Early on a Thursday morning, six days after a giant feathery serpent failed to consume the planet as the Mayan calendar ended and the world didn’t, I left Louisville looking for answers. It looked to be a long day — I had a two-hour drive ahead of me and I wanted to spend as much time as possible at the Creation Museum, a state-of-the-art, Bible-based “science” museum in Petersburg, Ky. One thinly understood ancient text had failed to tell me when the world was going to end, but maybe another could tell me how it started.
The Creation Museum opened to long lines and international attention in May of 2007. The 70,000-square-foot, $27 million facility sits on 49 sprawling acres just 10 minutes from the Cincinnati airport — putting it “within one hour’s flight of 69 percent of America’s population,” according to Ken Ham, president of both the museum and its parent organization, Answers In Genesis.
While the location might make geographic sense, Kentucky’s topography makes it an odd fit. Most of the state is lumpy, like a great earthen bed sheet rumpled by the crashing of continental plates — and that Kentucky earth is full of dinosaurs. One would think it would be hard to reconcile all those lumps and fossils with a worldview that smashes the entire history of the universe into 6,000 years — but the museum promises to do just that, explaining away millions of years of plate tectonics with the wrathful fist of an angry God cracking Earth’s crust with a heavenly haymaker at the start of the flood that sent Noah scurrying to fill his ark with aardvarks, ostriches, antelopes, and, yes, dinosaurs. In fact, like the ark, the Creation Museum is rumored to be chock full of the thunder lizards.
I’m going to be honest here. It all seemed a mite tough to swallow, but I’m a sucker for dinosaurs, and I’d been looking forward to visiting the museum for months. Still, as I pulled onto the grounds through a pair of stone gates topped with wrought-iron stegosauruses, I began to feel a lead pit in my stomach. I felt like a dirty double agent. I like to think I’m open-minded — it’s a basic tenet of the scientific method that nothing is ever truly certain and that evidence trumps all — but I couldn’t imagine this place changing minds.
The giant Dodge Ram truck, marked “Creation Museum, K-9 Security” and flanked by the armed officer in his dark BDUs, did little to stifle my fears. Nor did the longest, least welcoming welcome sign I’ve ever seen. It featured a list of intolerable outfits and behaviors that could earn a guest the bum’s rush, including, but not limited, to the “Obscene.” I wasn’t sure what the good folks at the Creation Museum considered obscene, but I decided right then and there that I was going to keep it in my pants no matter how hot the audio-animatronic Adam and Eve were.
Inside, however, my fears began to melt away like the remnants of the last ice age, which, according to Young Earth Creationists, happened after The Flood, possibly as recently as last Wednesday. The place is beautiful, a triumph of intelligent museum design with a main hall built on walls of bleached stone block reaching gracefully heavenward over a grand gallery full of waterfalls, dinosaurs, and a beautifully cast mastodon skeleton gazing down reassuringly on the throngs seeking confirmation.
A few of the visitors fit my notion of someone who thinks the Grand Canyon was formed in days by the Great Deluge, like the large group of women and girls wearing long, plain dresses and matching white headscarves, with their accompanying menfolk in modern, if camouflaged, garb. Most of the visitors, though, looked more like the young family I sat next to in the Planetarium — happy kids, an athletic mom in her Race For The Cure fun run T-Shirt, and the dad in his Indianapolis Colts cap tapping away at his iPhone.
The staff was really very nice — the kind of nice that makes you want to trust your children with them, as long as they promise not to try to teach them anything. The coffee was really good, too, and I never saw that coming. But one doesn’t need to scratch very hard at the Creation Museum before the glaze of sanity starts to break down. Those animatronic tyrannosaurs? They’re frolicking amongst a pack of scruffy, robotic cave kids, and the whole shebang is centered on a marble statue of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
In fact, in every exhibit, The Good Lord Himself (not “Itself,” or Him forbid, “Herself”) stands at the center. Why does a monkey’s hand look a lot like a man’s hand? God thought it was a good idea. Why does a platypus lay eggs and have fur? It’s Yahweh’s way of flipping Darwin the bird.
