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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

So-Called "Museums" and "Libraries"

Now comes the news that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library cannot account for 80,000 items, or 80% of its collection.

(Okay, let's get the Alzheimer jokes and the giggling over with.)

Most thefts from libraries and archives (and presidential libraries really are archives rather than libraries) are the result of an inside job, unfortunately. Lax security, understaffing, and poor recordkeeping procedures are usually the culprits, as they seem to be in this case. And certainly, bad cataloging practices can plague any library (as it does the Goddard Space Flight Center library, which misshelved the original film footage of the moon landing).

However, much as I wanted to avoid puerile snickering, I could not help but remember this comment on the AOL News website from “olsen1000” (11:28:02 AM Nov 08 2007):

Who cares?

The concept of presidential libraries probably originated in the days when there were men of education and culture running the country. Reagan? Bushes? What are they going to put in their libraries? Comic books? Or, in the case of GWB, the straw he snorted coke with?

Be damn reasonable for Christ's sake. Reagan's head was empty for a large part of his presidency, and so is his library.

(“Look on Ebay,” sneers another commenter, “OJ has them!” crows another, along with the requisite “Liberals hate freedom” and a debate on Reagan's legacy as President - and the inevitable Alzheimer jokes.)

I must say I find the concept of the presidential library a silly holdover from a time when there were few public or academic libraries or historical societies. I would rather that we invest in those. (And yes, I say the same about the Clinton Library and any other devoted to a Democrat.)

But I leave you with that thought and move on to the article in the current Museum News on Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.

The institution’s status as a museum is, by itself, likely to aid its cause. A national study published by AAM (American Association of Museums) in 2001 found that “Almost 9 our of 10 Americans (87%) find museums to be one of the most trustworthy or a trustworthy source of information among a wide range of choices.” (I shall try to provide a link to this study.) Books were a distant second at 61 percent, and a majority found print and broadcast media and the Internet not to be trustworthy. Schools were viewed as the most important educational source for children, but museums and libraries were next in line. The International Council of Museums (ICOM), for example, identifies a museum simply as “A non-profit-making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment." The museum profession has not formally addressed the issue of what a museum exhibits.

“What would we do if someone built a museum syaing the Holocaust didn't happen?' asked Gene Kritsky (professor of biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph), ‘that slavery was a right of the early colonists?’”

…The Creation museum is not alone in its mission: The website lists 12 other “creation centers and museum” in the United States (as well as one in Alberta, Canada), and the 2007 Official Museum Directory adds four more.

I definitely see Ken Ham’s “museum” and the creation of others like it as a grab for credibility and legitimacy in building this parody of a legitimate institution (which is an ongoing attempt to build a parallel Christian society, with “universities” like Regent and Liberty, and Christianized “degree programs"). However, credibility and legitimacy have to be earned—through time, through contribution to the profession via legitimate and demonstrable research, through publishing in refereed journals. (Of course there are a slew of creationist “journals” lauding "research.”) I doubt that Ham is an AAM member; I doubt he even knows what that organization is.

And of course, any museum must sustain its staff, and building, and its collection through valid processes, such as cataloging and conservation. Ken Ham’s Creation Museum has had a good year, with 400,000 visitors so far. But only time will tell its true success – and (being that they seems to always have so little of it, between a 6,000 year old earth and an immanent Rapture) time has never been on the side of the creationists.

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Anonymous tim said...

At least the thief knew what to go for - the western style belt buckle collection was surely Reagan's most valuable legacy.

November 08, 2007 9:06 PM  
Anonymous JanieBelle said...

I can't help but wonder about the percentage of visitors to Ham's Flintstone museum that were people there to point and laugh.

I'm betting it's higher than he'd care to admit.

And I wonder about the percentage of people who went there in all good faith, then walked out saying, "Oh, I thought it was going to be serious."

November 09, 2007 9:16 AM  
Blogger Kristine said...

JanieBelle, I think the time has come for us to admit that the people going to point and laugh is lower than we want to admit. When this museum merits a story (albeit a subtly critical one) in Museum News, I think it’s time to face what is happening in the United States.

