Putting the fun in fundamentalism

Ahead of packing up his bags in the wake of the Barack Obama victory, Jonn Elledge treats himself to a unique slice of Americana: Kentucky's creationist history museum.

Imagine that Britain's favourite religious fundamentalist, Stephen Green, had, due to some catastrophic administrative error, become chief curator of the Natural History Museum.

Hold that in your mind, and you've got a pretty good mental image of the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

The museum's raison d'etre is to reconcile everything we know about prehistory - cave men, dinosaurs, fossil fuels et al - with the idea that God created the heavens and the Earth and the world is 6,000 years old.

To that end, the first thing you see on entering the museum is a tableau of animatronic cave kids playing happily with some dinosaurs.

The whole thing does a brilliant job of making fundamentalist religious dogma fun. No hellfire and brimstone here. Instead it's all tactile exhibits, bright and chatty films ("Ever wonder where canyons came from...?") and, outside, a petting zoo. I was happy to skip this part, if only because there's something distinctly sinister about two grown men wandering around a zoo on their own, but my photographer insisted, and promptly got spat on by a camel.

The museum proper begins with a series of nature exhibits, intended to highlight the wonder of god's creation. These follow a consistent pattern of fact, ambiguity, God. To whit: The world features an amazing variety of lifeforms; it's hard to understand how these all evolved in a just few billion years; ergo, God did it.

Then there's a room comparing Biblical and scientific thinking, another (warm, comforting) introducing you to scripture, and a third (dark, alienating) looking at the modern world. This is done up like an inner city crack alley, with the walls papered with secular newspaper headlines, and a scary booming voice that pipes up occasionally to give you some statistics on divorce or abortion or other modern evils.

The best bits of the exhibit, though, are left until last. For one thing, they've got a film of what the world being created in six days might actually have looked like.

Then come a succession of animatronic recreations of the book of Genesis, only with added dinosaurs. Here are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, accompanied by lion, lamb, penguin and dinosaur. The dinosaur has huge teeth but, since the Bible says there was no flesh eating in Eden, it's a vegetarian. You can tell, because it's nibbling a pineapple.

Then comes Cain and Abel. This isn't very interesting, but does come with a helpful explanation for why incest was okay back then.

Then there's Noah, who bears a suspicious resemblance to Michael Palin. This section of the museum combines recreations of the story of the Flood with practical tips on how to build your own ark. (Use hard wood for nails, as they will expand when wet; place your door on the second floor, and use a wedge shape to make it watertight; if that fails, ask God for help. It really does say that.)

There's also a cutaway of the Ark, with dinosaurs, and a film of the flood overwhelming the world while people, quite understandably, look a bit scared. An extended version of this is available from the giftshop.

At the museum's end they ask you to sit through a 20 minute film about Jesus Christ, and tell you not to leave at the end. Afterwards, a man comes forward, hopes you learnt something and asks you to accept Christ into your life. All the way through this I felt he was staring right at me, and said as much. "But I suppose everyone feels like that," I added. "No, he really was staring right at you," replied my photographer.

To give it its dues, the Creation Museum does a great job of making scripture fun, and beats hands down any religious studies lesson I was ever put through. The right wing political dogma is kept to a minimum (there's a single line about marriage involving a man and a woman, and a few bits about abortion, but it's less than you get in the average Republican party pamphlet these days). Along the way, it offers explanations for how cavemen fit into the Bible (you try building a civilisation when suddenly you can't understand each other), and why the Earth looks like it does (the Flood did it).

But it also makes clear that Asking Questions Is Wrong, and shamelessly manipulates those with low self esteem (one voiceover asks, "If evolution means only the strongest and prettiest survive, what hope is there for me?").

Worst of all, it never does explain what happened to those bloody dinosaurs.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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