Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Exhibit review: Mythic Creatures in Denver

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2015 at 2:01 PM

click to enlarge COURTESY DENVER MUSEUM OF NATURE & SCIENCE
  • Courtesy Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Mermaids, unicorns and dragons are said to be the stuff of myth, but be careful in dismissing the possibility that they exist.

Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids, exhibiting at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science through September, strives to show how various "sightings" and discoveries have influenced human belief throughout the years.

Many mythic creatures, the DMNS points out, reflect attempts to describe the natural world. They take shape through human imagination and are a medium of cultural interaction. And cultures around the world keep mythic creatures alive through art and literature. So it's not as incongruous as it first may appear to have fantastical creatures displayed in a science museum.

I was there for the simplest of reasons: a love for mythology. But I found the exhibit puzzling — it’s not academic enough to appeal to most adults, or lively enough to appeal to most kids.

Past the panel with an introduction is a giant tentacle marking the "Creatures of Water" portion of the exhibit, featuring beings from kraken and other sea monsters to water spirits to mermaids and the yawkyawk. According to the educator’s guide, the goal is to demonstrate that they “arouse feelings of curiosity, hope — and bottomless fear.”

But a mermaid masthead is the sole piece that possesses any intrigue, its hollow eyes cut into rich metal making it simultaneously beautiful and ethereal. As for the hangings of whales, sharks and dolphins, these well-documented creatures seem to divert, rather than direct, the focus.

It's a problem that comes up often in Mythic Creatures: By trying to cover so much ground, the exhibit barely scratches the surface of specific mythology.

An exception is the "Creatures of Land" section, which starts with an exhibit on griffins. Consisting mostly of griffin pottery and a supposed griffin fossil, it does well to send home the concept of how people have used mythic creatures to "describe the natural world.” Then come the unicorns — displays of art pieces with literary and historical backgrounds as well as a unicorn statue, which is the highlight of this area and one of the prettiest pieces of the entire exhibit. The way the light bounces off the statue makes it that much more magical. If any part of Mythic Creatures is worth stopping for, it’s this part.
click to enlarge COURTESY DENVER MUSEUM OF NATURE & SCIENCE
  • Courtesy Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Two dragons hold up the exhibit finale. One standing in the center resembles dragons commonly seen in Western fantasy; the other, hanging from the ceiling, has an Asian appearance. I wanted this to be a huge spectacle worthy of a walk through the rest of the exhibit, but while there are various dragons featured in the art display and a build-your-own-dragon game, along with panels discussing the fantastical beasts, it doesn’t seem like enough. The build-your-own-dragon game, actually, only serves to remind the viewer of how many other interactive exhibits there could have been.

It helps that admission to Mythic Creatures is included in regular museum admission. But when it comes to finding a place that’s worth spending your time, but you might find more magic elsewhere.

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