From a few of the comments on my post about my visit to Ken Ham’s Ark Park, people seem to think I’m arguing for the long-term success of the fake boat. Short answer: I don’t know. But here’s what I do know.
It’s got a fair number of attendees. This is from a one-day sample, so I can’t possibly make any extrapolations, but what I saw were a lot of Christian family groups who looked like they were there on vacation, several buses full of evangelical church kids in matching t-shirts, and a scattering of older couples who were there like pilgrims visiting a shrine. It’s far more popular than other creationist museums I’ve visited, which are typically anemic and a bit shabby. Answers in Genesis has the flashy PR angle down cold, and is getting people to travel to the Ark Park as a tourist destination. That’s a plus for them.
Attendance really is comparable to what I see at real science museums, like the Franklin Institute or the Science Museum of Minnesota or OMSI. That’s remarkable considering they’re almost an hour away from Cincinnati and it’s a drive with virtually no other attractions. Location matters, and they’ve plunked this thing down in a crap location; if you relocated the San Francisco Exploratorium to this nowhere place in Kentucky, it would wither and die. The Ark Park is doing OK, because they can rely on religious fervor to motivate visitors.
However, that parking lot has got to be immensely embarrassing, because it is so dang immense and relatively empty. They clearly anticipated crowds that are an order of magnitude larger than what they’re getting. Maybe they’re anticipating a lot of growth? I don’t think they’ll get it.
Here’s why: there’s nothing there. When I compare it to real museums, it’s solely on the basis of attendance, because the content is pathetic — the Creation “Museum” has equivalent or more content, and the Ark Park just spreads the same stuff out over more square footage. There’s a lot of “tell, don’t show”: big pictures on the wall that explain verbosely what their interpretation of the Bible is, accompanied by…nothing. It’s bad pedagogy that only affirms what true believers already believe. If you’re not a believer already, it’s painfully dreary and dull; Ol’ Ken won’t be winning any souls for Jesus, but he will be reassuring those already on his side that science and American culture are agin’ ’em, and so they better join together.
What about the satisfaction of those attendees? They liked it! I doubt that many came out of it as I did feeling like they were ripped off. A few anecdotes: I was listening to what other people were saying (I was there solely as an observer, so I did not start any arguments, tempted though I was). I’m walking down the long, long, long ramp that winds through the center of the building, and there was an elderly couple walking along. “This is magnificent!”, he said to his wife, and she agreed. Yet all there was to see was this gigantic wooden ramp that was like a blown-up cattle chute, with us as the cattle. They’d clearly gotten the message that was hammered at us constantly about how big the Ark was, so that bigness became sufficient.
On the third deck, a woman bustled by, clearly anxious to just leave, and her teenaged son was trailing behind. “Mommm! Slow down! I’m trying to learn something here!” I spun around in place, looking at what there was to see. The ramp. A bright colorful poster of something or other on the wall. A small room space with a diorama in it. It was as close to an intellectual dead zone as I’ve seen. I don’t know whether the kid was simply using a buzz word — “learn” — to manipulate his mother, or whether he was sincere in wanting to think about the content. This was the point where I was most tempted to intervene and take the person aside who professed to want to learn and explain to him what he really needed to know about this place.
That was depressing, to see someone who at least claimed to want to learn who’d sought out this terrible place that was only teaching ignorance.
It also highlighted something else about the place: where were the docents? Most museums have volunteers who will help explain anything on display, or have experts who will do demonstrations. I saw nothing of the kind here. There were a couple of places where there were bottlenecks, with guides who were there to shepherd groups along; there were a few guards armed with tasers and police dogs. Otherwise, everything was designed to stand alone, which might explain why there so many walls of text splattered about. It’s all so ideologically focused in a narrow way, so it might also be difficult to get volunteer guides who don’t say something heretical now and then.
I expect the attendees stroll out of there to register high satisfaction ratings, in the majority. That’s a problem for AiG. You know that giant parking lot that maybe they hope to expand into? They’ve already captured the audience that is made giddily happy by trudging for 45 minutes through a maze of wooden boxes with amplified pig noises squealing at them. You don’t need substance to appeal to them at all. You could just bus them out to a completely empty giant wooden box, and if you told them it was Jesus-approved, they’d nod and check off the biggest number in the Likert scale of the satisfaction survey. This isn’t just a phenomenon at religious sites, of course.
It is a problem for growth though. Adding more exhibits or longer ziplines or carnival rides will increase their expenses, but won’t draw in more people beyond their already pre-satisfied crowd of Jesusites. The baseline has been successfully acquired. What do they do to make it grow? I have no idea. I don’t think they do, either.
Another concern for AiG. I, too, own a big wooden box called a house. It’s nowhere near the size of Ken Ham’s big wooden box, but maintenance is a non-trivial expense — we’re especially aware of that this summer, because we’ve hired a contractor to redo all the big wooden siding and replace the rotting-out boards in the big wooden deck. My pocketbook is already aching, so I’m a little bit sensitive to this sort of thing. I looked at the already seriously weathered shell of the Ark, and I wondered what happens when all those boards expand and warp in the cold and the heat, and what their maintenance costs will be. I’m also confident that those costs will grow over the years, and that AiG, given their desperate desire for raw overwhelming BIGNESS, have probably cut corners in quality somewhere (which is evident in the paltry content). Just the fact that they proudly proclaim that they have built the largest wooden structure in the world should tell you that they’re at the extreme end of what you can do with this kind of construction.
So I repeat: I don’t know if the Ark Park is economically viable. It might be cruising along just fine right now — that’s entirely possible, given reasonable attendance — and they might even get significant repeat business, because their fans are definitely devoted. But I know nothing about their expenses, it’s not exactly poised for real growth, and it’s got nothing in the interior that ought to make science museums concerned about competition. It’s a shrine to stupidity, which has a built-in strong audience in America. And which makes Ken Ham rich.