FANTASTIC BEASTS, THE WONDERS OF NATURE AT THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM
I can distinctly remember having been introduced to the fabulous exploits of the young apprentice wizard named “Harry Potter” by my father about twenty years ago, the name had, at the time, meant little to me beyond the native enthusiasm which I was, through association with many hours devoted to reading fantasy literature during my youth, inclined to espouse towards the topic of magic in prose fiction…
The book drawn to my attention in this instance, was “Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets”, a novel that had as, I recall, been intriguingly illustrated with the picture of two children driving a blue Ford Anglia through the sky upon it’s cover, an unusual design which, in inspiring my interest, caused me to inquire as to what other wonders it’s chapters may contain…
Harry had yet to make a name for himself and I foolishly dismissed the text beneath the pretense that it was no more than a reinterpretation of the first episode of Walt Disney’s classic 1940 animated feature film “Fantasia”. Little did I know that it would later become one of the seven most popular books ever written, a rare distinction shared only by the remaining six episodes of the same series…
It was, in fact not until the media entourage devoted to the tract was in full sway that I realized I was missing something. Harry Potter’s name had, in the interim between my introduction to his exploits and the height of their renown, become something of a cultural euphemism, a figure of speech, passed about the table of polite conversation as token currency, in much the same manner as the names of “Sherlock Holmes”, “Count Dracula”, “Victor Frankenstein” or “Frodo Baggins” may, in keeping with the conventions that pertain to such things, find occasion to be. It seemed, in effect, that there was not a High Street in England which remained untouched by some testament to the young magician’s existence, his adventures were, barring issues of global significance, perhaps the most avidly pursued series of events on earth throughout the halcyon era of their popularity..
The amount of momentum that Harry Potter’s affairs succeeded in achieving was, in fact quite remarkable, an impetus unequaled in English literature since the medium’s conception, and yet, as is the case with regards to such things, the series of tales was inevitably fated to draw to a conclusion, an absence which, for many, was observed to leave something of a cultural vacuum in it’s wake. Harry had grown up and, as is the custom with regards to such matters, seen fit to abandon childish things.
This is where “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them” entered the fray, a series of tales that, in being revealed in belated retrospect, as a prequel to the Harry Potter series, would, dwell upon matters of a slightly more mature character than J.K. Rowling’s earlier books, courting a range of adult issues which would include within their repertoire, matters of ecological concern such as those of climate change, pollution and mass extinction.
Dwelling upon the scientific observations of a controversial magi-zoologist named “Newton Artemis Fido Scamander”, a name abbreviated to “Newt” for the sake of expedience, “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them” was, in being set in 1920’s New York, observed to refer back to an era in which the twin passions of Egyptology and exploration that distinguished the early twentieth century, proved capable of capturing the public imagination in much the same manner, it seems, that the adventures of Harry Potter were to do so a century afterwards.
Perceived to have fallen prey to criticism through association with the ownership of a magical suitcase that could trap and house mythical creatures far larger than itself, “Newt Scamander” was witnessed to become subject to the attentions of a temperance movement named “The Salem Philanthropic Society”, a body of individuals that, in being loosely referred to as “Muggles”, was noted to believe that sorcery represented a genuine risk to the stability of human civilization on earth, a pretext beneath which “Newt” was correspondingly threatened with arrest.
As one would imagine the climate of oppression represented by the “Muggles’” desire to ban magic would, in serving as the pretext for Harry Potter’s later adventures, go some way towards redefining the young magician as something of a rebel, an individual who, in being prepared to take risks to achieve his objectives would, quite circumstantially, be witnessed to re-interpret what it was that he was once perceived to represent.
Regardless of whether or not a character like Harry Potter actually demands re-definition, the exploits of “Newt Scamander” were, in avowing an ecological objective in their own right, coincidentally observed to resemble those of the many institutions presently devoted to the preservation of nature, an instance in which J.K. Rowling’s fictional magi-zoologist and Kensington’s Natural History Museum were effectively perceived to be fighting for the same thing, the salvation of rare beasts from the brink of extinction.
Upon cursorily scanning the internet for forthcoming public events in London, I was delighted to discover that, in keeping with my speculation upon how such things may, within reason, be construed to relate to each other, Kensington’s Natural History Museum was actively engaged in staging a major exhibition devoted to “Newt Scamander’s” exploits, a show which, in being entitled, “Fantastic Beasts, The Wonders Of Nature”, would feature a selection of props devoted to the topic from the “Warner Brothers” film studio alongside a number of unusual items from the museum’s collection within it’s catalog.