Look here. This is serious stuff. It affects real people’s lives. And it’s getting worse. It has already affected the lives of people I know. I am fortunate in where I work; I work in a diverse, pluralistic environment of highly educated people who don't go around shaking fingers or trying to control other people's lives. (And I would never impose this level of control and organization on other atheists, or anyone!)

What we are seeing is a fundamental assault on the very foundations of science, of the processes of research, testing, and peer review, via the construction of these parodies of the institutions and publications that support them, by a Christian Dominionist funded, “grassroots” (but not really) effort with a definite national and global agenda. In some ways, this is necessary; Americans just don’t know or understand how to conduct research, or what makes a source credible, or how peer review works, and so they are attracted to the idea that “I can do it all myself!” which is an inherently self-motivated, American idea. I believe that we will ultimately emerge stronger for all of this.

Science is for everyone. But that does not mean that everyone already knows how to use the scientific method. Now that I am in grad school, I am learning a great deal about how knowledge is acquired, and neither church nor No Child Left Behind is going to prepare students for this. Americans, not knowing much of anything, because we think it’s our right to go through life blissfully entertained, and entertaining false controversies (“The earth could be old or young; evolution or intelligent design could be true; I’m open-minded, what fun! Whee!”), are being led by puerile arguments and shallow "debates" (like the Presidental debates of both parties - what a mockery) into a line of sincere questioning down the road of perdition, and they don't understand why that is.

I am learning things about the scientific method that I did not know or realize before. What I am learning, I am learning by doing, by being told to come up with new ideas (on deadline!), by negotiating situational ethics and messy real-life scenarios, and not by having someone lecture to me (which is what religious people think college is, because they project their experiences from church), would occupy many posts. It would comprise a Science Communication curriculum.

But most people won’t understand this. They go from knowing nothing to believing in anything. They assert, in all seriousness, “Maybe someday our kids will laugh at evolution and tell us, ‘Mom, can you believe that scientists once thought we evolved from a common blog?’” and they are sincere. They are sincerely wrong. But to explain why they are wrong takes a certain level of education on their part that they don’t have, and Americans don’t like being told that they aren’t educated. (Whereas I accepted as a child that I was uneducated, that I was ignorant, and that if I didn't want to be small-town all my life I had to take a lot of risks.) And they want a short, glib answer for the glib, snappy, shallow ideas that have been put into their heads, and I haven’t one. (Look at the length of my answer to you, here.)

People think that truth means that the answer is “out there” somewhere, complete in itself, and one just finds it, writes it down, and that’s it. Not true. That is not my experience in my job, let alone school! I once described to someone the story of trying to find out how some catering expenses for a special event at work was charged from one budget line instead of another. I investigated and found the answer, but the answer didn’t exist, complete, in any one place, as Rick Warren would have you believe. I found what is the most likely reason for what happened by sifting through multiple paperwork and talking to different people. The answer didn’t “exist” anywhere but as the construction (and an incomplete one) that I made, out of the various pieces I found. I constructed the answer - out of evidence, not out of the air - but I had to construct the answer.

This is very different than looking in the Bible for “answers,” or listening to Joel Orsteen tell you what to do, or even looking up an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But Americans don’t want to hear about process—at this particular phase in our nation’s history, they want clear-cut, simple answers, and sadly, they regard evolution as another simple, clear dogma. That is why they are flocking to Ken Ham’s so-called museum, and this is why I think there is a conflict between science and religion. They are two fundamentally different approaches.

The more I understand about the scientific method, and random sampling, and statistics (because I want to conduct research and publish scholarly articles), the closer I’m coming, I think, to understanding why so many Americans have chosen to withdraw into a simple world of black and white. We need to confront that; we can’t afford to just laugh at it anymore. I feel (perhaps in the sense that Sam Harris describes) that I envision something vaguely, that I’m very close to a new idea, and new answers, and a way forward for Americans as they struggle with why we say some things are true and some false, but I can’t articulate it yet.

November 09, 2007 10:46 AM  

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