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The Making of a Creationist Theme Park: Part Two | Righting America

Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (NYU, 2018) is the latest work from James Bielo. Below is the second half of the rightingamerica interview with James regarding this fascinating book.

James S. Bielo is Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Anthropology at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio). He is the author of four books and more than 50 scholarly articles, chapters, & essays. He is the project director for Materializing the Bible, a digital scholarship project that explores the social, material, and political dimensions of biblically-themed attractions. And, he is co-editor of a book series with the U of Nebraska Press, Anthropology of Contemporary North America

This image is the book cover for James Bielo's Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. It features the bow of the wood Ark against a blue sky.

Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park (NYU, 2018)

1. At the end of your chapter on “The Past is Not History” you ask this provocative question:

“In contrast to the hotly contested field of public school curricula, where symbolic capital derives from scientific legitimacy, can creationism score a victory in the court of public entertainment, where creative capital speaks in an artistic and affective register? When it comes to history-making, is creationism more fun than evolution?”

Can you explain what you mean here, and how would you answer your own questions?

Ark Encounter, and the Creation Museum, use the power of entertainment to advance their ambitions of religious publicity. In posing this question, I’m trying to reveal the wager that the creative team is making. Their wager is that through entertainment they can win visitors to their cause, and intensify the commitments of those already won. In this wager, they don’t have to compel non-creationists within the playing field of science; they just have to grab their attention within the playing field of entertainment. In their calculus, if visitors are wowed then they will walk away changed: if not converted, then at least re-oriented to the potential legitimacy of creationism.

So, how would I answer? You’re not supposed to ask me that 😉

Of course, it’s meant to be a rhetorical question. That being said, it’s worth adventuring an answer. To begin, we should clarify the kind of visitor we’re talking about. Creationist visitors, I suspect, do experience the creationist past — as performed by Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum — as fun and, indeed, more fun than an evolutionary past. But, what about non-creationist visitors? Of course, the category “non-creationist visitor” entails tons of variation. But, if you don’t live in the creationist lifeworld, then no matter your orientation you are being asked to do the same thing: to play in this frame of reality. You are asked to consider creationism as viable and, in turn, to work with their terms and exist in their lifeworld. For visitors who engage in this play, part of their experience upon leaving is reflecting on what kind of experience they had onsite. How did they feel? How did they respond: bodily, emotionally, and cognitively? Irrespective of whether they are confused, disturbed, amused, or whatever, they will confront what it was like to play in this world. Did they have fun? Ultimately, I think we just need more ethnography with different kinds of visitors to meaningfully address that.

2. Related to the previous question, a recent online article argues that Ark Encounter is “a boring homophobic mess.” Leaving aside the question of homophobia (unless you want to say something in that regard!), does it make sense to you that folks find Ark Encounter boring? Put another way, could Ark Encounter actually lose in the court of public entertainment?

I read this article as well, published by Vice. It certainly makes sense that some visitors will find Ark Encounter boring. Again, not everyone will get caught up in the experience of play. For some visitors, the kind of entertainment strategies the attraction uses will not work. For others there will be ideological and/or theological conflicts. For some, both.

What I find more interesting, though, is how winning and losing in the court of public entertainment is figured (especially, beyond the level of the individual visitor). In part, it is about making a lasting impression, creating a memorable experience. Over time, it is about perceived innovation. The Creation Museum opened in 2007. Almost without exception, each year they have expanded or changed the visitor experience in some way (often, this has been timed with Memorial Day weekend, which in the seasonal ritual cycle of U.S. mass tourism marks the beginning of summertime travel, especially for families). I suspect Ark Encounter will aim for much the same. While many people will never visit because of ideological opposition, and many visitors who are ideologically opposed to creationism will find the place boring and disturbing in equal parts, its eventual success or failure will be determined otherwise. In part, it will be determined in how well they innovate to entice visitors to return, to invite others, and, for non-creationists, to play a bit in this lifeworld.

3. You conclude Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park with this statement: “For the fundamentalist gaze to work at Ark Encounter, it must absorb the commercial gaze of an entertainment-savvy public that is poised for accusations of religious idiocy.” Can you explain what you mean here, and do you think Ark Encounter will succeed in this regard?

What I mean is that even creationist visitors, because of their broader cultural repertoire, will demand that Ark Encounter be a good/memorable/fun experience. For long term success, it must meet a threshold of quality that is not defined within the world of fundamentalism, but within the broader world of entertainment. The creative team was quite attuned to this, and they talked constantly about the need to “surprise” visitors by measuring themselves and their work against the highest possible industry standards. The need to innovate over time is part of this, as is the need to mobilize strategies and techniques that read, for visitors, as up-to-date (i.e., fun/engaging/interesting) and not outmoded (i.e., boring/lame/tired).

Perhaps not surprisingly, most visitor accounts that I’ve seen are polarized. Creationist visitors largely praise the experience, critics largely ridicule the experience. Apart from some good ethnography with other visitors (which I encourage scholars to pursue), there are some hints in circulating media about the Ark’s perceived quality. For example, an anthropologist named Scott Lukas has been studying themed environments (mostly not faith-based attractions) for several decades. Writing for Attractions Management, a leading trade magazine in the themed entertainment business, Lukas reviews Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. He writes, “look beyond the controversies surrounding the monumental Ark attraction and its sister museum and you’ll find some of the best examples of immersive theming in the US.” Throughout, he takes the self-identified stance of an expert on themed environments who is assessing the attractions on how well they perform within this genre of place (not, for example, how well they meet the imperatives of fundamentalism or how much they clash with non-fundamentalist sensibilities). He observes various features, from architecture to the choreography of the senses, and continually returns to one point: he was deeply impressed.

So, will Ark Encounter be successful? If success means impressing a non-creationist public, it may already be. If success means remaining open for years/decades to come, and perhaps expanding to include additional exhibits (e.g., a proposed Tower of Babel replica), then a major variable will be their capacity to innovate: to keep the experience entertaining for new and returning visitors. Innovation includes multiple things. On one hand, it includes changes/expansions in exhibit designs, uses of technology, and multi-media experiences. On the other, innovation will likely include responding to socio-political life as it unfolds in a fundamentalist vein (e.g., connecting the visitor experience at Ark Encounter to the wider ideological concerns of fundamentalism).

4. Ok, your book just came out, so it probably is not fair to ask. But could you say a little about your next project?

I appreciate you asking. My fieldwork with the Ark Encounter creative team inspired me to examine other attractions that “materialize the Bible.” This began with a digital scholarship project, Materializing the Bible  https://www.materializingthebible.com/}, which I curate with undergraduate research assistants. This project is an interactive, curated catalogue of biblically-themed attractions throughout the world. Working on this project has helped me to think comparatively and historically about this phenomenon, inspiring analyses of biblical gardens and Protestant mobilizations of biblical landscape items. Materializing the Bible has also prompted more ethnographic work with different attractions. For example, I have done participant observation work at the Garden of Hope in northern Kentucky, which features a replica of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb. And, I have done some observation and interviewing on the newly opened Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, D.C. The article I’m working on right now focuses on MOTB and, like Ark Encounter, is interested in questions of immersive entertainment. MOTB is especially fascinating because, unlike Ark Encounter, most of the creative talent were not part of faith-based design firms. What will we learn about this place – and, more broadly, about religious publicity and the entangled relationship between religion and entertainment – when we foreground the voices of these designers?