Impulsively deciding to visit the event without first engaging in the recommended formality of booking tickets on line, I was, surprised to discover that the exhibition had sold out, an impasse which, in proving insurmountable, ultimately compelled me to explore the museum during the time that I had allocated to view the show.
It seemed, in this instance, that I had under-estimated Harry Potter’s popularity yet again, for I discovered, upon inquiry, that there would, be no further opportunities to access the venue for the forthcoming week, it’s rostrum was entirely galvanized with custom.
Taking an opportunity through association with my trip, to visit the establishment’s “Mary Anning” rooms, a recently opened faculty which, in being located directly above the building’s entrance portico, I discovered to be a cafeteria rather than a display hall, I spent some minutes meandering aimlessly about a number of dinosaur exhibits before finally making forth towards the “Our Broken Planet” exhibition currently being staged in it’s West wing to examine the mounted skeleton of a Marlin and a few samples of blue Horseshoe crab blood which were on display within it’s precinct.
It seemed, in effect, that I had been immediately cheated of the opportunity to achieve my primary objective and was thus resignedly compelled to make my way home.
Although such an eventuality may appear, to those of a less determined persuasion than myself, somewhat disheartening, I was fortunate to discover, upon returning home, that it remained possible to access the exhibition via a virtual reality portal thoughtfully provided by “Google Arts” for children wishing to see things without countenancing the rigmarole of visiting them.
Casually panning my cursor around the dimensions of the exhibition’s entrance hall upon activating the appliance, I discovered, reading through the show’s details, that the exhibition was to be introduced by “Newt Scamander”, a figure who, in being represented by a mannequin dressed in the clothing that the magi-zoologist wore in the “Fantastic Beasts” film, was surrounded with an assortment of items conventionally used by adventurers to hunt for exotic species, an inventory of articles that, in including “Nicholas Polunin’s” ruck sack, boots and first aid kit within it’s scheme, was circumstantially witnessed to pay homage to the harder realities of foreign exploration.
Displayed alongside a series of open books alleged to have been written by “Newt Scamander” upon the topic of rare and exotic beasts, the Virtual Reality portal proceeded forth towards a rack of cupboards which, in being rigged to automatically open and emit the cries of Sperm Whales when approached, served, in it’s fashion, to imply something of the magic invested in the “Fantastic Beasts” film.
It seemed to me upon first impression, that the primary axis of the show sought to forge a comparison between the unusual tricks which certain animals were known to employ in efforts to defend themselves and those avowed by the magical creatures which occupied the pages of J.K Rowling’s books, an instance in which an allusion was immediately drawn to Narwhal tusks and the horn of the unicorn, a creature that, in latterly being deemed to be of a mythical persuasion, may, if Tudor records pertaining to the theme are correct, have once actually existed.
The next exhibit placed upon display was the skeleton of a Manatee, a creature which, in appearing to possess a feline head and the body of a fish could, at first glance, easily be mistaken for a fake.
Once thought by mariners to be mermaids, Manatees, may in effect have served as the origin of many of the myths that were observed to arise through association with naval speculation devoted to such matters, a circumstance beneath which a surprisingly large number of models were perceived to have been artificially constructed to cater for a public interest in the possible existence of aquatic people.
Constituting a rather ghoulish selection of ‘P.T Barnum’ oddities stitched together from Macaque skulls, pipe cleaners and fish tails, many of the fake mermaids that were created through association with such intrigue were, in representing obscene parodies of the human condition, something of an acquired taste, an instance in which they were nonetheless perceived to succeed in achieving something of a cult following among those who preferred to view things by way of their anathema.
“The Buxton Mermaid” upon display at the museum was, in this instance, observed to exemplify every macabre aspect of the genre as it was initially conceived, a mummified figure which, in being composed of a screaming cadaverous torso and a fish’s tail, would, in my opinion, effectively be enough to fuel most children’s nightmares through until maturity.
Harking back to the Wunderkabinets of the 19th century, and, by default the first incarnation of “Sir Hans Sloane’s” original collection of curiosities at the museum, the fabulous character of such sculptures was, much like J.K Rowling’s books, witnessed to bind fact and fantasy together in a host of unpredictable ways.
