Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Fantasy Creatures on Display

Here Be Monsters Dragons, sea serpents and manatees, er, mermaids—a museum show looks at the all-too-human impulse to embellish nature. By Susanna Schrobsdorff Newsweek Updated: 10:38 a.m. CT July 31, 2007 At first, it's a bit of a mystery why the humble and homely manatee was included in an exhibit of fantastical creatures, both real and imagined. Some visitors might not even notice the shapeless gray form dangling from the ceiling, what with the 17-foot dragon just behind her and a stunning white unicorn standing on a pedestal just ahead of her. Nonetheless, the matronly sea mammal might be the most evocative item at the American Museum of Natural History's "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids" exhibit in New York City. Under the manatee, there's a small video screen on a stand. Twist a knob on the device and an image of the manatee slowly becomes a pretty mermaid. It's kind of like watching a bloated Marlon Brando morph into Angelina Jolie. You can't imagine how anyone could confuse the two—even at distance and even after months at sea eating nothing but salted meat. But somehow, the minds of 15th-century sailors turned these lumpy creatures into alluring women with fish tails who called to them from rocky shores. Or at least that's what they told everyone when they got home. Such is the human need to embellish nature and turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. And that's what the exhibition is all about. Cocurator Laurel Kendall says she considers this collection of cultural artifacts, bones and theatrical renditions of imaginary animals a continuation of the museum's exhibits on human evolution—a testament to "the unique ability of humans to tell stories, to exaggerate." The exhibit, which took two years to create, is divided into land, air and sea; and for each legendary creature, there is an anthropological history of how the myth evolved, filled out by illustrations, models and costumes. Real animals are displayed alongside the mythic. The dim, dappled lighting in the exhibit is intentional, says Kendall: "We really wanted to distinguish this from the rest of the museum." There are animals you are sure couldn't have existed, but did, such as the Gigantopithecus blacki, a towering King Kong-like primate that stands taller than a man and has humanoid features. It looks like an artist's rendition of Bigfoot until you read the tag and find out it lived in Southeast Asia (and is now extinct). Then there are taxidermied animals that seem authentic, but are part of a long line of hoaxes, like the desiccated corpse of a small fish creature with arms and a round skull. It should be a missing evolutionary link, but it's just a tiny monkey's torso glued to a papier-mâché fishtail. In the mid-19th century, P. T. Barnum advertised this creature, or something like it, as a "Feejee Mermaid." Of course, the posters showed a gorgeous nymph, not the wizened Franken-fish visitors were confronted with once they paid their admission. And don't think for a second that the modern public is any less fixated on the idea of beings that we haven't yet been able to catalog and explain. "We mapped the world, now there's a lament for the unknown," says Kendall. So we fill in the blank spaces with imagined aliens from other universes or cling to old mysteries like the Loch Ness monster. While our collective imagination hasn't let up, kids (and adults) now find their mythic creatures on their computers more often than not. They create Neopets and other virtual animals online and invest them with human qualities. And if a Jules Verne-style animal surfaces, as it did earlier this year when a New Zealand fishing boat caught a 33-foot colossal squid off the coast of Antarctica, the public is utterly fascinated. A mythic squid is included in the exhibit. It's called a kraken, and its head and arms rise partway from the floor of the museum as if it were emerging from the sea. Nearby there are small photos of real giant squids to remind us that sometimes the tallest tales aren't that far off. The museum says the exhibit, which is slated to go on a world tour after it closes in New York on Jan. 6, has been a rousing success. In the peak summer period, about 300,000 people stream through the museum each month, and the $21 tickets for this exhibit usually sell out every day by early afternoon. And why wouldn't they? In the age of Harry Potter and Eragon, what could be more enticing to families traipsing the hot streets of the city than looking at unicorns and dragons in air-conditioned comfort? Of course, the show does at times seem to pander to a topic that is popular and lucrative. After all, visitors are funneled out past the Chinese dragon into a slickly designed gift shop brimming with Disney mermaids and Harry Potter figurines. Not to worry: after navigating the trinkets, you wind up in a spectacular sunlit hall of dinosaurs, where their massive bones belittle all of our imaginations.
As a child, I was fascinated, utterly fascinated, by the "mermaid" at the Milwaukee Public Museum. It never occurred to me for a second that it was a fake! When I took Don on a tour of the museum back in 2004, I took him right to the case that is home to the "mermaid" - it still exercises its magic over me.

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