First person
Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum

Look beyond the controversies surrounding the monumental Ark attraction and its sister museum and you’ll find some of the best examples of immersive theming in the US, says Scott A Lukas

By Scott A Lukas | Published in Attractions Management 2016 issue 4


In August, I had the opportunity to tour two attractions that have been on my themed and immersive spaces map: Ark Encounter, which opened in 2016, and the Creation Museum, which opened in 2007.

The two biblically-themed attractions, separated by a 45-minute drive through Northern Kentucky, are significant in many senses, not least because they represent a growing awareness among spiritual organisations that religious experiences may have more impact when developed through contexts of theming and immersion.

A quick Internet search of these attractions will result in numerous articles, videos and blog entries that focus on a number of controversies, ranging from concerns about tax funding, “ideology” tests for potential employees, political and religious differences between Answers in Genesis (the fundamentalist Christian apologetics organisation who also founded the attractions) and Ken Ham (the CEO behind the attractions), and disagreements about whether it’s appropriate to use evocative techniques to present religious information to the public.

These last concerns stem from the nature of Answers in Genesis’ (AiG) specific and unique beliefs. As we’ll see with a tour of the two attractions, each promotes a Young Earth and literalist view of the Bible (with an emphasis on the book of Genesis). Yet, this interesting and unique Christian worldview is not the focus of my tour.

I’m a cultural anthropologist. I wrote about my experiences working at a Six Flags theme park and I now travel the world making its museums, theme parks and attractions my field sites.

When I had the opportunity to visit Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum, I wanted to keep at the forefront of my experiences what we anthropologists call an “emic” or insider’s perspective. The idea being that we try to understand our fieldsites from the perspectives of those who visit them. The tour of these attractions that I offer reflects on the guest experiences of the attractions that I observed in my two-day visit to the spaces. Ultimately, we may discover that such insider’s views of themed and immersive spaces provide designers and other professionals within the attractions industries a valuable opportunity to better understand design approaches.

The complete space
I approach Ark Encounter with openness and mystery. After parking and the ticket line, I board a bus. I glance around on the bus and I detect notable excitement and anticipation on the faces of the guests who join me on the tour. The driver says little during our trip, and he doesn’t have to as we all look in awe at the structure as it enters our fields of vision. You can’t quite grasp the attraction’s scale of 155 metres (509 feet) long, 26 metres (85 feet) wide and 25 metre (82 feet) high from photographs, but needless to say, a structure of such magnitude reminds us of the impact that scale and exterior form may have on our being immersed in a space.

The Ark’s structure serves an immersive purpose. Here, the guest is enveloped fully in an enclosed space, all the while reflecting on what Noah, his family and the animals experienced during the Flood event.

We exit the bus and enter the queue area as we might at any theme park. Incidentally, the operators of Ark Encounter refer to the space as a “theme park.” I realise that in the world of edutainment, the lines between themed and immersive spaces have blurred, but for me the Ark is a museum that uses design and interactive approaches from the world of theme parks. It’s worth noting that AiG’s key attraction designer is Patrick Marsh, who may be remembered for his work on Universal’s Jaws and King Kong attractions.

As I move through the queue house of the Ark and enter its first spaces, video loops remind guests of the monumental design and construction efforts behind it – the world’s largest timber frame structure. I recall the influence that theme parks have had on contemporary spaces of all types.

The first thing I note is a remarkably designed deck that includes mockups of urns and food storage devices that were used for the animals aboard the Ark, as well as cages that hold a number of curious animals, dinosaurs (which were part of the bestiary inside Noah’s vessel), and “proto animals” that represent earlier forms of today’s creatures.

The designers originally planned to house some live animals inside the Ark, but complications resulted in these real versions being relegated to petting zoos outside the Ark and the sister museum. The animal pens that house these many species are supplemented by audio effects that include the animals’ sounds as well as those of raging sea waves and storms.

