Thursday, October 15, 2009

On the Verge of Something Big?

The Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History is preparing to open a new exhibit next year that is sure to raise some eyebrows once news spreads. From the surface it seems like it shouldn't have any controversy around it at all but I think it will all come down to what you believe and how firmly you believe it. The museum announced the other day that it will be opening a new exhibit hall next year that will showcase human evolution. This will be the first time that the museum will have tackled the issue in such a large manner. The reason I think it's going to be a bit controversial is due to the fact that many people don't take the evolutionary road in trying to trace our origins but rather the theological road and that can make for a very fine line that the museum officials will likely have to walk.

It seems that with certain subjects there is always a very fine line that makes it either a good subject to tackle or one that can create more headaches than it sometimes seems it's worth. The Smithsonian is no stranger to controversial subjects. I remember a few years ago when word first came out about the decision to display the Enola Gay (the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II) at the National Air and Space Museum. There were many who were strongly opposed to displaying the plane at all at the museum as it was a symbol of nuclear war and was responsible for the bomb that ulimtately caused so many civilian deaths. Now while I understood the reason for wanting to have equal mention made of the fact that the plane dropped the bomb that caused so many deaths I didn't understand why there was such controversy over displaying the plane.

After all, isn't the old saying "Guns don't kill people; people kill people" true? The plane itself was an instrument in the ultimate delivery of the weapon but not the weapon itself. Sure you can get into a prolonged discussion on whether the plane should be counted as 'being responsible' given the fact that it allowed the bomb to be dropped in the first place but it is not the point. The initial exhibit did acknowledge the tremendous loss of life and destruction caused by the bomb. It did so well to explain the role of the plane in dropping the bomb that veterans of World War II and historians believed that it painted an unnecessarily negative picture without pointing out the context of the bombing with the rest of the war. When the plane was finally moved to the new annex near Dulles Airport it was simply displayed as a model of the a B-29 bomber with no mention whatsoever of it's role in the bombing of Hiroshima. I suppose that's one way of avoiding further problems.

But the Natural History is also no stranger to controversial displays. In 2003 the Natural History Museum displayed an exhibit of photographs from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Where the controversy came in was over the fact that the exhibit made conclusions about global climate change that many felt could not be accurately concluded given the relatively unknown nature of the Earth's natural cycles. In order to avoid making what could have been perceived as a political statement (given that the Bush Administration had made statements to the effect that global warming was a myth and also given that the administration was looking to begin drilling for oil in the same area that was photographed), the display was moved from the main floors to the basement where it was kept until it's time at the museum was up.

Now with the decision to put up a display on human evolution, I'm sure there's going to be a ruckus raised by those who firmly believe in their religion and will see this move as something meant to stymie their religious beliefs even more. What I fail to understand is how such an exhibit meant to show one theory of evolution can be seen as the beginning of the end for religious beliefs. If you believe that God created man in his own image (and not initially as an ape that evolved over time) then you should stick to your beliefs. If someone believes the opposite then it doesn't mean that your beliefs are being challenged or destroyed so why behave that way? I'm sure we'll see protests about how the exhibit won't accurately show the religious aspects fit into evolution but then do we really need to? This is the museum of Natural History, not religious history. This is an institution related to science and not theology. If you believe that such as display is detrimental to your religious beliefs then I think your mission shouldn't be to protest but to get more people to understand your religious beliefs so that they too can reject things which you believe to be false.

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