In the basement of a Christian book store in Southern Pines, North Carolina, three popular images of Jesus are mounted on a wall in a single frame. A description hanging to the left of the display explains that these are not in fact pictures of the Lord Jesus Christ, but of Lucifer. Christ, it explains, could not have had long hair, an effeminate appearance, or Caucasian features. Citing 2 Corinthians 5:16
, it says
The Bible states clearly that His physical appearance (“Christ after the flesh”) would cease to be known. It is not an accident that the most famous person in human history has no reliable image recorded in history. Such an image would become the object of worship.
Immediately above of this warning against idolatry, four photos of John Wayne are displayed without comment.
This pastiche is typical of the Creation Museum Taxidermy Hall of Fame of North Carolina and Antique Tool Collection, which I came across by accident as I left an ice cream shop in downtown Southern Pines. Every year since I was little, I have visited relatives in Southern Pines, but I had never been downtown before, and neither I nor anyone in my family had heard of this museum.
Creationism.org lists a dozen creation centers and creation-themed museums in the United States. This is not one of them. The North Carolina Creation Museum is not well publicized, and I would never have known it existed were it not for the bear statue standing in front of The Christian Bookstore on Broad Street, with a sign around its neck proclaiming that a “Creation Museum” was inside.
There are no dinosaurs in this museum. There are few references to flood geology, and little effort is made to present arguments in favor of a creationist natural history. Most of the space is occupied by tools. There are dozens of saws, over a hundred hammers, and a large display of antique levels. The tool displays are interspersed among numerous stuffed and mounted minks, snakes, deer, birds, and wildcats. These line the walls of a narrow, almost claustrophobic hallway that winds its way up three floors before coming out at the back of the bookstore. No dinosaurs.
The famous, well-funded creation museums have dinosaurs. In a recent article in The Drama Review, Jill Stephenson notes the prominence of dinosaurs in the Answers in Genesis (AiG) Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Though they play a small part in creationist narratives of natural history, dinosaurs “supply museumgoers with a familiar, memorable, and marketable through-line during their museum experience. (They also serve as the spectacle necessary to get and keep children interested in a museum.)”
Dinosaurs serve a political purpose as well, says Stephenson. Once a source of frustration for early young earth creationists, they have been recast as fodder for the argument that evolutionary theory suffers from unsustainable gaps and uncertainties. Flood geology and its related theories, creationists argue, provide a more satisfying explanation for the existence of fossils. Dinosaurs are exciting, fun, marketable, and co-optable as evidence for the creation narrative. Their prominence in creation museums like the Pensacola Dinosaur Adventure Land (pictured above), or the 70,000-square-foot AiG Creation Museum, reflects creationists’ commitment to attracting and influencing the public on a large scale.
The small, dimly lit North Carolina Creation Museum reflects different origins and priorities. The museum was founded by Kent Kelly (c.1943-2008), pastor and founder of Calvary Memorial Church, Calvary Christian School, and The Christian Bookstore, in which the museum is housed. He once described himself as
a born again two and a half point Calvinist brought up in the Presbyterian Church, baptized by immersion, and a premillennial pretribulation rapturist with Plymouth Brethren theology and Missionary Baptist leanings and an independent Separatist at heart. [PDF, pg 2-3]
In simpler terms, he said, he was a fundamentalist and a proud one. Calvary’s information page on Sermonaudio.com emphasizes the King James Bible’s unique status as the perfect Word of God, the evils of modern public education, and the autonomy of the local church. Among the 820 sermons posted under Kelly’s name are defenses of the King James Bible, admonitions against mainstream pop culture, and Biblical advice regarding mental and emotional health.
According to Laura Ingram, a personal assistant to Kelly, the Creation Museum was built during the 1990s, after Kelly suffered a stroke. It was, in part, a therapeutic project. Kelly collected antique tools, and the museum began as a place to display them. “Jesus was a carpenter,” Ingram told a local columnist. “So Kent decided to put his tool collection together as a tribute to Him. And the collection grew to include animals that show the wonder of Creation.”
The result is not the arsenal of talking points provided by other creation museums, but a tribute to Kelly’s fundamentalist values. In particular, the museum celebrates the order and beauty that creationists appreciate in well-executed craftsmanship – human or divine.
Left: A mounted peacock. Bottom right: an adjustable wrench.
I did not know any of this when I walked into the museum. I did not even know the museum’s full name. As a result, I had trouble figuring out the logic behind its presentation. As I descended the stairs from the bright, open space of the bookstore into the dark, narrow spaces of the museum, the first thing I noticed was the 14′ suit of armor posted at the entrance, bearing a wooden sign which read “’Put on the whole armour of God’ – Eph. 6:11.” Just inside the entrance was a case containing “all the credible evidence of evolution.”
This case also contains the only empty space that exists in this museum.
This first impression led me to expect a militant anti-evolutionist tone from the rest of the exhibits, but that tone quickly dissipated. It was overshadowed by the contributions of tool collectors and taxidermists, with occasional hints at the political preferences of Calvary Christians.
Creatures of the American Southwest: the jackrabbit, the armadillo, tarantula, and the gipper.
The anti-evolutionist tone resurfaced occasionally within a more persistent motif: quirky southern humor. One display contained a hornets’ nest with a pair of googly eyes peeping out through the entrance. It was labeled “The world’s largest hornet.” Another display was dominated by a stuffed mountain lion reclining on a tree branch – with a fake human arm poking out from beneath its haunches. Among shelves of hatchets and saws I saw a sign that read, “My wife says I never listen to her. At least I think that’s what she said.” As I passed a display warning that hell awaits all who fail to accept Christ, my eyes were drawn to the oversized “Texas fly swatter” hanging nearby.
In Texas, even the flies are big! Also your immortal soul may be in peril.
