Holly Trees Museum Review Essay

Posted on by Marr

Houston Museum of Natural Science
$20; free admission to permanent exhibits on Thursdays from 2–5
Mon–Sun from 9–5
5555 Hermann Park Dr.
713-639-4629
hmns.org 

As I recently approached the main entrance of the Houston Museum of Natural Science for the first time in years, I immediately noticed the group of elementary school children waiting outside. The vision brought me back to when I was their age, enduring that same endless wait by the giant sundial before finally being allowed to head inside. Now that I’m in my 20s, of course, I’m free to venture in whenever I please—not that I’ve made much use of that opportunity. Other than a single trip in high school, I hadn’t visited the museum since sixth grade. By that time, I had visited with my school each year since kindergarten, so I had all but lost interest in the place. Now, I was hoping the time away would give me a fresh pair of eyes for the exhibits.

A few weeks ago I was offered the chance to give the museum another whirl, so I invited my cousin, a science buff who also hadn’t visited in a long time, to tag along. We were both expecting to have a good time reacquainting ourselves with the exhibits. When I walked inside, I instantly felt bigger, as if the building, which had seemed so massive to me as a kid, had shrunk. I met my cousin, who had our passes, in the gift shop. In addition to the permanent exhibits, our tickets gave us access to the Burke Baker Planetarium, a place we both remembered fondly, as well as the Cockrell Butterfly Center. We geeked out over which film to see at the planetarium, eventually settling on what seemed the best choice, a film on black holes. We had plenty of time before the screening, so we left to explore the rest of the museum.

When my cousin and I entered the main exhibit hall I expected to be greeted by Bucky, the hulking T-Rex I remembered from my school trips. Instead, there was a largely empty sitting area. My memory and my eyes fought it out for a moment, trying to make sense of the space, before I remembered that all the dinosaur skeletons had been relocated in 2012 to a new $85 million, 30,000-square-foot wing, the Morian Hall of Paleontology. We followed the signs in that direction, passing through the old Weiss Hall of Energy, which fit my memories to a T. The Foucault’s Pendulum was still swinging after all these years. You could say it has Southern way of moving—slow and steady—with an almost imperceptible H-Town lean. The energy exhibit was just as I remembered it, with the cool little people inside the life-size diorama. We took a trip on the Geovator and relearned how oil is extracted from ground.

Finally I arrived at what I’d been most excited to see, the new paleontology wing. Distant memories from yesteryear were replaced by a new vision, and a new journey through prehistory. We charted own path through the exhibit, mostly disregarding chronology. Compared to the old displays, this new space was brighter, more open. I could almost imagine what life would have been like dwelling among the animal kingdom’s ancestors. My cousin observed that the hall seemed to be trying to appeal as much to adults as children. There was more drama to it, more action. Some skeletons were positioned to mimic the wall murals depicting scenes of prehistoric wildlife; others seemed to be engaged in harrowing escapes from predators.

One alcove featured a fascinating display of petrified wood. The slices taken from tree trunks revealed a gem-like beauty—I had never seen anything like it. I was in awe of the lovely patterns that brought to mind onyx and rubies. Such beauty hiding in tree trunks, created only by time and nature. After passing through the alcove I finally stumbled upon my old friend Bucky the T-Rex, caught in mid-stride. I was also delighted to find the museum’s brontosaurus, its long tail curving out into the distance. I recalled that same tail looping around the main entrance years ago.

Around noon, my cousin and I headed to what remains the museum’s only eatery, McDonald’s. Even with a redesigned space, I still wonder how such a great museum could offer fast food as the only option. (I heard it has something to do with a long-term vending contract the museum is locked into.) We finished lunch in time to catch our highly anticipated black hole film. Passing the school group again, I remembered sitting with my own former classmates in a straight line in the middle of the floor between scheduled activities. Like everything else at the museum, the planetarium was smaller than I remembered. My cousin and I settled into two of the reclining seats that allowed us to lay back and watch the film overhead.

I was a little disappointed that the film only lasted about a half hour, but, then again, that just gave us more time to explore the rest of the attractions. We headed next to the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the museum’s trademark glass greenhouse that I had only visited once or twice. I’d forgotten that before you enter the greenhouse you pass through a learning center featuring nothing but bugs—big bugs, little bugs, common and uncommon bugs. My cousin and I were more fascinated by them than we thought, probably because these ones weren’t crawling on the floor but kept safely behind glass. After pausing to admire a two-foot-high anthill, we passed through a set of doors and entered the butterfly oasis.

