Q&A with Kathleen (Casey) Oberlin, Author of Creating the Creation Museum: How Fundamentalist Beliefs Come to Life

Kathleen C. Oberlin is a researcher based in Chicago. Formerly, she was Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Grinnell College.

In Creating the Creation Museum, Kathleen C. Oberlin shows us how the largest Creationist organization, Answers in Genesis (AiG), built a museum—which has had over three million visitors—to make its movement mainstream. She takes us behind the scenes, vividly bringing the museum to life by detailing its infamous exhibits on human fossils, dinosaur remains, and more.

Drawing on over three years of research at the Creation Museum, where she was granted rare access to AiG’s leadership, Oberlin examines how the museum convincingly reframes scientific facts, such as modeling itself on traditional natural history museums. Through a unique historical dataset of over 1,000 internal documents from creationist organizations and an analysis of media coverage, Creating the Creation Museum shows how the museum works as a site of social movement activity and a place to contest the secular mainstream. Oberlin ultimately argues that the Creation Museum has real-world consequences in today’s polarized era.

Interview by Shiv Issar

1. For those of our readers who are unfamiliar with the Creation Museum, could you tell us more about it, and why you chose to study it with respect to the creationist movement and social movement activity? What is it that truly sets it apart from other “creationist” museums? 

“Prepare to Believe” is the slogan that greets visitors throughout the Creation Museum located in Petersburg, Kentucky. It carries the message that Answers in Genesis (AiG), the largest Young Earth Creationist group (YEC) in the world, uses to welcome fellow believers as well as skeptics since opening in 2007. YEC is the close interpretation of the Bible and the belief that Earth is less than 10,000 years old. This short timeline is the key factor that distinguishes the YEC stance from Old Earth Creationism e.g., Intelligent Design, which varies in explanations for how old the earth is but adherents often align with mainstream geologic accounts for the earth to be billions of years old. While the YEC position stands in stark contrast to what many believe, survey trends from 1982-2017 reveal that approximately 38-46 percent of those living in the US continue to believe that God created man within the last 10,000 years.[1] A recent National Science Foundation report concluded, “Many people know basic facts about evolution and science without believing in human evolution.”[2] Scholars who focus on movement efforts in educational or political venues find the persistence of creationist beliefs to be puzzling given creationists’ continual failure to significantly influence curricula or legislation. I show how the Creation Museum helps to solve a piece of that puzzle as it reflects the movement’s broader efforts to shift away from failed tactics in order to focus on broader cultural change using its own site. The Creation Museum cost $30 million dollars to build. In May 2017, on its tenth anniversary, it reached an attendance milestone with over three million visitors. AiG continues to reach the public and spread its message regardless of a court decision or political campaign.

In Creating the Creation Museum, I argue that the impact of the Creation Museum does not depend on the accuracy or credibility of its scientific claims, as many scholars, media critics, and political pundits would suggest. Rather, the museum’s narrative relies on how effective it is in making the case for creation science plausible to a broader audience. Equally important is how well it conveys the plausibility of this alternative by adapting the building-form of the natural history museum.

The Creation Museum is not a house of kitsch objects to be ogled, and it is not simply a collection of arguments for rhetorical provocation. Like all museums’ artifacts and related narratives, the Creation Museum’s items and ideas are connected to actors who created them to accomplish a desired outcome. So, why do we believe some group’s claims and efforts more than others? Social movements, groups who fall outside of institutionalized pathways, do not simply protest in the street, boycott, or agitate for their court case to be heard in order to persuade followers that they have something to offer. Often social movements need physical locations, a place, in order to organize themselves and directly engage with the public. I argue the form of the building matters as much as the activity that takes place there.

To evaluate this argument, I used a case study of a social movement building a widely publicized museum. My focus is on Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum because it reflects an attempt to target a public mouthpiece of the scientific establishment— the natural history museum is one of its premier longstanding cultural institutions. The Creation Museum is not representative or typical, but when studying social movements this is an asset. It reveals more about how AiG and its alternative worldview resonate with members of the public who persistently seek to resurrect a conservative status quo across multiple institutions.

2. Creating the Creation Museum traces the evolution of creationism in the United States over a period of five decades. Within the domain of institution-building, what led organizations such as AiG and the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) to be wary about national politics over time? 

