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A look inside the Creation Museum's cabinet of curiosities

A look inside the Creation Museum's cabinet of curiosities
Adam and Eve diorama at the Creation Museum in Kentucky. (Susan L. Trollinger)

The earliest natural history museums — the cabinets of curiosities of the 16th and 17th centuries — were always understood as reflecting the works of the divine, a "Book of Nature" to parallel the Bible. When Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher assembled his collection of natural oddities, scientific instruments and other unusual ephemera in the 17th century,  he dedicated it ad maiorem gloriam Dei, "to the greater glory of God." As the cabinet of curiosities evolved through the 18th and 19th centuries to become the contemporary natural history museum, it gradually lost this focus. Religion and science became at first distinct and then actively opposed to one another, and the divine ceased to have any kind of place in the modern natural history museum.

Now, instead of Kircher's cabinet and its glorification of God, we have the Creation Museum: a massive structure in Kentucky close to Cincinnati, founded by creationist Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization. Once inside the 75,000-square-foot building, visitors enter the Bible Walkthrough Experience, a self-guided tour through a series of dioramas and other exhibits that take the viewer through the dawn of creation, Noah's flood and other scriptural events, interspersed with modern scenes of decay, degeneracy and strife.

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It has been a cultural and financial success: Since opening in 2010, it has had more than 2.4 million visitors and annually generates millions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales and other concessions. As Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger Jr. argue, "The Creation Museum matters, and all Americans ought to understand what is going on there." Accordingly their book, "Righting America at the Creation Museum," takes the reader on a tour of the behemoth institution, exploring its history, its theology and its ideology.

The book focuses on a central dilemma: the Creation Museum is definitely a museum, but what kind of museum is it? As the Trollingers note early on, "all museums, just like the Creation Museum, are rhetorical —  that is, their purposes are persuasive, and their claims are never neutral." As such, the most compelling elements of the book focus on the history, evolution and construction of the museum as a cultural space and then explore how the Creation Museum fits into that history.

One of the defining features of the modern natural history museum, for example, is its apparently neutral presentation of information, posing questions instead of dictating answers and inviting an interactive experience among museum-goers where they can question their own assumptions, question the conclusions of scientists and engage directly with the museum's collections and exhibits. This, it would seem, also holds true of the Creation Museum: A signature claim of the museum is that it offers two competing worldviews and invites its guests to decide for themselves.

An opening diorama shows an "evolutionist paleontologist" and a "creationist paleontologist" working the same dig site, and throughout the walkthrough the placards and instructional material would seem to say that the museum is simply presenting these two different outlooks. But reading the museum as one would a work of literature, the Trollingers demonstrate how the museum presents this false choice: Rather than being about providing the visitor with the means to make an informed choice, the Creation Museum is about "constructing the visitor in a totalizing history (or story that purports to account for every event — real or possible) that reveals the hidden truth for all time." It goes without saying what that hidden truth is.

The museum's emphasis on dispensational millenarianism means that it's long on images of despair and judgment and short on depictions of Jesus' love. Christ, as it happens, does not appear very much at all in the Creation Museum: Of the many placards that display quotes from the Bible, few are actually from the Gospels or carry the words of Jesus, and there are only two depictions of him in the entire museum: one, a statue, and the other in a film that plays in the film "The Last Adam."

"The relative absence of Jesus highlights the essential continuity presented at the Creation Museum: God gives the Word; humans disobey it; God is obliged to punish them." Indeed, the favored biblical image here is Noah's Ark, which the Trollingers read as an allegory for Ham's belief that only a precious few will be saved in a coming tribulation — the rest of us, forlorn outside the Ark, will be left to drown. There is no interest here in Jesus' all-inclusive message of acceptance and healing. Either you're with the sinners or you're with the saved; the Creation Museum's function is to lay out, as starkly as possible, the stakes involved in picking the wrong side.

As the Trollingers show repeatedly, Creationism has evolved a posture that steadfastly sidesteps any kind of serious debate. When Ham famously debated Bill Nye over evolution in 2014, Nye had lost as soon as he agreed to the debate, as Ham performed what the Trollingers refer to as the pose of the "not-afraid-of-science-Christian-apologist." Merely standing up to mainstream science, while seemingly appearing to embrace its methodologies, made Ham all-but-impervious to Nye's critiques while emerging as a hero to his own movement.

The book is at its best when it situates the Creation Museum within the longer history of how we present objects and organize knowledge. Unfortunately this contextualization makes up only a small part of the book's opening chapter; much more of it is spent on revealing the various sleights-of-hand within the Creation Museum itself, which gradually becomes redundant. Overly focused on a item-by-item reading of the museum's minutiae and specifics, the book never quite connects to any larger conversation about how we experience museums and interact with their exhibits.

Does the Creation Museum, one might wonder, offer any innovations that more traditional museums might profitably emulate? Do other, mainstream science museums replicate the disingenuity of the Creation Museum to evolutionary ends?  Treating the Creation Museum too readily as an outlier and isolated case, "Righting America" never quite gets around to engaging these kinds of questions — leaving its subject matter behind glass for us to gawk at.

Dickey is the author of the books "Cranioklepty," "Afterlives of the Saints" and "Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places," coming from Viking in October.

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Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger Jr.

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Johns Hopkins University Press: 344 pp., $26.95

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