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A visit to the creation museum

by Donald Prothero, Mar 07 2012

Last Feb. 11, the day before Darwin’s 203rd Birthday, I was invited by Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy of the “Oh, no, it’s Ross and Carrie” podcast to accompany them, along with Emery Emery and Heather Henderson of the Ardent Atheist podcast, to visit the Creation Museum in Santee, east of San Diego, California (videoblog available here). This museum was originally built by the Institute of Creation “Research” (ICR), once led by the late Henry Morris and Duane Gish, which has since relocated to Texas. At one time ICR was the leading creationist organization in the U.S., but lately they seem to have lost their influence (they couldn’t even get their school accredited in conservative Texas!). Now they are overshadowed by Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and his multi-million-dollar creation museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (which I saw back in 2009). When ICR left California, they sold their museum to Tom Cantor, who made his fortune with a biotech firm, Scantibodies Laboratory, Inc. Cantor bills himself as a Jew converted to creationism, and gives away free DVDs of his story (complete with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in the background) subtitled “A Message of Hope and Gladness for the Jewish people”! With the new ownership, the drab building in an industrial park that long housed the creation museum is now shared with Scantibodies. In one of the many ironies of the place, Scantibodies Inc. makes antibodies, blockers, serum, plasma, and other medical kits, all of which demonstrate the process of evolution in action, and require evolutionary principles to work with….

Emery Emery and Heather Henderson mug in front of the tail-dragging T. rex in front of the drab industrial building that houses the museum.

You arrive and drive through heavy black iron gates and walk past a few cheesy dino sculptures in front. These include  a miniature T. rex based on the outdated concept with tail dragging behind it. (At least they don’t claim that the predatory dinos ate coconuts. not meat, with their long sharp teeth, as Ken Ham’s museum does). There is a Galapagos tortoise model, a small ankylosaur, and  a replica of a dinosaur egg nest, with the false statement that dinosaurs did not take care of their young (long ago debunked by Jack Horner’s Maiasaura nests in Montana). Once inside, there is a lobby with a reception desk and a gift shop which has more products from Ken Ham’s organization than it does from the old ICR gang. The docent that Ross and Carrie wanted to interview was already inside giving a tour, so we headed right in.

The very first exhibit set the pattern of the whole museum: large display object, with several placards with way too many words in tiny type that no one can read, full of creationist lies and misstatements. In this case, it was a huge slab of orthoceratid nautiloids and goniatite ammonoids (both misidentified)  from the fossil mines of the Devonian Tindouf Basin of Morocco; these fossils are ubiquitous among the commercial fossil dealers and rock shops these days. The text of the placard claimed they were all lined up by the Great Flood! Ironically, the creationists were bamboozled by the Moroccans here, because real paleontologists know from experience that these big Moroccan fossil slabs (where the fossils are nicely spaced out and lined up and all of the same size) are fakes made of real fossils cast into a cleverly disguised concrete base. They could be an “art object” as they are sold in many places, but they are not a natural assemblage—and the “orientation” of the long nautiloids was done by Moroccan craftsmen, not by the Great Flood. Yet another irony: creationists mock paleontologists  for the rare instances where they were fooled by a hoax—but this museum features a hoaxed specimen in its first exhibit, with a creationist interpretation, yet the creationists are not competent enough in paleontology to spot a hoax when they bought one!

The very first display shows a Moroccan fake fossil that the placard on the right claims is evidence of Noah's flood

Exhibit after exhibit followed the same pattern: a narrow serpentine corridor carved out of the flat layout of the old industrial space with paintings on the walls and way too many words for a modern museum, giving the traditional Genesis story—and in nearly every case where they mention science, they get it dead wrong! One wall featured the usual creationist garbage about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. As usual, they have it completely backwards, with the exhibit claiming that the 2nd Law applies to open systems like the earth (it applies only to closed systems—check any physics book), and adding further blather about complexity and information that is part of no version of the 2nd Law. Right next to it is a sorry-looking bull snake in a terrarium (their proxy for the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, I guess), which makes one wonder who is deceiving whom in this place.

And so it goes, room after room. Their “fossil” room is largely filled with replicas you can buy online or common fossils available in rock shops—and most of the specimens were either mislabeled or their names misspelled. As usual, they make the false claim that the fossils are found in their order in the rock record because they were fleeing the flood. In the same display (with no consistency), they claim that the “sequence” has been faked by scientists to “prove” evolution. Again, if creationists knew any history, they would know that the sequence of fossils in the rock record is a fact established by creationists 50 years before evolution came along!  In one display, they had a large “dinosaur track” and “dinosaur bone” acquired from the area around the famous Paluxy dino tracks in Texas—but both are clearly hand-carved fakes made of cement that are manufactured in that area to sell to creationists. In another “high-tech” display, the “fossils” in the exhibit are all plastic Ice Age mammal toys that you can buy in their own gift shop! It reminds you of an elementary school science fair project in its sophistication—or maybe that is an insult to school science fairs! The room which give their simplistic and distorted version of human evolution and history are also filled almost entirely with replicas and fakes, not real objects that you might find in a real museum. The painting representing plants growing on Genesis Day 3 (although the sun, which they show, doesn’t appear until Day 4) mixes images of fossil club mosses and horsetails found only in the Pennsylvanian coal swamps with flowering plants that don’t appear until the Cretaceous—and are neverfound in the same deposits in the fossil record.