It was a characteristically damp day in Houston—in addition to the artificial waterfall, it happened to be raining outside, and the drops of water falling on the glass walls of the greenhouse only enhanced the sensation of being in a rainforest. Quiet, gentle butterflies fluttered about, so close I could touch them mid-flight. I caught one with a torn wing, and felt a twinge of sadness. I snapped pictures with my phone left and right, laughing at myself and the technology-filled life I now lead. These days, most people don’t think twice about whipping out their smartphone to document their visit—another change from my childhood memories of the museum.

The last place my cousin and I visited was the HMNS Shop, which made Houstonia’s list of 101 Great Little Shops in March. It was easy to see why it made the cut. It’s the kind of store that makes me feel fortunate to be an adult with money in my pocket, rather than a kid relying on the generosity of a parent. All kinds of scientific trinkets, jewelry, books and toys are at your fingertips, ready to be taken home—for a (sometimes steep) price, of course. I was captivated by a periodic table puzzle, which brought back memories of taking chemistry as a high school sophomore. I made good grades that year, so I bought the puzzle.

Though I didn’t have time to see any of the temporary shows, like the intriguing new exhibition of ancient Chinese artifacts, on this visit, the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s permanent collections offered plenty of entertainment and education on their own. Even as someone now more interested in the arts than the sciences, I gained a renewed appreciation for the earth and its treasures. The museum reminded me that humans are just a small part of a much grander world, and that’s knowledge worth coming back for.  

Yes, finally, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with your Creation Museum report! Thank you for your patience. Our report today has two parts: The first part is a photographic tour, with all the snarktasticness you’ve been no doubt hoping for. Click on the first picture and cruise on through. It’s long — 101 pictures — but, hey, you guys paid top dollar, so I don’t want to skimp. The second part, a think piece, if you will, is directly below. It’s no less snarky (as you will soon discover), but also somewhat more thoughtful. Enjoy.

ON THE CREATION MUSEUM
By John Scalzi

Here’s how to understand the Creation Museum:

Imagine, if you will, a load of horseshit. And we’re not talking just your average load of horseshit; no, we’re talking colossal load of horsehit. An epic load of horseshit. The kind of load of horseshit that has accreted over decades and has developed its own sort of ecosystem, from the flyblown chunks at the perimeter, down into the heated and decomposing center, generating explosive levels of methane as bacteria feast merrily on vintage, liquified crap. This is a Herculean load of horseshit, friends, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Augeas.

And you look at it and you say, “Wow, what a load of horseshit.”

But then there’s this guy. And this guy loves this load of horseshit. Why? Well, really, who knows? What possesses someone to love a load of horseshit? It’s beyond your understanding and possibly you don’t actually want to know, even if you could know; maybe it’s one of those “on that path lies madness” things. But love it he does, and he’s not the only one; the admiration for this particular load of horseshit exists, unaccountably, far and wide. There are advocates for this load of horseshit.

And so this guy who loves this load of horseshit decides that he’s going to do something; he’s going to give it a home. And not just any home, because as this is no ordinary load of horseshit, so must its home be no ordinary repository for horseshit. And so the fellow builds a temple for his load of horseshit. The finest architects scope this temple’s dimensions; the most excellent builders hoist columns around the load of horseshit and cap them with a cunning and elegant dome; and every surface of the temple is clad in fine-grained Italian marble by the most competent masons in a three-state radius. The load of horseshit is surrounded by comfortable seats, the better for people to gaze upon it; docents are hired to expertly describe its history and features; multimedia events are designed to explain its superior nature, relative not only to other loads of horseshit which may compete in loadosity or horseshittery, but to other, completely unrelated things which may or may not be loads of anything, much less loads of horseshit.

The guy who built the temple, satisfied that it truly represents his beloved load of horseshit in the best possible light, then opens the temple to the public, to attract not only the already-established horseshit enthusiasts, but possibly to entice new people to come and gaze on the horseshit, and to, well, who knows, admire its moundyness, or the way it piles just so, to nod in appreciation of the rationalizations for its excellence or to clap in delight and take pictures when an escaping swell of methane causes the load of horseshit to sigh a moist and pungent sigh.

When all of this is done, the fellow turns to you and asks you what you think of it all now, now that this gorgeous edifice has been raised in glory and the masses cluster in celebration.

And you say, “Well, that’s all very nice. But it’s still just an enormous load of horseshit.”

And this is, in sum, the Creation Museum. $27 million has purchased the very best monument to an enormous load of horseshit that you could possibly ever hope to see. I enjoyed my visit, admired the craft with which the whole thing was put together, and was never once convinced that what I was seeing celebrated was anything more or less than horseshit. Popular horseshit? Undoubtedly. Horseshit hallowed by tradition and consecrated by time? Just so. Horseshit of the finest possible quality? I would not argue the point. And yet, even so: Horseshit. Complete horseshit. Utter horseshit. Total horseshit. Horseshit, horseshit, horseshit, horseshit. I pity the people who swallow it whole.

