Magazine article The New Yorker

CREATURE FEATURE; at the Museums

Magazine article The New Yorker

CREATURE FEATURE; at the Museums

Article excerpt

The American Museum of Natural History is putting on a big new show of creatures that don't actually exist, "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns, and Mermaids," and two first graders, expert in all things imagined, went to see it last week. The scientific spirit of comparison burning bright in them, Lacy and Lily, as they shall be called, had spent the earlier part of the day at the Bronx Zoo, checking out actual animals, before repairing to the museum.

"These things we're going to see don't, like, actually exist, right?" Lacy said. "So they should call it, for now, the Museum of Unnatural History."

"Or, like, maybe, the Museum of Natural Unhistory," Lily remarked.

Upstairs, Laurel Kendall, a curator, greeted them and explained that some of the creatures in the exhibition were real; some were projections from real beasts, "like shadows"; some were hazy reconstructions of real creatures; and some were just completely imaginary beings people make up to scare or impress other people. Then she urged the girls to lead the way into the exhibition, and, just a touch reluctantly, they did.

This produced a gratifying (to Dr. Kendall) response of startled cries, halfway to squeals, for, looking right at the girls, snout pressed to retrousse noses, was a nearly twenty-foot-long gold-and-green dragon, with great bony bat wings and fearsome T. rex-style jaws. The decision to let the dragon be the greeter to the exhibition, Dr. Kendall explained, after the girls had calmed down, was partly theatrical and partly intellectual: the dragon is one of the few mythical creatures that bridge the gap between East and West.

"Are all dragons fire-breathing?" Lily asked. "I mean, if they, like, existed, would they all breathe fire?" Dr. Kendall said that only Western Eurocentric dragons are said to breathe fire, because for us (with our fear of the Other) they are representations of wickedness, or "fallen angels." The true Chinese dragon isn't a fire-breather, she said, but a damp, benevolent presence who makes the crops grow and keeps order in the universe.

"Could it, like, be a dinosaur they saw?" someone asked, peering at the dragon. Dr. Kendall explained, kindly, that dinosaurs and people were never on the earth together, but that some scientists believe that fossil remains of antediluvian creatures might have contributed to the mythology of the dragon. …

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