A bright-pink kraken with long, lanky tentacles and a head the size of a small child greets visitors to the Academy of Natural Sciences’ newest exhibit. Step past that and you’ll find an African water deity with a green mermaid tail sprawled out on a rock, followed by a peaceful, pony-sized unicorn that’s unfazed by the pair of fiery red dragons nearby.
These are the fantastical stars of Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids, a four-month display that opened at the Drexel University museum last week.
Why would a science museum feature such make-believe folklore, you might wonder.
According to Jennifer Sontchi, the academy’s senior director of exhibits and public spaces, “the whole idea is to discover where some of our favorite creatures originated.”
“These myths are the beginning of science in a lot of ways,” Sontchi says. "Observing the natural world has evolved a lot over time and this was just the start of that. Take sea monsters, for example — a lot of these came from the imagination of sailors who were creating stories based off of actual animals they were seeing in the water.”
Objects like the basketball-size replica of a giant squid’s eye and a narwhal’s long and pointy, unicorn-like tusk help connect the dots between real animals and these fabled figures of imagination. The display’s historical basis is bolstered by ancient illustrations, cast fossils, wood carvings that date back hundreds of years before Christ, and body parts of animals still in existence today.
The exhibit also compares mythical creatures across cultures. Spinning globes showcase the many countries that have a history of mermaid- or dragon-based folklore. Drawings sourced from Thailand, Italy, Haiti, and Brazil depict mermaids with two tails, wings, or a full fish body — all very different images than, say, Disney’s Ariel.
Organized by New York’s American Museum of Natural History, the traveling exhibit includes a local touch, too. Academy staff added in a few regional legends to the mix — telling the origin stories of the Jersey Devil, the ghosts of Eastern State Penitentiary, and Lake Erie’s Storm Hag, a demon with glowing eyes, pale green skin, and sharp green teeth.
Kids can dress up in mermaid attire, design a virtual dragon and watch it come alive on a TV screen, and rearrange scale models of mammoth bones to form the skeleton of a “giant.”