American Gothic

The Creation Museum, as Viewed by a Lover of Gothic Cathedrals

by Michael Bergmann, with Daniel Bergmann

Adam Naming the Animals, Creation Museum, Petersburg, Kentucky

Last winter, while the Vatican was sponsoring a conference in honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, my family and I drove to Petersburg, Kentucky, to visit the Creation Museum to see how it compared to the great medieval cathedrals. Medieval cathedrals and their narratives, told with such power and economy in sculpture and beautiful glass, have spoken to me since I first learned as a teenager that all this distant art had stories that could be “read.” Of the many elements that combine to give medieval cathedrals their greatness, one that is hard to find in post-Enlightenment art is the cathedral builders’ complete belief in the truthfulness of the story told. The picture of the world they depicted is simple, powerful and extremely coherent, as if for a few hundred years everything made sense. The Creation Museum describes itself this way:

The state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot museum brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Majestic murals, great masterpieces brimming with pulsating colors and details, provide a backdrop for many of the settings.

Since the story of the Creation Museum is, with the addition of dinosaurs (some animatronic), the same story told in Chartres, Bourges and Amiens, and since its creators profess a simple and literal faith, I was intensely curious to see twenty-first-century America’s manifestation of the cathedral-builder’s impulse. Like a cathedral, the Creation Museum had the money it needed to attract skilled artisans, including a diorama designer whose previous credits include scenes for Universal Studios theme parks. We would see the Creation of Adam, the Temptation of Eve and the Expulsion, in an authentically American idiom. Maybe it would work as art, and if it didn’t, it would be interesting to ask why not.
The description from the website quoted above does not quite prepare one for the rigorous style the builders of the Creation Museum have chosen: that of the science museum. They have made a very different stylistic choice from that adopted by the builders of the Natural History Museum at Oxford. Built in the nineteenth century, under the aesthetic guidance of John Ruskin, it is manifestly a “cathedral of science,” with pointed arches, clerestory windows, pillars with delicately carved botanical capitals and stone statues of robed scientists. The builders felt about nature and man’s new capacity to understand the world the way their medieval predecessors felt about their ability to understand and worship an earlier notion of creation. The Creation Museum, with its façade of striated stonework interrupted by diagonals that suggest fault lines, chosen to evoke the archaeology and fossils displayed inside, has the style of a contemporary “science museum.” The fact that this is a style is all the clearer because there is no science in it.
Fortunately, we don’t have to resort to ideology or get into conflict with the builders of the Creation Museum to dispose of the question of science there. The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper solved that problem for us in Logik der Forschung (1934). Popper’s formulation, popularly known as “the doctrine of falsification,” states that our beliefs are scientific when we can say what could happen that would make us abandon what we believe. We can respect non-falsifiable beliefs, but they are not scientific. It’s an elegant piece of thinking, and it was very pleasing to find a use for it in everyday life. Since the Creationists will freely admit that there is no event that will cause them to alter their belief, the “science museum” is purely a style. Using the grammar of the natural history museum, the Creation Museum offers dioramas, placards and multimedia exhibits that present the Garden of Eden, the Fall and its consequences, with plenty of room devoted to considering and dismissing the scientific evidence that nettlesomely places the age of the earth at far older than the 6,000 years upon which fundamentalist Creationists insist. To a student of American culture, this is interesting and to an advocate of free speech, it is bracing, but to my son Daniel it was frightening. Daniel is autistic and had just learned to think abstractly and communicate a few months before our visit. The idea that a printed placard in a building marked “museum” might not be factually trustworthy shook him deeply.

The first large diorama corresponding to a cathedral scene shows Adam in the Garden of Eden naming the animals. Medieval artists had fun depicting the animals and man’s dominion over them and celebrating language as the most obvious thing that separates man from the animals. The Eden of the Creation Museum features a penguin, which the medieval masters would have approved, if they had known about penguins, and a lamb, looking right at us in a knowing way, which has a nice prefiguration-of-Christ quality. The scene, however, is oddly uninvolving. Adam has no expression to speak of, certainly nothing that conveys the artist’s feeling about naming the animals, language or anything else. Adam’s hand gesture is that of a child feeding animals in a petting zoo; the hand facing palm-up is the opposite of the palm-down gesture of blessing or dominion. Perhaps the theme is not what it used to be: the dominion of man over nature was more wished-for than real in the Middle Ages; now it is a settled thing and by no means one we are at peace with.  