***

So that is the key to understanding the Creation Museum. But what is the enormous load of horseshit that sits, squat yet moundy, at its very center? It’s simple: That the Bible is the literal and inerrant Word of God. If the Creation Museum doesn’t have that, it doesn’t have anything. So what it does — and very cleverly — is to position the Word of God as a non-threatening and accommodating given right from the start.

In the first room of the Creation Museum tour there’s a display of two paleontologists unearthing a raptor skeleton. One of them, a rather avuncular fellow, explains that he and the other paleontologist are both doing the same work, but that they start off from different premises: He starts off from the Bible and the other fellow (who does not get to comment, naturally) starts off from “man’s reason,” and really, that’s the only difference between them: “different starting points, same facts,” is the mantra for the first portion of the museum.

The rhetoricians in the crowd will already see how a card has been palmed here. The Museum is casually trying to establish an equivalence between science and creationism by accrediting them both as legitimate “starting points” for any discussion of biology, geology and cosmology. This would cause any scientist worth his or her salt to have a positively cinematic spit take, because it’s horseshit, but if you don’t know any better (say, if you’ve been fed a line of crap your whole life along the lines of “science is just another religion”) it sounds perfectly reasonable. And so if you buy that, then the next room, filled with large posters that offer on equal footing the creationist and scientific takes on the creation of the universe and evolution, seems perfectly reasonable, too: Heck, we can both have our theories! They’re both okay.

The problem with this is that creationism isn’t a theory, it’s an assertion, to wit: The entire universe was created in six days, the days are 24-hour days, the layout for the creation and for the early history of the planet and humanity is in the first chapter of Genesis and it is exactly right. Everything has to be made to conform to these assertions, which is why creationist attempts at science are generally so damn comical and refutable. This is also why the “different starting points, same facts” mantra is laughably false on its face — creationism has to have different facts to explain the world. It’s a little idiotic to establish as a “fact” that both science and creationism acknowledge, say, that apes exist, but to paper over the difference in the set of “facts” that explain how the apes got here, or to imply that a creationist assertion (apes created on the fifth day) is logically or systematically equivalent to decades of rigorous scientific process in the exploration of evolution.

But none of this is immediately obvious stuff and certainly the Creation Museum isn’t going to go out of its way to point it out; quite the opposite, in fact, since everything relies on the audience swallowing that whopping load of horseshit right up front. Thus the avuncular fake paleontologist at the start of the tour, looking all squinty and trustworthy and setting forth his load of utter horseshit in a tone of calm sincerity. Why wouldn’t you believe him? He’s a scientist, after all. Once you buy the initial premise, the rest comes easy, or, well, easier, anyway.

***

Let me say this much: I have to admit admiration for the pure balls-out, high-octane creationism that’s on offer here. Not for the Creation Museum that mamby-pamby weak sauce known as “Intelligent Design,” which tries to slip God by as some random designer, who just sort of got the ball rolling by accident. Screw that, pal: The Creation Museum’s God is hands on! He made every one of those animals from the damn mud and he did it no earlier than 4004 BC, or thereabouts. It’s all there in the book, son, all you have to do is look. Indeed, every single thing on display in the Creation Museum is either caused by or a consequence of exactly three things:

1. The six-day creation;

2. Adam eating from the tree of life;

3. Noah’s flood.

Really, that’s it. That’s the Holy Trinity of explanations and rationalizations. And thus we learn fascinating things. Did you know, for example, that Adam is responsible not only for the fall of man, but also for the creation of venom? It didn’t exist in the Garden of Eden, because, well. Why would it? Weeds? Adam’s fault. Carnivorous animals (and, one assumes, the occasional carnivorous plant)? Adam again. Entropy? You guessed it: Adam. Think about that, won’t you; eat one piece of fruit and suddenly you’re responsible for the inevitable heat death of the universe. God’s kind of mean.

The interplay of this Holy Trinity of explanations comes to its full realization when the Creation Museum considers what really are its main draw: Dinosaurs. Are dinosaurs 65 million years old? As if — the Earth is just six thousand years old, pal! Dinosaurs were in the garden of Eden — and vegetarians, at least until the fall, so thanks there, Adam. They were still around as late as the mid-third millenium BC; they were hanging with the Sumerians and the Egyptians (or, well, could have). All those fossils? Laid down by the Noah’s Flood, my friends. Which is not to say there weren’t dinosaurs on the Ark. No, the Bible says all kinds of land animals were on the boat, and dinosaurs are a subset of “all kinds.” They were there, scaring the crap out of the mammals, probably. Why did they die off after the flood? Well, who can say. Once the flood’s done, the Creation Museum doesn’t seem to care too much about what comes next; we’re in historical times then, you see, and that’s all Exodus through Deuteronomy, ie., someone else’s problem.

