Darwin, Creationism and Museums

1_Darwin Tree B 36.jpg
Tree of Life.A reproduction of the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree describing the relationships among groups of organisms.The image was featured in Darwin, the most in-depth exhibition ever mounted on this highly original thinker.The exhibition ran from November 19, 2005, through August 20, 2006, at the American Museum of Natural History. © By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Last year my graduate students in the class Anthropology and Museums wrote a collective review of the Darwin Museum. It was a great exercise in using the material and visual configuration of an exhibition to think through broader issues about the intersections between science and the public. The review has just come out in the journal Museum Anthropology, and here is the introduction:
“When the exhibition, Darwin, opened at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) on November 19, 2005 there was a certain amount of trepidation in the air. One commentator noted “It isn’t very often that a mere visit to an exhibition counts as a political act, but that’s certainly how it feels these days as you mount the steps of the American Museum of Natural History.”1 Indeed, this sense of controversy and heightened politics ensured that the Museum failed to get any corporate sponsorship to support the exhibition and its development. However, anticipated picket lines, hate mail, and sabotage within the gallery failed to materialize publicly. Shortly after the exhibition opened, Judge John Jones ruled, against a school Board of Trustees in Dover, Pennsylvania, that it was unconstitutional to teach intelligent design as scientific theory in public schools, in turn successfully pushing aside serious legal consideration of Intelligent Design theory as a rival to Evolutionary theory in explaining the order and diversity of the natural world.
Rather than framing a controversy between sacred and secular knowledge, the Darwin exhibit at the AMNH asks a fundamentally different and difficult question: How do you display science qua science? If objects are the central tools that curators use to tell stories, what objects do you choose when displaying a scientific theory? This review seeks to ask how exhibitions such as Darwin produce, as well as represent, ideas about science as a particular kind of enterprise and practice, one dedicated to the progressive accrual of objective knowledge, able to transcend political tensions between sacred and secular knowledge in the present day. The review has emerged from a graduate seminar in the Program in Museum Studies at New York University, entitled Anthropology in and of Museums. Each member of the class visited the exhibition with a particular theme, problematic or issue in mind, which we then brought together during our seminar discussions and edited together into a single review. We aimed to use the tools available to us as museum anthropologists to critically unpack some of the structures of thought, display strategies, broader contexts and experiences of the exhibition. Our themes interrogated the exhibition from a number of different directions, asking what the exhibition could illuminate for us about the culture of science in the mid nineteenth century and today; the practice of science and of scientists; and the impact of spectacle, collections, materiality and technology (e.g. the museum complex) on both the production of science and its public representation. However, rather than undertaking intensive background research into these issues, we privileged the exhibition as a site of knowledge production—asking how the particular configuration of objects, images, text, and space facilitated our understanding of these issues.”
The full review can be accessed via Anthrosource for those with subscriptions: www.anthrosource.net/toc/mua/2007/30/1
To balance this, we greatly enjoyed finding out more about the creation of a new Creationism Museum in the US.
You can find out more about the Creationism Museum by watching this You Tube clip:
you tube creation museum

And by going to the website www.answersingenesis.org/museum/
A recent critique can be found on:

www.truthdig.com/report/item/20070326_a_world_where_lies_are_true/

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4 Responses to Darwin, Creationism and Museums

  1. Jason Baird Jackson April 22, 2007 at 10:52 am #

    It was great to see the review essay on the Darwin show into print in Museum Anthropology. It is a wonderful essay and an outstanding illustration of how rich an extended review undertaken as a team project can be.

  2. Haidy Geismar June 11, 2007 at 12:49 am #

    Just keeping up with the news:
    the BBC has a report on the creationism museum:
    “>www.bbc.co.uk/mediaselector/check/player/nol/newsid_6730000/newsid_6738100redirect=6738153.stm&news=1&nbram=1&bbwm=1&bbram=1&nbwm=1
    And Edward Rothstein in the NY Times:
    travel.nytimes.com/2007/05/24/arts/24crea.html

  3. Jim Thio October 9, 2007 at 9:42 pm #

    Square water melons and genetically engineered food are samples that once in a while, life is created. Not a proof, but a plausibility.

  4. Jim Thio October 12, 2007 at 1:46 pm #

    Square water melons and genetically engineered food are samples that once in a while, life is created. Not a proof, but a plausibility.

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