Having dwelt upon the topic of mermaids, “Newt Scamander” was perceived to direct his attention towards the study of sea serpents, an instance in which the four meter long skeleton of a “Giant Oarfish” was presented as evidence to suggest that certain species of fish may once have been mistaken for monsters, it being noted that, in proving capable of reaching eight meters in length, “Giant Oarfish” would be witnessed to fulfill many of the criteria associated with the observation of other more legendary creatures from the prow of ocean going vessels.
Through association with sea serpents, “Newt Scamander”, thenceforth decided to direct his attentions towards the subject of dragons, an instance in which a spined dragon skull which was noted to have served as an ornament in “Professor Lupin’s” classroom during the Harry Potter series of films was incidentally displayed beside a complete skeleton of “Dracorex Hogswartia”, a bipedal dinosaur that, in being perceived to physically resemble a dragon, was, in it’s distinction, named by the museum in commemoration of J.K Rowling’s fictional school of wizardry.
Likened to alligators, birds and even rhinoceri, all dragons but for perhaps the ‘Hungarian Horntail’, were, in accordance with the dragon lore that pertains to such things, observed to be defensive creatures better left undisturbed.
Delicately shifting my Virtual Reality appliance through to the next leg of the exhibition I was confronted by a cabinet occupied by three large eyed thickly furred creatures that appeared to be staring at something concealed far above them.
Described to be “Mooncalves”, a variety of mammal that, in being nocturnal, was recorded to spend much of it’s time staring at the moon as it incidentally fertilized the plants at it’s circumference with spoor, the creatures were displayed alongside both a “lunascope” and a bottle of eyedroppers which “Newt Scamander” was in the habit of employing to respectively find them and win their trust.
Moving swiftly through to the exhibition’s next bank of displays, my attention was drawn to a liquid soap dispenser which, in being attached to a monitor screen surrounded by loose coinage, was observed to activate the computer generated image of a “Niffler”, a small black haired creature that, in resembling a Duck Billed Platypus, was duly compelled to examine a number of baubles which littered it’s domain as people cleaned their hands.
Serving to exemplify the “Niffler’s” acquisitive nature, a characteristic which, in having earned it a reputation for damaging objects, was coincidentally witnessed to be avowed by a host of real creatures including “Royle’s Pika”,“The Satin Bower Bird”, “The Adelie Penguin”, and “The Magpie”, the hand sanitizer appeared, upon first impression, to resemble an exotically customized cash dispenser.
Making my way forth through a forest of green poles which were arranged to resemble sticks of Bamboo, I duly turned to face a large monitor screen that, in depicting a field of grass occupied by a cumbersome horned creature which resembled a rhinoceros, was rigged to detect my presence about it’s periphery circumstantially causing the beast to advance towards me.
Described to be a variety of giant herbivore known as an “Erumpant”, an animal that, in having appeared in J.K. Rowling’s book “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows”, was notably blessed with an explosive horn that had, through association with it’s courtship behavior, perversely driven it to the verge of extinction, the display was observed to be activated by the opening of a bottle containing an extract of the creature’s musk, a scent which it was, with respect to it’s amorous advance, worryingly perceived to find irresistible.
Through association with the ‘Erumpant’s’ mating behavior, the exhibition proceeded to explain how animals such as the brightly colored “Peacock Spider” also died during courtship, an observation which, in finding occasion to include a number of more fortunate sexual ruses such as the curious marriage dance of “Lawe’s Parotic Bird of Paradise” within it’s compass, was witnessed to represent something of a contradiction in which the affairs of the heart and the mind may, in certain instances, be construed to vie for domain over each other.
Swiftly moving forth towards the exhibition’s next display, I was confronted by a screen depicting the computer generated image of a tree, an object which, much like ‘The Erumpant’s’ plot, was witnessed to be activated by human proximity, swarming with a community of twig like creatures that, in appearing to become angered when approached, duly made forth to deter protracted congress with an assortment of hostile gestures.
Described by “Newt Scamander” to be “Bowtruckles”, an arborial species that, upon having evolved to blend in seamlessly with it’s environment, was compelled to vigorously defend it’s home when disturbed, the exhibition proceeded to present evidence of similar behavior in real creatures, citing the peculiarly aggressive inclinations of “The Acacia Ant” to be indicative of the lengths to which “Bowtruckles” may go in efforts to protect their territory.
