Episode 59

59. Faith Displayed As Science: How Creationists Co-opted Museums with Julie Garcia

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About this Episode

There’s a new tool in young-Earth creationists' quest for scientific legitimacy: the museum. Over the past 25 years, dozens of so-called creation museums have been built, including the Answers in Genesis (AiG) Creation Museum in Kentucky. Borrowing the style of natural history museums and science centers, these public display spaces use the form and rhetoric of mainstream science to support a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, including the creation of the universe in six days about 6,000 years ago.

In her 2009 thesis, “Faith Displayed As Science: The Role of The Creation Museum in the Modern Creationist Movement”, Julie Garcia visited the AiG Creation Museum and three other creation museums: The Creation Evidence Museum in Glenrose, TX, Dinosaur Adventureland in Pensacola, FL, and the Institute for Creation Research which is near San Diego, CA.

In this episode, Garcia discusses her findings and explores why museums are a particularly well-suited medium for creationist ideas.

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Topics and Links

00:00: Intro
00:15: Quest for Scientific Legitimacy
01:06: Julie Garcia
02:25: Garcia's Thesis
03:50: Visiting Creation Museums
04:45: Using Dinosaurs to Attract Children To Creation Museums
07:00: Why Build A Museum?
10:51: Creationists Going Directly To Their Audience
11:17: “Biblically Correct” Tours
11:48: The Two Model Approach
13:00: Outro/Join Club Archipelago

Transcript

Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 59. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

There’s a new tool in young-Earth creationists’ quest for scientific legitimacy: the museum. Over the past 25 years, dozens of so-called creation museums have been built, most of them in the US. Borrowing the style of natural history museums and science centers, these public display spaces use the form and rhetoric of mainstream science to support a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, including the creation of the universe in six days about 6,000 years ago.

Julie Garcia: A museum lets creationists speak directly to the people in an unfiltered and unchallenged way. Just being able to put all this inside something that’s called a museum and using the trappings of science, it gives creationism that additional feel of the legitimacy and credibility that it might not otherwise have.

This is Julie Garcia, and her interest in both evolution and the people who vehemently deny it, led her to explore why museums are a particularly well-suited medium for creationist ideas.

Julie Garcia: My name is Julie Garcia. I was formally known as Julie Duncan at the time I wrote my senior thesis, which was called “Faith Displayed As Science: The Role of The Creation Museum in the Modern American Creationist Movement”.

Garcia grew up in Kentucky, and as an undergrad at Harvard, she decided to become a History and Science major.

Julie Garcia: At other colleges that’s known as History and Philosophy of Science which is basically just the study of what science is and why we trust it and what are different ways of knowing the world. For me, part of the reason to go into it is because I loved evolution so much and had always just had a fascination with the whole process and had also had a corresponding fascination with why so many people so vehemently didn’t like evolution, and why so many people, to the point of 30, 40, sometimes 50% percent in certain polls, believe in creationism. So I was prompted to write this thesis when in 2006, I heard that in my backyard, in Boone Country Kentucky, Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization, was going to be building the largest Creation Museum in the world, known as the The Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, a 27 million dollar facility, over many 20 acres, about 10 minutes from my house.”

The Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, also known as just The Creation Museum opened in 2007. In its first year, it reported 400,000 visitors.

Julie Garcia: I eventually decided, coming into the summer of 2008, before my senior year, that I would spend that summer traveling back home to Kentucky to visit the creation museum there, and three other creation museums around the US. The Creation Evidence Museum in Glenrose, TX, Dinosaur Adventureland and the related creation museum in Pensacola, FL, and the Institute for Creation Research which is near San Diego, CA. That’s kind of how it all started, and I spent the summer visiting and learning about the four different museums.”

Garcia chose these four museums for their stylistic differences and for their geographical diversity. At each one, she viewed the exhibits, and talked to the founders and staff, then analyzed and highlighted the messages and methods common to all of the museums.

Julie Garcia: There was some trepidation before I went because I was worried that by disclosing that I was not a creationist they would assume I was going to write a smear piece on their museums, which honestly when I read my thesis now I feel there are certain things that I would phrase differently that came off snarkier than I think I would write them now.

But everyone was very kind to me and they were all very eager to show me everything that they had built and they were very proud of it. I came away thinking these are very nice people with whom I just disagree, but that’s what stuck in my mind the most: everyone I talk to was very faithful and believe completely in everything that was shown in the museums.

I did feel uncomfortable to seeing all the children there because it’s one thing obviously for adults to decide what they believe, and feel very strongly about them and teach them to others. It was just a little troubling to me to see young children learning things that were contrary to mainstream science. But of course, that’s kind of the purpose of these museums.

All four museums heavily feature dinosaurs — either in audio animatronic form or as fossils. This is not just because of time compression of geological ages present in young-Earth creationism — it is also because dinosaurs attract the pubic, particularly children, to these museums. The founder of the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum, Ken Ham, calls dinosaurs “missionary lizards” for their attention-getting power.

