Saturday, November 30, 2013

And on the seventh day...He created a market.

With this article I venture into what may prove one of my most overtly political topics ever, possibly against better judgment.  Yet I wade into these waters as a deliberate challenge to myself, since I strive to separate the intensive political controversy that this tourist attraction elicits from what I think is more interesting and ultimately more cogent: the sustainability of its business model.  Despite being relatively new, this attraction has already lured millions of visitors.  Although tens of millions more have not visited (and have no intention of doing so), the heated debate generated from its opening in the summer of 2007 has inevitably foisted it further in the limelight than its conceivers had ever expected.

I’m referring to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, in the outer reaches of suburban Cincinnati, just ten miles west of the Greater Cincinnati Airport (CVG) and also a two-minute drive from the I-275 bridge over the Ohio River that leads to Indiana.  The museum is (at this point in time) the highest-profile project of Answers in Genesis (AiG), a non-profit Christian apologetics ministry that principally advocates for a literal interpretation of Genesis.  Both the museum and its parent organization, now housed at the same address at the museum’s campus, owe a great deal of their size and influence to the tireless efforts of Ken Ham, who first founded a creationist organization in his native Australia in the late 1970s.  After several acquisitions and reorganizations that eventually whisked Ham across the Pacific to an American agency, Answers in Genesis was born, bringing together a smattering of creationist enterprises from the US, Australia, South Africa, Canada and New Zealand under one umbrella, all under Ham’s directorship.  In the intervening years, Ham has achieved national recognition for his tireless fundraising, which culminated in the $27 million of private funds to build the 70,000 square-foot Creation Museum—a goal of AiG since its inception.

Even among other Biblical creationists, the Creation Museum has aroused controversy.  It largely serves as the visitor-friendly, public relations arm of Answers in Genesis, which in turn concords with Ken Ham’s theological views.  Ham is a Young Earth Creationist (YEC), meaning that he believes that God created the earth according to the account in Genesis, approximately 6,000 years ago.  Not only does this defy fundamentals to Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, it also boldly contradicts most geological or cosmogonal studies of the age of the earth and the origin of the universe.  Thus, when compared with competing perspectives such as Old Earth or progressive creationism, whose proponents have also publicly debated Ham and AiG, the Creation Museum is probably the most at odds with contemporary scientific inquiry.

AiG’s creative team could have tried to accommodate other creationist views to expand its audience base, but they wisely decided it wouldn’t be necessary: Young Earth Creationism aligns with the views of a sizable portion of American Evangelical and conservative Christians.  According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans surveyed believe that God created humans within the last 10,000 years—a percentage essentially unchanged since the polls began 30 years prior.  Thus, the Creation Museum did not need to cast a wide net in order to find its demographic base.  Initial speculation was that the Museum would see 250,000 visitors in its first year, but it ended up achieving that number within five months.  Almost immediately, AiG began planning to double the size of the parking lot, along with a retention pond to capture stormwater runoff, preventing it from flooding or polluting a nearby creek.  By the end of that first year, the Creation Museum welcomed over 400,000 visitors.

The photos featured throughout this article are no longer all that current; they’re from the summer of 2009, when the museum was about two years old.  The Creation Museum seems to be operating on a trajectory that involves steadily expanding its programming and amenities, though it already seemed extensive during my visit.  A few paragraphs back, I consciously used the word “campus” to describe the site, and while the word may be an overstatement, the museum is more than an isolated building.  The park-like grounds are extensive.
Aside from the outdoor seating, the museum’s property features an huge garden, a rope bridge, and a petting zoo.
Though I’m hardly well-versed in landscape architecture, it was obvious that AiG had invested considerably in both the design and the regular maintenance of these grounds.  The results were, at the very least, pleasing to my own two peepers, but I have no idea if Ken Ham and his team intended for these grounds to feature plant species indigenous to northern Kentucky, or an approximate recreation of prelapsarian Eden, or something else.  There was no way I could know.  The entire garden lacked any signage referring to plant species, Biblical relevance, or anything that would explain context or rationale.  It ostensibly existed simply as a treat for the senses, adding to the attraction for a museum that, thanks to the combination of the exhibits and the outdoor amenities, could easily consume an entire day for visitors.  Since the museum sits in the middle of former farmland, with no other commercial presence nearby, it needed something for its patrons to eat during their visit.  And, characteristic of the largest children’s museums, it offers an entire food court.

