PETERSBURG, Ky. — Ken Ham's sprawling creation museum isn't even open yet, but an expansion is already underway in the state-of-the art lobby, where grunting dinosaurs and animatronic humans coexist in a Biblical paradise.
A crush of media attention and packed preview sessions have convinced Ham that nearly half a million people a year will come to Kentucky to see his Biblically correct version of history.
"I think we'll be surprised at how many people come," Ham said as he dodged dozens of designers working to finish exhibits in time for the May 28 opening.
The $27 million project, which also includes a planetarium, a special-effects theater, nature trails and a small lake, is privately funded by people who believe the Bible's first book, Genesis, is literally true.
For them, a museum showing Christian schoolchildren and skeptics alike how the earth, animals, dinosaurs and humans were created in a six-day period about 6,000 years ago – not over millions of years, as evolutionary science says – is long overdue.
While foreign media and science critics have mostly come to snigger at exhibits explaining how baby dinosaurs fit on Noah's Ark and Cain married his sister to people the earth, museum spokesman and vice-president Mark Looy said the coverage has done nothing but drum up more interest.
"Mocking publicity is free publicity," Looy said. Besides, U.S. media have been more respectful, mindful perhaps of a 2006 Gallup Poll showing almost half of Americans believe that humans did not evolve, but were created by God in their present form within the last 10,000 years.
Looy said supporters of the museum include evangelical Christians, Orthodox Jews and conservative Catholics, as well as the local Republican congressman, Geoff Davis, and his family, who have toured the site.
While the debate between creationists and mainstream scientists has bubbled up periodically in U.S. schools since before the Scopes "monkey trial" in nearby Tennessee 80 years ago, courts have repeatedly ruled that teaching religious theory in public schools is unconstitutional.
Ham, an Australian who moved to America 20 years ago, believes creationists could have presented a better case at the Scopes trail if they'd been better educated – but he's not among those pushing for creation to be taught in school.
Rather than force skeptical teachers to debate creation, Ham wants kids to come to his museum, where impassioned experts can make their case that apparently ancient fossils and the Grand Canyon were created just a few thousand years ago in a great flood.
"It's not hitting them over the head with a Bible, it's just teaching that we can defend what it says," he said.
Ham, who also runs a Christian broadcasting and publishing venture, said the museum's Hollywood-quality exhibits set the project apart from the many quirky Creation museums sprinkled across America.
The museum's team of Christian designers include theme park art director Patrick Marsh, who designed the "Jaws" and "King Kong" attractions at Universal Studios in Florida, as well as dozens of young artists whose conviction drives their work.
"I think it shows (nonbelievers) the other side of things," said Carolyn Manto, 27, pausing in her work painting Ice Age figures for a display about caves in France.
"I don't think it's going to be forcing any viewpoint on them, but challenging them to think critically about their evolutionary views," said Manto, who studied classical sculpture before joining the museum.
Still, Looy is upfront about the museum's mission: to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with nonbelievers.
"I think a lot of people are going to come out of curiosity ... and we're going to present the Gospel. This is going to be an evangelistic center," Looy said. A chaplain has been hired for museum-goers in need of spiritual guidance.
The museum's rural location near the border of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana places it well within America's mostly conservative and Christian heartland. But the setting has another strategic purpose: two-thirds of Americans are within a day's drive of the site, and Cincinnati's international airport is minutes away.
The project has not been without opposition. Zoning battles with environmentalists and groups opposed to the museum's message have delayed construction and the museum's opening day has been delayed repeatedly.
The museum has hired extra security and explosives-sniffing dogs to counter anonymous threats of damage to the building. "We've had some opposition," Looy said.