PETERSBURG, Kentucky - The Kentucky museum where dinosaurs and biblical characters coexist has rolled out new exhibits and attractions - some with no religious message - to try to bring in new visitors.
The Creation Museum has added a bug exhibit that would fit right in at a natural science center, an outdoor zip line course and a display examining whether the dragons of ancient tales were actually dinosaurs.
Since its opening six years ago, the museum - built with $27 million in private donations - has become an epicenter for the creationist message, which presents biblical stories from the book of Genesis as a literal telling of the world's origin. The museum, just south of Cincinnati, has long been criticized by scientists for dismissing evolution and asserting that Earth's age is in the thousands, not billions, of years.
Museum co-founder Ken Ham said he knew when it opened to big crowds in 2007 that new features would need to be added from time to time. Total attendance since the opening is approaching 1.9 million, he said.
"This was the end of our sixth year, and we really felt it was time to do some significant things, which we had been planning for quite some time," said Ham, who is president of the Answers in Genesis ministry, which owns and operates the museum.
Steel cable lines soar over the rear portion of the museum's property, part of a 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) zip line and sky bridge course billed on the museum's website as "a family-friendly outdoor adventure." Unlike the inside of the museum, the course lacks any religious teachings.
Ham said the museum is welcoming of people seeking fun without a creationism lesson.
"That's what we wanted to see, because it will bring in a broader range of people in here and provide something for the community as well - they don't have to go to the Creation Museum, they can just come for the zip lines," Ham said.
Inside, at the new Dr. Crawley's Insectorium, brightly lit displays showcase hundreds of beetles, butterflies and other bugs donated by a museum supporter. A life-sized animatronic professor who appears to be working in a research lab tells visitors the insects are too complex and varied to have evolved over millions of years.
"Isn't God's handiwork beautiful?" he says.
Near the entrance, a series of displays explores ancient dragon and monster myths from around the world and asks the visitor to consider whether the ancient people who told these tales had actually seen dinosaurs.
The new exhibits have gone in as the ministry's ambitious Noah's ark-themed park has stalled, with about $13 million raised out of a $24 million goal. The Ark Encounter project, which would include a massive replica of the vessel, was unveiled about two years ago, but its opening has been pushed back indefinitely. Ham said he hopes the big boat can open by 2016.
The Creation Museum continues to draw plenty of vocal opposition from scientists and educators who say its exhibits are misleading and not based on scientific findings. They say the new features are no exception.
Hemant Mehta, a math teacher from Naperville, Illinois, said in an email that he has visited the museum twice and that the facility does a good job of presenting its message with high-tech exhibits.
"The layout at the Creation Museum really is beautiful," said Mehta, who has written about the museum on his "Friendly Atheist" blog. "However, the quality of information is worthless, which makes the `museum' nothing more than an expensive way to confuse and indoctrinate children."
But the new additions at the museum, namely the zip lines, are a good strategy to attract new and repeat visitors, said John Gerner, a leisure consultant who has studied religious attractions.
"Zip lines in particular are very, very popular nationwide," said Gerner, who is managing director at Leisure Business Advisors in Richmond, Virginia.
"The strategy they're using as far as the types of changes are actually in line with what we would see at a science museum," he said.
Mehta said the zip lines were added "for the same reason evangelical megachurches have amazing bands open their worship sessions - it has nothing to do with the service itself, but it might draw in a different crowd."
Ham said the museum continues to draw about half its visitors from more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) away.
Brad King - who drove in with family from Spencer, Indiana - said he and his 5-year-old daughter were impressed by the insect display.
"She loves bugs," King said. He said the museum's exhibits validate the existence of God.
"It's always nice with faith to put it with facts," he said.