Typical big-budget display case made of toy Ice Age mammals, with half of them mislabeled or misspelled.

Walking through this precursor to Ken Ham’s extravaganza is an oddly similar experience: the information and level of scientific sophistication is just as childish and false and incompetent, the display objects are mostly fakes, or replicas or fossils bought off the market and misidentified, yet Ken Ham does it on a multi-million-dollar budget. Thus, the Kentucky museum  has a huge room with a life-sized portion of the “ark” complete with mannequins “building” it. The old ICR exhibit is just a corridor with a painting of a perspective view of the ark interior at one end, and a pile of hay on the floor. And there’s a cute touch: you can see the plates of Stegosaurussticking above the top of one of the stalls in the “ark”. Finally, to no one’s surprise, there is a whole exhibit denying global warming, another anti-scientific dogma that is tightly interlinked with creationism these days.

The "ark exhibit is just a painting on a wall with a pile of hay in front, and stegosaur plates peeking out from one of the stalls.

The only new addition to this museum since the ICR days is a new hall of human anatomy, with lots of large medical models you can buy for teaching anatomy to med students and nursing students, and more or less standard discussions of how each part of the body works. Yet even here, at the bottom of each overlong text panel is a sentence or two talking about the wondrous design of the human body (but never mentioning how it works in other animals). Even in their own exhibits, they have a realistic medical diagram of the human eye—yet there is no comment on how poorly designed the human eye is, with the retina placed backwards (sensors beneath the bottom layer, not the top where the light in undistorted), and a “blind spot” from the exit of the ocular nerve, or how the octopus eye is much better “designed” with none of these flaws. I’m not sure what the purpose of this hall is supposed to be, given that it is attached to a creation museum, except they share the building with a biomed facility—or maybe it’s a lure to get classes of nursing students to visit and then suck them in to their religious message.

Even though the place was busier than normal since it was Saturday afternoon, it was quiet enough that the five us could go from room to room and comment on exhibits without being overheard. We caught up with the docent giving his tour, and Emery and Ross toyed with him a bit, asking him leading questions until the guy hung himself with his own words, and admitted that the incest of Adam and Eve’s children was OK. Then, as we finished the exhibits and waited in the lobby, the docent came out, and Emery, Ross and Carrie engaged him with question after question, trying not to give away their own backgrounds until it was unavoidable. They knew the standard creationist shtick pretty well, so they caught him in lies again and again, which (to his credit) he sometimes admitted. They caught him using one of the out-of-context quotations from Darwin about the difficulty of imagining the evolution of the human eye, but (thanks to the iPhone and the internet) we were able to pull up the rest of the quote which  showed what Darwin really said and why this creationist had dishonestly distorted it.

Meanwhile, I was wandering around just a few feet away, pretending not to be paying attention but listening attentively to all of it. Finally, I could bear it no longer as he called my profession of paleontology a bunch of liars and frauds, so they called me in and I challenged him on it. The docent clearly had absolutely no understanding of paleontology, so instead of evidence or data, he promised to pull quotations from real paleontologists who allegedly doubt evolution, another classic example of quote-mining. When he mentioned my mentors Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, I set him straight and pointed out how Gould and Eldredge had specifically written that their model of punctuated equilibria was no support for creationism and how much they resented being quote-mined to mean the opposite of what they had said. None of it fazed this guy, who knows only memorized scripts and garbage from creationist books and admitted that he has no scientific background or education to understand any of his patter; it was also apparent that he does not care or  understand why quote-mining is dishonest. For me, it is increasingly difficult to argue with creationists any more.  I cannot avoid becoming exasperated at their lies and smugness, and the fact that they never learn anything and never change their falsehoods when corrected.  When they attack the integrity and competence of my profession that I have devoted over 50 years of my life to, it is personal for me, and  I cannot glibly smile and laugh, as some people who debate them can.

