Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids


of an Exhibition

by Cathy Saunders

Published on January 17, 2009, Modified on May 23, 2017

  • Description:

    I am always interested in how accessible exhibits are for families and children. With that in mind, I bundled up my 10-year-old friend Hanna for a New Year’s Day outing. When I told her we were headed to the Museum of Science, an hour away, to see the American Museum of Natural History’s “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids”, she looked up from putting on her lipstick to exclaim, “I love mythology.” She then proceeded to tell me all about Poseidon, Athena and Disney learned lore about mermaids and dragons. I knew I’d picked the right venue for the afternoon.

    At the museum, we entered into a low-lit room with huge squid arms reaching to the ceiling. The dim light necessitated by the artifacts augmented the mysterious nature of the topic. We turned a corner and discovered the Kraken head emerging from the floor with a child curled up against its nose and another tracing her hand around its enormous eye. Throughout the rest of exhibit there were giant forms suspended from the ceiling – a manatee, a Chinese parade dragon, etc. I witnessed each one catch a child’s attention, often with a look of wonder on her face. It was clear that even though this was an exhibit based on fact, anyone (particularly a child) who still wanted to believe could keep his faith intact.

    Each exhibit area (sea, land, air and dragons) included historic objects from the collections, interpretive labels, and something that could be touched (whether a replica, an interactive or a computer touch screen). There were also several six-minute movies throughout the exhibit. There was plenty of room to maneuver, even in a holiday crowd, and some seating for weary visitors. Families were engaged everywhere reading labels aloud, pointing to graphics, examining artifacts and talking about the content. Hanna and a very knowledgeable teenager got into a conversation about whether big foot and the abominable snowman were the same thing.

    The label text was informative and in small enough nuggets that you could read it with a child. Hanna and I had fun acting out different ape-men (the backward feet of Pendek from Indonesia, the brain-eating Chemosit of Kenya) as we read along with the graphic map next to a model of a Gigantopithecus. The exhibit also tried to make connections to present day; Hanna delighted in finding several references to Pokemon.

    Mythology taps into children’s natural tendencies and use of stories to understand the world. The developers clearly understood this in the conception and execution of this exhibition. Children (especially elementary and middle school age) love extremes and exploring the limits of reality. Giants, mermaids and dragons certainly appeal to this sensibility. Most of the mythic creatures featured did not have human type qualities, but they did have super or magical powers. I could easily envision a school group scavenger hunt categorizing the creatures by characteristic.

    The developers humanized myths, explaining why, for example, ancient Greeks would mistake the bones of a mammoth for those of a giant; it almost felt like we were getting the “inside scoop” – very exciting for children. These explanations did not demean the myth originators. I found this to be respectful of the diversity of cultures represented in the exhibition as well as the fact that children often make up similar explanations for the unfamiliar (I would bet that many of us on Exhibit Files had “evidence” of elves, giants or other creatures when we were young).

    I would have liked to see more kinesthetic opportunities for children. Getting to feel, with hands and body, is more illustrative than just viewing something. Other than the Kraken at the beginning, there was no creature that a child could climb on or hug; there were no Sasquatch footsteps to jump between. Touch boxes could have demonstrated how people mistake one thing for another. If the replica narwhal tusk was lower to the ground, children would be able reach the top and compare their height to it.

    I’m generally not a fan of computer interactives, because they break so often and suck in children who get too much screen time already. The “build your own dragon” component was no exception. Hanna gravitated to it like a fly to honey, and she spent considerable time unsuccessfully trying to get it to work. I think an alternative such as a magnet board would have been a better choice.

    Overall Mythic Creatures was a family-friendly exhibition, though I clearly had a child with the right interests. (I regret to say that my colleague reported that his eight-year old could not leave fast enough to peruse the rest of the museum). It was well done particularly for a traveling exhibit which has to meet so many demands, and there was enough to it that there would be reason to go back for a repeat visit.

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