In our July 17 blog post, following our first visit to Ark Encounter on opening day, we noted our surprise at being rather underwhelmed by what was on display at Ark Encounter. Yes, the size of the Ark and the carpentry were impressive but the displays and exhibits—not so much.
As we and other commentators have noted, there are lots of empty bins, cages, and ceramic jugs. There are lots of still, fake animals. And there are lots and lots of placards. In general, the placards include a lot of text. Many are dedicated to working out the details of an ark voyage in which eight people sustain the lives of nearly 7,000 creatures (which averages out to about 850 per person on the Ark) for a year.
When we returned for our second visit, we wanted to check out the attendance on what had to be one of the Ark’s busiest days of the year as it was a Saturday in July (see our July 28 blog post). But we were also interested in how visitors seemed to be receiving the exhibits. How do visitors engage them? What kinds of responses do the exhibits tend to elicit?
So, when Bill set out to count visitors, Sue set out to watch their behaviors and listen to what they had to say.
Here is what she observed.
By far what visitors do the most is read. Confronted with many placards, they stand before them and read them silently. Not only are they silent as they read them. They are also silent after they read them. That is, they rarely seem to talk to one another as they are reading or after they have read a placard. Instead, they read a placard in silence. Move on to another one. Read it in silence. On it goes. They also take pictures of placards and other kinds of exhibits.
There were a few exceptions to this general rule, however.
Occasionally, an adult visitor would explain to another adult visitor some aspect of a display. For example, one man explained the mechanics of the animal waste removal system on display in one exhibit. Notably, though, this couple didn’t engage in conversation about that system. She asked a question. He provided the answer. She listened. Then they moved on.
Another exception to that general rule is parents and their children. Typically, parents read the placards to their children, especially to those not yet old enough to read. And sometimes parents try to explain the meaning of the placards. Sometimes this seemingly straight forward activity ends oddly.
One mother moved through the “Fairy Tale Ark” exhibit with her two small children. Her children were clearly excited about this exhibit because, unlike most of the others, this one looks like it is for them. On the exterior of the exhibit there are lots of colorful fiberglass cartoon-like, smiling, big-eyed animals who appear to be on or near the Ark. Inside, there is a wall-size glass case that holds 80-some copies of children’s books that tell the story of Noah’s Ark. Her children were especially excited when they spotted a Noah’s Ark book that they had at home.
In an effort to help her children understand the exhibit, the mother read the placards to them. So, as her children delighted in the smiling animals and familiar books, she found herself telling them that the point of the placards was to say that their beloved book had lied to them. As the mother put it, “what it’s saying is that the story of Noah’s flood was not happy.” On the contrary, she read from a placard: “And everyone died except the 8 people in the Ark” (Genesis 7:23). Not surprisingly, the children seemed at something of a loss to get what that meant.
In another example, a mother approached the animatronic figure of Rayneh (wife of one of Noah’s sons) with her small daughter in tow. Hearing the animatronic woman lament the death of her dear friend along with the countless others on the other side of the closed Ark door (which is adjacent to this exhibit) at the hands of one very angry god, the mother blurted out “That’s freaky” and drew her daughter away in haste.
Beyond the strangeness of parents finding themselves obliged to read placards about mass extermination or to explain how it was that their God thought it made sense to destroy what AiG says could have been as many as 20 billion human beings minus the eight on the Ark, it is notable that neither adults nor children engaged in much conversation about the content of the many placards and exhibits they encountered.
We note in Righting America (58-59) that although exhibits at the Creation Museum often employ state-of-the-art technology, few (if any) are interactive in the way that exhibits at many contemporary, mainstream museums are. While exhibits at the Creation Museum present information, they do not invite critical thinking . . . unless the facts presented are part of the case for evolution.
The same dynamic appears to be underway at Ark Encounter. The visitor’s job seems to be merely to receive AiG’s truth and not to engage it critically. That being so, perhaps it should be no surprise that visitors didn’t converse about it but, instead, just moved from one placard to the next, now and again snapping a photo.
Given all that, it’s interesting that an Amish friend told us that when he asked his aunt and uncle what they thought of Ark Encounter, they thoughtfully reflected that they “had more questions about the Biblical account of the Flood after visiting the Ark Encounter than before they had gone.” Our friend went on to say that they reported that “some of the questions bordered on doubts about whether or not the Flood account is totally reliable.”
Perhaps there is something about being in Ark Encounter that has a silencing effect on visitors. But tooling down I-75 afterward, who knows what kind of critical thinking might be taking place. Could answers in Genesis at Ark Encounter become questions about Genesis later? Our Amish friends give us reason to hope!