The outside world
During the first hour of my tour, I visit the first of three decks. I realise the challenge of striving for “total immersion” in a space, or the condition in which a guest has completely left the other or outside world behind, suspended his or her disbelief and has entered the new world.

No doubt, I think to myself as I wander the first of the Ark’s decks, that the Bible’s texts, coupled with a dose of devotion come in handy during the guest’s first experiences inside the space. The many families I observe – and I have taken care to respect my media representatives’ requests to not interview guests while on site – appear to move from states of joy, awe and admiration as they explore the Ark’s interiors.

In addition to the evocative animal pens, visitors are treated to an array of explanations and illustrations that give context to the events of Genesis. Notably, one encounters reminders of AiG’s task of providing context for its attractions. Keep in mind that much more than revenue is at stake here at Ark Encounter – think salvation and life change — and thus the providing of such context is no easy task.

What is most interesting in this regard is emphasis on interpreting Genesis. A video loop of designers speaking about how they interpreted the proto animals and a text discussing “artistic license” illustrates a sense of design awareness in terms of the creative processes behind the Ark. Yet, context of this sort will go only so far in terms of guest immersion. It is, after all, about the design.

Design and aesthetics
By the time I make my way up and around the three decks of the Ark, it occurs to me that what makes any themed or immersive space relevant is the care designers have given to the elements of design and the aesthetics of their space. This sounds brutally obvious, but it’s a reminder of the many mantras that have been passed down from the attractions eras of early 1900s’ Coney Island, Disneyland of the 1950s, and those of the present. Clearly, AiG has taken great care to create an exterior and interior space that is likely not to be seen anywhere else in the world. The overall effect of the space’s design reminds me of the powerful combination of aesthetics and story that is noted in the impressive Dennis Severs’ House in London.

Surprisingly, for all the remarkable timber and woodworking on the exterior and interior of the Ark, less attention to detail seems to be the case in terms of the attraction’s technological interactive design. While there were a number of creative video screens that explained the water, waste and food handling procedures used aboard the vessel, there is no opportunity for the guest to interact with the contexts of their visit.

My wife, who accompanied me on my visits, disagrees with me on this point. She suggests that this could be a deliberate effort to not intrude on the guest’s consciousness with the distractions of technology, but I would say that, one can design such technology and interactivity in a way that complements the theming of the space. Inside the Ark, I yearned for a similar device or technology. As the attraction was about a month old at the time of my visit, it is likely that some of the empty spaces on the decks will be filled in with new attractions. Perhaps they will provide this missing level of interactivity.

I used the second day to focus on the Creation Museum. To review, AiG’s museum predates the Ark by nine years and the success of the former allowed AiG and Ham to open the Ark attraction. There are also plans to expand Ark Encounter to include the Towel of Babel, a pre-Flood walled city, and many other attractions.

Unlike the religious-themed Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, which I visited in 2005, neither Ark Encounter nor the Creation Museum stress performance and music, which could be seen as lost opportunities to immerse the guest in the worldview promoted by AiG.

Creation Museum
I now turn to my tour of the Creation Museum. At the onset, the guest should be aware that the two attractions complement one another and, while almost an hour apart, it is valuable to experience the two within the same period of visit.

One could say that Ark Encounter represents a clear and more detailed expression of the cosmology or worldview behind AiG and related groups that practice Young Earth and literalist interpretations of the Bible with emphasis on Genesis. On many occasions inside the Ark, I found myself asking, “What, exactly, is desired of the typical guest?” This question is answered fully at the sister museum space.

My tour begins on an overcast morning touring the lush gardens outside the Creation Museum. I was impressed with the grounds and the relaxing opportunities they provided. Next to them is a petting zoo that resembles the similar space at the Ark, though this one seemed to more clearly articulate how the chosen animals connect to specific Biblical events, parables and values. Stepping inside the museum, I was quite surprised to discover how vast the spaces were. In fact, the museum covers over 7,000sqm (75,000sq ft) and includes over 50 videos interspersed throughout the many rooms and individual attractions.

