You've probably heard of the Creation Museum, opening tomorrow near Cincinatti. It's made a big splash with its price tag ($27mil), flashy exhibits, and unapologetic religious message. The Creation Museum is itself a creation of the Answers in Genesis ministry, and has the most unique museum mission statements I've ever seen. Their "main theme" is "The Bible is true from Genesis to Revelation!" Lots has been written about it, including the somewhat perplexed and perplexing New York Times review that appeared last week and is the third most emailed article this week.
Here's what fascinates me about the Creation Museum: it is the perfect example of a museum embracing and presenting a single story. "The Bible is true." That's it. I've written a lot about the power of story in museum experiences to pull people in and emotionally connect them with content. But I've always known in the back of my head that an opportunity like this would come up to talk about the ways that story can detract from reality, can distort the truth with its appeal, can charm, as it were, like a snake in a mythological garden.
The Times article was surprisingly positive (fair and balanced?) about the museum, acknowledging the power of the museum's story:
Whether you are willing to grant the premises of this museum almost becomes irrelevant as you are drawn into its mixture of spectacle and narrative...The reviewer makes it sound like a fairy tale: pleasant to explore without concern for reality. Which drives me (and I'm sure many others) nuts.
But for debates, a visitor goes elsewhere. The Creation Museum offers an alternate world that has its fascinations, even for a skeptic wary of the effect of so many unanswered assertions. He leaves feeling a bit like Adam emerging from Eden, all the world before him, freshly amazed at its strangeness and extravagant peculiarities.
Last year at ASTC, Randy Olson screened his excellent documentary about the evolution/intelligent design debate, A Flock of Dodos. Olson, a scientist, sought to figure out why so many people in America are turning away from evolution and towards intelligent design. His conclusion? That the ID people tell a great, compelling story about how we came to be. And that the evolutionists don't.
The fact that evolution is a theory, and that the scientific definition of theory is lost on most people, has never helped it thrive. But this is a bigger problem--the reality that a good story can trump facts, and that people would rather listen with their hearts than their heads. We'd rather hear a good story than a true one. Tim O'Brien explored this fabulously in "How to Tell a True War Story," in his book The Things They Carried. A true war story, O'Brien says, isn't moral or uplifting. It's stupid and cruel and inexplicable. But our expectations about how a story is supposed to make us feel make us doubt the true war stories so that, paradoxically, a true war story doesn't feel true.
Does the true story about the history of our universe feel true? Many scientists would be uncomfortable even with the use of the word "story;" they'd say the scientific timeline of the universe isn't a story but a collection of evidence and theories. Scientists aren't the business of storytelling, and for the most part, neither are science educators. Museums, especially science museums, are places that seek to engage the mind, not the heart. Fact-loving people are often suspicious of stories, which can be used to distort and pervert the truth.
But truth isn't as popular as stories these days. The directive to "love truth" no longer resonates the way it used to. And at least from the New York Times' perspective, the Creation Museum tells a good story, tells it so well that the reviewer is willing to sit back and enjoy the "mixture of spectacle and narrative" without entertaining doubts or debate about the content.
In museums, we try to tell good stories about objects, events, and phenomena. But we also try to engage the mind before the heart, to push visitors to question and wonder and debate within themselves the way they feel about those stories. The Creation Museum tells a story with certainty, starting from the heart and then using that base story to develop talking points for the brain. The facts that spin out of belief are suspect at best. The only way I can rationalize the Creation Museum's message is by reading their mission statement and understanding that their message is not sneaky or underhanded. They are unapologetic about their mission to use faith to rewrite science. They don't want to encourage debate or challenge. They want believers, not thinkers.
Science museums need to be equally unapologetic about their mission to encourage thinking, to use science to rewrite and challenge the things people believe about their place in the universe. Do I want the people "on my side" to become storytellers the way the Answers in Genesis folks are? No. I want us to start from facts, not from faith--and then use those facts to create comparably compelling stories. Stories about the fact that we are a small speck in an unfathomable system. That the earth and its inhabitants are affected by our actions. That humans are derived from and related to other creatures. That evidence is complex, contradictory, and cannot always be explained by a single resonant story. We need to present the facts in a way that encourages people to understand and love these principles the way they believe other essential human stories. Thank goodness for people who are willing to rise to the challenge and present compelling stories based in fact. Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything sticks out in my head as a fabulous collection of stories about science--stories that make the facts interesting and resonant with both mind and gut. I hope that museum people can find compelling ways to counter the Creation Museum's story with powerful stories about evolution and the scientific history of the universe. I wish it with all my heart.