Harry Potter would feel right at home at the Australian National Maritime Museum's latest exhibition. A menagerie of griffins, phoenixes and mermaids, Mythic Creatures deftly combines natural history and folklore, examining the links between real and imagined creatures, and exploring their historical and cultural significance.
The show, featuring large-scale models, paintings and artifacts, comes to the Maritime Museum from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "The exhibition looks broadly at the idea of mythic creatures - how they are viewed in different cultures and their relationship to science," says Maritime Museum curator Penny Cuthbert. "It takes up three exhibition spaces. It's going to be a very diverse show."
It is also promises to be very dramatic. "The first thing you will encounter is a model of a kraken - a giant squid," Cuthbert warns. "It emerges from the floor and is really quite startling." If a giant squid doesn't stop you in your tracks, then perhaps these will: a 5.2-metre high dragon; a four-metre long unicorn; a 3.3-metre Roc with massive talons swooping above the heads of visitors with a wingspan of nearly six metres; plus a life-size model of largest bird ever to have lived, the now extinct Aepyornis. "It was over three metres tall and it laid the largest eggs in the world, which contained 7.5 litres of fluid. So we're talking big."
The 100-plus creatures that populate the exhibition are arranged according to their habitats - water, land and air. ‘Creatures of Water' examines the mysteries of the deep: joining the kraken is an array of sea monsters and mermaids. "There's a wonderful mermaid weathervane that was created by an American coppersmith in the first half of the 20th century," Cuthbert says. "We also have banners from the Caribbean, from Haiti, which depict mermaids as voodoo figures, similar to ‘sirens' in Greek mythology, luring sailors to their doom."
‘Creatures of Land' boasts varmints that have the body parts of ordinary animals combined in unusual ways. The legend of the griffin, a creature said to be half eagle, half lion, is thought to have 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. Artifacts in the exhibition featuring the griffin include Greek coins and a statuette from Egypt circa 150AD. Also featured is an incense burner from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which depicts an Asian unicorn. "Unlike the European incarnation it has a scaly coat and a wolflike head," Cuthbert notes.
‘Creatures of Air' explores winged mythological creatures such as the Asian phoenix, a bird that appears at times of peace or to announce the birth of an emperor, and the Sphinx, a monster with a lion's body, a woman's head, and a fondness for riddles, who guards the gates to the ancient Greek city of Thebes. Another highlight is a carved Pegasus, a winged horse: "It was made by an American wood carver in the 1950s," Cuthbert says. "The techniques that he uses are similar to the carving techniques used on horses on merry-go-rounds, which is a beautiful but dying art."
Australia's mythological creatures are represented with two Aboriginal artists' depictions of yawkyawk spirits – mermaid-like creatures that dwell in waterholes. The legendary bunyip makes an appearance too.
Rounding out the show is a special section devoted to dragons that includes 17th century Japanese armour adorned with dragons in plated gold and a cartoon that appeared in French newspaper Le Petit Journal on 20 September, 1914, depicting Trotsky slaying the dragon of counterrevolution. "Dragons can be malevolent and used as a cautionary tale, or benign and helpful to people," Cuthbert explains. "Asian dragons are seen as auspicious, whereas in European tradition they're seen as evil and something to be scared of." Joanna Lowry