As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was very excited about the concept behind the Strange Creatures exhibition at UCL’s Grant Museum: depictions of animals which the artist has never seen in the flesh. While it’s not a subject I’ve given a great deal of thought to before, I have always enjoyed those medieval animal pictures where you get the feeling the artist was really just doing his best with the little he had.
The exhibition is part of the Travellers’ Tails project. This centres around Stubbs’ painting The Kongarou from New Holland, which together with its Dingo companion were saved for the nation by the National Maritime Museum and the Art Fund. NMM is now collaborating with four other museums, including the Grant Museum, on a series of activities and events inspired by the Kangaroo, and investigating themes of art, science and exploration.
As I’m very familiar with the NMM, I’d actually already seen the star of the show, and was more interested in the context within which the curators here had chosen to place it. This was, however, my first visit to the Grant Museum, which is a very different setting to the Queens House art gallery where the kangaroo has been displayed at NMM.
The Grant Museum is old school to say the least. It features wall to wall glass cabinets stuffed to the brim with skeletons, specimen jars and taxidermy. It’s admirable that the Grant includes temporary exhibitions and new interpretation in this space, but the constraints of the building mean this interpretation is dotted about wherever it can be squeezed in. But that, I suppose, is the nature of the beast.
The objects spanned early depictions of animals we are now familiar with today, to ways of modelling extinct creatures such as the thylacine and representation of newly discovered species in the form of a soft toy of an olinguito.
One take on the theme is the depiction of dinosaurs. Of course, we will never really know what dinosaurs looked like, but new research and information means that our impressions of them are constantly being updated. This reminded me of an article about the disappointment voiced by paleontologists at the dinosaurs in the Jurassic World trailer – apparently they haven’t moved on from the depictions in the 1993 original, but the scientific community has. This is reflected in the exhibition in a display showing current thinking about how dinosaurs moved, and looked: fast and feathered. It also highlights how these discoveries were made through the use of modern technologies, but also through examining dinosaurs relationships to other creatures – closer to crocodiles and birds then lizard – which is fitting for a museum of comparative anatomy. There are also more familiar depictions in cases which look at the dinosaur in the popular imagination.
The display on Jenny Hanivers undoubtedly featured the strangest creatures in the exhibition. These were rays dried, cut and manipulated by unscrupulous sailors and passed off as baby dragons.
My favourite objects in terms of imagery were the depictions of elephants and rhinos. I have to admit I was slightly disappointed that while the Rhino (after Durer) was from UCL Art Museum’s collections, the two elephant depictions were reproduced on graphics panels from works in the Cambridge University collections. It was a shame not to be able to see the originals. I have been a bit spoiled though recently with regards to the rhino, which has been slightly overexposed recently having featured heavily in the British Museum’s Memories of a Nation, both in print form and as a huge Meisen porcelain piece. Also in this category is a 17th century Dutch drawing of a flat-faced lion, an original from UCL Art Museum’s collection. Authenticity and reproduction aside, there’s something charming about all of these images. Perhaps it is the palpable sense of wonder and excitement we can imagine the artists and contemporary audiences feeling at seeing these strange creatures, combined with the fact we now know them to have got it just a little bit wrong.