A Wonder-Cabinet of Creation(ism)


You’ve probably heard of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, a $27 million facility opened by Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis ministry back in 2007. The museum has dioramas that feature Adam and Eve frolicking among dinosaurs, and it has proven to be as much a magnet for bemused journalists and scientists as it has for believers. You may not realize, though, that Ken Ham’s museum is only the largest and most famous of at least two dozen creation museums in the United States, all devoted to the sort of natural history in which Genesis is thought to offer a factual account of the world’s origins.

Some of these museums, such as the 7Wonders Museum on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens, are extensions of people’s homes. One travels from church to church, setting up its exhibits in foyers and recreation halls. Quite a few are freestanding nonprofit institutions–places like the Creation Discovery Museum in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where you can hold a creation-themed birthday party, complete with a performer in a saber-toothed tiger costume, or the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Tex., which is building a “hyperbaric biosphere” designed for “simulating the atmospheric conditions that existed before the worldwide Flood of Noah’s day.”

There are those who suggest that creation museums are just monuments to stupidity, constructed, in the words of British paleontologist Richard Fortey, “as if a Museum of Falsehood were a theoretical possibility.” But a glance at the country’s full range of creation museums seems to offer a richer picture—one of passionate people taking part in the strange mix of imitation, defiance, and amateurism that makes American fundamentalist Christianity, love it or loathe it, one of the most engrossing shows on earth.

To test this impression, I recently made a trip down to my own local creation museum, known in full as The Creation Museum, Taxidermy Hall of Fame of North Carolina, and Antique Tool Museum. Located in the little town of Southern Pines, N.C., the museum is tucked into the basement of a Christian bookstore-fudge shoppe-used clothing emporium, right near the center of town. In the pursuit of a creationist message, taxidermy makes sense—as in secular museums, preserved animals offer useful lessons in natural history, up close and stationary. The connection between antique tools and creation is not so clear,  although one museum pamphlet explains that tools are included “because Jesus was a carpenter.”

When I visited Southern Pines on a recent April morning, the azaleas were in bloom up and down the town’s main boulevard. Even in the middle of the week, there were plenty of pedestrians. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry, as befits a town that’s favored by retirees and known for its golf courses. Inside the Christian bookstore, an elderly employee came up to ask if I had visited the museum before. When I told her that I had not, she explained the layout of the place, in the kind of guarded tones one might use with a patient at a mental hospital: friendly, but uncertain of the reaction to follow. This made sense, later, once I’d seen the museum, and once she explained, as part of a longer and more relaxed conversation, that visitors often leave almost immediately, looking, in her words, “perturbed.”

According to the bookstore clerks, many natives of Southern Pines don’t even know the museum exists. To attract visitors, the museum relies on passers-by, who might notice a small sign about the museum that’s posted on a carved wooden bear near the bookstore doors. Once you’re in the shop, though, the museum entrance is hard to miss. A wooden structure–think of a souped-up timber doorframe, or a hut, or, if you’re Jewish, a sukkah–frames a set of stairs that descend into the basement. There are a handful of pamphlets by the entrance, too, offering information on the museum’s history, and on the possible fates of your soul.

Descending the stairs, the first thing you’d notice is a gigantic suit of armor posted at the entrance, its feet in the basement and its head near the ceiling, with a verse from Ephesians posted on the breastplate, urging the reader to “put on the whole armour of God.”The second thing you’d notice, perhaps, is a small glass case at the base of the stairs, empty except for a rubber snake coiled around an apple. A sign explains that “in this case we have displayed all the credible evidence of evolution.”

And then you’d notice the stuff: the sheer and incredible volume of stuff, crammed into that low-ceilinged basement, and stored behind plate glass in well-constructed, but clearly homemade, display cases. The museum’s long name, it turns out, does not begin to describe the breadth and eclecticism of its collections.  Just to give a sampling: there is a wooden collar that was purportedly used at a slave auction in Huntsville, Ala. There is a case full of Bibles from around the world. There is a tire from one of the cars of evangelical Christian drag-racer Don Garlits, on loan from a private collection. There is a seven-foot-tall Beanie Baby. There is a photograph of Ronald Reagan, tucked without explanation into an exhibit of desert animals. There are, of course, antique tools—especially impressive is the collection of 19th century Disston saws—and a whole taxidermied menagerie, including an albino deer, a mountain lion, and seven baby copperheads, each as slender as a pencil. (See more: the museum offers a slideshow on its website).

