The American Museum of Natural History is currently displaying “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids,” an exhibit designed to provide an in-depth look at the creatures that have captivated our imaginations since childhood.
The exhibit, which opened on May 26, features more than 30 beasts that exist in legends around the world – from Japan to Peru to Switzerland – and have their origins in different time periods throughout history.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by a 17-foot-long dragon. “Mythic Creatures” is then divided into five categories: creatures of water, creatures of land, creatures of air, dragons and a conclusion, which, according to a press release from the museum, focuses on “the meaning of mythic creatures today.”
“The exhibit was appealing to me because I’ve always loved mythology, but my knowledge of the subject hasn’t really extended past the Greeks,” Emily Dudek, treasurer of the (College’s) Classic Studies Club, said. “Now I know more about unicorns and mermaids and have added Kappas and Yawk-yawks to my vocabulary, too.”
Several members of the club trekked to the city to visit the exhibit on Sept 22 in order to further explore the display’s foray into classical mythology.
At first, one might think that the exhibit was made strictly for children. Tapestries and paintings of mermaids line the walls and a white and pink 10-foot unicorn captures the attention of dozens of little girls. The bright colors and realistic appearances of the “life-size” models provide the perfect place for their imaginations to run wild.
Visitors are even invited to touch certain items on display, including a narwhal tusk and the jaw of a Gigantopithecus blacki, an extinct ape, the teeth and jaw of which were popularly believed to have magical healing powers.
However, “Mythic Creatures” also contains dozens of pieces of art that feature these creatures, much like any other museum exhibit. These range from 16th-century maps depicting sea monsters to ancient Greek coins decorated with the images of griffins to a Japanese suit of armor covered with dragons.
On the walls of each section of “Mythic Creatures,” the words of famous pieces of literature describe the wonder with which the world viewed these mysterious creatures.
“It was a giant squid 25 feet long,” Jules Verne wrote in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” “It was heading toward the Nautilus, swimming backward very fast . We could clearly make out the 250 suckers lining the inside of its tentacles, some of which fastened onto the glass panel of the lounge. The monster’s mouth – a horny beak like that of a parakeet – opened and closed vertically … What a whim of nature!”
If visitors also take the time to read the descriptions of each display, they will discover the history of each creature and how many of them came into “existence.” For example, it is believed that the nasal cavity in the skull of an elephant was interpreted as one large eye socket, bringing about the legend of the Cyclops.
“This exhibition extends the museum’s traditional examinations of the natural world and human cultures to explore how nature fuels creativity in people around the world and across time, inspires fear or whimsy and even influences belief systems,” Ellen Futter, president of the museum, said in the press release.
The combination of visual interest, ancient legends, historical explanations and cultural significance is what makes the exhibit appealing to people of any age.
“I think this exhibit is fantastic for any age group,” Dudek said. “Kids would love it for obvious reasons and there are plenty of ancient artifacts and stories to keep everyone else happy. For (the Classic Studies Club), it was a great day in the city doing something a bit less serious than usual.”
“Mythical Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids” will remain open until Jan. 6, 2008. For more information, visit amnh.org/exhibitions/mythiccreatures.