Mythic Creatures Exhibit

March 27, 2009 — Sometimes OTIS goes to the oddity; sometimes the oddity comes to OTIS. It was the latter situation that happened when the Mythic Creatures exhibit came to the Museum of Science in Boston, MA, earlier this year.

There are few things I like more on this planet than monsters, and few things make me sadder than the fact that there are no monsters on this planet. Or, more accurately, that all the monsters have gone kinda mundane thanks to the stampede of exotic animal shows one can find on television any hour of the day. I mean, Du Chaillu might have been the first white man to see a gorilla, but I can see more of them in a single hour than he ever did over the course of his entire life. So the idea of imaginary, unknowable monsters makes me happy. Most any compelling exercise of the imagination does.

As a result, I was excited to see the Mythic Creatures exhibit. However, I was also a bit trepidatious, despite the fact that Microsoft Word objects to that string of letters as a word. My feelings of apprehension stemmed mostly from the fact that with this type of subject matter, there’s always the possibility that the material will go too far in one of two directions. It either might be annoyingly over-geared toward children or it might treat its conceit disdainfully, missing the whole point of monsters in the first place. Actually, there’s a third possibility, that it might present its exhibits with absolute gullibility, but since this was a respected city museum, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have to worry about that.

Adding to my guardedness was the fact that in researching the exhibit, I had trouble finding pictures of its component parts on Flickr, Photobucket, Picasaweb, or any other of my secret online sources. After all, if people don’t want to take pictures of it, it can’t be that cool.

That mystery was solved three steps into the exhibit, though. It turns out that the reason there were so few private pictures online is because photography is vehemently prohibited within the confines of the exhibit, although it’s allowed throughout the rest of the museum. Sign, sign, everywhere a sign made that proscription clear. They did make an exception for me, though. They just didn’t know it. 

It took fewer steps than the three I’ve already mentioned to find out that my previously referenced concern was unnecessary. The exhibit was both well-handled and quite spectacular in places. And I’m not just saying that so they don’t get mad about the pictures. Being at the exhibit was like being in a Ray Harryhausen movie, and that’s the feeling I was hoping for. Actually, that’s the feeling I’m always hoping for, no matter where I am.

The purpose of the exhibit, according to the Museum of Science website, was to look into how myths are “created, celebrated – and sometimes debunked.” The purpose for me going there, though, was 100% to see “life-sized” monster replicas. And they got right to that.

The first monster I came across was an impressive, 17-foot-long-plus-tail dragon with the wingspan of a Dutch windmill. Way cool. I mean, I can’t say standing beside one is a learning experience—I feel like I’ve seen more dragons in my life than I have Norwegian Elkhounds—but I can say that standing beside such a reptile facsimile is a rather kick-ass one.

However, while staring awe-stricken at this behemoth, we noticed just across the way the bug-eyed head of an honest-to-God kraken surfacing from the industrial carpet of the room, all semi-submerged and menacing. Here and there around the area, its giant tentacles rose from the floor, looming over us like the man-ripping monster appendages that they were. I, of course, immediately left the dragon for the kraken. Then, of course, I left the kraken and went back to the dragon. I think I did that circuit probably a dozen times. And that’s how the entire exhibit went for me, my attention being pulled in every direction at once like a man rotating futilely at the center of the Earth.

After the kraken, we visited the mermaid display, which included the bare-breasted figurehead of a ship, a few bits of wall-mounted text about manatees, and a 100-year-old Feejee Mermaid. This is the second of these little beasties that I’ve seen in my travels, and I’m going to refrain from any elaboration on it here because I plan on doing a whole article on them once I’ve reached a critical mass. If I stole my own thunder, I’d have to prosecute.

Next was, well, a giant extinct ape, the Gigantopithecus blacki. Though technically not a mythical creature, this reconstruction was apparently thought good enough to represent yetis, sasquatches, and bigfoots in the exhibit. We philosophically diverge there, me and the curators, but I can’t complain too much because it was still a gigantastic and striking display, one that was relevant since fossils from this creature and early encounters with later extinct forms could have been the source of the Harry and the Hendersons myth. Actually, they probably had this display in storage from some exhibit on the prehistoric and worked it in here, in which case I say good use of recycled materials. Otherwise, they should have invested in creating a Bumble.

A full-sized unicorn was also on display, which I refrained from getting too close to as I’ve seen Legend and didn’t want to pull a Mia Sara. Also a roc that, giant bird that it is, hung from the ceiling. Other large displays included a Chinese parade dragon costume, a gold-painted gryphon carousel figure, a large stone Quetzalcoatl head, and a 500 year-old-statue of St. George and a dragon.

Which brings me to another reason why the Mythic Creatures exhibit works well. If the best feature about it was the specially fabricated monsters, the second best feature was the parts that weren’t the specially fabricated monsters. Many of the artifacts were ancient, museum-quality pieces, including authentic ethnic art, ancient fossils such as a dwarf elephant skull, and interesting biological specimens such as a squid tentacle and a narwhal tusk. The inclusion of these intermingled artifacts was due to the overarching hypothesis of the display that basically every mythical creature can be traced to the imaginations of story tellers and artisans, misidentified fossils, or actual creatures badly glimpsed and mistaken for something fantastical. Makes complete sense, but is still sort of depressing.

As you can tell, they hit most all of the classics to varying degrees. A few that didn’t have major displays but were still mentioned in smaller displays included such non-creatures as the chupacabra, the phoenix, the cyclops, and—lead singer of the group—the Loch Ness Monster. There were also a few creatures new to me, mostly of the African or Asian varieties, including the full-size Barong Ket pictured in this article.

Had we not had to play Cold War Spy to get the pictures featured here (ask my wife about the hole in her purse), I’d have definitely taken more. There was enough cool stuff on which to spend a whole roll of digital film in good conscience.

You can find more information about the exhibit in general at the defunct-but-still-cached Mythic Creatures page at the website for the American Museum of Natural History in New York (the exhibit left there over a year ago, but the webpage remains and is many times more in depth than the cached Boston Museum of Science one). In fact, that website is so informative that you almost don’t have to go to the exhibit itself, but that would be one more regret for your already towering regret-pile. The psychological term for what I just did is transference.

The major relevant piece of information that I can impart, though, is that the exhibit is no longer in Boston (sometimes the oddity leaves OTIS). For everybody not in New England, though, that’s probably good news since it means, in the words of every monster movie trailer from the 50s, your city could be next.