The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Minister Calls for Creationism in Museums

This is one of those problematic stories which makes you question what narrative the museum is responsible for...nay, entitled to tell. Whilst no creationist myself, I do wonder about the justification for its absence in museums. For if we are to tell all stories, surely we should tell this one too?


Robert the Surfer-by said...

How much space should the British Museum devote in its Egyptology section to the theory that aliens visited Earth and helped the ancient Egyptians build the pyramids?
There's room for such theories in a museum of sociology, perhaps, or the National Museum of Who Needs Evidence Anyway. A museum that's dedicated to facts - scientific or historical - has a duty to keep to those facts. Nonsense like Creationism that's been debunked time and time again has no place in any organisation that purports to have regard for the scientific method.

Amy said...

Don't fear. It seems the creationist tide might already be turning.

Recently I spotted that a Creationist Museum's displays are being put up for auction (I assume the venue went out of business?)

Jenny said...

But is the purpose of the museum to tell 'truth' (as far as that concept can hold) or to tell about forms of perception? I think this is really context specific. Yet it also smacks of a wider argument about the role of museums and their position as purveyor of axiomatic truth which, it is increasingly clear to me, they cannot be.


Robert the Surfer-by said...

> But is the purpose of the museum to tell 'truth'

Axiomatic truth? There's probably no such thing; however, this is pretty much universally recognised in the scientific world, so 'truth' almost always means 'truth as we currently understand it'.
Is it possible that evidence will in the future point to a planet that's only six thousand years old? It's not impossible, any more than under the rules of quantum mechanics it's possible that the planet will turn into a turtle. It's not very likely, though.

Museums, as I see it, are around to inform. They do this not by offering every alternative viewpoint, but offering the viewpoint that's generally accepted. If there's controversy - say, if 20% of experts disagree - then that's one thing, but the alternative suggestion, that a natural history museum have an information card that reads 'the dinosaurs died out between six thousand and sixty-five million years ago' serves no purpose.
Evolution by natural selection is a fact. The shape of the earth being an oblate spheroid is a fact. Accommodating flat earthers, creationists and homeopaths - anyone in fact, who bases their hypotheses on anything other than evidence - is to do science, museum visitors and humanity at large a great disservice.

Jenny said...

So where does this leave specialist museums, such as the Witchcraft Museum in Boscastle, or museums which showcase diverse viewpoints such as St. Mungo's in Glasgow?

Robert the Won't Go Away said...

I seem to be hijacking this thread; sorry about that. I'll forbear should I be getting on anyone's nerves.

Anyway, the Witchcraft Museum is a pretty specious example; no one would argue against a museum devoted to the history of any aspect of society, even one as clueless as witchcraft. It's been around as a belief system for centuries and, despite the fact that it's been entirely invalidated (despite the attempts of Crowley et al to bring it into the nineteenth century), is absolutely worthy of study. From the points of view of sociology and anthropology, it's an important link in the evolution of our view of the universe. The same holds true of St. Mungo's. It also holds true for any creationist museum, though (unlike the other two examples) by its very nature this is almost inevitably intended to proselytise rather than inform.

So why not have such things in the Ulster Museum? Because it's a museum devoted to fact; archaeology is a field based in the scientific method. It can - and should - display information and artefacts on the belief systems of yore, but not accommodate them as fact until such time as there's evidence that they weren't just made up by some guy a few thousand years ago. This is my problem with our friend McCausland; he wants creationism to be recognised not just as a religion, but as a legitimate view of the origin of the Earth, which it manifestly isn't. To suggest that the Earth is one half-life of carbon old is to suggest that almost every field of science is fundamentally wrong, despite the overwhelming evidence that exists independently in each of those fields. We don't know every minute detail about how the human species came about, but we know enough that there can be no reasonable doubt that evolution by natural selection is a fact. Equally, we may not be able to pin down the age of the Earth as precisely as Archbishop Ussher did, but the fact that the error bars are several orders of magnitude larger than the creationists' stated age of the earth is no reason to consider the possibility that Ussher may have been right.

To encapsulate, then: museums have a duty to consider the belief systems that were and are part of humanity. But they've an equal duty to disregard them as fact until there's evidence to support them.

Jenny said...

Ulster Museum is also a museum of art and history. It is a cultural institution which tells stories. I don't want to suggest that it should tell the Creationist story as fact, just as a version of telling which some people in its society believe, and which has, also, been around for centuries. This is also surely an important link in the evolution of our view of the universe.

I am not saying that all museums have to tell this story, because it is not one which is relevant to all museums. I do not even really know that it will turn out to be appropriate in this case. But I do not think it should be dismissed out of hand.