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Giants, Dragons & Unicorns: The World of Mythic Creatures

Family-friendly special exhibition examines science and legend

Stories of mythical beings have been with us for thousands of years. Giants, Dragons & Unicorns: The World of Mythic Creatures — The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature’snewest special exhibition — traces the natural and cultural roots of some of the world’s most enduring mythic creatures.
Opening Sept. 21, the family-friendly Giants, Dragons & Unicorns: The World of Mythic Creatures features unique cultural objects to highlight the surprising similarities and differences in the ways people around the world envision and depict mythic creatures. This new exhibition, which will be open through Jan. 5, 2020, is organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York (amnh.org).
Discover how narwhal tusks were believed to be magical remnants of unicorn horns, how dinosaur fossils may have been mistaken for the remains of griffins learn and how tales of sea monsters may simply have been fisherman’s tales of real creatures such as the oarfish and giant squid. The exhibition also includes video interviews with experts discussing the significance of mythical creatures and their possible real-life counterparts.
Exhibition highlights include a stunning vibrant sculpture of the African water spirit Mami Wata (shown above); a replica “Feejee mermaid,” of the type made famous by showman P. T. Barnum, created by sewing the head and torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish; a “life-size” model of a European unicorn; a touchable narwhal tusk and a dramatic model of a kraken, whose tentacles appear to rise out of the floor as if surfacing from the sea.
Giants, Dragons & Unicorns: The World of Mythic Creatures also offers interactive stations. Build your own virtual dragon and watch as it comes alive in a virtual environment, create a “giant” by rearranging scale models of mammoth bones to look like a giant human skeleton — and don’t miss a fun photo opportunity with dragons!
Exhibition Section Themes
Sea Monsters: The exhibition examines sea monsters and other mysterious creatures that inhabit the depths of the ocean. When European explorers set out on voyages of discovery in the 1400s and 1500s, they were sailing into uncharted waters. Sea monsters were a concern for them and frightening rumors ran rampant. The stories they brought back were a mix of accurate observations, honest mistakes and outright tall tales, with no way for naturalists to separate fact from fiction.
In the image: Many sea monsters include features from living animals. In the mind’s eye, a large tentacle could become part of a monstrous serpent. Such cases of mistaken identity,
combined with tall tales and resonant cultural symbols, may have shaped the sea
monsters found in pictures and stories around the world. This digital interactive station demonstrates how real marine animals could be mistaken for mythical sea monsters. ©AMNH
Mermaids: One of the most popular mythic creatures in many places is the half-human, half-fish mermaid. Mermaids in Europe, Africa and the Americas all carry combs and mirrors and were thought to be beautiful, seductive and dangerous — like the sea itself.
In the Image: The story of Sedna is one of the most dramatic stories of the Inuit people, who live in the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland. In a deadly tale of betrayal on the stormy sea, a young woman’s father tosses her overboard and chops off her fingers as she clings to their boat. Sedna’s fingers turn into the whales, seals and walruses on which the Inuit depend for food and materials. Today, Sedna is often depicted as a mermaid. But before whalers came to the Arctic, most stories said she looked like a human, or they didn’t describe her appearance at all. ©AMNH/C. Chesek
Giants, Griffins and Unicorns: Many mythical creatures appear to have body parts from ordinary animals combined in unusual ways. A few experts believe that the legends of the griffin, an extraordinary creature combining body parts of eagles and lions, originated in the sands of the Gobi Desert around 2,000 years ago when Scythian miners stumbled upon the fossil remains of the four-legged, beaked dinosaur Protoceratops. Other creatures look like familiar animals but have extraordinary and magical powers, such as the European unicorn, a horse with a magical horn thought to counteract poisons, and the Asian unicorn, which is depicted with one or multiple flesh-covered horns. The enormous bones of mammoths, mastodons and woolly rhinoceroses found by Ancient Greeks may have inspired tales of giants.
In the Image: Skulls of the dinosaur Protoceratops, like this one, can be found in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Such fossils may have influenced descriptions of the mythic griffin.
© AMNH/C. Chesek
Dragons: Stories of serpent-like beasts with fabulous powers inspire awe around the world. In Asian tales dragons ascend from the sea, lakes, and rivers, up to the sky, bringing rain needed for cultivation. In stories from Europe, dragons can slaughter people with their putrid breath, or spit fire and set cities ablaze. The earliest dragon legends date back thousands of years, and the creature still haunts our imagination today.
In the Image: For more than a thousand years, Chinese emperors wore robes decorated with bold dragon designs. They often sent such robes to neighboring rulers as gestures of good will and diplomacy. Dragon robes were also made for the theater, like this one used in Chinese opera in the early 1900s.
© AMNH/C. Chesek
Giants, Dragons & Unicorns: The World of Mythic Creatures is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (amnh.org).
The American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869 and currently celebrating its 150th anniversary, is one of the world’s preeminent scientific, educational, and cultural institutions. The Museum encompasses 45 permanent exhibition halls, including those in the Rose Center for Earth and Space plus the Hayden Planetarium, as well as galleries for temporary exhibitions. It is home to New York State’s official memorial to Theodore Roosevelt, a tribute to Roosevelt’s enduring legacy of environmental conservation. The Museum’s approximately 200 scientists draw on a world-class research collection of more than 34 million artifacts and specimens, some of which are billions of years old, and on one of the largest natural history libraries in the world. Through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, the Museum grants the Ph.D. degree in Comparative Biology and the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) degree, the only such free-standing, degree-granting programs at any museum in the United States. Annual onsite attendance has grown to approximately 5 million, and the Museum’s exhibitions and Space Shows are seen by millions in venues on six continents. The Museum’s website, digital videos, and apps for mobile devices bring its collections, exhibitions, and educational programs to millions more around the world. Visit amnh.org for more information.