Arts and Humanities
Tue May 14, 2013
Frazier Museum Exhibit Explores Natural History, Science, Folklore Behind Mythic Creatures
There’s no scientific proof that the elusive Bigfoot exists. The fearsome Chupacabra (a cryptid known in Puerto Rico and Mexico as a small livestock vampire of sorts) doesn't belong to an identifiable genus or species. And yet, tales of unclassified creatures have endured across cultures and throughout history.
Curated by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the 7,500-square-foot Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Frazier History Museum explores the natural histories of creatures like dragons and giants. It sounds cheeky. How do you create an historical exhibit out of cryptozoology—the study of creatures that likely never existed? But the exhibit is really a cleverly-disguised package of anthropology, geography, paleontology, international history, biology, literature and archeology. The flashy Pegasus model is the bait, and the ancient Greek coins (Corinth, 650-510 B.C.) depicting the winged horse are the historical pay-off. The exhibit includes historical artifacts and fossils, as well as literary and historical accounts that help us understand how and why myths begin and persist.
Mythic Creatures is divided into four environments: creatures of the sea, land, air and dragons. Several large-scale sculptures anchor each section: a giant prehistoric upright ape that resembles the creature known as Bigfoot, a unicorn bathed in neon pink light, a giant eagle known as the Roc. Fossils and preserved animal parts help illustrate how the natural world helped perpetuate certain myths. Sailors would sell narwhal tusks as unicorn horns; the skull of the dwarf elephant, with its center tusk cavity, might have been mistaken for a Cyclops skull. The dragon exhibit also includes details of a woolly rhinoceros skull kept on display for centuries in the city hall of a small Austrian town. According to local lore, it was the skull of a dragon slain before the town was founded in 1250.
In the sea exhibit, a cross-section of myths and histories collide. An authentic preserved giant squid tentacle is accompanied by eyewitness accounts of different sizes of classifiable giant squid that may have been mistaken for apocryphal animals like the Kraken (an impressive floor model with 12-foot tentacles emerges from the sea exhibit floor) and the Sea Bishop. Antique naturalist drawings of the Hippocampus, a hypothetical creature that boasts a horse's head on a sea monster body, accompanied an explanation of how scientific theories about evolution developed, including the 16th century theory that every land creature had an aquatic equivalent. The sea exhibit also introduces lesser-known myths like the Nasca, a type of killer whale Peruvians believed carried human heads as trophies captured in a ceramic sculpture from around 700 A.D., and a stone sculpture from 1502 of the Ahuizotl, an Aztec dog-like sea creature said to lure people to their drowning deaths by mimicking a baby's cry. The mermaid section alone is quite comprehensive, covering commonalities mermaid myths from many cultures shared, owed perhaps to international trade.
The Frazier hosts the exhibit through Sept. 15. This is an optional exhibit, but admission includes the rest of the museum.