Lorenzo Maitani, Creation of Eve, 1310-30, Orvieto Cathedral, Orvieto, ItalyThis diorama is the first depiction of Paradise to make me wonder about the temperature in the Garden of Eden, since both naked Adam and the penguin look equally comfortable. Is there no temperature in Eden? Is temperature an attribute of life after the Fall? If so, the garden loses much of its sensuality. This is not a mistake that a medieval artisan would have made, since he didn’t think he was depicting an imaginary world. Ruskin makes the point that, as the Gothic developed, the artisan looked more and more to nature to get the material for his depictions: “…a little at a time, he put more of nature into his work, until at last it was all true….”(“The Nature of Gothic,” The Stones of Venice, Vol. II) The Gothic artisan could use everything he knew. Even a devout Creationist can only refer to a tiny fraction of what he or she has been taught.
 Bosom of Abraham with Three Souls, Thirteenth Century, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, FranceThe Creation Museum deliberately rejects another important aspect of medieval art, refusing to make Biblical scenes into an exploration of the human condition. By contrast, many a medieval artisan, paying attention to the implications of his scene for contemporary human life, created a satisfying tableau, even with techniques that seem crude when compared with the Renaissance masters and the Greeks who inspired them. (Ruskin calls this quality of the Gothic “full of wolfish life.”) In the Expulsion on the west façade of Notre Dame de Paris, for example, each of the three figures, the angel, Adam and Eve, expresses a different kind of sorrow. The artist may have known little about anatomy and nothing of perspective, but he knew a great deal about the nuances of human distress.

The next diorama in the story is the Creation of Eve. In the great cathedrals and on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, God pulls Eve out of Adam’s side while Adam is asleep. The iconography of this scene probably owes its staying power to the wish-fulfilling image of a man giving birth, but the greatest artists have used it for something else besides: a moment of private contact between God and Eve, a deeply meaningful moment that makes the Expulsion something that happens to God as well as to Adam and Eve. In the Creation Museum diorama, God is not present at all, and Eve has already been created. All that remains of the medieval iconography is the way Adam is leaning back, which recalls his traditional pose while giving birth asleep. Adam looks surprised and curious as he reaches out to touch Eve. Because, interestingly, God is never portrayed in the Creation Museum, the moment between Adam and Eve makes this diorama more successful than the previous one. Couples who visit the museum together tend to stop and stare at this image and stand a little closer to each other. For the moment, all is well. In the distance, a dinosaur eats quietly of the vegetation. The presence of dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden is a major point of doctrine at the Creation Museum and a major selling point to its young visitors. Dinosaurs are everywhere. A full-size bronze dinosaur—on a dolly—outside the museum is the first thing you see as you enter. 

 The Fall, Creation Museum, Petersburg, KentuckyThe next diorama depicts the Fall, with the serpent looming over some berries that represent the forbidden fruit. Adam and Eve are uninteresting, but the serpent is rendered with a good deal of feeling, as if the artist had finally been allowed to take the gloves off. The serpent is the personification of sin and evil and therefore a symbolic creature. The Creation Museum is surprisingly barren of symbols. The fundamentalist passion for taking the Bible literally combines with the desire for a science museum to make symbolism an unwanted commodity. The builders unbent a little to create the serpent, and the results show. The moment you allow symbolization into a depiction, the work comes alive. The serpent is a welcome addition to what is otherwise a travel poster. 

The medieval artist was astonishingly concrete, but he knew there was charm in using concrete figures to represent an abstraction, as in the lovely image of blessed souls gathered to the “bosom of Abraham” at Chartres. The artists of the middle ages rendered the greatest abstractions with enormous concreteness. The Creation Museum is not trying to make the abstract concrete: it is trying to represent what is already concrete, and this makes its designers unwilling to use symbols. Medieval work is redolent with symbolism in color, height and overall design (many cathedrals have three doors in their western façades to represent the Trinity, for example). In the Creation Museum, what could be resonant symbols are reduced to examples. Adam and Eve are not our parents or us at a more innocent time, and they are certainly not Humanity in all its frailty. They are merely Adam and Eve. 

Next should come the Expulsion, a major theme in medieval art, but it is not represented at all. Instead, the Creation Museum, in a highly original departure from church art, devotes quite a bit of space to the consequences of “Adam’s sin” in today’s world. The idea, in summary, is that Adam’s sin led to death, which led to sex (you need to make more of something if it’s going to die), which led to competition, which led to aggression. It also led to weeds. A placard entitled “Weeds” explains that, as animals overpopulated, God had to allow too many plants in order to feed them, so they started growing where they were not wanted. 

First we see Adam and Eve making a bloody sacrifice. Dressed in animal skins, they stand over bloody carcasses while Eve looks at her hands like a student actress attempting Lady Macbeth. A plaque explains:

Because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) the blood of animals was required for the covering of sin, until the perfect payment could be made by the Promised Seed. The need for sacrifice explains why God rejected Adam and Eve’s coverings of leaves. Instead, God sacrificed animal life and made clothes out of animal skins. It is very likely that at this point God introduced the sacrificial system of the Old Testament.

This text has the grammar and style of an explanation, but real explanations are energizing, because they answer one question and point the way to new and better questions. This process cannot occur, however, in a science museum which discourages curiosity in favor of obedience, so the “explanation” is wearying. It butchers the citation from Romans, which goes on in the next phrase to promise eternal life, and wanders off on its own miserable tack. 