Since my 2009 visit, Answers in Genesis has added 20 zip lines and a network of 10 sky bridges to the museum, making it the biggest course in the Midwest.
Inside the museum, the curators have added a new section on dragons, based on the supposition that the Bible’s reference to “behemoths” might not just be describing the museum’s much-celebrated dinosaurs but also other mythical creatures that could have existed before the flood.  But these newest features only further beg the question: what do dragons and dinosaurs (not to mention zip lines) have to do with the story of creation, or anything explicitly referenced in the Bible, for that matter?  These inclusion are entirely within AiG’s right, but its hard to see them as corresponding with the organization’s ultimate ministry.  If visitors pay for the museum’s outdoor element and spend all day on zip lines, how are they having anything but a secular experience?  Instead, the attractions outside of the museum’s walls are ostensibly new goodies to enhance the museum’s ambition as a day-long (or even multi-day) destination in an of itself, rather than a museum that amuses the kiddos for 2 or 3 hours.  Ken Ham smartly located the Creation Museum sufficiently close to several important metros: besides Cincinnati, we have Lexington, Louisville, Dayton, Columbus, and Indianapolis within a two-hour drive.  But when I visited, the license plates often came from much greater distances than the tri-state region.

It would seem that the Creation Museum has succeeded overwhelmingly in its aspirations; after all, by April 2010 it was celebrating its millionth visitor.  But a closer scrutiny at those numbers suggests that all is not well.  After all, if it attracted over 400,000 after one year in operation, which equates to May of 2008, shouldn’t it have reached the one million point at some point in late 2009 if those numbers continued to surge?  The fact is, after a booming year one, the attendance has dropped in each subsequent year. The year ending June 2012 reported attendance at 254,000—barely over the original expectations.  The museum blames the persistently weak economy, which surely does have something to do with it—except that the museum opened just months before the Great Recession, and its most successful first year transpired while we were watching Lehman Brothers and Countrywide Financial collapse.  And AiG’s response to sagging sales was to raise the ticket price in July of 2012: from an already steep $24.95 per person up to $29.95.  It seems like some of those new attractions may reflect AiG’s realization that the Creation Museum is in serious trouble if it keeps moving along this path.  It’s declining faster than a Mainline church.

The response?  Answers in Genesis boldly announced its latest project: a $73-million replica of Noah’s greatest achievement, in the Ark Encounter, under construction about 40 miles away from the Creation Museum in Grant County, Kentucky.  In addition to the ark, it will apparently feature a replica of the Tower of Babel, the life of Abraham, the plagues of Egypt, and the birth of the nation of Israel—all as part of a seven to eleven-minute ride.  But it’s facing a few snags: the project is years behind schedule and has only raised about one-fifth of its budget, and the delays are pushing the estimated total budget up to $150 million—almost six times the cost of the Creation Museum.  The situation is so dire that the neighboring City of Williamstown has issued $62 million in bonds in an attempt to salvage the initiative.  Fortunately the city won’t have to repay these bonds back, since anticipated revenues for Ark Encounter will do the trick.  But these bonds aren’t rated, making them little more than junk.  Among the risks to investors: sicknesses transmitted among the ark’s many animal pairs; lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a religious project receiving tax breaks; those persistently declining attendance figures at the Creation Museum.