The founder, visionary, and primary benefactor of this odd museum was a minister named Kent Kelly, who died in 2008. Kelly was the preacher at Calvary Memorial Church in Southern Pines until 1989, when a stroke left him unable to preach. In his retirement, Kelly began to travel around the South in his Ford station wagon, picking up things he found along the way. “He was an avid collector,” one of Kelly’s former parishioners told me, in what was surely a polite understatement.

Kelly deposited many of his findings in the bookstore, which his mother owned and managed (she also recently passed away). Taxidermied animals soon lined the walls. This was unconventional bookstore decor, perhaps, but not an unusual way to ornament a room. Other findings, though, were downright strange. When Kelly brought that 15′ tall suit of knight’s armor back to Southern Pines, strapped to the top of his car and driven all the way from Atlanta, a distance of some 350 miles, his mother had to cut a hole in the floor in order to stand the thing upright. Understandably, she suggested one day that he take his collection down to the basement. And so the museum was born.

Without the title of “museum,” and a few display cases, Kelly’s collection is just an odd jumble of stuff. Once it’s a museum, though, with informational signs and artfully arranged taxidermy, it’s something more: a pulpit from which to instruct, and a place where visitors expect a certain kind of authority. Kent Kelly’s collection, like creation museums across the country, borrows the trappings of secular natural history museums, although its message is very different. With that borrowing comes an aura of legitimacy. As one of the bookstore employees explained to me, without a hint of combativeness: “There are lots of museums that teach evolution. But we believe in creation.” People like Kelly give those believers some museums of their own.

Kelly’s museum is both an imitation and a parody of natural history museums, with signage that pulls plenty of punches. “Like many of the signs in evolution-based museums, this is a joke,” begins one informative label. But, as with all prolonged satire, there’s the danger of becoming too much like the thing you’re trying to send up. Visiting Kelly’s museum, you might begin to wonder whether it was altogether appropriate for a Protestant preacher to spend quite so much time acquiring material goods. Consider the collection of sports memorabilia that occupies an exhibit near the museum exit.  A tiny sign states that humans must look beyond worldly idols, such as sports heroes, and focus on Jesus. The sign is barely noticeable, though, because it is surrounded by a lovingly curated collection of pictures, autographs, and old baseballs bats, assembled together like the relics of saints.

Did the religious message motivate the collection, or did the collecting impulse find its justification in religion? What’s clear is that Kelly—firebrand preacher in a fallen world–declared his opposition to secularism by building, of all things, a museum full of secular vanities.

It’s important to note, though, that Kelly’s museum more closely resembles the premodern forebears of today’s museums than it does those present-day institutions. In its collecting spirit, devotion to anomalies, and freewheeling blend of fact and fiction, the museum in Southern Pines actually has much in common with the gentlemen’s Wunderkammern, or wonder-cabinets, that were a fixture of Continental society during the Enlightenment. Flush with the artifacts of colonization, the best of these cabinets displayed oddities and marvels from around the world. As the art historian John Walsh once put it, in Wunderkammern, “you had the wonders of God spread out there cheek-by-jowl with the wonders of man, both presented as aspects of the same thing, which is to say, the Wonder of God.” To these old-fashioned collectors, perhaps, a creation museum full of old tools and fine taxidermy would not seem so strange.

Whereas modern museums seek to collect and organize the world’s specimens under a single taxonomic system, all within the unified framework of evolution, cabinets had a special fascination with outliers—the things that wouldn’t fit into categories. A modern natural history museum, to give a hypothetical example, would seek the most prototypical elephant possible for its display of African wildlife. The cabinet owner, on the other hand, would place a premium on collecting the world’s only three-tusked specimen. The former organizes the world; the latter emphasizes its breadth.

