Pharyngula

I’m afraid I don’t have access to this specialty journal, Curator: The Museum Journal, so it’s a good thing the author sent me a copy of his article on the modern treatment of human origins in museums. It’s amusing, since part of it is a substantial comparison of the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington DC, but there is also a thorough discussion of Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum” in Kentucky. The Creation Museum does not come off at all well.

Asma highlights a couple of things that leapt out to me, as well. It’s not really a museum — there’s no opportunity to explore or think, you’re given a script to follow and you may not deviate.

When I visited, I discovered no way to break off the tour at any point prior to Consummation. About two hours in, I started to get claustrophobic; the spaces seemed to get tighter and darker as I walked the eschatological narrative. I decided to step away–just as racism and crime were being blamed on Eve’s taste for forbidden fruit. I tried to find an exit to the cafeteria (“Noah’s Cafe”) so I might nourish my weakening spirit. To my horror, I discovered that one cannot actually exit anywhere along the pathway. The herding is so absolute that when you attempt to backtrack, you find that the doors you’ve been entering have no handles on the opposite side. Like someone in a haunted house, you must complete the entire circuit.

The other striking thing about it is that it is an empty shell, a hollow façade. Go to any other respectable museum in the country, such as the Science Museum of Minnesota (which does have a bit of a pop-science, entertainment quality to it), and you can find extensive collections and research facilities behind it. The part that most people visit is the public relations side, with nicely laid out exhibits and explanatory material and hands-on elements. Behind the scenes, you’ll find large rooms with shelves everywhere and buckets and barrels and crates full of specimens, the smell of formaldehyde and alcohol, and spaces full of beetle larvae gnawing away at carcasses. Not at the Creation “Museum”, though!

It’s not quite accurate to call this evangelical center a “museum.” It contains almost no “information,” unless you count as information speculations on how Noah kept dinosaurs on the ark. It offers no new observations about nature, unless you think that inferring a Designer can be called observational. Unlike most other nature museums, it has no “research” component whatsoever. When I asked Mark Looy, vice president for AiG ministry relations, where the research labs and archive collections were located, he confessed that he didn’t understand the question. “This is a museum,” he finally said, chuckling.

That’s revealing. These people don’t even know what a real museum is.

When you finally spill out of this ball of confusion into the gigantic gift shop, you become keenly aware of the unholy mixing of piety and profit. Someone is making a fortune on this stuff. The museum speaks directly to the anxieties of a fearful subculture that sees its family values under attack by a rising secular tide. The visitors at the Creation Museum feel like David, facing the secular giant Goliath. They see themselves as underdogs of righteousness who’ve chosen an origin story that’s different from the science story. Like bad reality television that drives up ratings with violent and abusive scenarios, the museum drives up profits by demonizing science. The search for meaningful origin stories is understandable, of course, but the museum’s suggestion that science causes nihilism and racism is inexcusable.

It’s actually a relief when the paper leaves the Creation “Museum” and focuses on comparing the AMNH and Smithsonian. Both are great museums, and even more glorious in contrast to that silly place in Kentucky. Asma does mention one failing of the AMNH — it made me happy to see that someone else noticed.

Near the end of the Spitzer Hall, a video kiosk presenting near-life-sized images of science administrator Ken Miller, Catholic biologist Eugenie Scott, and geneticist Francis Collins, waxes philosophical about evolution and faith. Collins, a “theistic evolutionist” who founded an organization called BioLogos in 2007 to explore religion-and-science intersections, offers most of the edifying reflections. Collins has since moved on to be the director of the National Institutes of Health–he was nominated by President Obama–but the AMNH is clearly happy to present his theory that religion and science are allies. The atheist new-guard–Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, for instance–is not invited to convey its message of religion-and-science incompatibility. The AMNH wants to reassure and accommodate visitors. The kiosk video feels like a bit of a sop, however: tacked on the end of an otherwise strong exhibition in order to pacify a specific visitor contingent.

The Smithsonian, by contrast, seems to avoid this careful placating, sensitive tiptoeing, and accommodating consideration. Refreshingly, the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins does not treat the visitor with kid gloves. The curators do not seem nervous about evangelical blowback. They don’t waste time and space repeatedly reassuring visitors with plaques and videos about the dignity of everyone’s diverse cultural beliefs.

Asma also does mention the message of these respectable museums — they actually do have a moral, even in these sections on human evolution, and it’s ecological. Creationism is over, don’t you know.

The developers of these new exhibitions worked to engage the emotions of visitors: their hearts as well as their heads. Of course, no contemporary museum is complete without a cautionary morality tale at the end, and both the AMNH and Smithsonian follow form. In the 1940s and 1950s, museum directors like Albert Eide Parr at the AMNH began to redirect their giant institutional “arks” toward the new mission of ecology education and research. In 1943, for example, Parr begged an esteemed group of curators at the Field Museum to follow his lead and focus the new museum message on local ecology rather than exotic safari-type entertainment. And besides, he argued, the old mission of educating citizens about evolution had been
successfully accomplished. That’s right– curators in the 1950s believed that evolution theory was now firmly entrenched in the common sense of mainstream America. The irony is delicious. Dim the lights, cue the diorama of Ken Ham’s evangelical anti-Darwin displays, and watch the rapid spinning of Albert Parr in his grave.

But Parr’s message has been rekindled by the recent mainstreaming of the environmental movement. Museums keenly feel the responsibility of eco-ethics. To that end, both museums stress the way that humans–uniquely, among our evolved animal brethren–can significantly transform our environment. We have become ecological niche-makers. This brings new drama to our consideration of the future. Both exhibitions educate us about the facts: the earth is getting warmer, habitats and species are disappearing, natural resources are depleting, populations are rising beyond sustainable levels, and so on. But both exhibitions resist the heavy-handed doom-and-gloom approach, and give us instead some more nuanced glimpses into our possible future. The AMNH presents an optimistic response to the apocalyptic characterization that sometimes colors eco-ethics. We are encouraged to learn that “humans have an extraordinary capacity to improve the future. Given the wondrous achievements in human history, from the wheel to computers and spacecraft, our potential for advances in art, science and technology is incalculable. By taking an active role in transforming our world and ourselves, we will affect our destiny, for better or worse.”

I think that’s appropriate. Creationism really is a freakishly weird fringe belief that is inconsistent internally and with the evidence, and needs to be dealt with with ridicule and laughter, which isn’t exactly what museums are good at. Our prospects for the future are a serious matter that can be discussed rationally, and museums — the real ones, that is, not the “museums” — are well equipped for that.


Asma ST (2011) Risen Apes and Fallen Angels: The New Museology of Human Origins. Curator: 54(2): 141-163.