Evolution teaching debate makes its way into Kansas history museums

About once a month, Jerry Choate says, workers at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays find brochures in the restrooms promoting creationism over evolution.

And increasingly, Choate said, Sternberg guides find themselves face-to-face with patrons angry that the museum’s exhibits use evolution to explain the history of dinosaurs and fossils.

“It’s happening more than it used to,” said Choate, the museum’s director. “A person or group will come in and confront one of the guides with rapid-fire questions for which the person is not qualified to respond.”

Quietly, the war over the teaching of evolution has spilled out of the Kansas State Board of Education and into other areas. John Calvert, a leader of forces asking the board to require criticism of evolution in the classroom, said the museum encounters are part of a rising tide of criticism against Darwin’s theory.

“There’s no (organized) effort to do that,” Calvert said. “But I think you’re finding that wherever there’s a discussion of evolution going on, you’ll find people raising their questions.”

The questioning could become more intense. Choate said the Sternberg plans to unveil a new evolution exhibit next year. And the Kansas University Museum of Natural History in November will open “Explore Evolution,” a traveling exhibit that examines how evolution influences ongoing scientific research.

Hot issue

Jordan Yochim, the assistant director at KU’s museum, said the exhibit isn’t intended as commentary about the state’s ongoing debate.

“It really is just coincidental that we have an exhibit when the issue here is hot in Kansas,” Yochim said.

But it’s been a while since the issue has cooled.

In 1999, conservatives on the State Board of Education adopted science standards for public school students that de-emphasized evolution. Those standards were reversed when moderates regained control of the board.

More recently, with conservatives holding a 6-4 majority, the board adopted standards that include criticism of evolution. Those standards – which come up for a final vote next month – were promoted by Calvert and other proponents of intelligent design, which claims a master planner developed life.

Officials at Kansas museums say the controversy hasn’t changed the way they present information about the state’s natural history.

But they’ve noticed that more visitors arrive ready to criticize what they see.

“We get groups in quite frequently – they’re mainly interested in the dinosaur floor – to tell a different kind of story,” Yochim said.

Choate said his museum has offered more training to gallery guides to handle such situations.

“We’re having training sessions to help them deal with the situations,” Choate said. “If a person is not receptive to what you have say, you don’t need to talk to them.”

Indoctrination or education?

That approach irritates Calvert, who said evolution proponents are avoiding legitimate criticisms.

“Museums aren’t focused on education,” he said. “They’re focused on indoctrination.”

“Explore Evolution,” the new KU exhibit, will look at how evolutionary theory is used in current scientific research – to explain changes in HIV, the adaptation of Galapagos finches and genetic ties between humans and chimpanzees. KU is one of six museums across the Midwest that helped sponsor the project.

The museum will also offer visitors a handout explaining how evolution differs from creationism and religion.

“These exhibits are not going to work,” Calvert said. “People are going to wind up laughing at them.”

KU officials acknowledge that the exhibit may draw some heat, given the state’s political climate. But they say they’re not spoiling for a fight.

“It’s like with any information,” Yochim said. “It’s up to a well-educated citizenry to make good use for it, and museums are no different. We can’t force visitors to think a certain way.”