One of the most effective aspects of the museum’s approaches to theming and immersion is its use of AiG’s “7 Cs of History”. These are Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe and Confusion, and three additional areas that will be represented in future exhibits of Christ, Cross and Consummation. Each of the Cs is expressed through one or more rooms of the space and each is reinforced in various senses throughout the museum.

The museum has a clear focus on pedagogy or education so, in the senses of promoting its specific Christian cosmology, it has a very clear organic appeal. The Cs are expressed through a number of plaques that typically greet the guest at the entrance of a new exhibition area. Again, I would say that they ground the visitor as well as give a purpose to the overall message of the Creation Museum. I have been to many museums that lack this sense of grounding as they never seem to express to the visitor what is expected of him or her during the visit.

Key symbols
The focus on the Cs is complemented by the use of symbols throughout the museum spaces. Such symbols are given physical dimensions as they are constructed as major points of emphasis within the museum’s many spaces. I should mention that these sorts of key symbols are also found at the Ark, not just in the form of the Ark itself but in a door of the ark that is interpreted through a focus on a devout Christian stepping through, symbolically, the door so as to accept Christ. In their use in the Creation Museum, the symbols have been more clearly interpreted along the lines of AiG’s teachings. This use begins with the first two rooms, which focus on the Grand Canyon, geology and paleontology and explanations of the past. The museum here relies on short yet effective video loops that contextualise the goals of AiG in the context of the Cs. Like the other displays in the attraction, these are not dull and instead provoke the guest in line with AiG’s missions.

One of the most curious of symbolic displays, and what I would say is perhaps the centrepiece of the entire museum, is the Lucy room. You may have studied Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) in an anthropology class, as did I, but her place in the museum serves a different purpose.

While on site, I made four passes through the room and in each case I paused to reflect upon the conversations taking place among the many guests in the space. Some common expressions included: “She is supposedly related to you” and “They say we came from apes”, among other variations.

At first, I was startled by these comments, but later, as I reflected in my fieldnotes, I understood their foundation:

“Leaving the Lucy room for the last time, I am thoroughly impressed with the degree to which designers have used Lucy in a symbolic sense. They have referenced Lucy knowing that many guests will have heard of her, but they have turned that knowledge on its head and have given guests a greater sense of purpose in the moment of their confrontation with what can only be described as contradiction. This is brilliant, evocative use of symbolism, albeit it in a political and controversial sense. The aim here is to use such symbolism to affirm group identity and to dissociate the guest from the outside world.”

In fact, the symbolic attractions illustrate the most unique and powerful senses of theming and immersion at the Creation Museum. Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, in a few spaces like the Wonders and Flood Geology rooms, this symbolism is minimised in favour of a more explanatory, lecture-like approach. The museum loses some of its immersive potential when it falls into this didactic mode. One exception is the Culture in Crisis space. In this case, symbolism and lecture seem to work in a hand-in-hand sense.

Inwardness and the journey
In many ways, the Culture in Crisis section illustrates that theming and immersion may have an inward-looking purpose. Here is how I described this area in the fieldnotes that I composed during my visit:

“I enter into a dark and dirty corridor that resembles a city street. One window flashes a neon XXX sign, two walls are covered in magazine covers that speak of sin, terrorism, violence, evolution and other topics, while a pole is covered in images of missing children. Turning a corner, I note a sign that reads, ‘Today, man decides truth [in strike-outs] whatever’. By this time I realise that I’m experiencing one of the most evocative examples of a themed/immersive space that I have ever visited. Another dramatic symbol – a wrecking ball with ‘millions of years’ written on it – buttresses one of four seven-minute video loops whose topics include pornography and video game violence, abortion, gossip, laziness and family decline, and the ineffectiveness of churches that do not focus on the teachings of Genesis. Guest after guest pauses to view the video screens – each surrounded by what appears to be the broken windows of a home or church – and so many seem moved by what they are watching. Truly, a highlight of both of the spaces that I have visited.”

