Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Creation Museum: Dangerous Storytelling

What's the craziest story you know? Is it one where humans and dinosaurs peacefully roam the earth side by side? Is it one where most of the world's fossils are the result of the great flood that Noah arked through? Is it one where the Earth is 6,000 years old?

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...

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.
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.

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.

7 comments, add yours!:

Frankie Roberto said...

A thought-provoking post!

I've posted an entry in response over on my blog at

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Hi Nina,

The Creation Museum has gathered the "holy trinity" (sorry!) of storytelling in passion, people, and purpose.

Each aspect of their "three ps" is clear and unapologetic. Director Ham has a missionary zeal in getting his simple message across ("everything in the Bible is literally true AND science supports it.)

By contrast, who, most often, delivers the message of science museums? Marketing and Development departments by and large. By the time the "marketing package" is developed for an exhibition much of the original purpose and passion are wrung dry.

Coincidentally, one of the most memorable aspects of both storytelling and museum visits is human interaction. Perhaps we in the "real" museum world might look again at where we our investing our resources and passions in trying to bring stories to our museum visitors.

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Odd Tangent:Wii

For some reason this hubbub about the (Judeo-Christian) Creation Museum makes me think about the Wii gaming system.

Nintendo is reaching a wider range of players and non-traditional demographics (seniors, moms, families playing together) than normal because the
Wii games are intuitive and fun --- eventhough the other gaming consoles have "better" graphics and more complex games.

Even some game designers/companies prefer the Wii --- "Developers also like the Wii because it frees them to focus less on making games look visually beautiful and more on just making them fun to play." (quote from the Seattle Times)

It all seems to boil down to the story again. If a game is really fun, players seem to be less concerned with graphics, etc. If your museum is really intriguing (like the City Museum, in St. Louis, say) then visitors don't seem as concerned
with the lack of fancy graphics and exhibit furniture.

Anonymous said...


I'd think that the actual exhibits within the exhibition tell more of the story/message than the marketing that has merely gotten patrons through the turnstiles, no? Doesn't the exhibition come before the "marketing package?" Isn't the exhibit design team (which could include Dev or Mktg) the creator of the story/message? Nina, what came first: Operation Spy or Operation Spy's advertising?

Harumph! I *wish* Marketign and Development had more input in the design process -- maybe you would see more story/fun in science center exhibitions.

Frankie Roberto,
Agree. Learning the story of the process is FASCINATING. Two recent favorite books for me have been Jonathan Weiner's "Time, Love, Memory" and "The Beak of the Finch." Scientists at work, told through some of the most elegant science prose available.


Anonymous said...


The Creation Museum has also gathered an "unholy trinity of storytelling" in lies, attacks, and exclusivity.

I can't wait for my visit over the 4th of July weekend. Nina, I'll take pictures.


Anonymous said...

Hi Nina. Wonderful post, you make a compelling point, and I agree that passion in scientific writing and communication would go a long way toward steering more people to at least listen to the other side of the issue. I think that it is a sad state of affairs that things have progressed to such a disastrous point that we will have to appeal to the heart to make a rational point, though. I wrote a lengthier response with my thoughts on the matter on our explainers' blog post.

Anonymous said...

A comment from the faith-based perspective:

This is the part that always drives unbelievers crazy. Faith.

Faith can't be observed or quantified. (drives scientists, and even the man on the street, nuts!)

And here's the tough part. Faith is a gift. Not everyone has it. If you don't have faith, you can't just go out and get it somewhere. You can't will yourself to believe. "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing".

A couple well-known phrases from the lips of Jesus: "Let the man who has eyes see", and "let those with ears hear".

The meaning is, "Let the man who has the faith I gave him understand."

That faith trumps all the "facts" science insists upon. And here's why. Science absolutely DEMANDS a naturalistic starting point with no God, nothing supernatural and no miracles. But everything about God and His Creation, and the way He comes to those He choses to be His children, is miraculous!

I remember my pre-faith days. All the science made sense. Then something miraculous happened, and my entire perspactive changed. I'm not saying Ken Hamm has it all ironed out, but I certianly understand his point of view.

Something miraculous did happen in the beginning. The rules that operate now were just getting set up then. You can't expect a miracle to conform to natural law.

More importantly, God gave us an account of what happened back then. One of the most helpful definitions of faith is this: "Faith is believing that what God has said is so."

The man without faith doesn't believe God about almost anything. Doesn't believe God exists, doesn't believe in heaven or hell, miracles, demons, spiratual warfare, sin, etc, etc, etc.

The man without faith accepts the scientific explanation because he accepts the premises and assumptions of science. Matter and energy are all there is, ever was and ever will be...

My advice? Challenge those assumptions.

(sorry about being posting as "anonymous" here. I stumbled on this blog and don't have an account. My name is David. I will try to remember to check back.)