The razor-toothed Tyrannosaurus rex, jaws agape, loomed ominously over the gentle Thescelosaurus, looking for plants to eat. Admiring the museum diorama were old and young visitors, listening on headphones to a stentorian voice describing the primeval scene. But the Museum of Earth History is a museum with a controversial difference. To one side, peering through the bushes, are Adam and Eve. The display is not an image of the Cretaceous. It is Paradise. "They lived together without fear, for there was no death yet," the voice intoned about man and dinosaur.
Nestled deep in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, in the heart of America's Bible Belt, this is the first dinosaur museum to take a creationist perspective. Already thousands of people have flocked to its top-quality exhibits, which mix high science with fundamentalist theology that few serious scientists accept.
The museum is riding a wave of creationist influence in America. Creationism, which holds that the Earth is just a few thousand years old and that the biblical account of Genesis is fact, is central to a rash of furious arguments across America. From school boards in Kansas to elections in Pennsylvania, the "debate" between creationism and evolution has become a political hot potato.
Even as America's scientists make advances in paleontology, astronomy and physics that appear to disprove creationism, Gallup surveys have shown that about 45 percent of Americans believe the Earth was created by God within the past 10,000 years. It's not just creationism, either. Last week, NBC's "Dateline" program investigated some miracles and concluded some could be real. It is hard to imagine Jeremy Paxman on BBC's "Newsnight" taking this stance.
That wellspring of popular belief, and the political clout that comes with it, are the inspiration behind the museum. It is not interested in debating with mainstream science. It simply wants to represent the view of a significant slice of America. "We want people to see that finally they have something that addresses their beliefs, to show that we do have a voice," said Thomas Sharp, business director of Creation Truth, the religious group that co-founded the museum.
No expense was spared. The fossil casts, which range from a Triceratops skull to an 18-foot-long Albertosaurus (a relative to T. rex), could easily grace London's Natural History Museum. Plans for a much bigger museum in Dallas are being considered. And "we would love to open in the United Kingdom if the right partner showed up," Sharp said.
The museum forms part of a Bible-based theme park in Eureka Springs. The parking lot is full of cars and coaches from all over the country. To enter the museum is to explore a surrealistic parallel world. Biblical quotes appear on displays. The first has dinosaurs, alongside Adam and Eve, living in harmony. The ferociously fanged T. rex is likely to be a vegetarian. Then comes the "Fall of Man" and an ugly world where dinosaurs prey on one another and the first extinctions occur. The destruction of the dinosaurs is explained, not by a comet striking the Earth 65 million years ago, but by the Flood. This, the museum says, wiped out most of the dinosaurs still alive and created the Grand Canyon and huge layers of sedimentary rock seen around the world.
Some dinosaurs survived on Noah's Ark. One poster explains that Noah would have chosen juvenile dinosaurs to save space. An illustration shows two green sauropods in the ark alongside more conventional elephants and lions. The final exhibit depicts the Ice Age, where the last dinosaurs existed with woolly mammoths until the cold and hunting by cavemen caused them to die out.
Scientists dismiss such claims as on a par with believing in Atlantis. Yet the museum is unlikely to be seen as a major threat to mainstream science. It was put in the heart of an area where Christian attractions are a mainstay of the local economy.
It was built in cooperation with the "New Holy Land" theme park, which re-creates the biblical Middle East in the Ozarks. A huge statue of Christ, the largest in North America, looms over Eureka Springs. The site is the setting for "The Great Passion Play," where each night, in a 4,500-strong arena, the last days of Christ are acted out. The play has attracted more than 7.2 million people.
But creationism is seeking to become more influential in other parts of the country. In Kansas the state school board recently held public hearings on the validity of evolution and the teaching of "intelligent design" in classrooms. The hearings were boycotted by scientists who believed they were rigged against evolutionists. The theory of intelligent design holds that the world is so complex it must have been created, and has been dubbed "creationism lite" by its critics. Kansas is now expected to recommend that schools include intelligent-design-friendly material in its science courses this summer.
In Pennsylvania, the issue dominated an election in the town of Dover after the school board decided to include mention of intelligent design in its science classes. A vote last week between anti-evolution and pro-evolution candidates ended in an electoral tie.
Creationism has found one high-level voice. President George W. Bush famously proclaimed: "The jury is still out on evolution." And a CBS survey late last year showed that 45 percent of Bush voters wanted creationism taught in schools instead of evolution, compared with 24 percent of voters for John Kerry. "Under the Bush presidency, we are clearly able to get a lot more done," Sharp said.
The Museum of Earth History may be the first dinosaur museum of its kind. It is not likely to be the last.