After capturing still photos and video of this attraction, I reflect upon the fact that such an evocative use of immersion is not only inward-focused on the individual, but it represents a method of creating doorways that further complement the guest’s journey through the museum. What is striking about the Culture in Crisis area of the museum is that it uses techniques of theming and immersion in the most political and confrontational senses imaginable. It is daring, pulls no punches, and reminds us of the possible effects of theming and immersion on the individual, especially those beyond a typical consumer agenda.

Both of AiG’s attractions, Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum, represent evocative projects that aim to impact guests at the most personal levels. As controversial as they have been to many, we must not lose sight of their innovative approaches to theming and immersion. Even if we do not agree with the values that they promote, we may visit them in order to better understand our own approaches to themed and immersive attraction design.


In Numbers
• $40 - price of adult entry to Ark Encounter

• $60 - price of adult Ark + Museum combo ticket

• 2 million - estimated annual visitors

• 155 metres - length of the Ark structure

• 19,122sqm - area of the Ark

• $150 million - total cost of Ark Encounter

• $18 million - amount received in tax credits

• 3.3 million board feet - amount of lumber used to build the Ark

• 30 - Amish carpenters who built the Ark

The Story of the Ark

Ark Encounter, a biblical theme park in Kentucky, opened on 7 July. With a full-size recreation of Noah’s Ark at its heart, Ark Encounter explores the Biblical account of the Great Flood and Noah’s work to build an ark to save his family and two of every animal on the planet.

The boat was built to the exact dimensions mentioned in the Bible, converted from the cubit measurements, following nautical engineering practices from the era. The project was designed and engineered by Troyer Construction Group and erected by Amish carpenters. Ark Encounter is operated by Crosswater Canyon, a non-profit subsidiary of Answers in Genesis. The attraction also consists of a zoo, a lake, a zip line tour, a garden and a 1,500-seat themed restaurant. Plans are in place to build a theatre, a flood-walled city, a recreation of the Tower of Babel and a first-century village.

During development, the project came under fire several times, mainly after AiG allegedly refused to hire anyone who doesn’t believe in the biblical flood. This initially led to the state withdrawing $18m (€16.3m, £14m) worth of tourism tax credits from the project, but this move was successfully challenged by AiG in January.

Who is Lucy?

Lucy, or AL 288-1, was the name given to the hundreds of pieces of bone fossil from a female hominin (Australopithecus afarensis) skeleton found by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson in 1974 in Ethiopia.

The bones, thought to be about 3.2 million years old, showed that Lucy walked upright and the discovery explained a missing link in understanding human evolution. In the Creation Museum, the Lucy exhibit is used to illustrate how one piece of evidence can be interpreted in many different ways, meaning that, ultimately, Christians must trust the word of God when seeking explanation.

 



The Lucy exhibit questions the scientific interpretation of Donald Johanson’s 1974 AL 288-1 discovery

About the author

 

Scott A Lukas
 

Scott A Lukas is a cultural anthropologist, consultant, and videographer of themed and immersive spaces and author of The Immersive Worlds Handbook and the newly released Reader in Themed and Immersive Spaces.


Inside, the exhibits illustrate how Noah and the animals lived
It took 3.3 million board feet of lumber to construct the Ark, making it the largest timber structure in the world Credit: IMAGES: SCOTT A LUKAS
A range of exhibits tackle the practicalities of living life on the Ark
The attraction is split over three decks, or levels
Ark designers were allowed some artistic license in their interpretations of things like “proto animals” Credit: IMAGES: SCOTT A LUKAS
Ark designers were allowed some artistic license in their interpretations of things like “proto animals” Credit: IMAGES: SCOTT A LUKAS
The Creation Museum has a clear focus on educating visitors about its Young Earth interpretations of the Bible Credit: IMAGES: CREATION MUSEUM
The Creation Museum has a clear focus on educating visitors about its Young Earth interpretations of the Bible Credit: IMAGES: CREATION MUSEUM
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Attractions Management
2016 issue 4

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Leisure Management - Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum

