Dinosaurs of all kinds abound here, from the stegosaurus silhouettes rearing atop the iron gates as you first reach the parking lot to the numerous and impressively convincing animatronic pterosaurs wagging their giant tails and chewing plastic cud inside. At America's newest public museum dedicated to exploring the origins of man and our planet, dinos are big box office, especially with kids.
Yet, there is something askew about the exhibits here and it doesn't take long to see. It's not just the "Thou shalt not touch" signs or the biblically named Noah's CafÃƒ©, offering respite for lunch. How about a stroll down the Trail of Life, first stop, the Garden of Eden with faux cypress trees and gurgling streams? Look, there are Adam and Eve taking a dip, and not far away another dinosaur lurks, and a lion too.
It's not just the presence of the naked pair, with niftily placed lily pads to cover their naughty bits, that seems barmy. Wouldn't they have been gobbled up by now, before they had the chance to do any eating themselves, say of the forbidden fruit? What were the designers of this place thinking?
Here is what. That Adam and Eve really did beget us and that before they sinned, all creatures were vegetarian, meaning dinosaurs were no more likely to eat them than butterflies. They were thinking also that man and dinosaurs lived at the same time. As you proceed on your walk, a few more surprises await. We are told how the world is no more than 6,000 years old and Noah's Flood created all the world's fossils as well as its topography as we know it (including the Grand Canyon, gouged by its ebbing waters). And yes, the Earth and the entire universe were indeed created in six momentous days.
The Museum of Natural History in New York this is not. Welcome, rather, to the Creation Museum, a $27m facility that opened in May -- to a veritable onslaught of enthusiastic visitors -- on a 49-acre site in northeast Kentucky close to Cincinnati. There is no shortage of references to Darwin, whose teachings about evolution most of us are familiar with and more comfortable accepting. But the clear purpose is to demolish not celebrate them. You get the idea of where you are also when you learn that the folk behind it are the founders of a fundamentalist Christian ministry called Answers in Genesis.
Theirs is a seductively simple, if controversial, thesis - that to solve the eternal conundrum of where we come from we need look no further than the first book of the Old Testament. And their contention here is that there is nothing scientists can throw at us -- in paleontology, geology or astronomy -- that will disprove this. Indeed, the point of the museum is to demonstrate that the more we consider the clues to our origins found by scientists -- and there are a dozen thoroughly respectable sounding ones on the museum's own staff -- the more they fit better with the Genesis version of creation than with Darwin's.
"We all have the same facts," explains one video in the museum showing two men working side by side to unearth a dinosaur fossil in the desert. One is a Darwinist, the other a creationist. "We are merely interpreting the facts differently, because we are coming from different starting points." No kidding.
The blurb on one exhibit bears the headline: "God's Word versus Human Reason". It's the latter you shouldn't trust. "The Bible is the word of God," explains Ken Ham, the museum's principle founder. The promotion of creationism has been his life since giving up teaching in Australia and he says he has no fear that one day evolutionary scientists will come up with something to shatter his young Earth beliefs. "I can stand boldly and tell you that that will never happen. They will never find something that will scientifically disprove what is the clear teaching in the Bible." Such conviction must be comforting.
Many of us will find the postulations of the museum and of Ham far too fantastic to take seriously. Nor would we be alone. About 50 protesters gathered outside its gates on opening day in May holding signs aloft excoriating Ham. He says the Ark was lifted by the flood a mere 4,500 years ago or thereabouts and dinosaurs were among the cargo. (Forget all you know about the massive creatures roaming the Earth 65 million years ago.) And if both the Bible and all other legends omit to mention dinosaurs living alongside humans, it is because the word was only invented 130 years ago. But myths are full of dragons. (One exhibit points to the depiction of a dragon on the Welsh flag.) Dragons and dinosaurs are but one.
But wait at least one second before dismissing Ham as a crackpot. For starters, his is about the slickest museum you are ever likely to visit. It has an interactive cinema that tells the creation story according to Genesis, with wind gusts in the auditorium, vibrating seats and squirts of water, as well as a state-of-the-art planetarium. Its animatronics are worthy of a world-class theme park. In fact, the principle designer also helped build exhibits for Universal Studios in Florida.