None of the aforementioned news featurettes fully underline why the Creation Museum and perhaps Answers in Genesis are possibly in such serious trouble.  The ministry’s current struggles ultimately foreshadow a cultural misalignment.  When news of the Ark Encounter made its way to some of the Evangelical Christian newsmedia outlets, it understandably elicited reaction, both favorable as well as a fair share of atheist catcalls.  One quote caught my attention: an anonymous commenter who I have no way of finding or reaching; otherwise I would give credit.  I simply copied and pasted the comment.  Here it is:
“What I find so amusing about this whole project is that... Christians don't seem to realize that by giving their Bible stories a Disney like experience... they are essentially highlighting the very mythological basis of their faith. In my opinion for most Christians the [Old Testament] is an out of sight out of mind type thing (because Christians don't actually read the bible) so by bringing focus to these stories in a modern scientific context... only the extremely delusional are going to find the encounter "spiritual" everyone else will gauge the experience by the entertainment value for the dollar...the same as visiting any other cartoon based amusement park.”

Obviously this quote isn’t lacking in condescension toward Christians in general and creationism in particular.  I don’t condone it one bit, nor does it reflect my own sentiments.  I would experience no Schadenfreude if Answers in Genesis were to go bankrupt; it’s obvious the Creation Museum had quite an impact on the tourist economy of northern Kentucky, and it has generated hundreds of jobs for the region.  It would be callous to wish all of this to fail, no matter how dubious the museum’s attempt to reconcile contemporary scientific inquiry with the first book of the Old Testament.  For all the criticism lobbed at the Creation Museum for branding itself as science/history, it suffers no shortcomings as a religious museum, and my philosophy is overwhelmingly laissez-faire when it comes to addressing what matters of faith parents wish to impart on their children—in contrast with what our tax-supported public schools teach.

That said, the comment above nails it in the in the final sentence or two.  Answers in Genesis may have sealed its own demise by embarking on this basic undertaking.  The more goodies it crams into the overall experience and the more it blurs sacred and profane, the more obvious it become that the business model echoes that of Disneyland, regardless of the original intentions.  And if it becomes just another amusement park, even in the eyes of its most ardent Evangelical Christian supporters, it’s not going to be able to sustain itself, because the museum really will end up competing with places like Disneyland (or King’s Island in the Cincinnati area).  Meanwhile, since it does give “their Bible stories a Disney-like experience”, it will make new believers out of exactly nobody.

The other major aspect of the Creation Museum that I think hints at its questionable long-term viability is a simple display sign that, at the time of my visit, was poised strategically near the exit.
Okay, so the kids love those dinosaurs, and you can never go wrong with letting people pet the animals on display.  But is that enough for people to come back—let alone multiple times in a single year?  It would be interesting to know how many annual passes the museum sold even in its wildly successful first year, and, for that matter, how many families actually used those passes.  Color me cynical, but my suspicion is that low sales on the annual pass should have offered the early warning sign.

Over its six years in operation, the Creation Museum has expanded its programming.  But it has never reported any change to its exhibits—a huge contrast with most children’s museums (which are typically heavily science-themed) or most amusement parks.  These attractions recognize that exhibits must come and go all the time in order to keep the overall experience fresh.  Sometimes children’s museums will simply update their exhibits to reflect breakthroughs in scientific discovery.  But the Creation Museum is based on the unchanging Word of God.  It cannot evolve; pardon the pun.  Thus, what incentive do parents have to go back and see it all over again, especially when the museum is trying so hard to serve as a destination for families coming from hundreds of miles away?

When Answers in Genesis opens its Ark Encounter (if it opens), the whole enterprise very likely will benefit from a surge in attendance.  But how long before the Ark Encounter replaces the Creation Museum as the premier Biblical attraction of Northern Kentucky?  Can AiG sustain both, especially with those prices?  And what adult or child is seriously going to want to return within the year, just to experience the exact same spectacle all over again?  All of this ministry’s herculean efforts—and colossal spending—may just become the next incarnation of Heritage USA, the largely forgotten South Carolina Christian theme park that exploded in popularity in the early 1980s, then crashed almost as quickly after America learned of the peccadilloes of its founder, Jim Bakker.  I would never want to analogize Ken Ham to a convicted felon.  But barring a tremendous shift in American culture that has little to do with growing percentage claiming “religion: none”, the quixotic Australian’s empire may prove even more short-lived.