First person

Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum


Look beyond the controversies surrounding the monumental Ark attraction and its sister museum and you’ll find some of the best examples of immersive theming in the US, says Scott A Lukas

Scott A Lukas
Ark Encounter is built to the exact scale described in the Bible. Inside, the exhibits illustrate how Noah and the animals lived IMAGES: SCOTT A LUKAS
Inside, the exhibits illustrate how Noah and the animals lived
It took 3.3 million board feet of lumber to construct the Ark, making it the largest timber structure in the world IMAGES: SCOTT A LUKAS
A range of exhibits tackle the practicalities of living life on the Ark
The attraction is split over three decks, or levels
Ark designers were allowed some artistic license in their interpretations of things like “proto animals” IMAGES: SCOTT A LUKAS
Ark designers were allowed some artistic license in their interpretations of things like “proto animals” IMAGES: SCOTT A LUKAS
The Creation Museum has a clear focus on educating visitors about its Young Earth interpretations of the Bible IMAGES: CREATION MUSEUM
The Creation Museum has a clear focus on educating visitors about its Young Earth interpretations of the Bible IMAGES: CREATION MUSEUM

In August, I had the opportunity to tour two attractions that have been on my themed and immersive spaces map: Ark Encounter, which opened in 2016, and the Creation Museum, which opened in 2007.

The two biblically-themed attractions, separated by a 45-minute drive through Northern Kentucky, are significant in many senses, not least because they represent a growing awareness among spiritual organisations that religious experiences may have more impact when developed through contexts of theming and immersion.

A quick Internet search of these attractions will result in numerous articles, videos and blog entries that focus on a number of controversies, ranging from concerns about tax funding, “ideology” tests for potential employees, political and religious differences between Answers in Genesis (the fundamentalist Christian apologetics organisation who also founded the attractions) and Ken Ham (the CEO behind the attractions), and disagreements about whether it’s appropriate to use evocative techniques to present religious information to the public.

These last concerns stem from the nature of Answers in Genesis’ (AiG) specific and unique beliefs. As we’ll see with a tour of the two attractions, each promotes a Young Earth and literalist view of the Bible (with an emphasis on the book of Genesis). Yet, this interesting and unique Christian worldview is not the focus of my tour.

I’m a cultural anthropologist. I wrote about my experiences working at a Six Flags theme park and I now travel the world making its museums, theme parks and attractions my field sites.

When I had the opportunity to visit Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum, I wanted to keep at the forefront of my experiences what we anthropologists call an “emic” or insider’s perspective. The idea being that we try to understand our fieldsites from the perspectives of those who visit them. The tour of these attractions that I offer reflects on the guest experiences of the attractions that I observed in my two-day visit to the spaces. Ultimately, we may discover that such insider’s views of themed and immersive spaces provide designers and other professionals within the attractions industries a valuable opportunity to better understand design approaches.

The complete space
I approach Ark Encounter with openness and mystery. After parking and the ticket line, I board a bus. I glance around on the bus and I detect notable excitement and anticipation on the faces of the guests who join me on the tour. The driver says little during our trip, and he doesn’t have to as we all look in awe at the structure as it enters our fields of vision. You can’t quite grasp the attraction’s scale of 155 metres (509 feet) long, 26 metres (85 feet) wide and 25 metre (82 feet) high from photographs, but needless to say, a structure of such magnitude reminds us of the impact that scale and exterior form may have on our being immersed in a space.

The Ark’s structure serves an immersive purpose. Here, the guest is enveloped fully in an enclosed space, all the while reflecting on what Noah, his family and the animals experienced during the Flood event.

We exit the bus and enter the queue area as we might at any theme park. Incidentally, the operators of Ark Encounter refer to the space as a “theme park.” I realise that in the world of edutainment, the lines between themed and immersive spaces have blurred, but for me the Ark is a museum that uses design and interactive approaches from the world of theme parks. It’s worth noting that AiG’s key attraction designer is Patrick Marsh, who may be remembered for his work on Universal’s Jaws and King Kong attractions.