After the sacrifice diorama, the visitor walks down a corridor lined with frightening photographs of other consequences of Adam’s sin: an atomic explosion, genocide, a woman screaming in the pain of childbirth. These scenes are in black-and-white, remote like news stories. Another corridor is done up like a street: you can look in the windows of the houses you pass and see dissolute and disobedient teenagers on the verge of drinking or doing drugs. Contemporary culture continues along Adam’s disobedient path, and the result is hell on earth.

The Creation Museum argues passionately and explicitly against thinking for oneself, which it blames for our current woes. “Man decides” is depicted as the horrible alternative to obedience to God’s Word. There is something of a flight from adulthood about this. Admittedly, the medieval cathedral also offers something in that line, though in quite a different way. In the medieval version, childhood is expressly venerated, in the way the Nativity is presented over and over again, with the devout viewer encouraged to identify more with the child in the manger than the kings who visit him. The blessed soul is a child gathered to the bosom of Abraham. A damned soul is an adult pitchforked into the fire in the Last Judgment.
The Last Judgment is the cathedral’s equivalent to the Creation Museum’s Hell on Earth, but it depicts sinful humans as dead, raised from their graves, stripped naked, chained, pierced, bitten and burned. They may become living skeletons. These images are a phenomenal cultural success, still a living part of our culture today. They come out every Halloween, and the frightening imagery in horror movies adds little to these carved horrors that are its source. Last Judgments are often carved with tremendous energy, and artisan and viewer can have some guilty fun as they worry about whether this fate awaits them. The Creation Museum’s news photos and a street from Anytown, USA, can’t compete, but the intent is clearly parallel.
Another diorama, “Nature red in tooth and claw,” depicts violence in the animal kingdom as the result of Adam’s sin. This diorama follows the tradition started by Benjamin Hawkins, who painted a series of dramatic mural-size oils depicting a pre-Adamite world of struggling dinosaurs in 1875 for the school that would become Princeton University. Despite having worked for Charles Darwin as an illustrator, Hawkins did not believe in evolution, but he did believe in survival of the fittest. According to an article in Natural History, “The Art of Bones” (December, 2008), his vision still influences natural history museum displays.
After facing the consequences of Adam’s sin, the visitor finds a more cheerful subject in several large rooms devoted to Noah’s flood. The Flood is not usually a cheerful subject, but it is joyful here. The Creation Museum’s Noah sets an example for the Christian community: an ingenious craftsman who ignores the conventional wisdom of his neighbors and obeys God’s Word. In the room devoted to building the ark (you can walk through it as it is under construction), Noah’s nay-saying neighbors are portrayed animatronically gesturing and making disparaging comments. Noah himself does not speak; the obedient man has nothing to say. The Flood allows Creationists to explain away all the scientific evidence for the age of the earth. A video display co-opts the discovery of Pangea and shows continental drift occurring in just a few days, during and because of the flood. Fossils, too, were created by the Flood and only seem to be older than 6,000 years. A delightful scale model of the ark shows people playing and eating on board ship, with compartments built for the animals; in one, baby dinosaurs lie on little pallets of straw. The victims of the Flood draw compassion from the stained-glass window artisans in Chartres, sinners though they be; the Creation Museum, in its comparable diorama, is not sorry to see them drown.
We left depressed. Passionate conviction, a profound ability to imagine the world the way it is not, artisanal skill and the desire to explain are not sufficient for the making of art. Exploration, which is impossible without curiosity, is fundamental, as is the love of symbolism and the desire to inquire into the nature of the human condition. Empathy helps, too. Great artists who tackle Biblical themes know that the story they are telling can’t be the viewer’s story, but the viewer can recognize feelings the story evokes. It is this quality that allows their work to keep nourishing future generations, even non-believers in a post-mythological age. The Creation Museum has this backwards: the story is your story, but the feelings evoked are distant, non-empathic ones: guilt, fear or (if you’ve earned it) superiority.
Back in New York, we visited the Hall of Human Origins in the Museum of Natural History. In one diorama, two Australopithecans are shown walking side by side, his arm protectively around her hairy shoulders, a great liberty taken by the diorama designer, because the whole scene is based on her skeleton and their fossilized footprints. The paleontologists who discovered the footprints were so excited by their proximity that they conjured up this picture of two pre-humans walking fondly together.
Daniel looked at the display and spelled out on his letterboard: “Adam and Eve were less in love.” I asked him what the main difference was between this exhibit and the one in Kentucky: “No punishment here.” I asked: “Does that make it more or less likely to be true?” He answered: “More.” When I asked him why, he responded: “Nature does not punish.” Daniel wants to be an artist when he grows up. The medieval artisans brought Adam and Eve and other distant figures to the viewer with humanizing empathy, and the warmth of the Australopithecans continues the tradition of Carl Akely (1864 –1926), the paleontologist, taxidermist, museum display designer and sculptor whose great revelation was to look into the eyes of a gorilla he had killed and recognize a being like himself.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2009, Volume 26, Number 4