The short answer is that creationists were never really focused on influencing national politics as an explicit target – most of the young earth creationist leadership in the 1950s and ‘60s had technical backgrounds (like engineering) so they weren’t your typical charismatic religious leader. In the late 1970s, Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority started to shift the broader cultural and political landscape to be more sympathetic to creationist efforts, particularly in the school system and local political battles, and by-in-large creationists focused on educational and legal battles. When Ken Ham became the leader of AiG, he was a more charismatic leader type with a background in teaching and preaching so he more effectively tapped into the culture wars narrative and re-engaged politically, but on cultural grounds like the museum rather than electoral politics, and the like. In many ways, cultural efforts afford more potential leverage for groups like AiG since success can be defined on their own, internal grounds rather than externally through an election or policy adoption.


3. What is it that enables the Creation Museum to “perform” credible science for its audience?

Iexplore how the Creation Museum is an unexpected social movement site, but one that becomes understandable if we analyze how creationists used it to physically ground their claims, better positioning them to secure cultural authority over time. As historian of science Sophie Forgan (2005) suggests, “Architecture is designed to appeal first to the emotions and then to the intellect” (581). By linking scientific practices to religious and sociocultural political claims based on the literal interpretation of the Bible, AiG attempts to inculcate creation science to families and communities that feel as though they had been forced unnecessarily to reject mainstream science due to its secularity. Sites such as the Creation Museum seek to solidify supporter’s commitments while reaching a leery yet primed broader audience who feel their perspectives are often marginalized. By empirically unpacking AiG’s efforts, we gain insight into why some religious members of the public feel sidelined in society and how a group like AiG may offer alternative solutions that resonate with the disenchanted members of the public even if they do not fully support that group.

By moving the Young Earth Creationist perspective out of the church and into a museum, AiG exposes in a physical, public site the tensions between religion and science as two sources of legitimation and belief, but not explicitly so. The Creation Museum cannot look like a church: its visual code must be read as a ‘museum’ rather than as a sacred space in order to sustain the appearance that creation science is a legitimate rival to scientific evolutionary theories depicted in natural history museums. But how does AiG accomplish this balance? In order to understand whether or not visitors ‘buy’ the message or think of it as a museum, it is necessary to unpack how AiG went about making choices to try and achieve its desired effect. AiG’s use of the museum-form to convey its own cultural authority comes with risks (it may not work, or be persuasive). I use primary data from fieldwork observations including walk-alongs with visitors, internal organizational documents, and interviews with key movement stakeholders to provide insight into how social movements use particular sites to leverage their claims and develop an oppositional stance. Being attuned to how multi-sensory engagement is activated and the material culture is wielded—everything from auditory cues and lighting choices to color palette and the spatial arrangement of each room—underscores how all of this is created to be ‘read’ by visitors at the Creation Museum.

I argue that the impact of the Creation Museum does not hinge on the accuracy or credibility of its scientific claims, as many scholars, media critics, and political pundits would suggest. Instead, what AiG seeks by creating a physical site like the Creation Museum is the ability to engage plausibility politics—broadening what we, as an audience, perceive as possible if not reasonable and amplifying the stakes if we allow those ideas to circulate. In so doing, they draw from a well-worn creationist tradition that’s helped them endure for the long haul.


4. How is it that the discourse surrounding Lucy exhibit at the Creation Museum isn’t invalidated by other natural history museum exhibits across the United States? Could you tell us more about the forces that sustain this highly negotiated form of pluralism?

I focus on the ‘Lucy’ exhibit, the Australopithecus used to depict human evolution and our common ancestor, to examine how AiG constructs a plausible counterclaim and compellingly depicts this to visitors. Unpacking the materiality of objects in a contested exhibit affords a close up understanding of how a group attempts to make ideas and objects credible—what techniques do they use and how do they accomplish a plausible ‘look and feel.’

How do they go about doing this in practice? I compared the Creation Museum’s Lucy exhibit to natural history museums across the United States that feature Lucy in their human origins exhibits: the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Ohio, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.. From this comparative work, I identified three moves that AiG makes to be effective for many visitors – challenge a meaningful target, ground the challenge using material objects, and make claims explicitly and transparently against mainstream framing.

