Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids

Running through January 6, 2008 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids features “spectacular sculptures, paintings, and textiles, along with a number of cultural objects ranging from medieval tapestries to shadow puppets to ceremonial masks and helmets from around the world which will bring to light surprising similarities as well as differences in the ways peoples around the world have envisioned and depicted these strange and wonderful creatures.”

The exhibits are divided into Water: Creatures of the Deep, Land: Creatures of the Earth, Air: Creatures of the Sky, and Dragons: Creatures of Power, presumably indicating that the ever-popular lizard things must hold down the Fire side of the four corners, and Christ Almighty! I wouldn’t want to be the museum curator opening any packages from the Phoenix Society.

Image from the Aberdeen Bestiary courtesy of Wikipedia.

Says the museum: “For thousands of years, fantastical creatures have been embedded in the human experience through legends and fables, ancient art, and even in the accounts of early naturalists.”

Speaking of au naturalists, I ran across this exhibit only moments after receiving an emissive from Queen of the Museum Nerds Audacia Ray, who, while quick to acknowledge that her recent visit to the American Urological Museum near Baltimore qualifies her for a merit badge in Strange Museology and she gets a silver star for recently hitting the Mütter Museum in Philly, she earns a blue polyester shirt and a coveted pair of Spock ears for her trip to the Haus der Natur in Salzburg, which she clocks as her strangest exhibition… er, that is to say… her strangest museum (which is saying a lot if you know the Mütter ).

Says Ray: “It’s a regular natural history museum, if a little outdated stylistically, and it has a whole section devoted to anatomical oddities, plus it has a stuffed baby liger. But that’s not the strange part – the strange part is that there is a whole section devoted to mythological creatures, which includes a large taxidermied unicorn. All that stuff is right next to the tropical birds, and there isn’t much of an effort at saying that these creatures come from the imagination. And if you’ve been to museums and overheard people making assumptions without reading the labels, you know that kids walk away from that museum believing in unicorns. Which is kind of awesome. Or terrible.”

Photograph from

Unicorn from a fresco in Palazzo Farnese, Rome, probably by Domenichino, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Hey, “Awesome or Terrible” is my middle name, and even while I would crawl down Central Park West on my knees to see an exhibit like Mythic Creatures, the Sagany codger in me is troubled by the inclusion of mythological creatures in a Natural History Museum (New York’s… the Austrians never trouble me). Me, I’m a devotee of both science and superstition, more politely called fantasy, or fancy, or less politely called whack-job craziness for the sake of it.

But what kind of science education do people get nowadays in the first place? And why is one of the few places where science is showcased now showcasing something at least as important, probably more important — imagination — but not science.

Or is it actually necessary nowadays for the American Natural History Museum to put up a sculpture of a dragon so museumgoers can hear “This is a dragon. It’s what we call MAKE BELIEVE.”?

More importantly, doesn’t that give museums the power to say “This is a kind of dragon. Cave babies used to play catch with them!” The $27 million dollar Creation Museum was built explicitly to impede science education. Is it important for the institutions of science education to celebrate human imagination as reflected in fantasy rather than science? Imagination rocks; it is the other half of reason. But reason is in short supply nowadays — such short supply that imagination, for many people, becomes indistinguishable from it.

Quarks and quasars get me goin’ as much as unicorns and mermaids. But there should be temples where both of them live unassailed and sacred, and the temples of science seem fewer every day.

Awesome and terrible, all around.

Lovecraftian Speculum courtesy of Audacia Ray.

For Further Reading:

Edward Rothstein’s NY Times Review of “Mythic Creatures”

American Urological Society

Mütter Museum


One Response to “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids”

  1. Worlds Tallest Man Weds, Scours Earth With Cobalt Bomb « Skid Roche Says:

    […] decided it was too disturbing to have unreal doomsday bombs in the book, sort of like having unicorns in the science museum, only with more cobalty goodness. “Who knows?” they must have thought; “It might […]

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