As I move through the queue house of the Ark and enter its first spaces, video loops remind guests of the monumental design and construction efforts behind it – the world’s largest timber frame structure. I recall the influence that theme parks have had on contemporary spaces of all types.

The first thing I note is a remarkably designed deck that includes mockups of urns and food storage devices that were used for the animals aboard the Ark, as well as cages that hold a number of curious animals, dinosaurs (which were part of the bestiary inside Noah’s vessel), and “proto animals” that represent earlier forms of today’s creatures.

The designers originally planned to house some live animals inside the Ark, but complications resulted in these real versions being relegated to petting zoos outside the Ark and the sister museum. The animal pens that house these many species are supplemented by audio effects that include the animals’ sounds as well as those of raging sea waves and storms.

The outside world
During the first hour of my tour, I visit the first of three decks. I realise the challenge of striving for “total immersion” in a space, or the condition in which a guest has completely left the other or outside world behind, suspended his or her disbelief and has entered the new world.

No doubt, I think to myself as I wander the first of the Ark’s decks, that the Bible’s texts, coupled with a dose of devotion come in handy during the guest’s first experiences inside the space. The many families I observe – and I have taken care to respect my media representatives’ requests to not interview guests while on site – appear to move from states of joy, awe and admiration as they explore the Ark’s interiors.

In addition to the evocative animal pens, visitors are treated to an array of explanations and illustrations that give context to the events of Genesis. Notably, one encounters reminders of AiG’s task of providing context for its attractions. Keep in mind that much more than revenue is at stake here at Ark Encounter – think salvation and life change — and thus the providing of such context is no easy task.

What is most interesting in this regard is emphasis on interpreting Genesis. A video loop of designers speaking about how they interpreted the proto animals and a text discussing “artistic license” illustrates a sense of design awareness in terms of the creative processes behind the Ark. Yet, context of this sort will go only so far in terms of guest immersion. It is, after all, about the design.

Design and aesthetics
By the time I make my way up and around the three decks of the Ark, it occurs to me that what makes any themed or immersive space relevant is the care designers have given to the elements of design and the aesthetics of their space. This sounds brutally obvious, but it’s a reminder of the many mantras that have been passed down from the attractions eras of early 1900s’ Coney Island, Disneyland of the 1950s, and those of the present. Clearly, AiG has taken great care to create an exterior and interior space that is likely not to be seen anywhere else in the world. The overall effect of the space’s design reminds me of the powerful combination of aesthetics and story that is noted in the impressive Dennis Severs’ House in London.

Surprisingly, for all the remarkable timber and woodworking on the exterior and interior of the Ark, less attention to detail seems to be the case in terms of the attraction’s technological interactive design. While there were a number of creative video screens that explained the water, waste and food handling procedures used aboard the vessel, there is no opportunity for the guest to interact with the contexts of their visit.

My wife, who accompanied me on my visits, disagrees with me on this point. She suggests that this could be a deliberate effort to not intrude on the guest’s consciousness with the distractions of technology, but I would say that, one can design such technology and interactivity in a way that complements the theming of the space. Inside the Ark, I yearned for a similar device or technology. As the attraction was about a month old at the time of my visit, it is likely that some of the empty spaces on the decks will be filled in with new attractions. Perhaps they will provide this missing level of interactivity.

I used the second day to focus on the Creation Museum. To review, AiG’s museum predates the Ark by nine years and the success of the former allowed AiG and Ham to open the Ark attraction. There are also plans to expand Ark Encounter to include the Towel of Babel, a pre-Flood walled city, and many other attractions.

Unlike the religious-themed Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, which I visited in 2005, neither Ark Encounter nor the Creation Museum stress performance and music, which could be seen as lost opportunities to immerse the guest in the worldview promoted by AiG.

Creation Museum
I now turn to my tour of the Creation Museum. At the onset, the guest should be aware that the two attractions complement one another and, while almost an hour apart, it is valuable to experience the two within the same period of visit.

