05 December 2010

Noah's Ark theme park, brought to you by the Kentucky taxpayer

The governor of Kentucky is pushing for major tax breaks to a Christian fundamentalist group who plan to build a full-size "reproduction" of Noah's Ark as part of a theme park in the northern part of the state. Expected to open in 2014, the park will be run by the same group, "Answers in Genesis", that runs the nearby Creation Museum (where "Biblical history is the key to understanding dinosaurs").

The question in the New York Times today is, does public funding for creationism violate the separation of church and state? Duh. As usual, the Times gets into elaborate hand-wringing over obvious questions. (Though such funding may not be illegal since a recent Supreme Court decision.) On the other hand, if the project does pump the projected $500 million per year in tourist dollars into the area, I see why the governor is into it.

But let's talk about the proposed attraction. Though their ideological agenda is a bit stomach-churning, Answers in Genesis does represent some "best-practices" in building a museum. They did a national survey to assess the attractiveness of their museum concept. They have a well-organized, accessible website with great graphic design (I love the font!) and a clearly-identified audience that will be bombarded with a sophisticated fundraising campaign (you can become a 'Peg', 'Plank', or 'Beam'-level supporter for donations of $100, $1000, or $5000).

The Ark Encounter will be a 800-acre (320 ha) mix of amusement park, mall, and zoo with lots of multimedia action:
  • The Walled City: Along with plenty of shopping and food, guests experience Bible events through various themed venues situated on 40 acres.
  • The Ark: A full-size wooden Ark.
  • Noah’s Animals: Live shows with animals from around the world, and a large petting zoo.
  • Children’s Play Area: A highly themed, interactive environment where kids can explore and play.
  • The Tower of Babel: A 100-foot-tall themed building with exhibits and a 500-seat 5-D special effects theater.
  • Journey Through History: This themed attraction takes visitors on a trip through events of the Bible, experiencing spectacular special effects.
  • The First-Century Village: This attractive area presents a town as it might have appeared in the Middle East.
  • Aviary: three bird sanctuaries presented in a natural setting, plus a nearby butterfly exhibit.
  • Special Events Area: A venue for large gatherings; this area will also showcase some of the Leader in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building techniques used to build the Ark complex.
Let us pause in admiration of the complexity and diversity of the project. A themed 'ancient walled city' environment, sort of like Disney's Main Street USA but with an ancient history vibe. Play area for the kids, plus bird sanctuaries with pretty critters. A replica first-century village, which I'm sure will have costumed actors. 5-D special effects in the Tower of Babel?!?!?! I have no idea what the other 2D are but it sounds tight. And the buildings are LEED-certified and environmentally friendly? Damn. There is definitely something for everyone here. Honestly, I would probably go to this, just to see it for myself.

The introductory video is fascinating. Experimental archaeology is the basis of the whole project: since the overriding mission is to prove that the Book of Genesis is a historical text, building Noah's Ark and showing that people and animals could actually have lived inside will serve as "proof" that the story is not just a myth. Lived experience is much more persuasive than text, and millions of people will leave the park believing that the biblical stories could have actually happened. It's a totally accessible, non-elitist approach to presenting a historical vision.

Don't get me wrong, it's a vision based on the false assumption that myth and history are the same thing (though archaeologists used to do this, sometimes with success: cf. the life of Heinrich Schliemann!). As someone who likes the Bible and Jesus and goes to church now and again, I am appalled and frustrated at the way these guys completely misunderstand Genesis and Christianity. But they are good at presenting their vision. Their art director worked for the 1984 Olympics and at Universal Studios, for chrissakes!

Contrast this to a climate for museums with real historical artifacts, where selling off their collections seems the only possible way to pay for basic infrastructure in the current economic climate. But what do you see in those museums? A bunch of static objects in cases. You have to read a book or two before you visit, or you won't understand anything. You're expected to be silent and worshipful no matter how bored or confused you feel. God forbid you try to touch or interact with the exhibits. As I've said before, ever since the cultural élite stopped going to church, art and history museums have tried to fill the gap and give us that experience of awe and reverence. But they do a bad job of it. The creationists, on the other hand, know how to tie history and religion together into a lived experience that is fun, kid friendly, and compatible with modern lifestyles. I wish I could say that of the rest of the museum world.


  1. Fascinating. Someone should do a study of notions of explanation and interpretation of the past as found in the media. The dominant model seems to be, "If something could have happened in the past, then it did." Noah's Ark is an example of this. A Discovery Channel show on Aztec human sacrifice ("Aztec Temple," a couple of years ago) showed that it may have been physically possible for thousands of victims to be sacrificed at a single ceremony. The narrator concluded, on this basis, that this actually happened. Glad I passed on participating in that one.

  2. Dan - This is a fascinating issue, and I really enjoyed your commentary. I would most definitely go to the Ark Encounter, partly to observe how visitors respond to this kind of experience. Given what I’ve heard about the crowds at the Creation Museum (hundreds of thousands per year), I can see how the state believes this will be such a successful endeavor. While I agree that the theme park method of “storytelling” is accessible/non-elitist, I wonder how much the price of admission will be. A one-day pass to the Creation Museum is $25/adult, $15/child – that’s $80 for a family of four, not even including the planetarium (which I’d love to see...)! I’m probably biased, but that seems kind of expensive for an object-less museum.

    I was a bit...saddened?...by your final paragraph – museums don’t have to be boring or elitist or even reverential! I wonder if you’ve been to the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall? Its approach is highly experiential, evocative, bold to the point of controversial, full of drama and wonder – while also grounded in the “real thing,” authentic objects and also authentic voices of living American Indians. The Ark Encounter and even the Creation Museum have an easier task, I think, because they do not have to bother with real artifacts, or real people – the sole authentic element is the biblical story, a single vision, a narrative with no alternatives. My sense is that many thoughtful museum installations today are at least trying to complicate the stories they tell - but of course it's hard for these cultural institutions to be daring when the money is short (as it always seems to be in the museum world...).

    Also, I'd love to hear your take on how this all compares to the Getty Villa, one of the most experiential (and kid friendly!) museum installations I can think of.