The dinosaurs at Kentucky’s Creation Museum are stalking evolution, reason, and the American city.
WHAT STRIKES YOU FIRST are the T. rexes.
The two theropods chew on cypress leaves while primitive human children splash innocently in a nearby stream, indifferent to the creatures towering over them. This jarring collage of prehistoric and pastoral may well be “today’s most photographed scene in Christendom,” according to Ken Ham, founder of northern Kentucky’s Creation Museum, whose crowded lobby houses the vignette. Since opening in May 2007, the museum has become a destination for fundamentalist Christian families, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors from across the country.
Unlike the twenty-some other American museums of creationist “natural history,” this one is big, slick, and well funded; by soliciting individual donations—most of them less than one hundred dollars—Ham was able to raise twenty-seven million dollars, which has paid for sixty thousand square feet of attractions. There’s a theater, a planetarium, a gift shop, a café, and a petting zoo. The main sequence, conceived by a former Universal Studios exhibit designer, is a series of tableaux representing the profligacy of contemporary culture, followed by a journey through the history of the world beginning with its six-day creation six thousand years ago.
There are full-scale dioramas of Noah’s Ark and of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Other imagery is closer to home: At one point, we peer through windows into the life of a wayward modern-day family and see a boy looking at Internet porn while, in the next room, his sister consults on the phone with Planned Parenthood.
Significantly, the exhibits privilege rural settings. An introductory movie is narrated by a girl sitting by a campfire in the wilderness, contemplating in solitude the wonders of the universe. One of the first rooms reproduces a national park, where a mannequin of a creationist paleontologist introduces us to the “debate” over life’s origins. Urban environments, meanwhile, are presented as breeding grounds of relativism.
The modern world’s abandonment of a univocal reading of the Bible, for instance, is portrayed as a brick wall layered with tattered magazine pages and overlapping graffiti scrawls, as though the grimy palimpsest of text upon faded text were a metaphor for genetic mutation itself. Why the aversion to cities? Occasionally, the museum links this distaste with certain Old Testament stories—the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah—but of course Christianity as a whole is not inherently anti-urban. Paul’s Epistles addressed groups of believers as communities associated with particular cities; in Pre-Reformation Europe, the cathedral was the focal point of urban life. The Creation Museum’s antipathy reflects a shift in values that occurred more recently, after the arrival of Christianity on the American continent.
The tacit message is that the archetypal godly environment is a Christian arcadia, free of the violence of natural selection. This idyll’s most memorable occupants are the dinosaurs. According to wall-mounted placards, they were created on the sixth day along with the other animals and lived alongside humans until recently. A staple of the traditional natural history museum, the dinosaur has long loomed large in the American psyche, often expressing fears related to capitalism’s corporate monsters, unchecked scientific meddling, and imminent global calamity. Yet the Creation Museum’s animatronic models evoke Barney and Friends
as much as Jurassic Park
as they frolic with biblical characters and munch on plants. (In the museum’s account, the consumption of meat was not part of God’s design for the world and began only after the Fall.)
Every natural history museum presents the terrestrial environment as its own age experiences it. The institutions of the nineteenth century defined nature in terms of romantic landscapes, endlessly branching phylogenetic trees, and fossilized remains of immense creatures from the distant past. So, too, the Creation Museum, anti-modern and postmodern at once, offers insight into contemporary America’s very different experience of the rural landscape and organic life, with their attendant collective anxieties. Based on visitors’ overheard reactions—quiet, gratified weeping, the occasional whispered
“Amen”—it seems the imagery is hitting its mark.
THE FIRST NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUMS
were developed as nature was being called on to explain the fundamental basis of life and the physical environment, a task formerly expected of religion. The work of Darwin, Mendel, Cuvier, and others had revealed that nature’s time span was much vaster than had been imagined, an abyss compared with the history of human affairs. The discoveries also suggested that human civilization, too, might be driven by massive and impersonal forces, and evolving slowly by way of mutation and catastrophe toward a terrifyingly unknowable end. The natural history museum’s charge was to immobilize and classify this sublime world and make it available for general study, by extracting each object from its native milieu and depositing it into its proper vitrine. The museum’s typical form as a classical monument on a prominent urban site reflected its mission of civic enlightenment: As citizens examined the museum’s contents, they contemplated the origins of their own lives.
