look like a lesbian.  And for all that I like to think I travel this world without gender, race, sexuality and whatever else... I know that the overwhelming identifier around me is my sexuality.  Which is entirely okay. Normally.

So when two women approached - as I was talking notes at the above exhibit with the teenagers and their speech bubble - I was a bit vagued out (writing, taking pictures etc).  One of them said something like 'oh yes', and looked at me.  And I said, 'I don't really understand why it's two girls'. To which the women who had said 'oh yes' said to me with a surprising amount of anger, 'it's a boy and a girl, one of them has short hair'.  I then looked and looked again, laughed politely, and said my own 'oh yes'.  It reminded me that I could have seemed rather abject to her and it gnawed at me through the rest of the viewing.   It was not long after this very brief exchange that I had a woman from the Creation Museum come up to me in the main hall (she took the picture of me, above) and my reaction to her - as I suggested a million years ago in the blog entry - was to be polite and careful and to this day I wish I had not had the first experience as my questions to her might have been quite different.  In fact, I was by the time we met, a little paranoid. And I had one more day to go.

The second day gave me more reflection, and a few more revelations, but I also spent the day considering the people around me, their motivations and whether the space was meeting their needs (and probably overly focusing on what they thought of me).  It is not in the brief of this research journey of mine, to talk to visitors to museums.  Not that that kind of work doesn't reap enormous benefits, but it is also a very complex and difficult process and would have resulted in me undertaking a far less comprehensive site survey.   But it was difficult given the experiences I had had the day before, not to consider who was there.

The next day was also a weekday, the crowd was similar and I spent some time in both the dragon area (including the film on how dragons and behemoths also existed and were, effectively, known dinosaurs) and in the very tranquil outside area that featured animals and plants whose presence was intended to prove that evolution was unnecessary to support change.  These ideas were interesting, compelling, but they were not the main discussion point.

A difficult (literally, squishy and scarier than it looks) bridge to cross.

Looking out from the museum to the area where the animals are kept.
I started to really feel for the Creation Museum.  Sure, it was hard to take it seriously, just the whole notion that you have to put religion at odds with science is unfair to both.   I was sorry that I hadn't actually visited a museum focused on Creationism, but instead a museum that could not bear to discuss it for fear it would not be taken seriously. I would have.  When alternative ontologies are presented, they are legitimate. If it had taken a moment to talk about what Creation was, what Christ was (in the Christian evocation used throughout) and what these beliefs were, instead of what they weren't... it would have proven fascinating.  But the bad science and worse wall-text ('finch kind' in the second photo below, as an example) - even the terrible grammar - was a result of not really considering how it could be edifying, and not having a great deal of respect for participating in engaging the viewer.  It was a museum on the attack, and those being attacked weren't taking it seriously.  In the end, I wonder if it was very interesting or helpful to even the most anti-Evolutionary folks.

Science or religion or science... why choose?

The 'finch kind'? 

Thanks for listening to all of this.  I wanted to finish by saying that it wasn't until I left the museum and traveled to four mainstream (and very large) museums that focused on natural history - all located in the US - that I learned the greatest lesson from the Creation Museum.   These museums had begun to respond to Creationism by talking about scientific proof.  If ever there was a more unscientific notion in the changing environment of the sciences, it is the idea of intractable proof.  It's a shame to see the game becoming about belief versus science.   And this is the lesson that can be learned from most First Peoples' Museums... the how and why of this is what I'm writing in the book.  Now to finish it!