As we discussed at length last month, I watched the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye/creationism vs. science debate of 2014 with great interest, and I’m still very interested in the subject. I also have a degree in public history and museum studies. I have no intention of visiting the Creation Museum, but I’ve been very curious about what it’s like and what goes on there, so I was thrilled to hear about the book Righting America at the Creation Museum by Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., from Johns Hopkins University Press in 2016.
So, as a substitute for actually visiting the museum, this is perfect. It walks you through the museum and then breaks down the museum’s messages on science, the bible, politics, and apocalyptic judgment. It sounds like a cacophony of sound and imagery and text in there, so I’m grateful to the authors for documenting and analyzing it this way.
It sounds like I haven’t missed much; one of the really interesting questions early in the book is whether or not the Creation Museum counts as a museum at all, especially as a natural history museum. Speaking as a professional, it sounds to me like they’re conflating “real museum” with “good, professional museum,” and I’m here to tell you that an awful lot of museums are just not very good. Being bad — badly researched, badly intended, badly executed, or whatever — doesn’t mean it’s not a museum. What’s interesting, and what they address in brief, is the question of what exactly it’s a museum of. Almost everything they display is a replica or an animatronic. So, theoretically, you’re there for the experience, not to see any particular thing. If I go to a museum that’s all replicas, I feel like I’ve wasted my time. I have the internet to see pictures.
But I digress. The rest of the book breaks down the museum’s messages, usually by first asking what the museum intends to do, and then seeing if they’re actually doing it. They look at statements from the museum’s masterminds and representatives about what’s going on, say, their concept of science or their Biblical intentions, and then look at the museum in detail. Some areas claim to be about science, a whole room on “flood geology” for instance, but only small percentages of the text panels address science as Answers in Genesis defines it, let alone as everyone else conceptualizes it. Theoretical models, for instance, don’t count as science according to Ken Ham and others, but many of the panels in the flood room deal with different models of how the worldwide flood could have potentially affected geology.
I won’t get into the Bible stuff, except to share my favorite quote from the book:
What is interesting about Ham’s claim that the Bible is perspicuous, clear enough for anyone to read and understand without the assistance of experts, is that the Creation Museum is a $27 million dollar edifice that goes to great lengths to instruct visitors on how they should understand Genesis 1-11. (page 134)
There’s a lot more detail about their actual arguments and their theological origins, as well as their points of divergence, for those who are interested. I will warn, there can be a pitfall for those of us who are former Christians in that throughout the book, the authors present extended statements and arguments from the Creation Museum and its representatives without regular reminders that these are someone else’s opinions, not the viewpoint of the authors. So I recommend not reading it with a lot of distractions, because I still remember having to put myself in the mindset of “everything I’m hearing right now is true and I have to make myself believe it” when listening to people like Ken Ham, and if you’re distracted or skimming a lot, sometimes that mindset tries to come back, and even if you don’t have that problem it can be hard to track the argument if you’re skimming a lot.
The authors are a rhetorician and historian, so they’re the right people to do this book. The one thing I’d really have liked more information about is their personal visits to the museum, their note-taking methods, if anyone ever asked them what they were doing, and stuff like that, but since that’s just my nosy curiosity I understand why it wasn’t included. (Also, the book was published before the Ark Encounter got off the ground, so there’s only a reference to it in the epilogue. And I wondered if Ham or Answers in Genesis had ever responded to this book, but from what I can tell they haven’t.)
Righting America comes from an academic publisher, so not many people will hear about it, but it’s perfectly accessible to a general audience, so I wanted to give it a boost in case any of you are curious! There’s also a RACM website with a blog for ongoing updates, although it doesn’t seem to have subject tags so it’s not super easy to use.