It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast than the Creation Museum—an “‘anti’ museum,” according to its blog. Instead of presenting a coherent argument for a particular view of life’s origins, the exhibits encourage visitors to question the methods and institutions of science. Ham, the Australian former science teacher whose organization Answers in Genesis founded the museum, contends that nonliteral readings of scripture are a slippery slope: If the Bible’s “eyewitness” account of natural history is not accepted wholesale, we might as well throw out the whole Book. Milder strains of creationism allow for flexibility in interpreting the biblical chronology to accommodate science, but Ham’s movement takes the hard-line position laid out in the early twentieth century by the Seventh Day Adventist amateur scientist George McCready Price. Aligning himself with America’s young Christian-fundamentalist movement, Price inveighed against scientifically informed interpretations of Genesis with a series of books arguing that all fossils were created during the Great Flood, in a dogmatic adherence to the letter of the Pentateuch that owed much to the Protestant Reformation’s maxim of sola scriptura
. Today, the longing for a dependable Christian perspective on natural science is intensified by concerns about the ontological status of life and personhood; for Ham, any doubts about the literal truth of Genesis would entail the unthinkable corollary that humans are “just animals.”
It would be wrong, therefore, to dismiss the museum as an intellectual holdover from an unenlightened time. Its high-tech immersive dioramas and media-savvy exhibits are wholly contemporary. All the paraphernalia of a modern natural history museum—real fossils, accurate models of organisms, placards about galaxies, geologic processes, and DNA—are here, but marshaled to disassemble positive knowledge by relentlessly questioning the tools of rational discourse. Instead of making an evidence-based case for creationism, the multisensory spectacle of video simulations, diagrams, and animated displays creates an aura of knowledge while at the same time deterring close reading. The result is an intellectual fog, a pseudoscience resembling the worst caricatures of postmodern thought. The only sure foothold, we are warned, is the testimony of Genesis, followed word for word.
I VISITED THE CREATION MUSEUM with a friend on a sunny Friday morning last year, while I was living in Ohio and teaching architecture at the University of Cincinnati. It’s a twenty-five-minute drive from downtown Cincinnati to tiny Petersburg, where the museum is located. After losing a protracted struggle to build adjacent to a nearby state park and be designated Boone County’s official natural history museum, Answers in Genesis found its site not far from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, allowing travelers with extended layovers to visit without ever setting foot downtown. Following signs for the airport, we crossed the Ohio River and watched as the built landscape changed from the city grid of Covington to rolling hills dotted with residential subdivisions, office parks, and warehouses. Past the airport, it grew even less dense—we had entered a bucolic world wholly outside the city’s ambit.
The lack of museum signage made us question whether we were on the right road, until the sight of a hefty stone-clad mass signaled we were close; after turning off the highway, we quickly spotted the metal dinosaurs that mark the museum’s gated entrance. Inside is a parking lot with patrol vehicles, guards, and heavy concrete planters lined up as bollards, all conceived by Jeffrey Hawkins, the museum’s director of security (and the author of Security and Emergency Planning for Faith-Based Organizations). The complex gives the impression of a faith community under siege—which it is, if you count the protests and negative publicity that greeted its opening. The fortifications were not sufficient to prevent HBO from smuggling in Bill Maher to ambush Ken Ham. In Maher’s film Religulous, Ham, normally a polished speaker, is edited to appear foolish and incoherent. “Bill, are you God?” he asks awkwardly.
The building is a low, massive slab visually dominated by a thick, nearly flat roof. Its walls are made of stone and dark glass and are punctuated by heavy, plain columns. To form the entrance, one corner of this mass has been cut away, leaving a concave glass wall with a roof overhang opening onto an empty circular plaza. From outside, it’s impossible to read the interior organization, which is determined by the exhibit program rather than any particular geometric system. In contrast to the vertical emphasis of, say, New York’s American Museum of Natural History or Washington’s Smithsonian buildings, the Creation Museum sprawls. The designer, A. M. Kinney Associates, is a local company described by Answers in Genesis as a “major architectural firm”; its primary work is engineering, construction management, and design for generic institutional and industrial buildings and office parks. Like many of the firm’s projects, the museum is profoundly anti-monumental, lacking coherent form and provision for public space. Of course, the museum’s location and physical configuration aren’t out of the ordinary for contemporary America. Like any gated subdivision or office park, it follows the typical exurban pattern of low, dispersed centers of development and an abundance of private enclaves segregated by use and class.
The choice of site is especially unsurprising for a faith-based institution. Christianity once enjoyed a nominal presence in the public sphere, with quasi-religious holidays and the prominence of churches in cities forming part of a constellation of nondenominational Protestant symbolism that permeated American life. The familiar tokens of this “civil religion” succeeded, for a time, in linking the everyday life of ordinary citizens with the Western cultural tradition. In the twentieth century, however, as secular liberalism was opposed by fundamentalist Christianity and other religions, American social life could no longer recognize a single, common program of religious symbolism. The movement of many large religious facilities away from cities is partly a result of this polarization.