Something else impressive: the construction of the museum was funded entirely by private donations; it doesn't carry one dollar of debt.
In other words, in a country where the evolution-versus-creation debate is alive and raging, there are plenty of Americans ready to embrace Ham and support his museum. A recent Gallup poll in this country showed nearly 50 per cent of people accepting the notion that, "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."
"The creationists have been very successful in persuading conservative Christians to abandon their non-literal interpretation of the Bible," notes Ronald Numbers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who has written a book on the subject.
Ham says that the target for the museum was 250,000 visitors by the end of its first year. That was conservative. They are now on track to clock 150,000 people by the end of August, just three months after opening. On a recent Tuesday, a long queue had formed at its front entrance one hour before the posted opening time of 10am. Parents with children were there, coach trips and excited church groups. And judging by the variety of license plates in the car park, there were driving here from all across the country.
"It's a very comforting feeling to be here," admits Nancy Spivey, 65, who has driven all the way from North Carolina ' to visit the museum with her husband, Al, 65, a retired insurance executive. The couple consider themselves creationists and are thrilled to find such a "quality" place supporting their views. "A lot of so-called intelligent people think that if you believe in creationism you are not very bright, but you get away from that here," Nancy adds. "Everywhere else, we feel bullied and pushed around," says Al, noting that the evolutionary thesis of Darwin is the accepted wisdom in every other natural history museum in America, not to mention in its public schools and universities. For them, this is a sanctuary.
Visitors are likely first to follow the Trail of Life, taking them through what Ham calls the "Six Cs of history". The overarching theme of the museum, they are creation (Eden), corruption (that damned fruit of knowledge), catastrophe (the flood), confusion, Christ and the final C, consummation (the day of the apocalypse when the Lord starts again and gives us a new heaven and earth, free of suffering and death.)
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Along the path there is a 40ft walk-through model of one section of the Ark as well as a dark and grimy-bricked back alley reminding us of the misery of sin. It includes a graffiti wall plastered with torn-up magazine covers tackling such "evils" as gay marriage, extra-marital sex and abortion. It's called the "Culture in Crisis" room and to any small child it would be pretty disturbing.
Ham, 55, who came to America 20 years ago but still has a faint Australian lilt in his voice, says the reaction of Al and Nancy is typical. "A lot of Christians have said that sort of thing. They are tired of being beat up in this nation and angry at losing battles over abortion, over the placing of the Ten Commandments in public places and about prayers in school. They see this as making a very bold public statement to our modern culture and to the world that the Bible is true and we can defend it."
His taste for confronting liberalism may have come from his father, a headmaster and Sunday school teacher who liked to say that anyone who believes the Bible had better believe all of it, the parting of the Red Sea and all. In 1974, a friend gave the younger Ham a book to read. Called The Genesis Flood, it was the first jolt that stayed with him through his years studying biology at university in Brisbane. "The more I talked to my professors, and the more I studied evolution, the more I could not believe in evolution as fact. Nothing that I learnt there convinced me to believe in Darwinian evolution," he recalls.
It wasn't until 1979 that Ham gave up a high-school teaching job in Queensland and founded a creationist publishing company in his home, Creation Science Education Media Services. A gifted salesman and speaker, he began making regular visits to the US to sell his books. Eventually, in 1987, he decided to become full time, attaching himself to the Institute of Creation Research (ICR), which remains active in San Diego. Never mind that he and his wife Marilyn (they have five children) were homesick. "I recognized that if you are going to make an impact on Christendom and on the world, Australia was not the place to do it from. Ultimately, America is the centre of Christian world and of the business world."
Making an impact is what drives Ham. Seven years after joining the ICR, he and a friend, Mark Looy, co-founded a sister creationist organization, Answers in Genesis, and decided it would be better located in the more populous eastern United States. Today, Answers in Genesis has its headquarters right behind the museum, employs a staff of about 300 people, generates a daily radio program hosted by Ham that goes out to more than 800 stations across the US and has a thriving book and magazine publishing arm.
