Saturday, June 2, 2007

Exhibit: dragons, other mythic creatures

Exhibit: dragons, other mythic creatures
By DEEPTI HAJELA, Associated Press Writer
Fri May 25, 2007

Harry Potter would probably feel right at home here.

A new exhibit pairs an unusual subject — dragons and other fantastic creatures — with an unlikely location: a science museum. "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids" opens Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History and runs through Jan. 6

What's going on? Has one of the pre-eminent science museums in the world made a discovery that would show these creatures are real? No, no, the exhibit looks at how people have come up with all kinds of myths and stories to account for things they didn't understand.

"Across cultures and throughout time these creatures are what people dreamed up as a way of interpreting and making sense of the strange and often mindboggling but real wonders of the natural world," said museum President Ellen Futter.

The show gets right to it — at the entrance is a model of a huge dragon.

Other displays include a huge bird known in mythology as a roc, and the enormous head of a kraken, a fearsome, many-tentacled creature of the deep.

The exhibit shows how cultures around the world came up with such strange, mysterious creatures. Dragons, for instance, can be found both in the East and West, although they're considerably more benevolent in Chinese culture than they are in Europe.

Another section shows how tall tales and exaggeration can lead to the creation of a mythic creature. The exhibit posits that the kraken may be based on sightings of the corpses of giant squids, which have been known to wash up on shores. Or that legends about giant men or giant birds might come from people finding fossils and trying to make sense of what kind of creature could have had such large bones.

"Just like analytical science is one way of interpreting the world, myth was a way people interpreted the world up until quite recently," said Mark Norell, the show's co-curator. "If you look at all the mythical creatures ... they do have real underpinnings in biology."

"We clothe our beliefs, we clothe our imaginations, we clothe our fears and sometimes we do this with incredible artfulness," said co-curator Laurel Kendall. "It's the celebration of that human capacity for artfulness and wonder that I think this show witnesses."

The show was put together with collaborators including the Field Museum in Chicago, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau; the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. It will travel to those locations after closing in New York.
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