One could say that Ark Encounter represents a clear and more detailed expression of the cosmology or worldview behind AiG and related groups that practice Young Earth and literalist interpretations of the Bible with emphasis on Genesis. On many occasions inside the Ark, I found myself asking, “What, exactly, is desired of the typical guest?” This question is answered fully at the sister museum space.

My tour begins on an overcast morning touring the lush gardens outside the Creation Museum. I was impressed with the grounds and the relaxing opportunities they provided. Next to them is a petting zoo that resembles the similar space at the Ark, though this one seemed to more clearly articulate how the chosen animals connect to specific Biblical events, parables and values. Stepping inside the museum, I was quite surprised to discover how vast the spaces were. In fact, the museum covers over 7,000sqm (75,000sq ft) and includes over 50 videos interspersed throughout the many rooms and individual attractions.

One of the most effective aspects of the museum’s approaches to theming and immersion is its use of AiG’s “7 Cs of History”. These are Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe and Confusion, and three additional areas that will be represented in future exhibits of Christ, Cross and Consummation. Each of the Cs is expressed through one or more rooms of the space and each is reinforced in various senses throughout the museum.

The museum has a clear focus on pedagogy or education so, in the senses of promoting its specific Christian cosmology, it has a very clear organic appeal. The Cs are expressed through a number of plaques that typically greet the guest at the entrance of a new exhibition area. Again, I would say that they ground the visitor as well as give a purpose to the overall message of the Creation Museum. I have been to many museums that lack this sense of grounding as they never seem to express to the visitor what is expected of him or her during the visit.

Key symbols
The focus on the Cs is complemented by the use of symbols throughout the museum spaces. Such symbols are given physical dimensions as they are constructed as major points of emphasis within the museum’s many spaces. I should mention that these sorts of key symbols are also found at the Ark, not just in the form of the Ark itself but in a door of the ark that is interpreted through a focus on a devout Christian stepping through, symbolically, the door so as to accept Christ. In their use in the Creation Museum, the symbols have been more clearly interpreted along the lines of AiG’s teachings. This use begins with the first two rooms, which focus on the Grand Canyon, geology and paleontology and explanations of the past. The museum here relies on short yet effective video loops that contextualise the goals of AiG in the context of the Cs. Like the other displays in the attraction, these are not dull and instead provoke the guest in line with AiG’s missions.

One of the most curious of symbolic displays, and what I would say is perhaps the centrepiece of the entire museum, is the Lucy room. You may have studied Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) in an anthropology class, as did I, but her place in the museum serves a different purpose.

While on site, I made four passes through the room and in each case I paused to reflect upon the conversations taking place among the many guests in the space. Some common expressions included: “She is supposedly related to you” and “They say we came from apes”, among other variations.

At first, I was startled by these comments, but later, as I reflected in my fieldnotes, I understood their foundation:

“Leaving the Lucy room for the last time, I am thoroughly impressed with the degree to which designers have used Lucy in a symbolic sense. They have referenced Lucy knowing that many guests will have heard of her, but they have turned that knowledge on its head and have given guests a greater sense of purpose in the moment of their confrontation with what can only be described as contradiction. This is brilliant, evocative use of symbolism, albeit it in a political and controversial sense. The aim here is to use such symbolism to affirm group identity and to dissociate the guest from the outside world.”

In fact, the symbolic attractions illustrate the most unique and powerful senses of theming and immersion at the Creation Museum. Unfortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, in a few spaces like the Wonders and Flood Geology rooms, this symbolism is minimised in favour of a more explanatory, lecture-like approach. The museum loses some of its immersive potential when it falls into this didactic mode. One exception is the Culture in Crisis space. In this case, symbolism and lecture seem to work in a hand-in-hand sense.