A prophet may be a bit strong, but Ham has a way with words that has made him one of America's better-known speakers on the conservative Christian circuit. "Ken could talk about some hot-button social issues of the day and relate them to creation/evolution questions," Looy, also born in Australia and a self-confessed anglophile, says of his decision to join with him. The museum is their crown jewel and testament to their success in raising funds and support. Almost as impressive is how they have recruited so many credentialed scientists to support the endeavor, including Dr David Menton, who taught medical biology at the prestigious George Washington University in St Louis for 34 years.
"I came here because I think the evolutionary world is the very undoing of the gospel and is incompatible with biblical Christianity," Menton explains in his office in between giving talks to museum visitors about what he sees as the unbridgeable differences between the skulls of apes and humans. "I see young people going through the public schools where they are uncritically taught evolution and I see these kids getting bamboozled by teachers who for the most part don't know what they are talking about."
Ham says he is no extremist; he prefers "Conservative Christian". But he is far enough out there to be unflustered that hours before our conversation, Pope Benedict XVII, no less, had condemned the whole evolution vs creation debate. "This contrast is an absurdity," said the Pope, "because there are many scientific tests in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and enriches our understanding of life and being."
If anything Ham is puzzled. "I don't know why he would be saying that," he responds. It is not his position, he says, that anyone accepting evolution cannot be a Christian. Indeed, there are millions of Christians, sometimes called "theistic evolutionists", who surely consider themselves in that category. But ignoring Genesis cannot be taken lightly. In fact, it is downright dangerous.
"If you believe in millions of years of evolution and you didn't get it from the Bible, then you really do have to reinterpret Genesis, which means you are upending biblical authority," he explains. "If you are saying it really didn't happen like Genesis describes, how can you trust anything in the Bible?" Does this mean that a relaxed interpretation of parts of the Bible, Genesis included, might lead to the unraveling of Christian faith altogether? Ham likes the word "unravel". That is the point exactly. And, thereafter, the unraveling of society.
"Step back and look at the big picture. America is not as Christian as it used to be. The Ten Commandments are not where they should be, gay marriage is accepted more and more, abortion is being permitted. The big picture is that there is a loss of biblical authority in this nation and a much greater loss over in England and in Europe generally." That is the rot, as Ham sees it, which has to be reversed.
It is hard not to admire Ham at least for his persistence. He is tilting against a society that he says has been "evolutionized" by its government. Darwin's theories of evolution remain embraced by the overwhelming majority in the scientific establishment and remain standard to the curriculum of all America's public schools. He cannot market the museum to school groups lest he be sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, for meddling with the constitutional separation of church and state. And while he may not like it, others will continue to brand him an extremist.
On opening day, a group called DefCon (Defense of the Constitution) chartered a light plane that trailed a banner overheard quoting the Ninth Commandment, "Thou shalt not lie".
With the museum, however, he is tapping into a genuine argument that has simmered in America for a very long time, arguably since the so-called " Scopes Trial" of 1925, a landmark event on which the Creation Museum also lingers. John Scopes was a biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, who found himself charged with illegally teaching the theories of Darwin. Tennessee had that year passed a law forbidding the teaching of evolution in its schools. A standing-room only trial that drew world-wide attention, ended with the teacher's conviction. It was later overturned on a technicality, however.
Ham dearly wants to stop the "evolutionizing" that has been going on apace since the Scopes Trial before it is too late and the museum is his latest weapon. Impressive it most certainly is, but this visitor, at least, wonders whether it will in the end be a destination only for the converted. I found no one at the museum who was not already an adherent of Creationism, except, that is, for myself.
And what do I think, as a true skeptic, asks Glenn Herbert, who has come with his wife, three children and a niece, all the way from Philadelphia? Well, I don't buy any of it, is my reply, though politely put. Herbert, like Ham, is not to be discouraged. Though I have spent six hours in the museum, he urges I go through it all over again, "and maybe the hand of the Lord will reach down to you this time".
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited