Visual Art

Enthralling ‘Mythic Creatures’ Casts a Spell at HistoryMiami Museum

Written By Karen-Janine Cohen
July 17, 2023 at 5:18 PM

A white unicorn bathed in violet light is 10 feet long from tail to tip of horn and featured in the exhibition “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids” at HistoryMiamiMuseum through March 31, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon/HistoryMiamiMuseum)

Miami museums are perfect for escaping this summer’s sweltering heat and you can’t get much farther from South Florida – or from anywhere for that matter – than HistoryMiami’s second floor. That’s where “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns  & Mermaids” is taking visitors around the world and beyond to contemplate bizarre beasts, fabled fauna, and natural objects that may underlie many a fairy tale.

Adding to the show’s delights is a section with Miami’s own creepy crepuscular, from the Swamp Ape to the Chupacabra. Joining them are mermaid iterations, arising from the region’s diverse cultures.

Tales of the Chupacabra emerged in Puerto Rico in the 1980s and 1990s, then migrated to Miami in 1996, according to Vanessa Navarro Maza, the folklife curator at HistoryMiami Museum. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon/HistoryMiami Museum)

The exhibit, which opened Saturday, July 8 and runs through Sunday, March 31, 2024, features “life-size” models of fantastical beings, including both European and Asian dragons, sea maidens from across cultures, unicorns – of course – plus a variety of art and artifacts. Illustrations and textual representations provide historical references. But there is a twist– the show reveals how our fore-bearers may have translated fossils and other finds as proof of mythic creatures. For example, the extinct fossilized dwarf elephant skull on display could be interpreted as that of the giant Cyclops of Homer’s “The Odyssey” fame.

Likewise, alongside the dragon exhibit is a woolly mammoth skull – which might look suspiciously like a dragon to those from olden days whose imaginations were steeped in chivalric questing lore. “It ties mythology back to the natural world, taking things from the perspective of ancient people,” says Christopher Barfield, director of exhibitions at HistoryMiami Museum.

Enthralling interactive elements, which will keep kids engaged, illustrate the relationship. For example, a magnetized table-top lets visitors transpose scaled model bones of a Protoceratop into a Griffin, the legendary creature both eagle and lion. Likewise, small modeled mammoth bones can be rearranged to create a humanoid giant – giving participants a feel of how our ancestors made sense of the world. “We are using natural history to understand how the unknown bones they were digging up looked surprisingly human – it (therefore) must be a giant,” says Barfield.

An interactive game at the HistoryMiami Museum lets visitors transpose model fossil bones into mythical creatures. (Photo by Justin Namon/HistoryMiamiMuseum)

Other interactive elements include creating a virtual dragon and being able to touch and explore casts of the narwhal tusk and the lower jaw of the Gigantopithecus, an extinct group of apes.

The exhibition notes that “Mythic Creatures” is appropriate for children 4 and older. Younger ones may find some of the actual-size models (a towering 17-foot dragon with a wingspan of over 19 feet, for instance) and other intense depictions frightening.

What South Floridians will especially savor is “Mythic Miami,” the section devoted to the Chupacabra, plus our own Skunk Ape – a Bigfoot-type creature– and mermaids, which hail from several of Miami’s cultural heritages. What makes “Mythic Miami” both enchanting and chilling are documents, photos, and other ephemera. For example, one display shows Miami officials investigating reported blood-sucking Chupacabra animal attacks. Yet there is also the campy 2017 sculpture “Chupie” by Michael Casines on loan from Zoo Miami.

A fossilized dwarf elephant skull could be interpreted as the one-eyed Cyclops. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon/HistoryMiami Museum)

Tales of the creature emerged in Puerto Rico in the 1980s and 1990s, then migrated to Miami in 1996 when the reported animal attacks occurred, said Vanessa Navarro Maza, folklife curator at the museum, whose research and assemblage created the Miami section.

In Navarro Maza’s Skunk Ape display, there are photos of reported sightings, plus a plaster cast of alleged footprints from the large creature – four-toed rather than five.

“What is really interesting, which I learned doing this work, is that recorded stories go back about 200 years,” says Navarro Maza. Anyone who wants to know more about the Skunk Ape or the Chupacabra is in luck. Visitors can scan a QR code to hear from Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill, who was tapped to help with the actual Chupacabra investigation, or from Dave Shealy, likely the world’s top Skunk Ape expert.

Mermaids and women from the sea are common across many cultures. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon/HistoryMiami Museum)

The bulk of the show was organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in collaboration with the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Canadian Museum of Natural History, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum in Chicago.

The exhibit is divided into three sections, Land, Sea and Air.

The Sea section may be the most alluring, for both children and adults. Along with depictions and models of mermaids from the western tradition are sea creatures from other cultures. Those include Africa’s water spirit Mami Wata, who can be both helpful and dangerous, and Haiti’s Lasirèn who can conduct people to her undersea home from whence they return with new powers. She is often portrayed with a mirror – the doorway to her realm and is associated with voodoo priestesses and practices.

A diorama of the giant squid is exceptionally thrilling – the Kraken’s 12-foot long tentacles rise from the gallery floor. (Photo courtesy of Justin Namon/HistoryMiami Museum)

From the Inuit in Canada and Greenland comes the tale of Sedna, who, after being tossed overboard by her father, creates the whales, seals and walruses. And, a diorama of the giant squid is exceptionally thrilling – the Kraken’s 12-foot long tentacles rise from the gallery floor while it stares at visitors with baleful red eyes.

“As an institution, we tell stories, and this is just a wealth of different cultures,” says Barfield. “It’s a storytelling opportunity.”

WHAT: Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns  & Mermaids

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday

WHERE: HistoryMiami Museum, 101 West Flagler Street, Miami

COST: $15, adults, $10, students/seniors, and $8 for children, and free for HistoryMiami members

INFORMATION: historymiami.org

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