Mobilizing Epistemic Conflict: Creationists and a Museum

By Kathleen Oberlin

Despite much activity within and around the institution of science, for scholars and activists alike a central question continues to linger: what else or who else do science-oriented movements target…and, increasingly, how should they go about doing it? I’ll draw from one familiar case, creationism, to speak to contemporary efforts to provoke social change in a way that surprised many.

With a well-known history dating back to the infamous Scopes Trial of 1925, the Creationist social movement draws upon both religion and science as sources of authority. While religion and science may not permanently or inherently be at odds with one another, at least since the late 19th century in the United States, the boundaries between the two have been fiercely contested. Characterizing broader society as hostile to religion and highly secularized science, contemporary Young Earth Creationism (YEC) mobilizes this perceived epistemic conflict to foster a self-conception of being embattled on all sides.[1]  Through over two years of on-site museum and organizational fieldwork, I find that the Creation Museum built in 2007 allows Answers in Genesis (AiG) in Kentucky, the leading YEC social movement organization, to move religious beliefs out of the church and into a place where its credibility is grounded in the same technologies of display routinely found in natural history museums. By preserving the authority of the museum-form itself and embedding in that place artifacts and interpretations that resist mainstream evolutionary scientific worldviews, these creationists may secure cultural authority for creation science while underscoring the continued role of place (physical sites) for social movements in the twenty-first century seeking to engage the public sphere.

Given the longstanding emphasis on the importance of resources and political opportunities for contestation, many scholars interested in creationism continue to steady their focus on the recent legislative efforts of the Intelligent Design branch. One might chalk this up, in part, as a byproduct to how social movement scholarship developed. Despite more attention directed toward the role of collective identity and cultural objects since the 1980s, only more recently have there been calls for an emphasis on the broader array of potential movement targets not as directly tied to the state or political arena. The increasing focus is to identify the various sites of power which are potentially subject to resistance from challenger movements, but not to lose sight of what role the state and political gains may play nonetheless (Armstrong and Bernstein 2008; Taylor et al. 2009).  Social movement scholars adopting this approach more broadly have largely focused on movements seeking to expand their civil rights as well as cultural recognition like the LGBT movement. Less attention has been paid to movements’ use of alternative institution building (like a museum) with a focus on resurrecting a conservative status quo in the U.S., particularly those focused on harnessing powerful sources of cultural authority such as science.

These scholarly developments suggest why the Creation Museum, and other movements with similar sites like it, have been difficult to regard as a viable movement outcome and subsequently overlooked (outside of exposé media coverage) until recently. But, what does it really mean to argue that a museum built by a social movement organization is a movement outcome? What are the stakes, what does it do for the movement? Moving the YEC perspective into a museum, advocates expose the tensions between religion and science as sources of legitimation and belief—but not explicitly so. The Creation Museum cannot look like a church: its visual code must be read as “museum” rather than as sacred space in order to legitimize YEC as a rival to scientific evolutionary theories depicted in natural history museums. The cultural authority of science hinges on how its authority and credibility are perceived by the public via the “symbols of science,” not necessarily on the content of scientific facts and theories themselves (Toumey 1994). Consequently, it is imperative to analyze how the museum-form is extended as another “symbol of science” drawn upon to secure cultural authority for YEC claims.

Social scientists have long been interested in museums as organizational sites of activity and institutions to aide collective memories, but not so much as sites of resistance for social movements. Now, more than ever in recent history, diverse social groups are able to influence the content and focus of museum exhibitions. Yet as Fiona Cameron (2007: 335) contends, ultimately board members and other museum professionals in control “still tend to define moral projects around contentious topics as lessons according to one dominant moral universal…curating topics according to a certain moral angle.”  Embedded in this argument are implicit boundaries for who is included since the notion that “museums are in revolt” is historically tied to marginalized groups, e.g., indigenous communities, women (Knell, Macleod, Watson 2007). These groups may champion for a national exhibit, lobby for new museums under the Smithsonian Institution, or more locally, push for increased (and more accurate) diverse representation. Conversely, groups such as AiG seek to resurrect conservatism but are neither explicitly excluded nor imagined as viable contenders. So, their presence troubles the pluralistic claims and ethos of diversity espoused by museum professionals publicly, highlighting the epistemological underpinnings of even contemporary natural history museums. This feeling of neglect appears to often resonate with adherents’ long-held sentiments regarding the perceived elitism and increasing secularism of institutions like natural history museums throughout Europe and the United States since the late 19th century.

Ultimately, what are we to make of this museum-building episode? AiG distilled their message into a place and subsequently mobilized rather than neutralized this longstanding professed epistemic conflict, particularly between a close interpretation of the Bible and evolutionary theory, as sources of authority in the public sphere. Cultural institutions, like museums, are at once symbolic markers of authority and distinctly visceral experiences. As such, AiG capitalized on both (symbolic and physical) to advance their strategy and assess their success—their movement outcomes no longer rested on the opinion of an unreceptive federal legislative body, but rather the ability to erect a professional-looking museum for movement adherents and interested publics alike. Marginalized by the mainstream scientific community, AiG nevertheless appears to have an impact on public understandings of science as evident in their over five years of operation with relatively steady attendance and continued media coverage.

The cultural authority of science has long been buttressed by a network of museums designed and built on the premise that mainstream scientific worldviews are “right.” What are the consequences for popular opinions about science when a natural history museum uses similar displays and artifacts to convince visitors of the legitimacy of an alternative worldview? The ability to trace not only where and by whom science is produced, but also how public understandings of it are circulated and adjudicated in other sites, underscores the need to broaden how we evaluate movements’ efforts (and targets) as challengers seek to make a claim in the public sphere.

[1] The focus  is on Young Earth Creationists (i.e., close interpretation of the Bible, belief that earth is 6,000 years old, life started in 4004 B.C.) and not Old Earth Creationism (OEC) (i.e., many variations in terms of explanation of how old the earth is but often in accordance with mainstream geologic accounts in terms of billions of years old). Intelligent Design is often associated with OEC asserting that a creator/designer was involved in the origins of human life et cetera.


Armstrong, Elizabeth and Mary Bernstein. 2008. “Culture, Power, and Institutions: A Multi-Institutional Politics Approach to Social Movements.” Social Theory 26:74-99.

Cameron, Fiona. 2007. “Moral Lessons and Reforming Agendas: History Museums, Science Museums, Contentious Topics and Contemporary Societies.” Pp. 330-342 in Museum Revolutions: How museums change and are changed, edited by S. Knell, S. MacLeod, S. Watson. New York: Routledge.

Knell, Simon J., Suzanne Macleod, Shelia E.R. Watson. 2007. Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and Are Changed. New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Verta, Katrina Kimport, Nella Van Dyke, and Ellen Ann Andersen. 2009. “Culture and Mobilization: Tactical Repertoires, Same-Sex Weddings, and the Impact on Gay Activism.” American Sociological Review 74:865-890.

Toumey, Christopher P. 1994. God’s own scientists: Creationists in a secular world. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Politics of Science

2 responses to “Mobilizing Epistemic Conflict: Creationists and a Museum

  1. Pingback: Mobilizing Epistemic Conflict: Creationists and a Museum | OccuWorld

  2. Pingback: The Politics of Science | Mobilizing Ideas

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