In the planetarium, we winged through the cosmos — millions of galaxies, billions of stars, trillions of miles — and then were told God made the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day of a very busy week, a day after he made all the plants, a day before he made the fish and manatees and birds and pterodactyls and all the other creatures of the sea and sky, and two days before making the cows and velociraptors and ostriches and other flightless birds (though it is not clear when he made the penguins which both swim and waddle), and three days before he made mankind (sadly, not the wrestler) to rule it all.
Frankly, it seemed such a waste of a perfectly good planetarium. Bong hits and a Pink Floyd laser show would have more educational value. I learned about evolution from a Jesuit priest, witnessed bacteria become immune to antibiotics in my lifetime, and was born to a father who lived in a world with forks and spoons, but not a single spork. This whole denial of evolution seemed insane. You’d have an easier time convincing someone not born in the ’70s that Henry Winkler was cool than that the mind-stretching cosmos is somehow 70,000 years younger than the Pando quaking aspen tree in Utah, which heretofore, I’d assumed was part of the Earth.
In a place that puts the breath of the Bible God behind every breeze, it became hard to ignore the fact that the creator God of the Creation Museum is Charles Darwin. Again and again, the museum asks a question — why, when, or how — then presents some feeble simulacrum of a modern scientific response, dashes it with the infallible word of the Lord, then does a lascivious touchdown dance on Darwin’s grave. Darwin wrote a book, and Answers In Genesis built a $27-million-dollar response.
It was clear the Creation Museum was never meant for me. I’d been blessed with an upbringing that encouraged me to question, a worldview that was OK with allegory. The Creation Museum is for people who are tied to their dogma, but can’t help but notice there are a lot of dinosaur bones out there and need some placebo science. Plus, their kids want to go to the Natural History Museum, and this place makes a nice placebo for that as well.
I’d failed my test of faith, and in the Garden of Eden I faced my greatest fears: Audio-animatronic Adam and Eve are super hot, and since the Bible says they were naked, you’d better believe they’re naked. Of course, the Bible doesn’t say they weren’t constantly standing behind strategically placed modesty fronds, so the first couple comes off like a prehistoric Austin Powers, but all the luscious foliage in the world can’t hide their rippling middle brown torsos. There’s even a graphic to explain this original skin, which, if you’re wondering, looks like an Italian in winter without the gold chain and crucifix.
It’s all just so sexy — and not just the naked torsos. What’s really alluring is the never having to wonder. Down at the science center, you’ll learn the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, but you’ve still got to ask yourself why the hell it’s here at all and what you’re supposed to do while you’re riding it. There’s none of that in the Creation Museum. You’re here because God said so. And even I felt some solace in that — not because I didn’t have to wonder at my purpose, but because I didn’t have to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. The whole point of building this place was so creationists didn’t have to listen to people like me.
Unfortunately for the museum. Attendance has dropped every year since the joint opened, with only about 250,000 people visiting last year, 150,000 below the first-year peak. Answers In Genesis has a plan to stave off extinction, however: The group is building an ark, and an Ark Encounters amusement park to house it. So far, it has only raised about $12 million of the $172 million it will need to complete the park, but the great state of Kentucky is giving $43 million in tax incentives and possibly another $11 million in road improvements, which might seem wasteful in the face of huge, statewide budget cuts, but if sea levels rise high enough, Kentucky might get a great big laugh at all the ark-free states.
If the ice caps do melt and the seas rise again, the fine folks at the Creation Museum will have some faith-based retort to the science at hand. It wasn’t greenhouse gases — the Holy Spirit made chili and the Good Lord got the winds, which was all part of His plan, as was the Kentucky ark and its conveniently located petting zoo. Until then, we’ll have to take it on faith that the Bible tips the scales on all that pesky evidence. If you don’t believe me, pack up the family truckster and head on out to the Creation Museum, where unlearning is fun!
CORRECTION: This story originally stated that the cast skeleton in the museum’s main hall was a mammoth. It is, in fact, a mastodon.