Fantastic Beasts: The Wonder of Nature was not exactly what I was expecting in an exhibition based on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
I started writing a quick reflection for an Instagram post and in true “museum-person” style it grew beyond a simple post so here is a quick review of the travelling exhibit currently on show at the Melbourne Museum.
“A glance through Muggle art and literature of the Middle Ages reveals that many of the creatures they now believe to be imaginary were known to be real”, Newt Scamander
The above quote welcomes guests into the exhibition and sets the scene for the visitor experience.
I was intrigued by the concept of the exhibition, which seemed to pitch mythical creatures against real-life knowledge, but I wondered if it was just a way of making tenuous links to real-life creatures as a way of creating a blockbuster exhibit based on intellectual property to draw in the crowds?
Based on the initial imagery and exhibition posters you’d be forgiven for thinking you were walking straight into a “Hogwarts” exhibit rather than a factual and educational experience so as I stepped across the threshold into the exhibition space I had to pause and take a moment to realise what I was stepping into.
As you enter the first gallery you are met with magical elements; cupboards that open on their own or draws that play various sounds when opened (this isn't exactly magical but when you work at a Museum with no exhibition budget these type of exhibition elements seem very magical and out-of-this world!)
As you progress through the exhibit though it becomes clear that this was more than just a “Harry Potter World” exhibit, but I wonder how many others there when I visited were expecting this or understood what they were experiencing?
I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the final balance of imaginary and real on display in the gallery. In some instances, there are real artefacts from the past that show extinct or rare species however these are dispersed amongst reproductions which would easily confuse your ordinary museum goer. These items are then used to showcase how real species are similar to those of mythology and how in the past they may have even been mistaken for the mythical creatures. This is an interesting use of the real v. myth topic and I think it could have been done a tad better if this angle had been highlighted more specifically at the start and throughout the exhibit – you really needed to read the labels to understand this, and many people do not read the individual labels (sorry to all my curator friends but you know this is true)!
For those who did read the labels though they’ll discover that a new species of dinosaur, discovered in 2004 was named Dracorex Hogwartsia (translated this means Dragon King of Hogwarts) with the name chosen to pay tribute to the much-loved Harry Potter series. Here is an example of imaginary influencing the real-world. It should be noted that the skeleton on display is not the original but a cast. This dinosaur would have lived around 66 million years ago. I thought this was a pretty cool element of the exhibit.
One display that caught my attention was that of the Okapi. Until about a week ago it would never likely have drawn my attention, but it looked so similar to a Quagga which I recently found myself reading about. The Quagga was a subspecies of the Zebra and became extinct in 1883. The Okapi (unclear if the Okapi on display is taxidermy or a reproduction, as the label does not identify the origins of the “object”, for want of a better phrase), is also a sub-species of the zebra and it is known for being very elusive. Found only in the forests of the Congo scientists didn’t know of their existence until the 1900s. The Okapi and several other rare creatures are used to show how little we may actually know about the world around us; again this was an element I thought worked well to bring the real-world back into play.
In amongst these real-world creatures were objects from the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts set which spotlighted various elements of the mythical side and I wasn’t surprised to see that these had the most members of the public vying to take photos and ensure they saw the film-set items while many rushed passed the real-world creatures. Clearly, those visiting (at least when I was there) were visiting to get their Wizarding World fix.
The most popular exhibit by far was the interactive screen featuring a Niffler. These little animals are my favourite wizarding world creature, and though the Niffler was just a projection I had to check out the exhibit, just like everyone else visiting that day. For this reason we spent more time waiting in this space than in any other area of the exhibit.
I did like that the exhibit concluded by making note that some real-world creatures are becoming fantastical as they edge toward extinction. Unfortunately, I don’t think this was clear enough and many rushed through this gallery to the gift shop which could be glimpsed ahead, but I think it is an important final space that really should receive more attention from guests.
The original exhibition was curated by the Natural History Museum London and it did seem rather ironic to have their Caspian tiger on display which had been purchased in 1927 and as a result of poaching (which the Museum supported by obtaining specimens for the collection) saw it become extinct in the 1970s. I thought it was a brave, bold or possibly just stupid move to have included it in the display but it makes a very clear point that the Curator’s of the exhibit did not shy away from – that Museum’s such as the Natural History Museum London have much to answer for.
I found it interesting that as you left the exhibit there was a nod to this theology and topic of the history of the Museum’s collection, with one final text panel, located where few would notice it at the exit of the exhibition space. I only noticed it as I turned to look back but if you had eyes forward on the gift shop you’d not see the sign at all. The label doesn’t shy-away from the Museum’s colonial roots but doesn’t really give any future direction for the organisation, instead directing you to the Museum website. In itself this is an interesting final piece in the exhibition narrative.
Let’s talk about the gift shop. It would be remiss of me to ignore this final element of any popular exhibit. It is a very good gift shop and the item I highly recommend you purchase is the exhibition companion by publishers Bloomsbury and the Natural History Museum London. At a purchase price of $49.95, it is an easy read and takes that next step into the exhibition that I felt the physical exhibition was lacking. For example, while there were mentions of real-world “Newt Scamander-type” people the book makes this very clear by featuring individuals such as Pliny the Elder and Jane Goodall (I am a huge Jane Goodall fan I must admit). I think by purchasing this book I was able to get that little bit extra out of the exhibit, take my time to digest what I’m consuming and having now read it I’d be keen to re-visit and see if my opinion of the exhibition has changed at all. When it comes to price, given the quality and content of the book I think the price is actually rather reasonable.
To read these comments you might think I didn’t enjoy the exhibit. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the exhibit, but I feel the actual “museum” element will be lost on the public who most likely are attending for the pop-culture element, however if even a fraction of these visitors learn something while there then the question must be asked, does it matter what got them there? I really like the idea of using pop-culture to build an interest in real-world issues and this is a steppingstone in that direction.
The cost to visit the exhibit is $32 for adults and $18 for children (including Museum admission). The exhibit is open until 8th October 2023.