Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Museums Embrace "Pseudoscience"

You know, for all the worry about pseudoscience, museums sure know a popular thing when they see it.

The American Museum of Natural History has just opened the exhibit "Mythic." NYTimes Review. The exhibit examines mythical beasts, including some still hunted by cryptozoologists. This is reminiscent, though apparently on a bigger scale and with an eye more towards science education than artwork, of the "Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale" exhibit that travelled last year (Loren Coleman blogs about it here, here, and here amongst other posts).

A travelling exhibit "The Science of Aliens" (more here) is about exobiology, but opens with the Queen Alien from the film Aliens. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has had exhibits to Star Wars and Star Trek for years. The University of Texas' Institute of Texan Cultures has an exhibit on Dragons, (official page) including sea serpents. Arizona State University's Anthropology Museum has an exhibition on UFO photos. The March Field Air Museum had an event explaining UFO sightings as misinterpretations of classified military aircraft. And last year a Discovery Science Center highlighted Chupacabras sightings in "the OC."

There is nothing wrong with this. I think it is a lot of fun, and learning will probably happen in one form or another. But I find it somewhat disingenuous to hear some debunkers still suggest that money from books or appearances is a major incentive for people to fake paranormal or cryptid or UFO or whatever experiences. Sure, it might be. But museums, in addition to media companies and others, definitely make money off these topics. Let's not kid ourselves. And they're not the only ones doing it. The controversial religious Creation Museum that recently opened in Kentucky may be preaching the Old Testament (and it does have an overtly religious and moral message for the present, as discussed in the review linked above, and is not just about the topics typically associated with Creationism), but it is full of animatronic dinosaurs, and the gift shop is themed with dragons and such. They know what kids like, and I'll bet a lot of visitors think Harry Potter is a gateway to Satanism.

Recently in my class, I noted that some Bigfoot research groups have people go on their research expeditions by paying a membership fee in the hundreds of dollars. Personally I am suspicious of this. But as I started to talk about this in class, I also had to admit to myself and my students that archaeological field schools are composed primarily of students who pay thousands of dollars to go dig in the hot sun (they do get college credit) and there are digs and projects where volunteers do pay large sums of money to dig or work (without college credit). I don't think these practices are bad, but it nonetheless it put a different perspective on things.

EDIT: An art installation takes this up a notch. Eleanor Fawcett has recreated Steve Feltham's trailer, the one he has permanently moved into along the shores of Loch Ness in search of its monster. Review here.

Update: September 2012. If you want a glimpse inside how and why museums do this, take a look at the comments section on this Doubtful News item. The National Atomic Testing Museum (a museum apparently affiliated with the Smithsonian) is exploiting the myths surrounding the Groom Lake Facility (aka Area 51). They've got several ufologists on board, and perhaps most surprisingly, George Knapp. If you don't know, Knapp is a respected television journalist in Las Vegas. But he's most famous for making Area 51 a household name by introducing the world to Bob Lazar, a supposed insider at Area 51 that even much of ufology doesn't take seriously anymore. Knapp is also a part-time host of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, and he's been involved in the "Skinwalker Ranch" activities underwritten by Bigelow Aerospace (which are apparently involved in some fashion in the exhibit). He is the coauthor of the book Hunt for the Skinwalker, the account of supposed scientific investigations at the ranch, but an accounting that leaves a tremendous amount to be desired, and is more memorable for anecdotes of Sasquatch-like beings walking through portals and people meditating. And no useful pictures, videos, etc..

I can understand at least some of the idea behind this, but the comments over on the Doubtful News item (in which one of the posters relays statements from a representative of the museum, are not encouraging.

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