But seriously, the ability to just come out and put on a placard that the Jurassic era is temporally contiguous with the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt — well, there’s a word for that, and that word is chutzpah. Because, look, that’s something you really have to sell if you want anyone to buy it. It’s one thing to say to people that God directly created the dinosaurs and that they lived in the Garden of Eden. It’s another thing to suggest they lived long enough to harass the Minoans, and do it with a straight face. It’s horseshit, pure and simple, but that’s not to suggest I can’t admire the hucksterism.

***

I’m quite clearly immune to the ideological charms of the Creation Museum, but then, I never was the prime audience for the place. How were other people grokking the museum the day I was there? Honestly, it’s hard to say. The place was certainly crowded; I and the friends I went with had to wait in line an hour and a half to get into the place (there’s a bottleneck in the middle of the museum in the form of a short film about the six days of creation). No one I could see was getting sloppy over the place; people just more or less shuffled through each room, looked at the displays, read the placards and moved on. My friends occasionally heard someone say “oh, come on,” when one of the placards tested their credulity (there’s apparently only so much of “T-Rexes were vegetarian” propaganda any one person should be obliged to take), but for my part I just noticed people looking, reading and moving on.

There have to be people who believe this horseshit unreservedly, but I suspect that perhaps the majority of the visitors I saw were Christians who may not buy into the whole “six days” thing, but are curious to see how it’s being presented. To be clear, the “horseshit” I’ve been speaking of is not Christianity, it’s creationism, which to my mind is a teleological quirk substantially unrelated to the grace one can achieve through Jesus Christ. Now, the Creation Museum rather emphatically argues that a literal reading of the Bible is essential for true Christianity — it’s got a whole red-lit section that suggests the ills of society are directly related to folks deciding that maybe some parts of the Bible are, you know, metaphorical — but that’s just more horseshit, of a slightly different flavor. There are lots of Christians who clearly don’t need to twist their brain like a pretzel to get around the idea that the universe is billions of years old and that we’ve evolved from earlier forms. For those folks, the Creation Museum is probably about culture, to the extent any installation largely created by someone who previously worked for Universal Studios can be about culture.

At the very least, this is high-quality stuff on the level of production. There are lots of things here that are cheesy, but there’s not much that’s chintzy; you can see where the $27 million went. Whether this will all age well will be an interesting question, although I don’t plan on returning in five years to find out. Here and now, it’s all pretty damn slick, and I think that in itself may be a draw for mainstream Christians. Christian culture has only recently ramped itself up into being something other than a wan and denatured version of pop culture (this is evidenced in part by the fact that many evangelical Christian teens now dress as badly as the rest of their peers), and this is another high-production-value offering for this particular lifestyle choice.

Will these folks find the arguments they find at the Creation Museum convincing? Again, you got me. I certainly hope not, but more to the point I would hope that these folks don’t come away feeling that their love of Christ obliges them to swallow heaping mounds of horseshit from people who are phobic about metaphor. I really don’t think Jesus would care if you think that you and a monkey have a common ancestor; I think he would care more that you think you and your neighbor have a common weal.

What about non-Christians? I can’t imagine that anyone who wasn’t strongly religious or already inclined to agree with creationist ideas would be converted by this place. Between blaming Adam for everything from poisons to sweating and T-Rexes eating coconuts and a particularly memorable placard explaining why in early Biblical times it was perfectly fine to have sex with your close relatives, it’s just way too over the top.

***

Indeed, it’s over the top enough that I never could actually get angry with the place. Not that I was planning to; I admit to dreading coming to the place, but that’s primarily because I thought it would bore and annoy me, not make me angry. In fact, I was never bored, and was genuinely annoyed only by the “paleontologist” at the start of the walk-through. The rest of the time I enjoyed it as I suspect anyone who is not some stripe of creationist could enjoy it: As camp. At some point — specifically the part where the Scopes Monkey Trial was presented as the end of decent Christian civilization as we know it — I just started chuckling my way through. By the time I got to the Dinosaur Den, with its placards full of patent misinformation about how soft tissue fossilization strongly suggested a massive, worldwide flood, I was a little loopy. It was just so ridiculous.

And I’m happy about that. In the end, the Creation Museum is one of those things that I suspect will comfort those who absolutely believe in creationism, amuse those who absolutely don’t, and be a interesting way to spend a day to lots of people somewhere in the middle. It’s not a front in the culture war, as much as I think it would like to be; it’s designed too much like an amusement for that.

It is what it is: An attractive and diverting repository for a massive load of horseshit. And, well, let’s be realists: That load of horseshit’s not going away anytime soon. Might as put it somewhere that it’s out of everyone else’s way. The Creation Museum manages that well enough.

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