Righting America

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The “Magic” of Museums | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger

It was certainly a privilege to be included in last Saturday’s American Academy of Religion (AAR) roundtable discussion of “Museums and the Public Understanding of Religion,” organized by Hamilton College’s S. Brent Plate. In his introduction to the session, Brent talked about how important it is that museums, which welcome as many as 800 million guests a year, powerfully shape the popular imaginary regarding religion.

  • Lauren Turek of Trinity University (TX) gave a very interesting talk – complete with artistic renderings – on a proposed (but never-built) museum on Jews in the western United States that was being designed to enable visitors to experience something of the religious practice and experience of Jews from the past.
  • Peter Manseau (who also happens to be the author of the critically-acclaimed The Apparitionists) talked about the new exhibit he curated at the National Museum of American History on “Religion in Early America,” in the process highlighting the exhibit’s emphasis on religious diversity and its goal to “normalize” religious differences such that visitors might feel less anxiety about those differences.
  • Diversity was also at the heart of Laura Weinstein’s fascinating discussion of an exhibit she curated at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, in which beautiful pages selected from various editions of the Koran in the museum’s collection were displayed next to thoughtful personal responses written by local Muslims.
  • Finally, there was a powerful presentation on religion at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Curator Eric Williams and Yolanda Pierce (formerly at the museum but now dean of the Howard University School of Divinity) talked about the intense reaction many visitors – particularly African American visitors – have in response to objects at the museum, such as Nat Turner’s Bible (which he had in his possession during the rebellion) and beautiful shards of stained glass that were retrieved from the ashes of the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, in which four young girls were killed.

In short, four compelling presentations on four intellectually credible museums (including one not yet built), all of which take seriously both the diversity of religion in America and the diversity among museum visitors and their responses to those representations.

And then, for something completely different, there was our presentation on the Creation Museum/Ark Encounter (both Answers in Genesis (AiG) sites) which, rather than embrace religious diversity or seek to calm anxiety about it, instead aim to transform Bible-believing Christians into Christian Right culture warriors to the point that they will even reject earnest old Earth fundamentalists as beyond the pale.

Boston University’s Stephen Prothero was the respondent to the papers. Among other questions he posed, he asked all of us to explain the power of the objects in our museums to make moments and things from the past seem real in such a way that they often inspire heartfelt emotional responses. He asked: “Is this magic? Is this sleight-of-hand?”

What a great question. Especially for us. As we noted in our response, the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter borrow the exhibit and display strategies of natural history to create (many, if not most, objects on display are created by AiG) and to constitute those objects in such a way as to invite visitors to experience them as authentic relics from the past. Borrowing from the workings of traditional dioramas, which re-create within a museum setting a scene from a distant time or place or culture, the Creation Museum’s walk-through Garden of Eden serves as a peephole into the early chapters of Genesis and constructs them as historical referents. As people, places, and stories that actually happened. Likewise, at Ark Encounter, an entire walk-through diorama creates a three-dimensional space in which the living quarters on the Ark, never mentioned in Genesis, offer visitors an experience of what life on that huge vessel might have been like. There visitors come to know by name individuals such as Noah’s daughters-in-law (also never mentioned in Genesis) along with their ethnicities, gifts, and favorite hobbies. In these ways, both the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter create/construct objects, people, and scenes designed to enable visitors to feel intensely that these objects, people, stories are real and only separated from them by time and space. Magic, indeed.

In response to our paper, several in attendance indicated that they were frightened by our presentation. For them, museums today are charged with educating publics in ways that defy division, faction, and strife. At the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter it would appear that just the opposite is underway. Scary, indeed.