I can't remember exactly how I found out the truth about dinosaurs; I can't remember where I was or what I was wearing, but I do recall the feeling.
The precise details elude me because learning that cavemen were some 60 million years too late to the dinosaur party—that they never hunted them, rode around on them, kept them as pets, or used them as garbage disposals or lamps or whatever—wasn't traumatic or anything. It was just a little depressing.
Before whoever told me told me, it was almost like it was OK that I never got the chance to fly on a pterodactyl's back or risk my life stealing an egg from a T. Rex to make a cave omelette for my family, because one of my ancestors probably did. And that at least gave me a connection to it. When I found out, it left me with the distinct feeling that the world wasn't, and hadn't ever been, as neat as I thought it was.
But that was before I heard of creationism, a philosophy that holds to a literal interpretation of the creation story in the book of Genesis. In Genesis, of course, God creates all the stuff in the universe in six 24-hour days—first light, then the earth, then all the animals and, finally, man. Oh, and this was about 6,000 years ago, give or take. But the Bible doesn't say thing one about God sending a big honking asteroid down sometime between day five and day six, causing a 12-hour-long ice age and wiping out all the oversized cold-blooded animals. So, if you believe the account word for word, you have to believe that man's earliest ancestors lived with the dinosaurs.
Creationism wasn't always an -ism. For a very long time, it was just the way things happened. Then in 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and a controversy was officially born. The lines were drawn and the teams had to be named: faith vs. reason, religion vs. science, evolution vs. creation.
As far as most of us are concerned, the theory of evolution has been winning. Its basic principles are nearly universally accepted by the scientific community and, more importantly, it's what high school freshman learn in biology class. But last year, Answers in Genesis, a Cincinnati-based creation apologetics ministry founded by science teacher turned super-rich author and lecturer Ken Ham, built a $27 million counter-argument: the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.
The 60,000-square-foot Creation Museum comes complete with all the bells and whistles of a secular science museum: a planetarium, a heavily themed and junk-food filled cafeteria, a humongous gift shop (well-stocked with all of Ham's books, of course), and hot and cold running dinosaurs. And, since it's the Creation Museum, these dinosaurs are depicted as co-habitating with early man. That's right, dinosaurs and people, finally together and on display. And here's the best part: Petersburg, just outside of Cincinnati, is an easy four-hour drive from Knoxville.
Yabba dabba doo!
There's not a whole lot to say about the drive to Petersburg. It's Interstate 75 nearly the whole way, meaning at best it's boring and at worst it's a construction-filled nightmare. I lucked out and got boring.
About four hours after I left town, I pulled off the freeway at Bullittsburg Church Road and into Petersburg, looking around for signs of nearby local flavor. But Petersburg, about 20 miles outside of Cincinnati, near the Indiana border, is known for only two things: 1. having the Creation Museum and 2. not having any other stuff.
Still, I thought I'd look around a bit on my way to the museum. So, passing by a quaint cement plant, I approached what appeared to be a suburban office park, except for the large metal stegosauruses on its gates. Well, so much for local flavor.
Just inside the museum's gloriously-appointed, marble-laden front entrance hall, across from the admissions booth and just to the left of the Dragon Hall Bookstore's pterodactyl-straddled doorway, is the Stargazer's Planetarium, where the museum does a presentation every half hour on the half hour throughout the day. It's called "The Created Cosmos," and it is not recommended as a first stop for a museum-goer.
The basic problem with Stargazer's is the same as the basic problem with almost every planetarium ever. It's dreadfully boring. Add to that the fact that the projector emits about as much light as a high-powered cell phone screen. And there's the seating issue. Like a lot of planetarium shows, "The Created Cosmos" is a 360-degree movie shone on a semi-sphere directly above your head. But for some reason, the room's designers decided to go with a movie-theater seat layout, where everybody is facing the same direction. The result is that at one point or another in the show, every seat is the worst seat in the house.
