Oberlin, Kathleen C. 2020. Creating the Creation Museum: How Fundamentalist Beliefs Come to Life. New York: NYU Press.
Reviewed by Gemma Mangione
On January 22, 2017, Kellyanne Conway — a senior adviser to then-president Donald J. Trump — defended the White House’s press secretary’s recent assessment that attendance numbers at Trump’s 2016 inauguration exceeded that of Barack Obama’s in 2008. Despite photo evidence to the contrary, Conway insisted with unruffled confidence on a major network news program that the secretary was not presenting demonstrable fiction. He was simply offering “alternative facts.” The program host immediately called said facts outright “falsehoods,” but the polarization of U.S. politics has enabled both the championing and repudiation of his characterization. The ubiquity of alternative facts in American national discourse — as meme, as emblem of the current moment, and as bellwether — endures.
In her detailed analysis of the Kentucky-based Creation Museum, Kathleen C. Oberlin approaches the era of alternative facts with innovative case selection, methodological pluralism, and sociological rigor. Creating the Creation Museum: How Fundamentalists Beliefs Come to Life considers how Answers in Genesis (AiG) — an American fundamentalist organization advancing a young Earth creationist (YEC) explanation of the origins of the universe — developed a museum to promote what Oberlin calls “plausibility politics.” YEC holds that the Earth and its lifeforms were created by a supernatural deity no earlier than 10,000 years ago. Founded by AiG president and CEO Ken Ham, The Creation Museum’s focus is to make this “different starting point” (alternative facts by any other name) to evolutionary theory reasonable enough to a broad public. And by this measure, Oberlin argues, AiG succeeds. As cultural sociologists reading her book, we are left to reckon with the purchase of cultural organizations as sites for social movement activity: specifically, how those organizations’ material and sensory properties shape perceptions of movement legitimacy, and how people mobilize their epistemic practices to promote credibility.
The Creation Museum offers a fascinating empirical case for these broader theoretical questions. I’d posit that cultural sociologists have previously studied museums across three theoretical traditions: Bourdieusian theories of cultural capital and status distinction, neo-institutionalism, and (most recently) studies of legitimacy, power, and materiality, cross-pollinated by research in science and technology studies. What links traditions one and two is the notion that while American museums have always been elite spaces, many of the structural forces that supported their narrowly catering to elite audiences and interests have weakened over the last more than half-century. This stemmed from both rising standards of public accountability from funders and other external stakeholders and also internal reckonings with museums’ (imperialist, classist, racist, ableist) past. Ultimately, tensions between elitist and democratic logics — available for people to draw upon differently to advance their goals — structure the operations of American cultural organizations.
While engaging the STS tradition most directly, I suggest that in studying museums as a site for social movement activity, Oberlin’s book is actually effectively linking all three of these theoretical traditions within cultural sociology. As she illustrates, moves toward engendering greater democratic participation and reflexivity in museums created an opportunity structure for AiG. In building The Creation Museum, AiG promotes plausibility politics in two main ways. First, it annexed the enduring cultural authority of the museum form. Throughout her book, Oberlin takes pains to highlight the professionalism of The Creation Museum’s displays, received as impressive by both devotees and skeptics alike. In the words of one dissenting blogger expecting a “sort of homemade museum…cute, modest, wacky…” the museum was “slick… with exhibits… as good as any museum in the country” even if filled with “pseudo-science” (p. 188). Later, in Chapter 3’s excellent discussion of the sensory conventions and aesthetics of The Creation Museum, Oberlin compellingly renders how its particular visual, aural, and even olfactory elements rely on familiar museum tropes to convey epistemic legitimacy. Her attention to how material forms act upon people to shape visitors’ assessments of credibility is an excellent empirical contribution to the museum literature and theoretical one to research on social movements.
Of note, however, is that this material meaning-making is playing out within the populist turn that characterizes contemporary museum practice. Consider, for example, Chapter 3’s discussion of efforts to facilitate greater opportunities for tactile learning in museums; this highlights how “multisensory engagement is the revitalized currency of the museum experience” (pg. 118) promoting broader modalities for engagement beyond the dominant, confining practice of “look, don’t touch.” Heightened opportunities for touch make the museum a more accessible place for visitors of different ages and embodied capacities, and this is balanced against their enduring perception of museums’ epistemic legitimacy. Indeed, Oberlin argues, this balance is what makes The Creation Museum such an effective vehicle for advancing plausibility politics to “everyday people,” as the natural history museum is where they are most likely to comfortably “engage with scientific information and the look and feel of science” (p. 9). But it is also where more than one-half of Americans feel science centers and museums “get the science facts right most of the time:” more trusted, in this regard, than government agencies or news outlets (p. 15).
The second appropriation of elite knowledge practices advanced by Creation Museum administrators in the name of pluralistic education regards the museum’s presentation of the scientific process and specifically, assessment of evidence. Nowhere is this strategic work clearer than in Chapter 4. I view this chapter as the most fascinating and troubling of the book, one I would argue compellingly contributes to the formulation of a “sociology of doubt.” Chapter 4 relies on codes of exhibition photographs, didactics (in-gallery texts), and publication ephemera to compare The Creation Museum’s presentation of Lucy — one of the most complete skeletons documenting the evolutionary stage of early hominids that dominated between 2-4 million years ago — to that of three natural history museums in the U.S. that promote evolutionary theory. As Oberlin notes, Lucy is perhaps the greatest threat to YEC: she offers some of the strongest evidence from the natural world suggesting humans evolved from ape-like ancestors.
However, rather than focus singularly on promoting the counter-interpretation that Lucy is more akin to gorillas than the human forms that followed her, Creation Museum exhibition designers instead attempted to sew doubt about the very process through which evolutionists interpret Lucy. Directly addressing peer museums’ presentations of Lucy, The Creation Museum presents Lucy on four legs, rather than two; compares how different colorings (“creative decisions”) of how to render Lucy’s face can alternatively favor her appearing more humanoid than ape; and highlights gaps in the fossil record to suggest plausible counter-interpretations of Lucy’s bones (i.e. aren’t her toes curved more like tree-dwellers than modern humans?). Indeed, this is the very exhibit that most impressed upon even non-believers, again studied through their public blog posts in Chapter 5’s examination of reception. As one self-identified atheist blogger admitted (p. 186): “The argument was that those who reconstruct the Lucy specimen bring their scientific bias to the interpretation… I thought that was actually an interesting interrogation of how biases influence concepts.”
For cultural sociologists, the value of Creating the Creation Museum is clear: Oberlin explaining how social movement groups advance plausibility politics through the built environment contributes to theoretical debates and empirical awakenings across an array of areas. As both a sociologist and scholar of arts administration working to train the next generation of museum decision-makers, I also finished the book hearing the earnest question so many of my students ask me, urgently, after reading sociological texts: “But what do we do now?” What should they (we) make of the argument that the progressive democratic impulse guiding contemporary museum practice — intended to enfranchise the marginalized, and only beginning to correct for museums’ problematic past — has been appropriated to undermine basic facts in the name of plausible “alternatives”? It is easy to default here to the Weberian premise that research like Oberlin’s should guide informed decision-making, not prescribe specific courses of action. Nevertheless, I’d be curious to discuss her book and its practical implications for governance with administrators working, in the trenches, across pluralistic and authoritative tensions of mission in American museums. As Oberlin has shown, beyond merely sites for status reproduction or organizations particularly susceptible to their changing environments, museums offer unparalleled insight into how people navigate a world increasingly blurring the boundaries of fact and fiction.