Monday, April 26, 2010

The Creation Museum : museum or theme park?

Pat Gerstner, trooper

entrance : only $21.95

you will behave...

In early April the Dittrick staff headed to Cincinnati for the annual meeting of the Ohio Academy of Medical History. We took advantage of the opportunity to head into Kentucky and check out the Creation Museum, which we had heard a lot about since its opening in 2007. We just wanted to see for ourselves and went there chiefly as a matter of professional curiosity. We anticipated an unusual, quirky museum-going experience and the place did not disappoint.

Now I don’t want to belabor the details because that would give the place more credence than it deserves. The bottom line for me is that it’s not a museum at all (at least, not in my perhaps traditional sense of that word). Admittedly, the term museum has about as much consistency of meaning and definition at the appellation curator, meaning : not much. But I still think of museums as having been created to warehouse things -- objects, artifacts, specimens – for purposes of wonder, study, analysis, interpretation, education, and enlightenment. In a broad sense, the American Association of Museums agrees. On its website the AAM addresses the definition of museum:

American museums are infinitely diverse. The AAM Code of Ethics for Museums notes that their common denominator is making a "unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world."

The only “things of this world” found in the Creation Museum are models, dioramas, animatronic figures, videos, and conventional exhibitry. There is just nothing real here. We saw a fake archeological dig, life size dioramas or tableaux of manikins, including Adam and Eve co-habiting the Garden of Eden with dinosaurs, and a panoply of biblical figures in animatronic form (my favorite was Noah, who sounded like an old Russian Jew). Again, just nothing real. I will let our pictures (mine and those by Laura Travis) tell the story.

welcome to the Grand Canyon, sort of

a faux dig

oh yeah, the white guy gets it right -- the world is only 6000 years old...

Lucy is here, too, much to the surprise of my curatorial colleagues at the CMNH, including Bruce Latimer, who was on the team that discovered this landmark fossil

could have photoshopped my baldspot!

faith vs. reason: more of a standoff than a dialogue

and now for the heavy religious schtick...

Adam hangs with the wild creatures

don't look now, but there's a serpent overhead...

vegan dino

got some 'splainin' to do...

dinos on the ark!

is this a gay dino couple? they sure resemble each other. perhaps passing as twins?

the waters are rising

sinners and infidels left behind

So, if the place is not a museum, what is it? I liken it to a theme park, perhaps a biblical Jurassic park. But instead of T-rex chasing after you, teeth flashing, you are hounded by evil and despair stemming from not accepting a literal interpretation of biblical truth. Forsaking God’s word, as found in Genesis, lies at the root of all ills and suffering in the world.

suffering and anguish for the unbeliever

blasphermer! infidel! heathen!

There’s a sinister, dark urban edge to all this, too.

the never-ending fight over abortion

evolution, the biggest challenge to the scripture

So as one leaves the final video, an appeal is made to accept Jesus as your savior. Indeed, I even came away with a pledge card (I think they surreptitiously slipped it into my bag at the “museum” store).

No "museum" is complete without its own store and merchandising program, and the Creation Museum is not to be outdone:

Curator emerita Patsy Gerstner checks out the offerings...

proclaim your belief (your faith, not your reason)

dinos for kids

dinos, again

An English colleague, Lisa O'Sullivan (Science Museum) upon hearing that we had visited the Creation Museum queried, “How many visitors are just curious, like you, and not true believers?” I would have to say not many. If you can judge a book (including the good book) by it’s cover, we were in the decided minority. This place is mecca (oops, bad metaphor!) for believers, who finally feel validated that their beliefs are now safely ensconced in a museum, that bulwark of veracity in our society.

Jim Edmonson

For those that want a couple of entertaining takes of the Creation Museum, I encourage you to see the articles by Edward Rothstein, Stephen Asma, and A. A. Gill (accompanied by the actor and photographer Paul Bettany, who plays Darwin in the film Creation).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A visit with Sara Shechner at Harvard

While in Boston recently for our Dissection gig at the Warren Anatomical Museum (Countway Library, HMS), I managed to fit in a visit to see Sara Schechner, curator of Harvard’s Collection of Scientific Instruments. I’ve known Sara for several years and admired her work and energy from afar. Actually, we occupy parallel worlds, hers the history of science; mine the history of medicine. Our commonality resides in the curation of instrument collections, and the challenge and enjoyment of making sense of the artifacts in our care.

Sara Schechner

Sara’s effort to bring the Harvard collections into the classroom is most impressive. She has creatively integrated material culture (objects) into the conventional print and text-oriented culture across the Harvard curriculum. It’s a daunting endeavor, and requires no small measure of initiative and entrepreneurship. The History of Science Society recognized Sara’s accomplishments in this sphere by the prestigious Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize for innovative teaching both in and outside museums in 2008

In the past decade Sara presided over a relocation of the Harvard collection to a newly constructed (2003) home for the Department of the History of Science, with new storage facilities.

Collection compact storage

Microscopes in storage

What I really came to see was the permanent interpretive exhibition in the new Putnam Gallery, which opened in 2005. Sara's exhibition, Time, Life, and Matter: Science in Cambridge, on permanent display in the Putnam Gallery of Harvard's Science Center, took first place in the 2007 International Design Awards competition.

So, here are some pics of the Putnam Gallery. You can also look at images of artifacts on display via Waywiser, a new online database.

