I visited the Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids exhibit on Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Here are my thoughts from it.

I’ve been to this museum many times. It’s packed on a pleasant Saturday. If you go, I suggest you go early. Before I went to this section, I strolled through the familiar dinosaur halls. As usual, it is jammed with strollers, crying toddlers and excited parents, holding their little ones up to show them how T. rex is related to birds. They follow along the branches of the evolutionary tree, they grapple with the names, pointing to “this guy” when they can’t pronounce names like “coelophysis“. They read off the text to their listeners, emphasizing the “‘blank-blank’ million years ago”. It was wonderful to see so many embracing the most basic concepts of biology. I went around counting skeletal toes, looking for the remnant digits on the theropods, and comparing numbers of tarsal bones. I tested myself trying to name the skull bones marked with abbreviations on the hadrosaur head.

The Mythic Creatures exhibition costs extra (adult price is $22 including access to the entire museum and Rose center), which is fair to support such an institution. The curators are anthropologist Laurel Kendall, paleontologist Mark Norell and marine natural historian/artist/paleontologist/author Richard Ellis and features sections on myths of the land, sea and air. Television screens have video clips interspersed among a presumable “life-size” dragon and a surfacing Kraken. The Kraken is made of tough foam making it really touchable.

It is very difficult to move through the wave of people when the entrance is opened. One might run ahead and see the end and work back to avoid the people stuck at the earlier displays. Photos are not allowed.

Here are the highlights:

  • Watching a screen where you can make a manatee turn into a mermaid;
  • Compare a line of swimming porpoise to a sea serpent;
  • Seeing the historic naturalists’ books that describe the wonders of the sea and new worlds;
  • Comparing yourself to the life-size Aepyornis with egg;
  • Chuckling at the chupacabra display with colorful ancient depiction of a blood-sucker of myth contrasted with the boring robotic-like Chupa toy of recent times;
  • Seeing the (possibly original) Feejee Mermaid (Note: it’s far too pathetic to ever be taken as a real animal but so delicate, a true work of art);
  • Touching a narwhal horn;
  • Imagining the Roc swooping from the ceiling, eyeing your children as a tasty morsel;
  • Using your creativity to mentally construct a giant cyclops or a griffin from the fossils found by ancient peoples.

The purpose of the show is to explore how these animal myths came about and continue to be so enduring in cultures of the world. In that, it succeeds. While the big three might be dragons, unicorns and mermaids, they include a lot more – touching on the Griffin, Naga, Garuda, Bunyip, Pegasus, Barong, Kappa, Tengu, and more. Many will be introduced to these for the first time and might be amazed that there are so many “common” strange creatures. The tone is decidedly skeptical, but not an in-your-face denial, regarding cryptids. One video clip did hint that, although it is impossible that these mythical creatures exist as we imagine, there is far more astounding life to be discovered that no one has yet imagined.

My favorite part might have been marveling at the life-size Gigantopithicus blackii (that looks more like a large elegant gorilla, than Bigfoot). Oh, how I wanted to touch it! It was part of the section that examined all the humanlike creatures. I can imagine several visitors will be struck with amazement at the map showing the locations of reported human-like ape creatures or wildmen worldwide. It’s not just Bigfoot, it’s aG_blackii worldwide phenomena. I wonder how people will interpret that – are those creatures really there – not a myth, or are they a motif – common to many cultures. I continue to wonder that myself.

It is a hallmark, for me at least, that museum exhibitions can leave me feeling I have just gotten a taste of the subject. There is so much left to learn about it. Even the experts admit they don’t know why this or that is such, they must go on looking. There is the essence of science. It’s perpetual.

One must exit via the gift shop, as expected. I was very disappointed in paucity and poor quality merchandise associated with the theme: stuffed dragons, lots of Draconology books and figures, fluffy winged or horned horses for the girls, pretty mermaid dolls, dragon-themed DVDs, fantasy posters and Asian-type dragon logo tees, bags and coffee mugs. The book selection was pretty shallow. I expected to find the more scholarly discussions about myth, such as the works on dragons and monsters, interspersed among the juvenile selections. There was, instead, Beowulf (movie to come out soon), Charles Gould’s Dragons, Unicorns and Sea Serpents (19th century), [retitled from his Mythical Monsters, available here http://www.sacred-texts.com/earth/mm/index.htm] an encyclopedia of fantastic monsters, and Cryptozoology A-Z (Coleman & Clark). The bookstore did contain all of Ellis’ reprints, which are wonderful.

When I went to the last special exhibit here – about Charles Darwin, I was far more impressed. Of course, that was not exactly marketed to children so the fluff was not there. But, I found it more touching and enlightening. I was examining the existence of a real person who was surrounded by myth and rumor. I found a real person in there, with emotions and fears like we all have, but a brilliant idea. With this exhibition, I found the myths alive but the presentation failed to reach the depths, in my opinion. But to most, I think it will have been interesting, perhaps not captivating. There is a brilliant idea in there — that we both fear and are attracted to the natural world. We want to touch it even though it may bite.

Official Mythical Creatures site
NY Times review

Images from AMNH site: Chupacabra and Gigantopithecus

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