Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., Righting America at the Creation Museum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) 344 pp. £20 Hb. ISBN: 9781421419510
In Righting America at the Creation Museum, Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr. give crucial insights into an American cultural as well as political phenomenon, namely Conservative Christian movements and one of their outlets: the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Ken Ham, an ardent supporter of creationism, and Answers in Genesis (AiG), an organisation that aims at spreading a literal interpretation of the Bible, managed to build the museum with donations. Three years after its opening in 2007, the museum had already attracted one million visitors who were able to walk around approximately 150 exhibits that are displayed over 75000 square feet.
Righting America at the Creation Museum is part of a publication series that puts science, religion and medicine into historical context. This volume focuses on the use of religious concepts for political purposes: The Creation Museum is presented as a right-wing conservative Christian outlet. The book is divided into seven parts and includes an introduction, an epilogue, and a comprehensive appendix.
In the introduction, several terms like ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘creationism’ are defined in order to fully comprehend the context that surrounds the museum. The authors state that the museum is part of the US right wing religious (and political) mainstream and is used as a weapon in the so-called culture war. Righting America tries to answer the following questions: What exactly is the message of the museum and how is it conveyed? How are the museum-goers constituted as Christians – and as Americans? And what are the implications for American politics and religions? To answer those questions thoroughly, the authors visited the museum on multiple occasions and gathered plenty of material. For instance, most of the photos of the museum’s displays were taken by the authors so that the reader is given a visual presentation of the exhibition. Their approach was to look at it as a museum-like institution, at its treatment of the Bible and its representation of science. It is generally understood that when a site refers to itself as a ‘museum’, several criteria must be met. ‘For more than two hundred years, museum directors . . . have endeavoured to develop the museum as an institution that not only collects, safeguards . . . and explains objects of interest but also seeks to improve the people it serves by, among other things, providing them the most up-to-date and authoritative knowledge about those objects’ (16).
The volume also provides the reader with a brief insight into the history and exhibition methods of museums in general and in doing so reveals the clever techniques employed by Ken Ham and AiG who established a site that seems to be built on knowledge and facts but in truth is a subjective outlet of Evangelical beliefs. The visitors ‘are advised to scrutinize themselves with regard to their own disobedience. Do they understand who God is? . . . Are they obeying God’s Word?’ (54). The founders of the Creation Museum use the implicit knowledge behind the term ‘museum’ for their purpose: to give evidence that the earth is no more than 6000 years old and that the Bible can be interpreted literally with so-called scientific evidence. Created Cosmos, for instance, is a film that can be watched in the museum’s planetarium and it should inform about the earth as well as the solar system. While the film presents accurate numbers about the cosmos, it also makes non-scientific inferences. The definition of nebulae concludes: ‘These amazing creations can rightly be called the artwork of God’ (73).
The museum uses videos as well as animatronics and reconstructions (such as an enormous part of Noah’s Ark that visitors can go through) to emphasise its message: we live in an age of horror due to cultural decline. Interestingly, as the authors point out, the museum appears to give its visitors a neutral perspective and the possibility of choosing sides. The reader learns that the exhibitions general structure should lead to visitors to return to a strict reading of the Bible and a corresponding way of living. This message aligns with the ‘7Cs’ of the museum which recur throughout the whole museum: Creation, Corruption (the Fall), Catastrophe (the Flood), Confusion (Babel), Christ, Cross, Consummation (45). As the authors take the reader on a tour through the museum in their book, they pose critical questions that reveal the museum’s exhibits as non-objective. In doing so, the mechanisms and superficial solutions of the museum are exposed. The Wonders of Creation room features videos from animals that should prove that an intelligent designer is behind them: A bird is equipped with wings because its design should enable it to fly. Its beauty and complexity, according to the exhibit, reveals the creator behind it. Here, the authors stop and ponder several questions: If the bird and its wings stand for beauty, and the whole creation is based on it – what about ugliness? Does ugliness result from sin (and what is considered to be ugly)? The flaws in the museum’s line of argumentation (omission of information, subjective presentation of topics and exhibits) become entirely clear. As the authors explain, there is so much text in the museum that visitors are guided to read only highlighted parts of texts/scripture passages, and hence, ignore contextual information. Moreover, the authors prove that parts of the quoted Bible verses are even altered to satisfy the museum’s purposes, a fact that makes it an even more unreliable and biased place.
Trollinger and Trollinger Jr. have researched the phenomenon of the Creation Museum thoroughly and put together a book that describes the strategies at work inside the museum and also show the greater ideas that lie behind it. They reveal the seriousness with which Ken Ham and AiG strive to influence American culture, and they also prove that the Creation Museum is not a place of education and science but, rather, a place of indoctrination.
Marina Fleck, Catholic University Eichstaett-Ingolstadt