NY Times, September 20, 2005
Challenged by Creationists, Museums Answer Back
By CORNELIA DEAN
ITHACA, N.Y. - Lenore Durkee, a retired biology professor, was
volunteering as a docent at the Museum of the Earth here when she was
confronted by a group of seven or eight people, creationists eager to
challenge the museum exhibitions on evolution.
They peppered Dr. Durkee with questions about everything from
techniques for dating fossils to the second law of thermodynamics,
their queries coming so thick and fast that she found it hard to
After about 45 minutes, "I told them I needed to take a break," she
recalled. "My mouth was dry."
That encounter and others like it provided the impetus for a training
session here in August. Dr. Durkee and scores of other volunteers and
staff members from the museum and elsewhere crowded into a meeting
room to hear advice from the museum director, Warren D. Allmon, on
ways to deal with visitors who reject settled precepts of science on
Similar efforts are under way or planned around the country as science
museums and other institutions struggle to contend with challenges to
the theory of evolution that they say are growing common and sometimes
One company, called B.C. Tours "because we are biblically correct,"
even offers escorted visits to the Denver Museum of Science and
Nature. Participants hear creationists' explanations for the
So officials like Judy Diamond, curator of public programs at the
University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, are trying to meet
such challenges head-on.
Dr. Diamond is working on evolution exhibitions financed by the
National Science Foundation that will go on long-term display at six
museums of natural history from Minnesota to Texas. The program
includes training for docents and staff members.
"The goal is to understand the controversies, so that people are
better able to handle them as they come up," she said. "Museums, as a
field, have recognized we need to take a more proactive role in
Dr. Allmon, who directs the Paleontological Research Institution, an
affiliate of Cornell University, began the training session here in
September with statistics from Gallup Polls: 54 percent of Americans
do not believe that human beings evolved from earlier species, and
although almost half believe that Darwin has been proved right,
slightly more disagree.
"Just telling them they are wrong is not going to be effective," he said.
Instead, he told the volunteers that when they encounter religious
fundamentalists they should emphasize that science museums live by the
rules of science. They seek answers in nature to questions about
nature, they look for explanations that can be tested by experiment
and observation in the material world, and they understand that all
scientific knowledge is provisional - capable of being overturned when
better answers are discovered.
"Is it against all religion?" he asked. "No. But it is against some religio=
There is more than one type of creationist, he said: "thinking
creationists who want to know answers, and they are willing to listen,
even if they go away unconvinced" and "people who for whatever reason
are here to bother you, to trap you, to bludgeon you."
Those were the type of people who confronted Dr. Durkee, a former
biology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. The encounter left her
"It is no wonder that many biologists will simply refuse to debate
creationists or I.D.ers," she said, using the abbreviation for
intelligent design, a cousin of creationism. "It is as if they aren't
Dr. Allmon says even trained scientists like Dr. Durkee can benefit
from explicit advice about dealing with religious challenges to
"There is an art, a script that is very, very helpful," he said.
A pamphlet handed out at the training session provides information on
the scientific method, the theory of evolution and other basic
information. It offers suggestions on replying to frequently raised
challenges like "Is there lots of evidence against evolution?" (The
answer begins, simply, "No.")
When talking to visitors about evolution, the pamphlet advises, "don't
avoid using the word." Rehearse answers to frequently asked questions,
because "you'll be more comfortable when you sound like you know what
you're talking about."
Dr. Allmon told his audience to "be firm and clear, not defensive."
The pamphlet says that if all else fails, and docents find themselves
in an unpleasant confrontation, they excuse themselves by saying, "I
have to go to the restroom."
Eugenie C. Scott, who directs the National Center for Science
Education and is conducting training sessions for Dr. Diamond's
program, said that within the last year or so efforts to train museum
personnel and volunteers on evolution and related topics had
substantially increased. "This seems to be a cottage industry now,"
Dr. Scott said.
Robert M. West, a paleontologist and former science museum director
who is now a consultant to museums, said several institutions were
intensifying the docents' training "so they are comfortable with the
concepts, not just the material but the intellectual, philosophical
background - and they know their administrations are going to support
them if someone criticizes them."
At the Denver science museum, the staff and docents often encounter
groups from B.C. Tours, which for 15 years has offered tours of the
museum based on literal readings of the Bible. The group embraces
young-earth creationism, the view that the earth and its plants,
animals and people were created in a matter of days a few thousand
"We present both sides from an objective perspective and let the
students decide for themselves," said Rusty Carter, an operator of the
Mr. Carter praised the museum, saying it had been "very professional
and accommodating, even though they do not support us." A typical
group might have 30 or 40 people, he added.
Kirk Johnson, a paleontologist who is the chief curator at the museum,
was philosophical about the group. "It's interesting to walk along
with them," he said.
Participants pay the admission fee and have as much right as anyone
else to be in the museum, Dr. Johnson said, but sometimes "we have to
restrain our docents from interacting with them."
John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, whose
researchers endorse intelligent design, said he was not aware of
organized efforts to challenge museum exhibitions on evolution. He
added, "It is not unheard of for museum exhibits to be wrong
Dr. Scott, who trained as a physical anthropologist, said that in
training docents she emphasized "how the public understands or
misunderstands evolution and some of the misconceptions they come in
with." She hopes to combat the idea that people must choose between
science and faith - "that you are either a good Christian creationist
or an evil atheist evolutionist."
"It's your job," she told docents, "not to slam the door in the face
of a believer."
At the American Museum of Natural History, which is about to open what
it describes as "the most in-depth exhibition ever" on Darwin and his
work, curators and other staff members instruct volunteer "explainers"
on the science behind its exhibitions, according to Stephen Reichl, a
spokesman. If visitors challenge the presentations, the explainers are
instructed to listen "and then explain the science and the evidence."
Sarah Fiorello, an environmental educator at the Finger Lakes State
Parks Region who took part in the Ithaca training session in August,
said she was now prepared to take the same approach. When she
describes the region's geological history on tours of its gorges,
visitors often object - as even a member of her family once did - that
"it does not say that in the Bible."
Now, she said, she will tell them, "The landscape tells a story based
on geological events, based on science."
Dr. Durkee also said she found the session helpful. "When you are in a
museum, you can't antagonize people," she said. "Your job is to help
them, to explain your point of view, but respect theirs.
"I like the idea of stressing that this is a science museum, and we
deal with matters of science."