If I could boil down the entire experience to a few words, certainly “ignorant and proud of it,” “smug,” “self-righteous,” “liars”, “self-delusional” and “narrow dogmatists” come to mind, but even appropriate is “incompetent.” These people can’t tell a real fossil from a fake, can’t spell or get the names right on the real fossils, can’t get their geological or historical facts straight or comprehend that their simplistic model doesn’t work in complex world, and in this context, can’t make a museum interesting. It’s like walking through the pages of one of their books, with an illustration here and there, the total antithesis of the interactive, dynamic, three-dimensional experience that modern museologists strive for.  Perhaps the most telling reaction to the whole museum were two teens I found slouching on a bench in the same room when the docent was lecturing. One was asleep, the other playing a video game. Granted, teens get bored easily and can be hard to reach, but most modern natural history museums know how to “wow” them, and grab their attention. But if their parents were attempting to use the museum to teach their kids a religious lesson, it failed miserably. It is convincing only to adults who are deeply committed to creationism, and (judging from the reviews on line), even the casual visitor with a limited understanding of science and evolution can immediately see through the garbage and realize they are being lied to.

If the goal of the museum is to convert the children to creationism, clearly the static, boring displays with too much signage doesn't do the trick.

Postscript: on the way to and from the museum on Highway 52, I flashed back to my 25 years of working on those beds, collecting fossils and doing paleomagnetic dating on them. Those middle-late Eocene beds (37-45 million years old) are full of fossil mammals (including early lemur-like primates), but no dinosaurs, and no humans, and show the expected evolutionary sequence of early mammals only at that time—with plenty of turtle fossils that shouldn’t have been able to outrun the Flood! Just like the Kentucky creationist museum (built on Ordovician rocks which clearly show the Great Flood of Noah is false), even the rocks near the Santee museum speak to the glory and handiwork of Evolution!

34 Responses to “A visit to the creation museum”

  1. Nathaniel Brottingham says:

    It’s kind of nice to see that even though the creationists are cheating and playing on easy mode so to speak, they still can’t put up a compelling museum experience. Doing our work for us in a way.

  2. Chris Howard says:

    Sorry. Sounds like a frustrating endeavor. On the plus side, just think of all the people you have educated. People, for whatever reason, tend, to believe what they want to believe. Please don’t let that stop you.
    For what’s it’s worth, I have learned a lot from your posts, and always look forward to reading them.
    Which dinosaur does the ICR recommend for mowing lawns? Mines getting a bit out of control! ;-)

  3. Casey Tucker says:

    “I cannot avoid becoming exasperated at their lies and smugness, and the fact that they never learn anything and never change their falsehoods when corrected.”

    I think the above statement is also true when dealing with many conservative voters and candidates. They seem to spew the same mis-information again and again, and deny any facts and figures that contradicts their political or social beliefs.

    • Marshall Cypress says:

      Sooooooo, all conservatives are liars and don’t believe in evolution and paleontology?

      The same is true for liberals. Present them with facts and they will completely ignore them if they don’t jive with their beliefs.

      • TurboFool says:

        Odd, I didn’t see Casey say anything about conservatives not believing in evolution and paleontology. Whether or not the rest of Casey’s comment was correct, you’ve just argued against something that wasn’t said.

      • tmac57 says:

        Casey also said “many conservative voters and candidates”
        not ” all conservatives”,and Casey did not call them liars.So basically,Marshall’s comment was pretty much a classic example of a straw man argument.

  4. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    A counter-argument that I have sometimes found useful is to point out that none of the rationalizations they use is actually supported by the Bible. It doesn’t say that the animals on the ark were in suspended animation, or temporarily converted to being herbivores, or any of the other wild nonsense they espouse. Not any of it.
    By the way, just how many coconuts would it take to sustain a T.rex?

    • tmac57 says:

      “By the way, just how many coconuts would it take to sustain a T.rex?”
      Just one..if it were big enough.Mysterious way my friend…mysterious ways.

      • Tobias says:

        That would explain why there are no giant coconut trees left today. It all makes sense!

  5. Julien Rousseau says:

    One wall featured the usual creationist garbage about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

    If they were right about the second law of thermodynamics making evolution impossible it would also make life itself impossible as you become more and more complex until adulthood.

    …mixes images of fossil club mosses and horsetails found only in the Pennsylvanian coal swamps with flowering plants that don’t appear until the Cretaceous—and are neverfound in the same deposits in the fossil record.

    Maybe the plant fossils are found in their order in the rock record because they were fleeing the flood. :-D

  6. Guerilla surgeon says:

    with plenty of turtle fossils that shouldn’t have been able to outrun the Flood!

    Sorry, but why should turtles be bothered by a flood? Or at least by outrunning it. I can see maybe if the flood lasts for a year they might miss out on an egglaying season but…..

