AAlthough his nickname was Sea Serpent Killer, Richard Owen is best known today as the founder of the Natural History Museum and as an anti-Darwinian scoundrel crushing all rivals. This Victorian scientist didn’t really sail the oceans slaughtering monsters, but he did attempt to prove that such creatures were great stories told by sailors, putting together reports in a scrapbook so he could put them on display. It’s in the museum’s new show on natural mysteries, open to a story from The Illustrated Police News – usually full of real crime – about the latest sighting of sea monsters. The image of a colossal snake with staring eyes threatening a modern ship is a surreal slice of steampunk.
Fantastic Beasts is much more than a celebration of JK Rowling’s series of films about magical animal expert Newt Scamander and his adorable pets, though Newt is very present, as well as recreations of Nifflers and the like. Besides being a family treat, the show deliciously reveals some of the strangest things in this museum’s vast collections.
Take the skeleton of a manatee floating in a dark tank, its thick trunk, tiny limbs, and cow-like skull seemingly stuck together in a cruelly created scythe. But this slow-moving marine mammal is real. In 1493, Christopher Columbus saw three manatees swimming in the Caribbean and mistook them for mermaids, noting: “They are not as beautiful as they are painted.”
Another nearby mermaid uses a clawed hand to stroke the dry hair of her shriveled little face. She is half fish, half mother of Norman Bates. Of course, this one isn’t real, but rather a 19th century side show attraction made from assorted animal parts. Science, as well as popular culture, has taken mermaids seriously for a surprisingly long time. Another rare book in the Natural History Museum’s library features a color image of a mermaid, or “mermaid,” seen by sailors near Borneo. This volume was published in France in the 18th century, in the Age of Enlightenment. The mermaid is juxtaposed with a precise representation of a crayfish.
Modern science began in the Renaissance when people believed in all kinds of wonderful beasts. This exhibition shows, in a playful way, that natural history did not evolve by eradicating these wonders – it grew out of curiosity. The Renaissance expanded the gallery of monsters by adding classical myths to medieval lore. And the pioneers of science happily included the strange. There is a dried dragon blood sample that once belonged to Hans Sloane, whose collections started the Natural History Museum.
Dinosaurs are proof that there really are, or have been, fabulous beings. It was Richard Owen who named the Dinosauria in Victorian times, when fossils began to be understood as the remains of extinct species. This puts his fascination with sea monsters in another light. Science has rejected fantastic creatures because it has revealed true wonders. The most dreamlike object here is the skull of a dinosaur discovered in South Dakota in 2004, covered in surprisingly elegant and ornate spikes. He really is a dragon. The distraught Harry Potter scientists who found this skull gave it the Latin name Dracorex Hogwarts.
The Fantastic Beasts movies may not be brilliant, but Rowling’s imaginary creatures are in a great tradition of wonders lurking on the fringes of scientific classification. Rowing is real, but its long skeleton is incredibly fantastic. Equally amazing is a marinated giant squid. Taken from the stomach of a whale, it comes from the huge and strange collection of specimens in the mind of the museum. Giant squids are at the cutting edge of science: little is known about them.
Flying snakes, expanding fish, shrinking shrews – true natural stories make things in the movies seem tame. One posting left me really puzzled between what Hollywood is and what nature is. A bird with dazzling silver feathers and dangling fascinators looks like a cinematic creation, and not very realistic. In fact, it is the parotia of a male Lawes, or bird of paradise.
As you exit the exhibit, you enter a walled gallery of fossil marine reptiles, many of which were found by Mary Anning at Lyme Regis in the early 1800s. Monsters or animals? The first book about them called these Jurassic creatures “sea dragons”. The great museum Owen created, as this pleasant exhibit reveals, is a cathedral of imagination and fact.
• At the Natural History Museum, London, until March 31.