This humor extends to the museum’s treatment of evolution, which takes for granted that evolution is ridiculous. This treatment differs from that of better-known creation museums. Though the AiG Creation Museum primarily targets conservative evangelicals, AiG does so with the understanding that its visitors will engage with non-creationists, and will therefore need to be equipped with arguments that refute evolutionary models of natural history.
Several of Pastor Kelly’s sermons emphasized disengagement from the World. Calvary’s museum treats evolution as yet one more absurdity of modern humanism. This museum does not argue with evolution so much as laugh at it. A poster parodies the classic “Descent of Man” illustration, substituting famous hoaxes and errors, like the Piltdown Man, for the hominids in the original picture. (The final stage is “Modern Man: This genius thinks we came from a monkey.”) Another display labels a giant Converse sneaker “The Missing Link,” asking, “would you believe that this ancient fossil came from an archaeological dig near Chapel Hill, North Carolina? […] The process of evolution has produced modern variations such as ‘Nike Air’ and ‘Reeboks.’”
The accompanying text then reminds the viewer that “many people are gullible enough to believe anything they read on little signs in an evolution-based museum. All ‘in the name of science,’ of course!”
This dismissal of evolution may help explain why the museum loses this focus as the visitor progresses. Its refusal to take evolution seriously leaves it with no opposing thesis to contest. The museum’s emphasis on the created natural world is prominent during the first two thirds of its displays, but the tools and the animals gradually give way to items whose relevance may not be obvious: a duck carved from a pine cone, news clippings from the Apollo 11 landing, a copy of Jesse Helms’ When Free Men Shall Stand (1976), a tire that once belonged to a Christian drag racer, a school bus sign that once belonged to the father of a prominent tool collector.
There is practically no empty space in this museum anywhere.
In the final room, the tools are relegated to the corners, while most of the space is taken up by sports memorabilia.
As an outsider to the Calvary community, and to the museum’s apparent target audience, I could only guess at the rationale behind the inclusion of some items. Perhaps Jesse Helms’ book and the bus sign are here simply because they are parts of North Carolina history. Perhaps the Apollo 11 clippings are meant to invoke the beauty of the cosmos, and to celebrate the ingenuity that made it possible to plant an American flag on the moon. Maybe someone saw the pine cone duck and said, “that’s a nice duck. It would look great in the museum.”
This eclecticism is one of the reasons I found the photos of John Wayne, positioned next to the pictures of Lucifer, so ambiguous. Were they another warning, representing a Hollywood idol who, like Lucifer, has become worshipped after the flesh? Were they meant to celebrate an icon of American culture? Were they a contrast to the long-haired, effeminate Lucifer? Did they recall an ideal of American masculinity from a bygone era, when men were real men (even the ones named Marion)?
Compounding the ambiguity was the photos’ proximity to one of the museum’s only displays that dealt with cultural diversity. The photos hung in the corner of a dead end that is dominated by a large display labeled “STRANGE STUFF.”
The display contains a cluttered assortment of exotic items. Mixed among them are (arguably) pagan elements of American pop culture. An “elephant god paper maché mask,” representing Ganesh, hangs next to Budweiser beer can and an old television set (“one of the devil’s favorite tools,” reads a sign next to the television).
A porcelain Buddha statue sits on a shelf between a postcard from Hawaii and a stack of country music CDs. Strewn about at floor level are Harry Potter tapes, prescription drug bottles, a book about Santa Claus, a pair of Baoding balls, a psychology textbook, more items than I could note. They are all crowded together, floor to ceiling, in a chaotic assortment with little in common other than their apparent opposition to Christian integrity.
The only other display I saw that dealt with cultural diversity was a collection of foreign language bibles, neatly labeled and spaced evenly in a small, well-lit glass case. I was struck by the contrast between the orderly uniformity of the multilingual Bible display, and the menacing presentation of pagan exotica down the hall.
I did not think to get a shot of the entire Bible collection because I was not planning on writing about the museum. (This was supposed to be a quick stop by the ice cream store, not a one hour detour into a museum that no one knew about.) I took the above picture because the “stop abortion” sign seemed out of place at the time. What did a collection of foreign language Bibles have to do with Roe v. Wade? I soon discovered that pro-life signs and bumper stickers were interspersed throughout the museum, mostly around the edges of other displays.
If museums are performative sites, places of engagement between the visitor and the narratives implicit in the exhibits’ presentation, then my experience suffered from something of a language barrier. As a visitor who was not a creationist, I was not only excluded by the museum’s presentation of legitimate natural history, I was confused by the presentation itself. What were the photos of John Wayne meant to tell me? What was so sinister about Hawaii? What was I meant to learn from three shelves of Brookfield insulators?
This was perhaps the sharpest contrast between the better-funded, market tested museums that we typically think of, and the Creation Museum Taxidermy Hall of Fame of North Carolina. The AiG Creation Museum’s slogan is “Prepare to Believe,” and Jill Stevenson’s article in The Drama Review (cited above) describes how the museum is designed to do just that. Its architectural resemblance to a megachurch building, the museum motif, and the positioning of dinosaurs alongside people in the lobby displays, all work to establish visitors’ expectations and to prepare them for the exhibits within.
Calvary’s museum seems more an exercise in visual piety. It is not so much a presentation of arguments as a series of evocative images. Variously attractive, strange, funny, or ugly, these images make salient the orderliness of God’s creation, the beauty of good craftsmanship, and the persistence of malevolent forces who seek to undermine it all.
I was traveling with family, and after nearly an hour in the small museum, their patience was running out. I dropped some money in the donation box, and exited to the left of the cardboard Michael Jordan. I would have liked to talk to the proprietors of the bookstore, but I did not have time. The next time I am in Southern Pines, I think I will visit again.