  7. Max says:

    “In one of the many ironies of the place, Scantibodies Inc. makes antibodies, blockers, serum, plasma, and other medical kits, all of which demonstrate the process of evolution in action, and require evolutionary principles to work with…”

    Which evolutionary principles? Genetic distance?
    How does a creationist run a company like Scantibodies?

  8. Marshall Cypress says:

    It is so sad to see people clinging to superstition like this. Most of them do not even know that the bible was put together by the early roman church from hundreds of “gospels” where they pick and choose those that agreed with the churches canon.

    it’s almost as bad as the global warming/cooling/climate change, vegan, liberal religions or any other belief system ruled by “faith”.

  9. Mo Brock says:

    You have made my day, and made me even WANT to go to one of these “museums”. It conjures up fond memories of life as a geology student in the late 70s/early 80s creationists times.

    Just remember, if would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad, focus on the hilarity, and try to enjoy poking holes in there assertions-as-facts.

    I mean, come on, didn’t we all learn “Creatiology regurgitates religiology”? Damn, I’m good.

    Thanks for this post.

  10. Orin says:

    Interesting article. While I was working in Cincinnati, I had a chance to run out to Ken Ham’s Creation Museum. Yes, the production values were much better than the one described above, but I was amazed about how little of it was about “creation.” Ken Ham’s avoids the science issues by just having huge displays explaining that you will go to hell for not believing the other displays and excoriating those who have betrayed the church by questioning his view of creation and actually believing the science.

  11. Jose the Paranormal Skeptic says:

    Sweet baby Jesus! I’ll be driving by this place in May! MUST….STOP…..SEE!

  12. Joe Iacovino says:

    Nice write-up. The smugness does get quite irksome, so proudly cavalier about their ignorance rather than making any attempt to quell it. If only they really asked “why” they could be enlightened in a mere game of twenty questions.


    • Kenneth Polit says:

      When my son was two years old, he would ask, “Why?” incessantly. I guess these guys don’t even have the mentality of toddlers.

  13. R.Thomas says:

    As an evolutionary biologist and environmental scientist by training, creationists annoy me on another level beyond the usual.

    I am a global warming “skeptic” because I believe the quality of the science is lacking, and far too often otherwise good scientists will use “global warming” as an excuse for some unknown change in a species behavior, diseases, or population levels with almost the same faith of a creationist.

    Its irksome that creationists may be right on this issue but for all the wrong reasons.

  14. Josh Freeman says:

    I’m always amused by the calculations these guys do for determining how all the animals fit on the ark (I think Morris calculated 15000 animals), and then comparing those calculations to the drawings and models presented of how the animals may have been arranged on the ark; an arrangement like the drawing above works out to a maximum of about 2000 berths, and that doesn’t include any room for food/water/human living space.

    • Jose the Paranormal Skeptic says:

      Love it! 15000 animals arranged perfectly in the ark and I can’t even figure out how to get my Rottweiler and Blue Heeler into the Jeep.

  15. --Myk says:

    ” … an arrangement like the drawing above works out to a maximum of about 2000 berths, and that doesn’t include any room for food/water/human living space.” …

    Or the huge mountains of animal crap that would be constantly piling up…
    How many people were on the ark? Eight of them I think?
    Even if they all worked full twenty four hour days, seven days a week, never sleeping, resting, eating or drinking, doing nothing else apart from shovelling all that waste over the side then they still wouldn’t come close to getting rid of it all.

    • tmac57 says:

      Oh,Noah solved that problem by inviting Hercules along for the trip,a tradition that cruise lines continue today with their celebrity entertainers.

    • K. Ham says:

      Silly athiest – Noah was the founder of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering; all the dung was flushed straight of the ark.

    • Jose the Paranormal Skeptic says:

      You could position all the animals so their bums poke out the portholes. You’d have no problem cleaning plus you’d be feeding the marine life.

      BOOYA! Two birds, one stone.

      • DS says:

        Great theory, except that ALL marine life were apparently killed in the flood since their fossils are always used as evidence in creationist museums.

      • Jose the Paranormal Skeptic says:

        That makes perfect sense. All that water would have drowned all….the……fish. Which, I’d assume, means Noah have a killer aquarium on the Ark. I’ve been to the Aquarium in Dubai Mall and that’s nowhere near as impressive as the one in Noah’s pad.

      • Wrong says:

        Well, it does make a sort of sense. Most aquatic life relies on specific salinity and temperature to survive, whcich would be ruined by a massive influx of water.

        Not that I’m in favour of the flood “historians”.

  16. Susan Gerbic says:

    Loved reading your impressions of this place. I visited the same place a month before with my son and Robert Sheaffer. I was also confused about the “medical wing”. Here is my blog (with a ton of pictures) about our visit.

    BTW I really LOVE the picture of Emery and Heather jumping over the fence to get away from the T-Rex! Wish I have thought of that.