With its celebration of one-of-a-kind tools, albino animals, and the peculiarities of local wildlife, Kelly’s museum is a three-tusked elephant kind of place. The only unifying theory it needs is God, under whose guidance, it seems, almost anything can happen. Kelly, who dictated his signs to the church secretary, often begins descriptions with phrases like “this is one of the rarest items you will see in a museum.”

This affinity to the museums of old is only heightened by Kelly’s informational blend of facts, questionable assertions, and religious claims. Surprisingly, there is no formal synopsis of Genesis in the museum, nor is there any serious effort to challenge the fundamentals of evolutionary theory. Instead, what comes across in the exhibits is a particular kind of worldview, steeped in the Bible, that blurs fact, fiction, and myth into a tableau of wonderment.

The North Carolina creation museum is not so much an argument for creationism as it is an expression of what a creationist viewpoint can offer in the modern world: an opportunity to simultaneously mimic and defy authority; an excuse to indulge in the pleasures of collection and display; and access to a sensibility that marvels at the weirdness of the world, unencumbered by facts. Similar characteristics seem to animate other creation museums, too, although each has its particular style. The Creation Museum in Kentucky, for example, takes defiant imitation to its extreme, with expensive dioramas designed in the style of major natural history museums. Most strikingly, the museum’s founders claim to have created a factual, rational, and scientific kind of place—a thoroughly modern claim, dizzyingly meshed with a thoroughly ancient book.

I’d be far from the first to note the premodern sensibility inherent in fundamentalist Christian culture today, which tends to reject pluralism, individual autonomy, and actual scientific methodology–three features that define the modern era. I’d also be far from the first to note that these Christian subcultures, in their critiques of the secular world, often come to reflect it a little too passionately. An old Onion headline sums this up beautifully: “Anti-Homosexuality Sermon Suspiciously Well-Informed.” More seriously, the religion scholar Jason Bivins has devoted part of a career to studying fundamentalist expressions of the “desire for or fascination with that which is condemned or consigned to the realm of darkness and demonology.”

When talking about religion, it’s easy to focus on the sin and soteriology, forgetting that aesthetics and pleasure, too, can have their roles in religious expression. For all the sternness of its messages about salvation and damnation, the museum in Southern Pines give off the unmistakable impression that someone was having an awful lot of fun. In general, there’s something about creationism, with its righteous outrage and elaborate theorizing, that does seem like it might be pleasurable, like being part of a secret club that has pitted itself against the entire world.

Museum-building, perhaps, is the ideal outlet for that kind of pleasure. Museums offer instant authority, which can be turned to the pursuit of parody, education, and other kinds of performance. And museums, secular or religious, have always been that rare thing in our society: institutions that combine moral instruction with unabashed aesthetic appreciation.

On the day when I visited Southern Pines, my fellow visitors, in the time-honored fashion of museum-goers all the world over, seemed to be ignoring the informational signs and just enjoying the animals. A couple college students made fun of the third member of their group, who, it quickly became clear, was afraid of snakes. Snakes appear in almost every one of the museum’s exhibits, perhaps as a reminder of Satan’s lone virtue: persistence. Nearby, a pair of young, Spanish-speaking women pointed excitedly at a stuffed albino raccoon, its eyes replaced with orbs of pink glass. I, too, felt a stir of special excitement upon encountering the raccoon exhibit. There, in a single case, was the albino, a normal raccoon, and, most marvelous of all, a tawny-furred specimen, roughly the shade of Winnie-the-Pooh. This, a sign explained, was an exceptionally rare variant, sometimes called a honey raccoon. Here it was, the museum-lover’s grail, the elusive moment of wonder: a familiar animal, turned extraordinary.

Of course, this specimen was in a museum that also had on display a jackalope, a trout with fur, and a number of signs claiming that the earth had been created 6,000 years ago. But such is the authoritative power of museums that it took a full week, during which I told almost everyone I knew about this weird raccoon varietal, before it occurred to me that I should check whether or not blond raccoons actually exist.

They do.

Michael Schulson is a freelance writer based in Durham, North Carolina.