Move 1: Choose Your Target Wisely

AiG selected a familiar example to target. Across the world, despite the fact that the average visitor to a science museum varies in what they find interesting about natural history (beyond dinosaurs), if there is an exhibit on human origins, it will likely focus on our common ancestors, with Lucy front and center. Lucy embodies a key challenge that human evolution presents for many religious believers: how to reconcile the possibility of common ancestry with primates and the role of a supernatural creator.

Move 2: Portray Your Alternative Using the Same Physical Evidence

At first glance, the Lucy exhibit in the Creation Museum feels familiar. We see the fossil evidence arranged in a partial skeleton positioned upright and affixed in a museum-style display glass case. Next to it is a life-like Lucy reconstruction with skin, muscles, and hair. Yet she is in an unfamiliar position as an ape-like figure walking on all fours. To support its objections to dominant interpretations, the Creation Museum exhibit uses cutting-edge hologram technology to overlay known fossils associated with Lucy onto this ape-like figure. It visually demonstrates the plausibility of AiG’s arguments and depicts how the fossil record could suggest a knuckle-walking ape rather than an intermediate bipedal hominid.

Move 3: Explicitly Confront Mainstream Exhibits

AiG exacerbates the disconnect that exists in the museum world with its public. There is a fissure between a contemporary ethos for pluralism and a historical impulse to offer a singular authoritative voice in museums—in this case, a ‘finished science.’ [3] AiG does not want to dismantle the authority of science, but rather shift the grounds upon which it stands. The irony, then, is that mainstream museums laid in some of the groundwork for a group such as AiG to mobilize.

For science museum educators a prominent concern is that many visitors do not have an adequate grasp of evolution and how it works, despite its foundational prominence in the biological sciences. Other research suggests even when visitors do accept scientific explanations that rely on evolutionary mechanisms to explain mammalian and bird species, and other kinds of non-human species changes, many visitors continue to rely on creationist-style explanations for humans. AiG explicitly capitalizes on this phenomenon.


5. Your analysis of public perception and media pertaining to the Creation Museum presents a break from the ethnographic approach that you’ve employed throughout most of your book. What advice would you like to give to doctoral students and early-career STS scholars who seek to effectively utilize a mixed-methods template as you have?

My initial response hearkens back to what I imagine is referenced in most methods courses – let the research questions guide the methods you select since you only know what tools you’ll need after you’ve landed on the key question(s). I ended up with a mixed methods project because that’s what answering my key research questions required. And thankfully my dissertation committee was open to it (grants to fund research trips and archival work didn’t hurt!) but without question it made the project bigger and more time intensive.

So, my advice would be to prioritize ruthlessly what you need to make the strongest argument for now and partition off what you don’t need for later since it will be useful for the eventual book, or spin off articles. And consistently keep revisiting the research question (do I need this data/ approach in order to answer a key component?) and strategic question (will using this type of data or method help me make a stronger case as a job candidate?). There were many times I wished that I methodologically streamlined the project to just the ethnographic fieldwork, but I don’t think it would have made the project stronger. I’ve also found it to be particularly valuable for the job search process in both academia (evidence that you may be able to teach a variety of method courses and mentor a range of student projects) and industry (evidence that you are able to assess efficiently the right tools for a particular project based on experience).


6. Finally, would you like to tell us more about the research projects that you are currently engaged with, and what you are planning to work on in the future? Would you be likely to continue with your work on plausibility politics?

Near the end of the book process, I made a pivot into the tech industry from my tenure track position at Grinnell College, so future work looks a little different for me. I now work as a researcher at Facebook and my focus is on better understanding how users engage with technology in their own lives – their concerns, their understanding of how things work, and what they prioritize. Questions around the plausibility of information and the spread of misinformation is one key area I’ll continue to pursue when I do original research moving forward. 

References

[1] Duncan, Otis D. and Claudia Geist. 2004. “The Creationists: How Many, Who, and Where?” Reports of the National Center for Science Education 24:26-32; Swift, Art. 2017. “In US, Belief in Creationist View of Humans at New Low.” Gallup Poll Report, May 22.

[2] National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2016. National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

[3] Hine, Amelia and Fabien Medvecky. 2015. “Unfinished Science in Museums: A Push for Critical Science Literacy.” Journal of Science Communication 14:1-14.

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