Julie Garcia: Dr. Hovan from Dinosaur Adventure Land in Florida and Ken Ham from Answers in Genesis very explicitly say the purpose of using things like dinosaurs is to attract the children and to bring them in. Then again, with distance now I can acknowledge that is true for secular museums as well because we all know that dinosaurs sell, but at the same time, given the counter narrative being told at these museums about dinosaurs and humans living together, yes, I did feel some discomfort seeing kids being explicitly told that these dinosaurs were alive 6,000 years ago and that people were riding them. In Answers in Genesis, they actually have a triceratops towards the end of the museum and they actually have a saddle on it. And you can sit on it and take a pictures. And it’s not a joke: it’s a representation of what the museum says would have been a typical pre-Flood diorama, where humans were living together with dinosaurs.

So why build a museum? Garcia argues that there are three significant and interrelated reasons for the creationist movement. The first: museums are seen as credible.

Museums really have a long history in the US as places of scientific research and public education. In the 20th century, they were sometimes referred to as “Cathedrals of Science,” this idea that they were buildings where we set forth the best of human endeavor and everything that the collective knowledge of our species was placed in these buildings. So simply by attaching that word, museum, it gives the building a sheen of credibility that it otherwise wouldn’t have if it were called a theme park or a bible center or something like that.

The second reason also relates to the focus on dinosaurs: museums are more entertaining than school, bible study, or bible school.

Julie Garcia: That is something that is like a theme park, but at the same time, it’s a kind of entertaining that a lot of teachers are going to like and a lot of parents are going to like in the way that a lot of parents and teachers want an educational experience for kids. A lot of parents who might want to spend the money on what they feel like is a frivolous day at a theme park, can get behind the idea of taking them to a museum where they’re going to be learning about science and they’re going to learning wholesome things and bettering themselves. And going along with that, the entertainment value is a decent amount of money. There is money to be made from offshoots from these museums.

The final reason: going directly to the people.

Julie Garcia: Number three is the most important of them, which is that a museum lets creationists speak directly to the people in an unfiltered and unchallenged way. So a creator of a museum has total control over the experience that visitors have. They can control exactly where you walk and what you read at what time, and what you take away from the exhibits. I think this is part of a larger movement, away from what creationists had been doing, which was bringing these challenges in the court system: in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s a string of defeats in federal courts for violating the establishment clause. A court, when things go right, a legal proceeding is designed to get to the truth, and part of getting to the truth is subjecting assertions to rigorous cross-examination. And you have someone sitting up there, the judge who makes rulings about what is a good argument and what’s not. And can keep certain evidence out, and can rule on who qualifies an expert. And those were things that weren’t going well for creationists. So after they lost a number of these cases, they started moving more toward this museum model. I think that is because there is no cross-examination in a museum. In fact, there is no opposite point of view if you don’t want to give it. There’s no requirement that you describe how other people see evidence or that you respond to criticisms to how you are presenting your point of view. So by switching over to these museum, a lot of creationists have switched strategies from trying to impose creationism on public school districts, or impose these laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution and instead to try to change people's hearts and minds on a more local and individual level in the hope that those people will have their minds changed and will go out and teach their kids at home creationists ideas or be part of a groundswell pushing again for the teaching of these creationist ideas in schools.

Being able to go directly to your audience without a middleman is one of the main ways the media landscape more broadly has changed. As institutions that used to be arbiters of truth are called into question, there is more space for viewpoints that used to be far outside the mainstream to directly attract their own audience.

And it doesn't have to be on the level of a single institution either. Garcia talks about guides to scientifically informed museums, zoos, and aquariums for sale in the Creation Museum's gift shop, meant to be used at these other institutions for alternative, biblically correct interpretations of their displays.

Julie Garcia: I know that in addition to those printouts you can purchase, there are also some organization that provide some of these tours, such as a group called “Biblically Correct Tours” that does tours of Natural History Museums, and my understanding of how this works is it is an offshoot of the two model approach: which is the idea that evolution and creationism is two competing philosophies and that they look at the same evidence and that they just draw different conclusions. And so by having a Biblically Correct tour of the museum, this organization explains how creationism is not opposed to science in their view because they know that Americans for the most part like science. Nobody wants to be anti-science. So if anyone disagrees about things like climate change or evolution, usually the way that it is phrased is not “well I don’t like science, and I reject science”, it’s more “well I take a more different view of the science and there are two sides of this story and I follow this interpretation.” That is exactly the type of thing that we’re seeing with tours like this, and that you also see in the Answers in Genesis Creation museum: they present things that could be in a secular museum, such as an image of a dinosaur skeleton obscured by a mudslide, and you can look at it in two different ways…

It’s not just that museum-goers like science: Garcia points out that audiences tend to trust information more if it is presented in a high-tech style. In her conclusion, Garcia writes that “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.”

Julie Garcia: Now, it’s easier for people through mediums like Twitter and through buildings like their own Creation Museums, to claim the same kind of authority and to have an impact that they otherwise might not have in the past where they wouldn’t have had that ability get their message out.