OF MYTHS AND MUSEUMS

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In honour of Charles Darwin's birthday, Natasha Lennard reports from a creationist museum in rural America ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE Ken Ham worries about Britain. He believes the country is an example of the fate that faces nations that walk a secular path. “Something terrible is happening there. It’s a spiritual wasteland,” he booms from a video recording to a rapt audience. He then enumerates such horrors as English churches that have become shops and fitness centres. Ham is the president of Answers in Genesis, a creationist organisation based in Kentucky. The group uses the Bible to explain all scientific phenomenon. For example, the question “are dinosaurs a mystery?” has a simple answer: “dinosaurs are only a mystery if you accept the evolutionary story of their history.” Genesis explains that these creatures first existed around 6,000 years ago, when God made them along with the other land animals on day six of the Creation Week (Genesis 1:20–25, 31). AiG's website goes on to explain that Adam and Eve were also made that day, “so dinosaurs lived at the same time as people, not separated by eons of time.” While Britons last year proudly marked the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth (February 12th 1809) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species”, Answers in Genesis’s flagship enterprise is a $35m museum dedicated to the biblical story of creation, based in the rural heartland of Boone County, Kentucky. The Creation Museum, a modernist, glassy, 70,000-square-foot bastion of anti-science, eschews a Darwinian world-view. Instead it presents a natural history of the earth as the Bible would have it, complete with dioramas of Adam and Eve frolicking in the Garden of Eden (no monkeys, these). As A.A. Gill wrote in Vanity Fair, the museum “answers the famous question about what God could have done if he had had money”. Since opening in May 2007, the museum has welcomed over 1m visitors onto its lakeside premises, according to its vice president and co-founder, Mark Looy. The museum faced down some local opposition to be situated among the rolling fields of Petersburg, Kentucky, a day’s drive from two thirds of the country and only seven miles from the Cincinnati airport. It also happens to be just a few miles along the interstate from Big Bone Lick State Park, the so-called “birthplace of American vertebrate palaeontology”, where Lewis and Clark trolled for mastodon bones on their transcontinental expedition in 1807. While archaeologists at Big Bone, along with the vast majority of the contemporary scientific community, believe in evolution and an old earth, the 12 full-time staff scientists at the Creation Museum have a “very different starting point,” according to Jim Lisle, the museum’s scientific advisor. This starting point is the Bible, in particular a seven-day period about 6,000 years ago, when God is said to have created the world. All of the usual evidence scientists use to theorise on the age of the earth (4.54 billion years, give or take) and the origins of species, such as fossils, skeletons and genetic mutation, can be explained by the Old Testament: the great flood laid the fossils down. When I visited the museum in November, I was surprised to see security guards flanking the entrance. Dressed like state troopers, they wielded loaded guns and restrained formidable-looking Alsatian dogs. “There has been graffiti and protests outside,” explained Looy when I asked him about these protective measures. “But on the whole there’s no disruption.” Of the 4,000 visitors the museum receives on an average day, most are devoted Christians. The extra security lends an air of righteous danger to the exhibits inside, a sense of being besieged. Inside the building’s 40-foot-high glass walls visitors are treated to a whistle-stop tour of Biblical history, arranged in a way that would not seem out of place in Disneyland. A darkened tunnel leads to a vast and verdant Garden of Eden, filled with exotic plastic flowers, peaceful creatures and pools of gentle water. A comely Adam discovers a comely Eve, whose modesty is preserved by her long, dark, synthetic mane. The garden also includes a wealth of prehistoric animals, such as a Tyrannosaurus rex, which we are told was tame and herbivorous before Adam and Eve snacked on that dastardly apple. Dinosaurs had to have coexisted with humans, we learn, because there were no carnivores before man’s fall, and fossils show that some dinosaurs preyed on others. Therefore, the Creation Museum