A small sample of grafted vegetation which “Newt Scamander” was noted to keep on the desk of his study to house a “Bowtruckle” named “Pickett” in the “Fantastic Beasts” film was, in this instance, noted to be included among the museum’s exhibits alongside the animated display, an object which, in serving to imply the magi-zoologist’s interest in natural camouflage, correspondingly led him to dwell upon the curious behavior of the “Demiguise” a creature that, in resembling a variety of Sloth, could, to all intents and purposes, render itself entirely invisible before the attentions of cursory observation.
Drawing a neat allusion between the curious ability of the “Demiguise” to vanish from sight and a selection of creatures including “Jaguars”, “Chameleons”, “Cuttlefish” and “Transparent Amphipods” which were, by virtue of their camouflage, perceived to be capable of performing similar feats, the exhibition proceeded to explain how the contradiction represented by various forms of plumage and disguise may be construed to predetermine the usage of certain species by others as decoys, an instance in which the symbiotic relationship that “The Dotted Humming Frog” was witnessed to share with the “Colombian Tarantula” would appear, in an abstract sense, to represent a form of obligatory conference.
Proceeding forth to the last section of the exhibition described in my Virtual Reality portal, a series of displays which were noted to dwell upon the topic of extinction, I immediately encountered a cabinet occupied by the effigy of a large quadrupedal creature blessed with a tenticular beard accompanied by a smaller model of canine persuasion.
Described by “Newt Scamander”to be a “Graphorn”, a species of giant Ungulant that, in having been reduced down to it’s last two surviving members through association with environmental adversity, he was, with the aid of his magical suitcase, notably honored to have saved from extinction.
Taking the plight of “The Graphorn” to be it’s initiative, the exhibition proceeded to explain how many species of animal have, even since the era of the museum’s foundation during the nineteenth century, effectively died out, an instance in which the stuffed “Caspian Tiger” that was incidentally displayed in efforts to substantiate such a claim may, in many ways, be perceived to represent something of a paradox, the creature surely having fallen prey to museum oriented sport at virtually the same time that it ceased to exist.
Likened to the “Zouwu”, an elephant sized feline, that was, in the “Fantastic Beasts” film, witnessed to jump into ‘Newt Scamander’s” magical suitcase in pursuit of a feather duster, the “Caspian Tiger” was noted to have defeated it’s own prospects by avowing a preternaturally aggressive tendency which, through association with it’s status as an apex predator in it’s natural habitat, was effectively undeterred by the threat of danger.
Through association with the topic of extinction, the exhibition duly led forth towards a cabinet devoted to the skeleton of the diminutive “Vaquita Porpoise”, a marine beast which, in being prone towards entanglement among the nets of fishing boats in the gulf of California, was perceived to be so rare that it may not even survive the duration of the exhibition’s run.
Situated beside a display devoted to “The Occamy” a bright blue winged serpent which, in laying silver eggs, proved capable of reducing it’s size to fit into “Newt Scamander’s” suitcase throughout the course of the “Fantastic Beasts” film, “The Vaquita Porpoise” was, in being perhaps the rarest animal on earth, also noted to be the smallest species of whale presently at large in the ocean.
Concluding with a black and white collage of the many rare and exotic species that are presently faced with extinction, a projected image which, upon drawing attention to it’s detail, was perceived to imply the issue of environmental fragility by vanishing ephemerally in a wisp of smoke, the exhibition’s last display was witnessed to grant children an opportunity to assist in the design of a poster drafted to aid the plight of various breeds of endangered animal, a chance for the young to express their sentiments towards the range of environmental issues that currently serve to imperil such things.
Having participated in my Virtual tour of the museum’s exhibition I duly, turned my computer off and made myself a cup of coffee, my mind humming with thoughts of how it would be possible for men to assist in the plight of those less fortunate than themselves, a period of reflection which, in circumstantially causing me to note that the beverage in my hand was “Fair Trade” correspondingly served to appease my conscience with regards to such matters.
Featuring animation provided by “Framestore”, the company that achieved acclaim for executing the special effects of the original Harry Potter films and props from the “Warner Brothers” film studio, alongside a number of rare and unusual taxidermological specimen, The Natural History Museum’s current foray into the world of magi-zoology represents an intriguing alloy of fantasy and reality which respectively serves to both enlighten and inspire interest.
Running until the third of January 2022, “Fantastic Beasts, The Wonders Of Nature”, seems, when viewed through a Virtual Reality portal at least, to represent both an enjoyable day out and an ideal venue to attend with children, although, from personal experience, I would be inclined to recommend booking in advance.
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