Colonial science: mathematical instruments, time finding, surveying, navigation

Time finding: sundials

Section: astronomer’s time

Natural philosophy: optical instruments


Cyclotron control console

Cyclotron bulletin board : staff call list, &c

Takeout menus

Next time that you’re in Boston, seek out Harvard’s Putnam Gallery and if possible stop in to say hello to Sara. You’ll be glad you did.

Jim Edmonson

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Simon Chaplin : Doctors and the Death of History

This Friday the Cleveland Medical Library Association (original parent body of the Dittrick) will host Simon Chaplin, new Head of the Wellcome Library (Wellcome Trust) in London. Simon’s talk, Doctors and the Death of History, will explore the tricky balancing act confronting medical libraries with important historical collections:

Is medical history dying? As health libraries struggle to balance the needs of 'legacy' collections with the demand for modern information services, what role is there for historical research? How might historical collections become the medium for public engagement, as a resource that can inform, inspire and entertain those who have come to depend upon the benefits of modern medical science? Drawing on the example of the Wellcome Library, one of the world's greatest medical collections, Dr Simon Chaplin offers an insight in to the future of history in medical libraries.

Transforming collections, and the perception of these collections, as found at the Wellcome – and at the Dittrick – according to Chaplin, calls for “new strategies - to foster an awareness of the utility of a historical perspective among medical practitioners; to enthuse students by making history relevant to their curricula; to look beyond a traditional audience of retired clinicians at a wider academic community - of cultural, social and economic historians; historians of art and literature; of researchers in medical humanities, arts and social sciences.”

Dr. Simon Chaplin is Head of the Wellcome Library at the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's major resources for the study of medical history. Dr. Chaplin read Natural Sciences at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge (1988-1991), and subsequently worked at the Science Museum (1992-1998) in London. Most recently, he was Director of Museums and Special Collections at The Royal College of Surgeons of England.

Hunterian Museum (RCSE), reopened Feb 2005, finalist for the distinguished Gulbenkian Prize in 2006.

The lecture begins at 6:00PM on Friday in the Ford Auditorium of the Allen Memorial Medical Library (11000 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland), followed by a reception in the Cushing Reading Room. Open gratis to one and all. If attending, please RSVP to Dzwinka Holian at 368-3642 or

Jim Edmonson

p.s. also, check out the Wellcome Library's great blog

Monday, April 12, 2010

left behind at the Creation Museum...

Couldn’t resist sharing this detail from the Creation Museum…

As Noah’s Ark rode the waves of the Flood, with its precious cargo of critters and humankind, not all made the trip. In this diorama, sinners and infidels cling to the last remaining rock outcrop, shortly to be swamped by rising waters.

Guess I would have been among them....

Jim Edmonson

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Coming posts: Harvard’s Scientific Instrument Collection, and the Creation Museum

I’m back in Cleveland after visiting two very contrasting museums, with very different takes on the meaning of science in our life. While in Boston, for a book talk, I paid a call on Sara Schechner, curator of Harvard’s collection of scientific instruments, and designer of the award winning interpretive gallery Time, Life, and Matter: Science in Cambridge, in the Putnam Gallery of Harvard's Science Center. I am hard pressed to think of a better museum presentation of the beauty and meaning of scientific instruments – it is stunningly handsome, thoughtfully conceived, and artfully installed. Well worth a visit when in Boston. More on that later.

Sara Schechner

In contrast, my visit to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, outside Cincinnati, defied credulity. Having said that, it is a masterful piece of cultural interpretation (costing $27 million to build!). I hesitate to use the term “museum” as the place was devoid of “real” artifacts. But the dioramas, animatronic figures, and video presentation were slick and state of the art in quality, if not substance. Again, more on this later in the week. For now I will leave you with an image that sums up the peculiarity and absurdities of the place in a nutshell: dinos boarding Noah’s Ark.

Stay tuned for many more pics of both places, and my impressions and curatorial assessment of each in turn.

Jim Edmonson

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dissection at Harvard

Just last night, April 7, John Warner and I gave a book talk at the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The topic: our book, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage of American Medicine, 1880-1930. The event: opening of an exhibition of images featured in our book, on display at the Countway Library (5th floor) through June. We are greatful to Center Director Scott Podolsky for making this happen.

I traveled from Cleveland to Boston on Monday night, to get a fresh start on Tuesday hanging the show with Dominic Hall, curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum, which is today part of the Center for the History of Medicine. I brought the images, digital prints mounted with labels, and Dominic and I, ably assisted by his intern Alicia Guillama (from Harvard University Extension School’s Graduate Program in Museum Studies), spent Tuesday hanging the show. With everyone pitching in, we got the show up and running by the end of the day, with a few dangling details to be sorted the next morning.

Dominic Hall

Alicia Guillama

Dominic and Alicia

Having taken care of business on the first day, I was free to head over to see Sara Schechner, the David P. Wheatland Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments over in Cambridge on Wendesday. More on that fascinating visit in a coming post…

By mid-afternoon, I headed back to the Countway and rendezvouz-ed with John Warner, who arrived around 4:30, in anticipation of our talk at 6:00, followed by a book signing and reception. We had about 50 persons in attendance (not bad for one of the warmest and sunniest days seen in Boston this Spring). Had a very sympathetic and attentive audience, and a lively question and answer period following our presentation. We then all adjourned for attendees to see the show.

Now back in Cleveland for a quick turnaround, I am off to Cincinnati tomorrow for the Saturday meeting of the Ohio Academy of Medical History. We’re taking off early so we can bake a beeline for the Creation Museum across the border in Kentucky. Can’t wait! Will be reporting our experience here shortly…

Jim Edmonson