Inwardness and the journey
In many ways, the Culture in Crisis section illustrates that theming and immersion may have an inward-looking purpose. Here is how I described this area in the fieldnotes that I composed during my visit:

“I enter into a dark and dirty corridor that resembles a city street. One window flashes a neon XXX sign, two walls are covered in magazine covers that speak of sin, terrorism, violence, evolution and other topics, while a pole is covered in images of missing children. Turning a corner, I note a sign that reads, ‘Today, man decides truth [in strike-outs] whatever’. By this time I realise that I’m experiencing one of the most evocative examples of a themed/immersive space that I have ever visited. Another dramatic symbol – a wrecking ball with ‘millions of years’ written on it – buttresses one of four seven-minute video loops whose topics include pornography and video game violence, abortion, gossip, laziness and family decline, and the ineffectiveness of churches that do not focus on the teachings of Genesis. Guest after guest pauses to view the video screens – each surrounded by what appears to be the broken windows of a home or church – and so many seem moved by what they are watching. Truly, a highlight of both of the spaces that I have visited.”

After capturing still photos and video of this attraction, I reflect upon the fact that such an evocative use of immersion is not only inward-focused on the individual, but it represents a method of creating doorways that further complement the guest’s journey through the museum. What is striking about the Culture in Crisis area of the museum is that it uses techniques of theming and immersion in the most political and confrontational senses imaginable. It is daring, pulls no punches, and reminds us of the possible effects of theming and immersion on the individual, especially those beyond a typical consumer agenda.

Both of AiG’s attractions, Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum, represent evocative projects that aim to impact guests at the most personal levels. As controversial as they have been to many, we must not lose sight of their innovative approaches to theming and immersion. Even if we do not agree with the values that they promote, we may visit them in order to better understand our own approaches to themed and immersive attraction design.


In Numbers
• $40 - price of adult entry to Ark Encounter

• $60 - price of adult Ark + Museum combo ticket

• 2 million - estimated annual visitors

• 155 metres - length of the Ark structure

• 19,122sqm - area of the Ark

• $150 million - total cost of Ark Encounter

• $18 million - amount received in tax credits

• 3.3 million board feet - amount of lumber used to build the Ark

• 30 - Amish carpenters who built the Ark

The Story of the Ark

Ark Encounter, a biblical theme park in Kentucky, opened on 7 July. With a full-size recreation of Noah’s Ark at its heart, Ark Encounter explores the Biblical account of the Great Flood and Noah’s work to build an ark to save his family and two of every animal on the planet.

The boat was built to the exact dimensions mentioned in the Bible, converted from the cubit measurements, following nautical engineering practices from the era. The project was designed and engineered by Troyer Construction Group and erected by Amish carpenters. Ark Encounter is operated by Crosswater Canyon, a non-profit subsidiary of Answers in Genesis. The attraction also consists of a zoo, a lake, a zip line tour, a garden and a 1,500-seat themed restaurant. Plans are in place to build a theatre, a flood-walled city, a recreation of the Tower of Babel and a first-century village.

During development, the project came under fire several times, mainly after AiG allegedly refused to hire anyone who doesn’t believe in the biblical flood. This initially led to the state withdrawing $18m (€16.3m, £14m) worth of tourism tax credits from the project, but this move was successfully challenged by AiG in January.

Who is Lucy?

Lucy, or AL 288-1, was the name given to the hundreds of pieces of bone fossil from a female hominin (Australopithecus afarensis) skeleton found by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson in 1974 in Ethiopia.

The bones, thought to be about 3.2 million years old, showed that Lucy walked upright and the discovery explained a missing link in understanding human evolution. In the Creation Museum, the Lucy exhibit is used to illustrate how one piece of evidence can be interpreted in many different ways, meaning that, ultimately, Christians must trust the word of God when seeking explanation.

 



The Lucy exhibit questions the scientific interpretation of Donald Johanson’s 1974 AL 288-1 discovery

About the author

 

Scott A Lukas
 

Scott A Lukas is a cultural anthropologist, consultant, and videographer of themed and immersive spaces and author of The Immersive Worlds Handbook and the newly released Reader in Themed and Immersive Spaces.



Originally published in Attractions Management 2016 issue 4

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