concludes, dinosaurs must have existed after the fall. But aren’t dinosaur-related fossils millions of years old? AiG and the museum have a handy explanation: such fossils only seem old because “organic materials are relentlessly attacked by bacteria,” so they decompose quickly. “Without the millions–of–years bias,” explains Andrew A. Snelling, the director of research at AiG in a paper published in Creation magazine, “these fossils would readily be recognized as victims of a comparatively recent event, for example, the global devastation of Noah’s Flood only about 4,500 years ago.” The museum’s approach to creation “probably would not convince non-believers,” Lisle admits, despite its slogan: “Prepare to believe.” In contrast to the bucolic prelapsarian delights of Eden, modern fallen life is represented in a narrow corridor, decked out like an alley in Amsterdam’s red-light district. Sirens blare, neon signs buzz, and torn newspaper clippings about war, famine and murder are pasted to the brickwork like out-of-date posters, next to articles about gay marriage and abortion. The museum’s message is unequivocal: misery comes from a life lived according to the vagaries of ungodly reason. Other exhibits include a mock-up cabin from Noah’s Ark accompanied by numerous scaled-down models of the vessel. “I’m very interested in the ark,” said one visitor in a deep southern timbre, “it must have been quite an undertakin’.” While I wandered around the museum, I couldn’t help noticing that these fundamentalist advocates of intelligent design—the notion that the complexity of life can only be explained by an intelligent creator—displayed a keen awareness of intelligent museum design. Visitors emerge from a tour of Biblical history into a vast gift shop stocked with T-shirts, toy dinosaurs and an extensive array of creationist literature, much of which was penned by Ken Ham himself. Suddenly, those strenuous efforts to reconcile scripture and the dinosaurs seem commercially justified: kids do adore ancient reptiles, particularly when they get to own a model of their very own. During my visit most everyone I met had come in order to have a world-view confirmed, not challenged. They seemed to fall in one of several categories: large families; church groups (in matching sweatshirts); and Mennonites, or Christian sectarians, whose female adherents dress in ankle-length, pale-blue pinafores and bonnets. “I believe in the Bible, no ifs ands or buts,” chirped Pam Riley, a financial adviser with blonde bouffant hair. She organised a trip with her church group from nearby Louisville. “I can see how someone who grew up being taught that evolution is true would find it strange here,” said Tim Klippenstein, a 17-year-old Mennonite. “But we were brought up to believe the Bible.” Like many of the men in his sect, he left at 14 and now works on his family’s farm. I felt a little guilty in the company of such enthusiasm. I had gone with the tacit aim of treating the trip like a safari, to observe the loony creationists in their natural habitat. Yet I was also struck by the impeccable manners and kindness of everyone I spoke to. At a demonstration called “Snakes Alive!”, which takes place three times daily, I watched Rick Teepen, a local herpetologist, introduce his large collection of reptiles to an audience of 20 children, many of whom seemed to struggle with the lesson. He was engaging and kind, and I found myself so impressed with his patience that his constant refrain “Isn’t God amazing?” ceased to seem jarring after a while. However, when I took my seat in the packed 210-seat auditorium to view the daily showing of Ken Ham’s video, “State of the Nation”, my concerns about religious dogmatism flared anew. Ham condemned homosexual behaviour and gay marriage as shameful, provoking piercing cries of "Amen" from the audience. He spoke with horror about America’s insistence on “tolerance” and warned that the country could become like Britain, a nation in which six out of ten children believe religion has a negative influence in the world. All the southern charm in Kentucky could not render Ham’s message palatable. Unsettled, I returned to my rental car, a hulking landship I had hired in an attempt to fit in. As I drove away from the Creation Museum, its lake and glass walls glistened a warm pink in the pure evening light. Later, on the interstate to the nearby Cincinnati airport, an upbeat country song came on the radio with a refrain that seemed appropriate: “God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy,” the singer crooned. (Natasha Lennard is a writer based in New York) Picture credit: Simon Akam