The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre – there I said it

This has been something that I have been meaning to write about for a long time, but between one thing and another it never happened. I have been spurred on to write this now as it has begun to dawn on me that people are beginning to use this as an example of the triumph of rationality in cultural institutions or is continuously trotted out as an example of how such institutions get science “wrong”.

I’m going to say from the beginning that I completely understand why scientifically-minded rational people were so affronted by the inclusion of a statement acknowledging the fact that there are some people in Northern Ireland who believe that the earth is less than 7,000 years old. For most people this is just patently untrue and thus has no place within the confines of an educational space such as the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre. However it is my opinion that the presence of such a statement was valid and appropriate given not only the fact that there are people in the Northern Irish community that believe this to be true but that it also spoke to the history of the interpretation of the site as a geological formation. What was more disappointing than the fact that they removed the “offending” statement was their poor defence of why it should be included in the first place.

Since the 1980s, museums and similar institutions have been moving away from being didactic educationalist environments. Taking from the ideas of hermeneutics, such cultural institutions have been forced to confront the reality that people are not empty vessels that enter their hallowed gates to be then filled with the “truth” as laid out through instructional “factual” information panels and carefully selected curated objects. Like in all human settings, people, as individuals or as part of an interpretative community, arrive in a museum with their own expectations, narratives and stories. By (hopefully) engaging with the exhibitions they then use the narratives provided to them to further their own personal or collective stories. The most unsuccessful institutions are ones that build no relationship or provide no dialogue between the object(s) being interpreted and the community attempting to engage with the objects/cultural site.

The visitor centre (and defendants of it) made a huge error in employing the tired adage of “teaching the controversy”, or attempting to reason that creationism is a scientific theory that should be afforded the same acknowledgement as the incontrovertible truth that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Unfortunately a reasoned and mature debate on the place of this text within the exhibition was completely subverted by the fact that a somewhat notorious campaign group, the Caleb Foundation, weighed in loudly on the so-called “debate” that followed. They are well known for trying to get Northern Irish schools to teach what they refer to as “both sides of the debate” regarding evolution in a style very familiar to those who follow the same kinds of groups, trying to exert the same kinds of pressure in the United States. It is undoubtedly disappointing that the National Trust included the Caleb Foundation amongst the large number of community groups that is consulted, thus allowing the group to then use this association as some kind of validation.

However, as explained above, museums and other cultural institutions have moved away from the didactic “truth” model of information dissemination over the past 30 years. This is not to say that museums are in the habit of making up facts or distorting them (although I’m sure some have!), I am more referring to the tone of the informational delivery. So what are we talking about when we say they unwittingly validated the creationist view? It was in fact a section at the end of an audio interactive. This section was the delivery of series sample debates between 18th century natural historians (it would be a little misleading to refer to them as scientists or geologists) and religious figures debating who the Giant’s Causeway was formed. Not only was there the overtly biblical interpretation of fossils and geological formations but also the Vulcanist versus Neptunist debate. Eminent scholars were loosely split into two groups when it came to competing ideas about the formation of geological features, some of these early theories were still informed heavily by Christian theology. Vulcanists believed that all features could be explained by using volcanic means i.e. built up or shaped by volcanos – plate tectonics wasn’t to come on the scene for a long time, whereas Neptunist believed that all features were what we would call sedimentary in nature, and they interpreted this as being evidence of the great flood. These are very terse encapsulations of what was a long running series of debates.

So, in presenting the public with an example of the kind of debate that may have taken place between a pair of these competing opinions (Nicholas Demarest and Abraham Werner, James Hutton and Dr Richardson) the transcript then acknowledges creationism in a section entitled The Debate continues today:

“Like many natural phenomena around the world, the Giant’s Causeway has raised questions and prompted debate about how it was formed. This debate has ebbed and flowed since the discovery of the Causeway to science and, historically, the Causeway became part of a global debate about how the earth’s rocks were formed.

This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.

For further information on this exhibit, please speak to a Ranger.”

I will be so bold as to defy anyone to say that the above statement is untrue. This is what my defence of that statement boils down to, they actually stating a fact here, and not only that: one that is particularly pertinent to the Northern Irish community. This is an active issue within Northern Ireland and it is not the place of a cultural institution to ignore that inconvenience. Many statements of facts are presented in museums now, some which are not the most pleasant to behold or that may make some of the viewing public uncomfortable or even disgusted, does this mean that they should go unsaid? Cultural institutions should strive to be an accurate and thought provoking reflection of their own community, and as we have seen here that is something that many people can find very hard to deal with.

Now that the exhibition has been changed, has that made the Caleb Foundation silent? No. Has it given it even more to talk about, allowed it to cry religious injustice and censorship? Yes. The Giant’s Causeway visitor centre was providing a space in which those who had no fixed opinion (in particular younger people) could have discussed the historical and contemporary debate, allowed them to look at the weight of evidence – which here would be an entire centre detailing the age and structure of the causeway in minute scientific detail with a small audio clip acknowledging that there are people out there that shun the weight of evidence in favour of biblical interpretation. Those who oppose should groups such as the Caleb Foundation should welcome such comparison with open arms – compare the evidence like for like, with as little bias as possible and it is a forgone conclusion that the biblical interpretation will come up woefully short, as is painfully obvious here.

This moralistic gate-keeping of the “truth” in cultural institutions only serves to further isolate part of its own local community, one that they should be actively seeking to engage with (regardless of how one feels about their beliefs). These institutions shouldn’t get to choose the public they serve, like in the good old days of the gentleman’s museum, they should throw open their interpretive powers and allow those interpretive outliers to be exposed to the penetrating rays of public scrutiny and see who benefits more.

Cross posted on Skeptic Ireland.

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