The movie itself is an attempt to explain the universe—its size, scale, its weird anomalies—from a creationist's standpoint. And it does this mostly by pointing out that there are some happenings out there for which science has yet to reach a consensus. Why and how, for example, do we keep finding Jupiter-sized gas planets orbiting so close to their suns in other solar systems, defying our own system's model? Science can't explain them, they're totally illogical, so they must have been deliberately designed that way. Sitting in that planetarium, you might be wondering what that implies about God, if you weren't half-asleep.
The walk-through exhibits are the real meat of the museum, taking up the bulk of the space. They're also the primary sounding board for its philosophies. There are 15 display rooms starting on the first floor and continuing to the basement. They feature a heavy dose of animatronic tableaus, running the gamut of Creationist-relevant Bible stories.
The first few walk-through rooms are expository. The "Dinosaur Dig Site," ostensibly an attempt at being reasonable about the creation-evolution debate, has two animatronic paleontologists sitting near a newly excavated dinosaur fossil. One is a creationist ("See, we have real scientists in our camp too!") and the other is an evolutionist. The point here is to highlight the two schools of thought: God's Word and Human Reason, the implication being that evidence and proof can be manipulated by either side depending on a point of view.
"You see, fossils don't come with tags on them. I start with the Bible. My colleague does not, " says Joe the creationist. "I believe this dinosaur died in a flood, but it wasn't just a local flood."
As you go on, though, the museum shows you just how far that Godless reason will get you, in the "Culture in Crisis" room. Here, video monitors are placed behind suburban window displays so you can actually take a look into the secular home. The best video shows two teens hanging out in a bedroom in a sort of Goofus and Gallant plot set-up. "Goofus" sits in front of a computer, discussing pornography and its awesomeness. He is unkempt, has bad skin, overuses the word "dude," and is actually wearing a "frowny face + beer= smiley face" T-shirt. The more attractive and less funnily dressed "Gallant," on the other hand, tries to argue his out-of-control friend away from the keyboard—unfortunately, to no avail.
"What's going to get us out of this mess?" is what the museum is telling you to ask now. Well, step into the "Time Tunnel" and take a trip back 6,000 years to the beginning of the universe and into Biblical history.
The 7 C's of Creation
The rest of the walk-through is a chronological account of the Bible. It's a lot of history to deal with, so the museum made up a nifty framing device—the 7 C's of Creation—to divide it up into themes. The C's are as follows: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, and Consummation.
I'll spoil it for you right now. The only part of the museum where dinosaurs and man even come close to achieving frolic-hood is in the Creation display—the Garden of Eden—and even there, it's pretty subtle.
Eden, as depicted here, is very lush and very noisy, of course. Every inch of the room, save for the walkway, is covered with polyester leaves and flowers, and there's a loud jungle din—monkey hoots, insect chirps, lion roars—playing on a never-ending loop. The room has a few dinosaurs—all docile, doe-eyed, and vegetarian. But they're all kept a safe distance from Adam and Eve.
The next major highlight, in the Corruption section, is the starkly prison-like Cave of Sorrows, following the Fall of Adam. The Cave room is an attempt at collecting all of the picture evidence of the consequences of man's expulsion from Eden into one small faux-concrete room. There you'll see pictures of child starvation, tornadoes, and heroin addiction. A tape of a Hitler speech, overlaid with machine gun fire and random screams of suffering, plays.
The Noah's Ark Construction Site in the Catastrophe portion is great mainly because of the animatronics. Approaching a floor-to-ceiling recreation of an ark wall, you see a few workers, and they're doubting Noah. And they're doing it in that evil, ambiguously foreign accent that once only existed in James Bond video games.
"What a fool Noah is," says one in a Teutono-RussiRabian accent. "He's a religious fanatic."
The most intriguing part of the museum's walk-through portion comes at the very end, right before you ascend the stairs that lead into the gift shop. It's there that you see a small dinosaur—it kind of looks like a triceratops puppy—with a saddle on its back. There's no written explanation nearby, no indication as to why an already controversial and frequently-mocked institution would risk something so campy. Just a saddled triceratops puppy that begged me to shirk my precarious adult-ness and just hop on. Some people were coming, though.