Mermaids and unicorns feature in blockbuster new Natural History Museum exhibition

Based on the content of the Fantastic Beasts films, the exhibition explores mythical creatures alongside real-life ones in the name of conservation.

A new exhibition based on the content of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise has opened today at the Natural History Museum.

Situated in the Wizarding World universe created by Harry Potter writer JK Rowling, the Fantastic Beasts canon follows “magizoologist” Newt Scamander. In the film series produced by Warner Brothers, Scamander encounters and seeks to protect and record magical creatures.

The Natural History Museum is using Scamander and his findings as a vehicle to support and share its own work in conservation and zoology. It is keen to point out that beyond mermaids and unicorns, there are plenty of fantastical beasts to be found in our own non-wizarding world and they need protecting too.

“Little difference between inside and outside the gallery”

The exhibition is split into three main parts and has been designed in-house. Exhibition lead designer Eleanora Rosatone calls the first section the “Magical Museum” – here visitors get a taste of some of the magical creatures of legend and the real-life animals that may have inspired their invention.

Rosatone says the inspiration for the design of this first section came from the architecture of the museum itself. The team wanted to ensure the exhibition remained foremost a Natural History Museum show and not an attempt to replicate a Warner Brothers’ set.

For this reason, the wooden cabinets found in the wider museum’s permanent galleries have been replicated to house decidedly more unusual specimens, with each accompanied by a traditional descriptive museum plaque.

“There appears to be little difference between inside and outside the gallery,” says Rosatone, who adds this is a deliberate attempt to blur the lines between the real and fantastical. Narwhal tusks sit alongside “unicorn” horns, while mermaids appear next to a giant manatee skeleton.

It is in this first section that visitors are also introduced to Newt Scamander. The character acts as a narrative device throughout the rest of the exhibition, with quotes of his from the films used in wall graphics.

“A series of thickets and glades”

From this museum setting, visitors are then taken on an adventure in which they can find their own fantastic beasts, Rosatone says. The ambition here was to create a space that felt “untouched by man”, she adds.

“With the content team, we’ve developed this idea of going through a series of thickets and glades,” says Rosatone. Hidden in the wilderness are the creatures of the Fantastic Beasts canon, such as “occamies”, “nifflers” and “bowtruckles”. Unlike the mythical creatures of the previous section, these are all are the invention of the Wizarding World. Each of the fictional characters is used to relate back to creatures of the real world.

Certain animals in the collection are featured in interactive displays. The niffler – a fictional character that loves shiny things and slightly resembles a duck-billed platypus – can be found in a virtual cave filled with gold and silver. Visitors can interact with the digital niffler by pressing buttons on a nearby podium and “gifting” him treasure.

Meanwhile a family of bowtruckles – a hand-sized, insect-eating, tree-dwelling species – can be found in a tree projected onto an exhibition wall. Motion sensors installed in the area mean that as visitors get closer to the projection, the bowtruckles react and become increasingly “protective” of their home with movements and sounds.

“We needed the reality and the fantastical to coexist”

The transitions between sections are punctuated by “scientists’ sheds”. Rosatone explains these wooden buildings are inspired both by Scamander’s own workspace in the Fantastic Beasts films and those used by real-life explorers and conservationists. Each contains zoological and exploration tools, as well as props from the film franchise.

As visitors enter the final section, which deals with how Scamander acts as a protector of fantastical beasts and how we should do the same in our own world, Rosatone explains it was necessary to balance “reality with fantasy”.

“The question was really how we could retain the magic of the previous sections, while also dealing with the subject matter that amazing animals in our own world are hunted, endangered and on the brink of extinction,” says Rosatone.

The design team settled on using the familiar visual language of the museum, as in the first section, but “twisting it”. Rosatone explains that the wooden cabinets have been augmented, and are inspired by surrealist paintings. Lightboxes are also used to highlight certain elements, but unlike the previous sections, the lines between fiction and fact are blurred. As Rosatone says: “We needed the reality and the fantastical to coexist”.

“It feels very relevant right now”

While some elements have had to be cut from the final exhibition owing to the pandemic and fears of virus spreading, Rosatone says the showcase is still an interactive one which appeals to the senses.

Indeed, it is hoped that as the pandemic situation improves, these elements could be reintroduced as part of the exhibition’s touring future. Dates and venues have not yet been released to the public, but it is understood the tour will happen once the exhibition has run its course at the Natural History Museum.

Reflecting on the project, Rosatone comments on size of the undertaking. According to her, it is one of the most ambitious the museum has taken on in recent history and took more than three years’ worth of planning and designing.

“It’s been a constant back and forth between our team and the science team, and it feels very relevant right now,” she says.

Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature runs from 9 December to August 2021 at the Natural History Museum. For more info, head here


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