But while the Creation Museum undoubtedly reflects these recent trends, moralistic distrust of city life has a rich history in America. When, in 1925, John Scopes was tried for teaching Darwinism to a high school science class in violation of Tennessee law, the case against him was argued by William Jennings Bryan, a luminary of the young fundamentalist movement and a staunch agrarian. In Bryan’s view, urban industrial capitalism was inextricable from the social Darwinist credo of survival of the fittest and the cultural ills to which it gave rise. Before Bryan, Thomas Jefferson argued against Alexander Hamilton that the cold rationality of economic development would lead to social waywardness unless held in check by a thriving agrarian culture: “Corruption of morals...is the mark set upon those, who, not looking up to heaven, to their own soil and industry, as does the husbandman, for their subsistence, depend for it on casualties and caprice of customers.” Jefferson’s proposed design for the Great Seal of the United States depicted the nation of Israel journeying through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. Even John Winthrop’s famous image of a “city upon a hill,” invoked in a 1630 sermon to the Massachusetts Bay Colony (and mentioned repeatedly at the 2008 Republican Convention), was a rhetorical figure used to exhort respect for religious authorities, discourage individualism and dissent, and promote a lifestyle in close harmony with the rural environment. John Locke, writing from England sixty years later, accompanied his description of the originary, utopian state of nature with the pronouncement that, “in the beginning, all the world was America.”
It is not surprising, then, that the exodus from cities, beginning with the first planned suburbs in the mid-nineteenth century and accelerating with the expansion of the highway system a hundred years later, has had religious undertones. Bucolic touches like artificial hills, winding cul-de-sac roads, and oversize lawns have persisted in these subdivisions like antitypes of Paradise. The architect Rem Koolhaas uses the term “Edenic residue” to describe the swaths of vegetation that give residential neighborhoods and office parks their arcadian character—endlessly manicured yet implicitly primitive, they balance out the artificiality of the surrounding development with their prelapsarian overtones. Appropriately, one of the Creation Museum’s high points is a walk-through diorama of the Garden of Eden. It’s a large space full of colorful plants and realistically modeled creatures that includes mannequins of Adam and Eve, naked but fortuitously covered by vegetation and props. Through gaps in the foliage, one can see the building’s blank walls and ceiling; lights are suspended from a structure overhead, and no attempt is made to conceal the red EXIT sign blaring the way to the next room. Nature reduced to a patchy veneer masking an increasingly synthetic environment—this is the Creation Museum, and this, too, is the American landscape it occupies.
According to the scenographic understanding put forth in the museum, natural formations may be admired as picturesque, but their physical appearance is not to be read as evidence of their origins. The Grand Canyon, we are told, was produced in a matter of hours. A placard proclaims the epistemological formula of this flattened temporality: “The present is not the key to the past.” Of course, this sort of ex nihilo creation is the rule for much of America today. An entire “community” can be built in a few months, complete with vinyl cornices, gables, and other facade decorations varied to simulate the piecemeal effect of a city that has evolved over time. Regardless of whether these developments are suburban neighborhoods on the model of Desperate Housewives
’ Wisteria Lane, mixed-use city centers like West Palm Beach’s CityPlace, or New Urbanist towns built from scratch like Seaside, Florida, they lack the élan vital
of older cities, whose gradually accreting forms embody the spatial investments and contestations of many constituents over many years. The refiguring of American settlement since World War II from dense, concentric towns into pseudo-agrarian colonies—and, with it, the shift from the urban cathedral to highway megachurches and gigachurches—is thus simultaneously an exodus from the city as polis
(with the overtones of a flight from wickedness) and an instance of the global trend toward urbanization of undeveloped areas (symbolically expiated by the new edge cities’ spread-out, Eden-like designs).
AS THE MUSEUM GEARS UP
to mark Darwin’s bicentennial with a fresh volley of anti-evolutionist programs, such as a screening of the biographical documentary 200 Lost Years
, much of the increasingly acerbic criticism from scientists, secular liberals, and religious moderates has treated the Creation Museum with a disdain for Christianist red-state nescience. The group Campaign to Defend the Constitution offered a petition denouncing the museum’s “nefarious campaign to institutionalize a lie.” Architecture critic Martin Filler called it a theme-park-style “loony bin.” Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges invoked Hannah Arendt and accused Answers in Genesis of being “Christo-fascists” promoting a “totalitarian belief system.” But such criticisms have only fueled the museum’s succès de scandale
; to many believers, the charge that Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are flouting science strengthens their appeal. How can one make a rational critique of an institution that makes human reason itself an object of opprobrium?
Perhaps all we can do is note the strange correspondence between the world of fabricated nature the museum occupies and the one its exhibits portray. Its imagery is an allegory of the American megalopolis, its commercial success a symptom of national unease about the destruction of the landscape—and, to venture a step further, about humanity’s capacity to influence natural life on all scales, from genetic research to biotechnology. Unmoored from the city, the Creation Museum strives to atone for the nation’s original sin, an ever more voracious “urban” capitalism whose sphere of influence has expanded to include the conditions of organic life itself. Co-opting tactics from this very regime, the museum projects an image of nature as incorrupt and divinely willed. Outside its walls, meanwhile, the spreading and formless landscape is inhabited by dinosaurs of the most evolved variety.